Rebel Governance and the Syrian War

By Zachariah Mampilly, Vassar College

* This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference, November 8, 2013.

According to rough estimates, insurgents in Aleppo, the largest Syrian city primarily under rebel dominion, control the lives of over a million people (Baczko, Dorronsoro and Quesnay 2013). In March, rebel leaders established a rudimentary civilian administration that despite receiving only about $400,000 in international aid has managed to reestablish some basic public services including power, water, and trash collection. A police force is slowly coming into being, with very limited capacity to restore public order. The rebel government has also reopened some schools and hospitals. But conditions on the ground remain challenging. Faced with limited resources and daily fighting with the military forces of the Bashir government as well as from competing armed groups, conditions for civilians remain dire. But through collaboration with civilians, many of whom initially took up the task of providing governance through autonomous local councils during the anti-government protests, many areas of rebel-controlled Syria have not descended into the chaos commonly imagined.

Though dire, the conditions faced by the insurgent civil administration in Syria are not dissimilar to those faced by armed groups elsewhere. “Rebel governance,” refers to the development of institutions and practices of rule to regulate the social and political life of civilians by an armed group (Mampilly 2011a, 2011b). This system can include a police force and judicial structure, health and educational systems, a tax regime to regulate commercial activities, and even representative structures that give civilians a voice in governing themselves. It also includes the maintenance of infrastructure such as road networks and supply lines for foods, medicines and other basic commodities. In addition, armed groups often devise symbolic practices, such as the adoption of flags and anthems in order to lend the rebel government an air of legitimacy.

Though the study of rebel governance systems has only recently come to the fore, scholars and practitioners are increasingly recognizing its importance for a variety of concerns. Militarily, civilian governance is an essential task for armed groups seeking to gain an advantage against the often superior forces of the incumbent regime. Though some groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army eschew holding territory or controlling populations, many others deem it a central concern, recognizing the strategic import of gaining civilian support for their broader struggle. Relatedly, most theories of counterinsurgency similarly recognize the importance of popular support in determining the outcome of conflicts and emphasize civilian governance as a central concern.

Beyond the military struggle, understanding rebel governance systems is also important for ensuring the protection of civilians during war. Understanding and engaging with the actual structures that attempt to meet civilian needs is an essential task for international agencies and humanitarian organizations alike. Though attention is mostly paid to the lives lost by civilians due to armed force, the truth is that far more civilians suffer and die from the broader breakdown of social and political order. Whether hospitals shutting down due to the lack of qualified personnel; the inevitable breakdown of social order without a functioning police; or the destruction of infrastructure that inhibits the arrival of basic medicines and food, rebel governance systems can often be the difference between a crisis that kills thousands versus those that kill millions.

What determines the effectiveness of rebel governance systems? The viability of a rebel government begins with territorial control. This is not simply a function of military strength, however, because once rebel armies gain control of a territory, they must figure out how to get the civilian population to identify with the rebel cause. Rebels thus turn to governance to address the needs of their fledgling constituencies. Controlling territory is merely a first-order condition that allows a rebel movement to provide local services. But in and of itself, it is no substitute for actually providing those services.

Many assume that when rebel groups do begin to govern, they are driven by ideological principles. During the cold war, policymakers believed that leftist militants were more likely than ethnic or religiously motivated insurgents to provide basic services, based on the Maoist strategy of using the distribution of public goods as a tool for popular mobilization. More recently, many have claimed that militant Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are more disposed to establish governments consistent with the Islamic practice of zakat, or almsgiving, which leads to the commingling of charitable work with more political activities. Though ideology may provide some sense of why rebel leaders are inclined to establish a government, it cannot account for why some are able to establish relatively effective and legitimate governments while others struggle to establish even a modicum of public order. This should not be surprising: governments are highly complex actors involved in varied negotiations with a number of social and political actors. Just as it can be difficult to predict the behavior of the U.S. government by asking which political party is in control, there is no single dimension that can adequately account for variation in rebel governance performance.

More important is the rebel government’s interactions with the society in which it holds sway. For example, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka were forced to respond to the demands for basic services from a restive Tamil population that was accustomed to generous public goods from the Sri Lankan state prior to the conflict. In Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) faced a civilian population divided along ethnic lines, a cleavage that eventually resulted in war between the two largest communities. In response, rebel leaders developed a unity government that brought together the southern population in their war against the Khartoum regime. Congo’s Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) provides an interesting example of a group that attempted to develop a government but failed. Wary of the RCD’s sponsors in Rwanda and Uganda, the population in rebel-controlled areas violently rejected the organization’s multiple efforts to set up a legitimate government.

Understanding variation in rebel governance performance then requires an appreciation of the distinct set of challenges armed groups face in contemporary conflict zones. These challenges emerge from a variety of different overlapping levels. At the local level, armed groups must often negotiate with pre-existing societal actors in order to establish social order. These may include local religious or community leaders who step into the vacuum of authority to provide succor to populations harmed by the devastation of war. Or it may include business owners and traders who ensure the flow of goods even in the midst of battle. In addition, the composition of the armed group itself can matter, with groups riven by high degrees of factionalization commonly struggling to address civilian concerns. Incumbents also can intervene within these internecine struggles, pitting factions against each other and leading to increased civilian suffering.

At the national level, the incumbent state has many levers with which to undermine the capacity of the armed group to provide civilian governance. Beyond violence and other attempts to infiltrate a rebel group, governments also frequently impose embargoes or sanctions that restrict the movements of people and goods into rebel-controlled territories, with detrimental effects on civilian governance. Responding to such embargoes poses unique challenges for aid organizations and international agencies. Navigating the many barriers placed by both the incumbent government and international law can make relief efforts less effective. For example, after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, humanitarian organizations were hamstrung when the government in Colombo prevented them from working with Tamil Tiger relief operations. In Libya, humanitarian aid could only get to Benghazi with the support of NATO forces, a dangerous convergence of military and humanitarian agendas.

Finally, the treatment of armed groups within international society can also have substantive impacts on the ability of rebels to develop an effective civilian administration. Premier among these is the question of recognition. Recognition of rebel governance systems can allow armed groups to participate fully within international society, while rendering those unrecognized pariahs under international law. Remaining unrecognized poses threats for rebel leaders as they seek to negotiate with foreign governments, and importantly, from the perspective of ensuring civilian protection, international agencies and relief organizations. It also makes legitimate commerce impossible, since the goods and resources brought out of insurgent-held territory are technically neither legal nor illegal, as international law applies only to formal states and not to areas under the control of insurgent organizations.

Recognition of rebel governments is currently a unilateral affair, in which each state decides for itself. But this ad hoc process can cause even greater suffering to civilian populations residing in areas of rebel control as states support or undermine the rebel government according to individual political motives. In Syria, figuring out whom to recognize is a particularly thorny affair, hamstrung by the ongoing struggle between moderate and radical factions within the insurgency and the distinct positions over the insurgency taken by key members of the U.N. Security Council. One solution would be to allow international agencies and human rights organizations to work together to determine the effectiveness of rebel civil administrations in meeting civilian needs. Those deemed to be operating according to minimal standards could be offered a limited degree of recognition, thereby facilitating engagement with the international community.

Zachariah Mampilly is an associate professor of political science and director of Africana studies at Vassar College. His research centers on the nature of contemporary conflict processes, with an emphasis on Africa and South Asia. He is author of Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War (2011) and “Rebels with a Cause: The History of Rebel Governance, From the U.S. Civil War to Libya” in Foreign Affairs.

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