Stretched Thin: Geographies of Syria’s Opposition in Exile

By Ali Hamdan, University of California.

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017. POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Exile and displacement have transformed the Syrian opposition movement to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Leaving Syria, they are confronted with a fluctuating wartime context and differing host-state policies. These actors have consequently adapted to this landscape in the form of networks with distinct circulations of information, materials, and indeed, bodies that draw together the fates of Syrians inside and outside of the country. Moreover, these circulations sustain a kind of transnational space for Syrian opposition politics to flourish. This paper explores these networks, focusing on those acting from exile in Turkey and Jordan and examines how they are maintained by touching on the routine practices of mobility that support governance in the liberated territories of Syria.

Borders & The Syrian Conflict

For scholars thinking through the geographical dimensions of politics in Syria, the primary spatial heuristic they draw on is territoriality.[1] Doing so ties in well to ongoing discussions on the production of political order in wartime, during which contests over territory (in a very tangible sense) feature prominently.[2] Territoriality has also acquired new significance for Syria and the region more broadly with the advent of the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh) whose distaste for state boundaries manifests in spectacular “border-breaking” performances meant to reassert what is in their view the unbounded sovereignty of God.[3] But if this tired conversation overstates the artificiality of borders in the region – a thankfully demystified elsewhere[4]  – it nonetheless enjoins us to take territoriality, and borders in particular, as meaningful interventions in politics while acknowledging that they are still mutable and situated achievements. Rather than straightforward reflections of state policy or imported fabrications, the political significance of borders must be inferred empirically from particular histories of interaction, regimes of sovereignty, and discourses of difference, as well as processes endogenous to political violence.[5]

Looking to Syria, bordering practices are crucial to shaping politics and conflict dynamics at present, but their effects are contingent on a number of factors. There is considerable variation in implementation along the length of even the same border. States may well pursue enforcement policies that differentiate access along different sections of the border, as Turkey does in regions abutting the Kurdish cantons of northern Syria.

States and borderland communities are not alone in negotiating how borders intervene in politics; they are conditioned by international actors, whose activities may further shape the unfolding of bordering practices. Consequently, to consider how opposition networks do or do not reach into Syria means paying attention to the locally-specific politics through which borders, and thus access to Syria, are produced.

The Lebanese border has long been shaped by the country’s “special relationship” with Syria.[6] Officially, this derives from formal arrangements between the Lebanese and Syrian states, but is more a complex entanglement among the elite and political classes of both countries, intelligence-sharing, a robust military presence and, after withdrawal in 2005, an alliance of ever-growing convenience with the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Syrian dissidents found a sympathetic audience in many Lebanese circles from their social ties— bolstered by the regular flow of labor, goods, and information. When Syria’s uprising began in 2011, the Lebanese border unsurprisingly became an early conduit for medical supplies, mobile telecommunications technology, weapons, and to a lesser extent, militants to support the initial resistance to the Assad regime’s early show of force. But just as easily, the border became a conduit for support to the regime; in 2013 Hezbollah intervened across the border to prevent rebels from controlling the strategic town of Qusayr. What followed was the “hardening” of Lebanon’s border through a process of extended sieges in opposition communities, accompanied by a parallel “softening” for pro-regime elements from Lebanon and international humanitarian staff based in Damascus. Ongoing sieges on the border continue to show the strategic significance of borders in Lebanon to both parties of Syria’s conflict.

Even among states supporting the opposition, border dynamics are hardly predictable, though they have followed general patterns of guarded access. An initial, but essential, event that shaped opposition access occurred in the summer of 2014 when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2165, pushing for the transfer of humanitarian aid to the country via four crossings in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.[7] This facilitated the consolidation of humanitarian, development, and political activities in Turkish and Jordanian cities safely removed across the border but adjacent to opposition-held territory in Syria. No Lebanese crossings were included. As one Western aid worker asserts, the resolution represented “a slap in the face to Syrian sovereignty.”[8] Perhaps more realistically, it muddles the regime’s early efforts to isolate rebel-held territories. The UN hardly dictates events on the ground in Syria; at the same time, their intervention has redirected the conversation on borders from a discourse of state sovereignty to one of international responsibility to stem violence. An increasing body of writing acknowledges that their involvement has altered border access and, through it, the dynamics of the conflict.[9]

There is of course something paradoxical to these developments. In both scenarios, great paints are taken to trumpet protecting the territorial integrity of Syria– even as this is routinely “violated” by state, international, and Syrian actors on either side of the conflict. To understand the agents of these transgressions, and their significance to the conflict, we must shift to other heuristics for investigating the wartime political geographies of Syria.

An Embedded Network

The sequence of UN resolutions ensured a dramatic escalation of aid into opposition territories inside, but also allowed participation in Syrian from a distance. Aid was channeled through specific sites deemed to offer the resources and access necessary to supporting healthcare, food, and more ambitious efforts being planned. It largely centered on and coordinated from Gaziantep in Turkey and Amman in Jordan.[10] In these places, an emergent ecology of humanitarian actors, diplomats, and international contractors— along with the pressing nature of the response— generated demand for information and program implementers.

As a result, a cross-border coordinating class of displaced Syrians coalesced in these cities around the project of supporting participatory governance in opposition territories. This class draws its autonomy from particular forms of expertise (social networks, relations with armed factions and local councils, day-to-day military developments, needs assessments), professional competencies (grant writing, project management, English proficiency, translation, legal training, accounting), and opposition credentials forged before or during the Syrian uprising. Thus, it constitutes a distinctive set of what Thomas Pierret calls “cause entrepreneurs,” whose narrative of revolutionary political change stabilizes the broader cleavages of the Syrian conflict.[11]

These actors are essential to providing services and governance in communities where both had been cut by the Assad regime after withdrawal. This they do by maintaining routinized relations with a panoply of organizations active inside, from civil society organizations (CSOs), to the Free Syrian Police, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), [12] armed factions, but above all with local councils. These experimental governance bodies attempt to provide municipal services, organize peaceful transitions to civilian governance in recently liberated areas, and integrate local figures into the process. They are most successful at infrastructural projects like road repair, trash disposal, and minor health campaigns like vaccine distribution, but also engage in other services.[13] In the absence of an institutional umbrella and given the persistence of regime bombardment from the skies, these routine relations provide a crucial dose of order and stability while pushing for a more participatory approach to politics in line with the uprising of 2011.

Reach & Mobility

To maintain these overlapping opposition networks and relationships, actors involved must engage in performances of “reach.” These manifest through routinized practices of mobility that are shaped by territorial borders. These efforts create a shared geography of practice and information that sustains the opposition writ large. Importantly, the risk of “conflict contagion” has not stopped neighbor-states like Turkey and Jordan from facilitating the mobility of these actors across borders. Indeed, despite increasingly stringent security measures along their borders with Syria, both countries have created mechanisms to ensure the movements of actors crucial to governance and armed struggle in the liberated territories.[14] In what follows I describe what these mobilities look like.


One key way in which these exiled Syrians “reach” into the liberated territories is through the packaging and circulation of information. In the case of Syria, the fragmented nature of space amid conflict fosters distrust, uncertainty and consequently hinders the provision of external support.[15] An array of Syrian consultancies and media offices now carefully monitor local dynamics. Drawing on pre-war social networks and field officers spread throughout the country, they relay “atmospherics” on armed clashes, infrastructure, human rights abuses, commodity prices, and humanitarian needs to headquarters typically (though not always) based in Amman and Gaziantep. Personal, embodied experience and familiarity with daily events in Syria is essential to their credibility. Even in Amman, where authorities are far more guarded and Syrians barely possess the right to work, a U.S. State Department-funded program trains young Syrian journalists to cultivate networks of informants inside Syria, whose updates on conflict dynamics (rather than human-interests stories) are then translated into English by American students of Arabic.[16]

The kind of information set in motion by these actors is made available either online via websites or to bidding organizations in the form of reports and surveys, but it also circulates freely among Syrians in social settings, reinforcing trust among organizations and sorting truth from rumor.[17] As a result, it ensures the movement of funds (via pay to field officers) and the implementation of development projects in communities isolated by war, in turn reproducing the conditions for actors outside the country to continue to engage in a meaningful way.


Another, more embodied practice of mobility is the circulation of governance officials and service providers (often civil society organizations or CSOs) from Syria and toward the exile hubs mentioned above. This manifests in the implementation of trainings and workshops that were for a long time weekly to-dos in Gaziantep and Antakya. These events brought media officers, citizen-journalists, trainers, translators, civil defense trainees, policemen, judges, lawyers, and women’s groups into Gaziantep— the goal of which was primarily capacity-building among local councils, in the sense of routinizing governance practices and social relations in the liberated areas. The benefits of training are compounded by the profoundly social dimension of such visits, which strengthen pre-existing networks and foster new ones rooted in the revolutionary atmosphere of exile. After work, councilors relax amid largely male evening gatherings. Trainings thus strengthen the capacities of opposition organizations inside, tie them closely to sources of support outside, and thus add the further transfer of financial resources and infrastructure into crippled local economies.[18]

Field Visits

After Turkey and Jordan both imposed stricter border regimes, opposition actors shifted to remote trainings and extensive field visits. Looking more closely at Turkey, all registered Syrian organizations may offer five employees for vetting at specific border crossings, after which point they are approved for crossing into Syria for periods averaging a month. The program director of Syrian consultancy firm the East Mediterranean Institute, for example, spends 3-6 months per year inside Syria. For him, these regular field visits form the backbone of EMI’s work: “In the areas we’ve most succeeded in, normal people – our project beneficiaries – have noticed a precision in the work we do, and a clear benefit… We’re always in touch with them. What their concerns are, their problems…because if I don’t know these [things] I can’t really help them. For the local councils, I can’t [directly] offer that kind of help.”

By intervening routinely in these communities, Syrian actors in exile reach into Syria in a very direct way, becoming key intercessors relaying the concerns of local actors to those at great distance from them. This broadens the opportunity horizons of isolated communities in wartime Syria by offering new resources and skills. They also lend a degree of coherence to the opposition’s political agenda by tying their concerns into a broader narrative of participatory governance, and thus a movement for political change. These two dimensions of opposition mobilities cannot be understood in isolation from one another.

An Emergent Opposition Space

In spite of the territorial impositions of state borders, and in many ways thanks to them, opposition networks have found a way into Syria. These networks, and how they move across the border, not only support opposition governance inside the country— they constitute an emergent space of transnational opposition politics. This space links Syrian actors on both sides of the border to the larger goals of the Syrian uprising; namely, the removal of Bashar al-Assad and a turn toward participatory governance. There are of course frictions involved in this process.[19]  But for now it is worth emphasizing that there are other ways for conceiving the geography of “wartime political orders” beyond the narrow intellectual space afforded by borders and territoriality.[20] Taking the networked, transnational character of opposition actors seriously, and their role in conflict dynamics, broadens our understanding of the “organizational and social context” of opposition groups in wartime. Importantly, it also illustrates that the geographies of conflict are a constant work in progress.[21]

Ali Hamdan is a PhD candidate in the department of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.

[1] Stuart Elden, “Land, Terrain, Territory.” Progress in Human Geography 34 (6), 799-817.

[2] Zachariah Mampilly, Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011); Paul Staniland (2012). “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders.” Perspectives on Politics 10 (2), 243-264. Teresa Koloma Beck, The Normality of Civil War: Armed Groups and Everyday Life in Angola (New York: Campus Verlag, 2012); Ana Arjona, Nelson Kasfir and Zachariah Mampilly, Rebel Governance in Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[3] Barak Mendelsohn (2012). “God vs. Westphalia: Radical Islamist Movements and the battle for Organising the World.” Review of International Studies 38 (3), 589-613.

[4] See, for instance, Reidar Visser (December 30, 2013). “Dammit, It Is NOT Unraveling: An Historian’s Rebuke to Misrepresentations of Sykes-Picot.” Blog entry, accessed here; Ali Nehme Hamdan (2016). “Breaker of Barriers? Notes on the Geopolitics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham.” Geopolitics 21 (3), 605-627.

[5] Anssi Paasi (1998). “Boundaries as Social Processes: Territoriality in a World of Flows.” Geopolitics 3 (1), 69-88; See also Corey Johnson, Reece Jones, Anssi Paasi, Louise Amoore, Alison Mountz, Mark Salter, and Chris Rumford (2011). “Interventions on Rethinking ‘the Border’ in Border Studies.” Political Geography 30 (1), 61-69.

[6] Bassel Salloukh (2005). “Syria and Lebanon: A Brotherhood Transformed.” Middle East Report 236. Accessed here.

[7] Resolution 2165 specifies that “the United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines and the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa (Turkey), Al Yarubiyah (Iraq) and Al-Ramtha (Jordan), in addition to those already in use.” United Nations Security Council Resolution 2165, Adopted by the Security Council at its 7216th Meeting, on July 14, 2014.

Ramtha-Daraa (Jordan), Al Yarubiyah (Iraq), and Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa (Turkey)

[8] Maya Hautefeuille, Media & Advocacy Manager, Independent Doctors Association. Interview with Author. Gaziantep, January 2017.

[9] See for example Brent Eng and José Ciro Martinez (January 26, 2016). “Why International Food Aid Can Actually Make Conditions Worse for Starving Syrians.” The Washington Post.

[10] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Syrian Arab Republic: United Nations Cross-Border Operations under UNSC Resolutions 2165/2191/2258/2332 (Jul 2014 – Dec 2016).” Accessed

[11] Thomas Pierret, “State Sponsors and the Syrian Insurgency: The Limits of Foreign Influence” (San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute, 2016).

[12] Importantly, the Syrian Interim Government is conceived of as the “implementing body” of the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (al-Itilaf).

[13] Various. “Syrian Local Councils in the Eyes of their Communities,” (The Day After, September 2016). Accessed

[14] Indeed, their support likely represents a reverse gamble that such efforts actually increase stability on the Syrian side of the border and thus decrease the risk of the conflict entering into Turkey or Jordan.

[15] Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur (2015), “The Struggle for Syria’s Regions.” Middle East Report 269. Kalyvas, Logic of Violence, 43.

[16] Keenan Duffy, (former) editor-in-chief of Syria Direct. Interview with Author. Amman, September 2015.

[17] Fieldnotes, Gaziantep. October 9, 2016.

[18] And indeed, many Syrian activists adopt a rightfully cynical take on the “atmosphere of organizations” (jaww al-munazzamat).

[19] Euro News: “Turkey Imposes Visa Requirements on Syrians Arriving by Air and Sea from Third Countries (January 9, 2016). Accessed; Aljazeera: “Jordan Declares Border with Syria ‘Military Zone’ (June 21, 2016). Accessed

[20] Staniland, “Wartime Political Orders.”

[21] See Sarah Elizabeth Parkinson, “Organizing Rebellion: Rethinking High-Risk Mobilization and Social Networks in Civil War,” American Political Science Review 107 (3), 418-432.