Seeing Like a State-builder: Replication of Donor Reconstruction Dilemmas in Syria

Frances Z. Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & University of Oxford

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30,The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.” 

Since the start of the Syrian war, the United States and several allies channeled significant political assistance to local governance structures in opposition-held areas.[i] In a context in which nearly every other component of Western donors’ Syria policy was contested, provision of local governance or civilian “stabilization” aid for opposition local councils emerged as a rare point of steady support among policymakers.[ii] These programs were initially intended to bolster the potential success of a high-level political transition and reconstruction effort in a hypothesized “day after” Assad. As that objective grew less realistic over the years, donors at least hoped they could help preserve moderate civilian actors’ relevance in governance arrangements at the local level.[iii]

Civilian support to the Syrian opposition presented an unusual paradigm for foreign interveners in two important ways. First, since the end of the Cold War, the post-conflict reconstruction and statebuilding imperative has taken on renewed salience for Western powers; by the time Syria’s uprising began in 2011, donors had notched two decades of experience in the suite of interventions often described as the “liberal statebuilding” model.[iv] Scholars and practitioners alike had accumulated myriad lessons from externally-assisted statebuilding projects on multiple continents. And yet Syria represented a divergent model from these “traditional” statebuilding and reconstruction endeavors, because it was in service of the opposition’s statebuilding aspirations. Donors aimed to assist local counterparts in a liberal counter-state-building project.[v]

Second, donors directed assistance to local councils after their areas were militarily “liberated” from the Syrian regime— at least temporarily— but not after the overall conflict had concluded, as is the case in traditional reconstruction campaigns. Donors hoped their localized projects would pave the way for capable, accountable governing processes in a broader hypothesized “transitional governing body” that would emerge after Assad’s fall. Thus, unlike many other post-conflict reconstruction and statebuilding interventions, arising after a battlefield victory or peace negotiation, support to the opposition local councils is best understood as localized and anticipatory reconstruction.[vi]

In two crucial domains, Western donors’ local political assistance in opposition Syria differed starkly from prior interventions: the counter-state-building objective, and the localized, pre-emptive scope of the reconstruction effort. Yet despite these two divergent factors, this paper argues that greatest theme of the Western political assistance to opposition local councils is striking continuity. In many ways, the dilemmas embodied in donor civilian assistance to opposition councils replicated the same tensions inherent to earlier “traditional” reconstruction and statebuilding efforts. Several recurrent tensions that were present in earlier interventions— legitimacy dilemmas, capacity dilemmas, and coordination problems– were transposed to this new Syrian context almost wholesale. Finally, the paper looks forward to how these dilemmas are already shaping the politics of reconstruction in the next phase of the conflict. In particular, this latest phase underscores another way in which the tensions of previous reconstruction and statebuilding endeavors are being replicated in Syria: despite Western donors’ focus on political and civilian factors in shaping the viability of opposition enclaves, ultimately, security and military primacy are determining the conflict’s trajectory.

Replications of Dilemmas

Donor support to opposition local governance structures over the years faced several recurrent tensions that represented a replication—even exacerbation—of other externally assisted liberal statebuilding and reconstruction projects over previous years.

Legitimacy Dilemmas

U.S. and allied support to opposition governance structures was largely guided by the overall “theory of change” that by assisting local civilian administrations deliver services for their population, these councils would accrue popular support and legitimacy that would enable them to be seen as a viable governing entity compared with the regime.[vii] By 2014, armed extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra had emerged as both major antagonists in the conflict, and oftentimes as service-providers to these same communities; thus donors re-framed their local programs as a means to enable moderate local councils, rather than extremists, to maintain support from their local populations.

This logic of supporting service delivery as a means of accruing legitimacy mirrors a dominant practice in the state-building model from the past two decades, wherein the international community endeavors to address fragile state capacity deficits as a means of augmenting popular support for the state government. But as in “traditional” statebuilding projects, legitimacy-based donor approaches in Syria generated several tensions in practice. First, while the underlying logic is compelling, comparative evidence indicates that improving service delivery is rarely the most important factor to improve popular perceptions of government legitimacy: considerations of how services are provided, and perceptions of fairness, often have more sway.[viii] This proved particularly salient in the Syrian opposition context: interviews and independent monitoring reports note that, “Service provision was only one driver of support for local governing bodies – and often not the primary one.”[ix] Other key factors shaping local support included whether the specific council’s practices were inclusive and participatory, the extent to which it was seen as a symbol of the revolution and a reminder of revolutionary ideals, and whether local council members were perceived as embedded within the local community.[x] Further, as the Syrian conflict evolved, the presence of armed extremist actors further complicated the straightforward logic of helping civilian councils win popular support. Various civilian councils chose to both compete with and, by turns, pragmatically cooperate with armed actors to fill service gaps or ensure security.[xi] Further, many civilian councils themselves—the locus of the “liberal” statebuilding project— were increasingly infiltrated by “illiberal” elements representing various armed groups.

Legitimacy-related dilemmas were even more pronounced in donor attempts to foster linkages between an array of local councils on the ground and the nominal higher-order opposition bodies outside of Syria. Donors hoped that ultimately, their assistance would help these exiled umbrella groups (to include, at various times, the Syrian Opposition Coalition and its Assistance Coordination Unit, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian Interim Government) and gain support in the eyes of the war-ravaged population. Donors also wished that their assistance could induce cooperation between the “bottom-up” and “top-down” components of the famously fragmented opposition. Yet here, tensions abounded. Interviews illustrate the challenges of trying to assist an externally based body—“these people jetting around to conferences in Turkey” in the words of one Syrian observer— to accrue legitimacy in the eyes of a population literally under fire in Syria.[xii] Local councils themselves, as frontline distributors of aid, also had limited appetite to be “coordinated” from the outside. As external opposition representatives attended various iterations of talks in Geneva, and later Astana and Sochi, it also remained largely unclear how the priorities and grievances of local councils were to be channeled into Syria-wide negotiations. [xiii]

Capacity Dilemmas

A related animating assumption of Western donor programming was that by improving opposition local councils’ technical capacity, their effectiveness and thus popular legitimacy would also improve. Capacity building efforts were also intended to make local councils more prepared to serve within the hypothesized post-Assad Syrian governing framework. This approach replicates another dominant component of the liberal statebuilding model, which identities state weakness as a primary problem, for which “capacity development” is the crucial solution.[xiv]

Yet here again, the Syrian intervention mirrored many pronounced problems of the “traditional” reconstruction and statebuilding efforts. First, capacity building was dominated by episodic trainings (generally held in Turkey because of security constraints), accommodating limited numbers of participants and divorced from local conditions.[xv] While these sessions represented a welcome respite from the conflict and opportunity for “laptop shopping” in the words of some activists, it effected less clear impact on the durable capacity building of local councils.[xvi] Second, despite empirical evidence that “power and politics are central to how services are delivered”[xvii]— particularly in heavily contested contexts like Syria— trainings generally focused on a technocratic conception of capacity. They were often mirror-imaged on donor-facing NGO project management skills—in the words of one observer, “building capacity to fill out donor paperwork”— rather than capabilities more relevant to Syrian local political and social order.[xviii] Other trainings focused on teaching local councils “stakeholder analysis and negotiation” skills that, as time wore on, seemed increasingly misplaced: as one implementer noted, “If you are a Syrian on year six of this conflict, if you have managed to continue existing, you are probably pretty f**** good at deploying the negotiation skills and the ‘stakeholder analysis’ you need.”[xix]

In addition, critiques of foreign-driven capacity building often bemoan these projects’ overemphasis on individual units (such as councils), rather than building up systemic capacity: “capacity development is typically approached as a modular exercise, assuming micro-capacities naturally aggregate up to build better systems.”[xx] Here again, donors’ programs in Syria embodied an even more exaggerated version of this problem, because the broader governance “system” into which local councils were meant to ultimately integrate was manifestly unclear. Local councils operated in absence of a recognized governmental structure, and had largely tenuous links to overarching opposition structures. Donors themselves supported a variety of different local council procedures and theories of how local councils should ultimately fit into any future broader decentralization framework.[xxi]

Coordination dilemmas

Finally, support to the Syrian opposition reflected an even more pronounced version of the “coordination problem” that bedevils many traditional statebuilding and reconstruction endeavors.[xxii] Unlike previous engagements, where donor programming typically clusters in the capital city, support to Syrian opposition necessarily was managed remotely from neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and— to some degree— Lebanon. The U.S. aimed to address these challenges by standing up the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team hub in Turkey and the Syria Southern Assistance Platform in Jordan,  broader coordination remained a challenge, as a multitude of donors had to interface with disparate local councils on the inside, through several layers of intermediaries.

Donor haste also exacerbated “coherence dilemmas.”[xxiii] Few if any within the U.S. government had predicted the Arab uprisings before December 2010. When the Syrian protests emerged in emerged 2011, the international community rushed to provide assistance to any and all nascent local governance entities so that there would be some proto-structures ready for a hypothesized “day after Assad.” The (mis)assumption that Assad could fall precipitously compounded this sense of haste. [xxiv] Donor aid agencies faced several worst-case scenarios in administering politically-savvy local programs: they had had limited interface with local stakeholders before the war, as even previous aid projects had to be administered through Assad’s apparatus. Many admitted openly that they lacked familiarity with their local Syrian opposition counterparts, and viewed aid projects as a way to gain better knowledge.[xxv] As a result, reports surfaced of overlapping and competing local councils in some areas, undermining the efficient provision of assistance and confounding accountability mechanisms. The disparate budgets and accountability lines of different Western donors— and sometimes different agencies within the same national governments— further compounded these challenges, as did the outsize role played by non-Western donors in supporting the opposition.

Donors aimed to address this coordination challenge through channeling aid through nominally higher level bodies, such as the Syrian Coalition, the Syrian Interim Government, and an array of provincial councils. But as local councils remained the frontline distributors of aid, and had minimal incentive to be “supervised” by putatively higher-level bodies, these coordination attempts largely stalled. Even more fundamentally, the donor community lacked a shared understanding of what political end state all of these governance projects were intended to be building towards. Donors and projects offered varying interpretations of the specifics and desirability of Law 107, the decentralization law, and disparate notions about local councils ideal-type procedures and processes. A “chaotic aid environment” ensued.[xxvi]

Legacies of Donor Dilemmas: Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Syria and Beyond

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the tensions within donor assistance to the Syrian counter-statebuilding endeavor directly replicated the contradictions inherent to previous “traditional” reconstruction and statebuilding interventions. But explaining this phenomenon is a further puzzle. Why did donor pathologies replicate previous engagements, despite the logic of intervention that was diametrically opposed to prior ones?

In part, the answer lies in the urgency Western powers felt to marshal fast support for the civilian opposition. In developing a conceptual frame for their endeavor in 2011 and 2012, donors likely found it more expedient to reach for off-the-shelf, earlier paradigms of liberal statebuilding and reconstruction, than to interrogate potential alternatives. Scholarship and practitioner experience within the field of rebel governance, a more appropriate fit for the Syrian opposition project, was only beginning to proliferate in 2011, and study of external liberal support to rebel governance and statebuilding was a further conceptual bridge. In parallel, as donors faced abundant challenges to actually launch aid programs in opposition-held Syria, they enjoyed limited bandwidth to dig into a deep rethinking of modes of assistance delivery. But in making these initial choices, Western interveners replicated yet another of the most-frequently-cited cautionary tales in the literature on previous reconstruction interventions: the need to avoid one-size-fits all templates for intervention and instead develop “more strategic, more context-sensitive efforts.”[xxvii]

Looking ahead, these dilemmas will further evolve as the war transitions to another grueling phase. In contrast to the anticipatory, localized reconstruction that donor support to the opposition embodied over the past seven years, Western powers now face a shrinking map. Meanwhile, the Assad regime has its own broader reconstruction project underway, that contrasts starkly with the liberal statebuilding objectives espoused by Western donors.[xxviii]

Yet this new period will still likely encompass replication of previous donor dilemmas. The newest stage of the Syrian war is testament to one of the critical lessons of previous reconstruction and statebuilding endeavors: the primacy of security factors in determining political trajectories.[xxix] In Syria over the past seven years, Western project managers attempted to build counter-state capacity and legitimacy through development and governance programs, paired with highly limited Western military support.[xxx] Yet armed actors— the regime, its foreign backers, and armed extremist groups— increasingly shape conflict outcomes, and civilian programs and stakeholders have woefully limited leverage. In the southern de-escalation zone, practitioners cited governance progress among the Deraa provincial council and affiliated local councils—but it has likely been erased by  the recent offensive by the Assad regime and its backers. Throughout the northwest, as the regime has consolidated military control through so-called “reconciliation” agreements, previous progress in assisting local councils to become more democratic and capable is being expunged as these councils are forcibly disbanded. In northeast Syria, even the imperfect political arrangement of a Kurdish-led SDF government is contingent on continued Western military backing, which U.S. President Trump has cast into doubt. In short, donor support to the Syrian opposition project was, and continues to be, undermined by the sine qua non of statebuilding: clearly defined stateness, underpinned by a monopoly on the use of force.

Looking ahead, lessons from Western political support Syrian opposition local councils offer broader relevance for post-conflict reconstruction efforts of the future. Globally, the paradigm of a clear-cut national transition from war to peace has become less salient over the past decade. Civil wars are lasting longer—with a remarkable a median length of 19 years as of 2010— and reconstruction efforts do not await a clean “day after.”[xxxi] In “forever war” cases such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Western donors have already pivoted from a “post-conflict-reconstruction” framing of their efforts, to undertaking localized reconstruction and stabilization initiatives in permissive or “liberated” areas. Foreign interveners would do well to recall that even in the new and divergent paradigms of the global future conflict environment, the tensions and contradictions underpinning their efforts remain remarkably consistent.

[i] This paper draws upon fieldwork and some findings identified in a longer forthcoming Carnegie Endowment for International Peace paper, “Dilemmas of Stabilization Assistance: The Case of Syria.”

[ii] Reflecting the fluidity of programs operating in the wartime Syrian context and the inconsistency in donor terminology, this paper uses the terms “stabilization programs,” “local governance programs,” and “local political programs” interchangeably, while recognizing that more stable environments, these programs would generally differ. Throughout the conflict, donors used a variety of terms to describe the programs studied here, including political transition, local governance, or stabilization. This paper does not encompass justice sector and policing programs. The scope of programs examined here largely corresponds to the US government’s newly-codified definition of stabilization– “a political endeavor involving an integrated civilian-military process to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict–” although they were not always labeled as such. U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State, and US Agency for International Development, “Stabilization Assistance Review: A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of U.S. Government Efforts to Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas” (Washington, 2018).

[iii] Author interviews with Western officials, Washington, Beirut, Istanbul, Amman, December 2017—March 2018.

[iv] For discussion of why the post-conflict statebuilding project accelerated after 1989, see Roland Paris and Timothy D. Sisk, The Dilemmas of Statebuilding: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations (Taylor & Francis, 2008), Chapter 1.

[v] Rarely, if ever, since the conclusion of the Cold War had the U.S. attempted an analogous initiative. During the Cold War, U.S. support to mujahideen resistance and “liberated areas” in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan during the 1980s is known for its military components, but also included donor support to “shuras” to facilitate equitable distribution of aid, with some governance-related aspects. See Lynn Carter and Kerry Connor, “A Preliminary Investigation of Contemporary Afghan Councils” (Peshawar, Pakistan: Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), April 1989).


[vi] This study focuses on donor programs with the declared political objective of creating the structures for interim local governance entities, rather than donor-designated humanitarian assistance allocated on a needs-only basis. However, in practice, the activities entailed often overlapped.

[vii] “Legitimacy” is a contested and complex concept. In the donor interventions described in this paper, the operative definition mirrored that of Paris and Sisk, The Dilemmas of Statebuilding, p 15: “Legitimacy derives from a belief among a state’s people that public institutions possess a rightful authority to govern.”

[viii] Nixon, Hamish, and Richard Mallett, Service delivery, public perceptions and state legitimacy: findings from the Secure Livelihoods Research Forum. London: Secure Livelihoods Research Forum, June 2017.

[ix] USAID/START Independent Monitoring Unit, ICAM Community Profiles: Key Takeaways, May 2016.

[x] Author interviews, Syrian stakeholders, Amman and Istanbul, February 2018.

[xi] Author interviews, Syrian stakeholders, Istanbul, February 2018; see also Sam Heller, “Keeping the Lights On in Rebel Idlib,” The Century Foundation, November 11, 2016,

[xii] Author interview, Syrian civil society representative 1, Washington, January 2018.

[xiii] Author interview, former Western official, Washington, December 2017; Syrian stakeholder, Amman, April 2018.

[xiv] See, for example, Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, 1 edition (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[xv] Author interviews, Beirut and Istanbul, February 2018. See also Justin Vela, “Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns,” Foreign Policy (blog), October 12, 2012,

[xvi] “Laptop shopping”—quote from author interview with Syrian activist, Washington, January 2018.

[xvii] Denney, Lisa and Richard Mallet, Service Delivery and State Capacity: findings from the Secure Livelihoods Research Forum. London: Secure Livelihoods Research Forum, June 2017, 24.

[xviii] Author interview, non-governmental organization official, Beirut, February 2018.

[xix] Author interview, non-governmental organization official, Beirut, February 2018.

[xx] Denney and Mallet, 27.

[xxi] Author interviews, Istanbul and Amman, February 2018.

[xxii] Roland Paris, “Understanding the ‘Coordination Problem’ in Postwar Statebuilding,” in The Dilemmas of Statebuilding, 2009.

[xxiii] Paris and Sisk, The Dilemmas of Statebuilding, 305.

[xxiv] Mona Yacoubian cites US government officials who saw Assad as a “dead man walking” who would be out of power by Christmas 2013. Mona Yacoubian, “Critical Junctures in United States Policy toward Syria: An Assessment of the Counterfactuals,” Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide Series of Occasional Papers (U.S. Holocaust Museum, August 2017),

[xxv] Author interviews, Washington, January and June 2018.

[xxvi] Kheder Khaddour, “Local Wars and the Chance for Decentralized Peace in Syria,” March 28, 2017,

[xxvii] Charles T. Call and Vanessa Wyeth, Building States to Build Peace (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Pub, 2008), 365.

[xxviii] Heydemann, Steven. (2018). Reconstructing Authoritarianism: The Politics and Political Economy of Postconflict Reconstruction in Syria. POMEPS Studies 30: The Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction.

[xxix] For discussion of consensus of primacy of security, see, for example, Charles T. Call and Vanessa Wyeth, Building States to Build Peace (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Pub, 2008), 14.

[xxx] Significant scholarly and policy ink has been devoted to the question of whether the U.S. and its allies should have invented more forcefully militarily in Syria at various junctures, the complex tradeoffs at play at various junctures, and whether that would have led to a “better” outcome. Engagement on that question is beyond the scope of this paper; I merely note that the military-related support was limited.

[xxxi] Median length of civil wars was down to “only” 14 years in 2014, but this decrease was almost entirely due to the emergence of several new civil wars in the Arab Spring. See James Fearon, “Civil War & the Current International System,” Daedalus 146, no. 4 (October 1, 2017): 18–32,