The Syrian civil war has profoundly altered established business structures, a delicate balance of religious values, and long-standing ties between urban and rural areas. New networks, identities, and social hierarchies have emerged in connection with the war economy, the militarization of the public sphere, and signs of ethnic cleansing. Any formal end to the conflict is unlikely to halt the violent societal transformation. Coexistence will remain a major challenge due to the nature of the cleavages. However, an inclusive political system that ends the marginalization of the Sunni majority, accepts diversity, and protects minorities is a prerequisite for reducing the levels of profound mistrust between the different societal groups.
Divide and-rule tactics
Virtually all Middle East regimes used divide and-rule tactics to manage their societies prior to the “Arab Spring” revolts. Day-today, they employed terrorization and inducement – their version of the carrot-and-stick approach. Rulers of republics coming from a religious minority, such as was the case in Syria and Iraq, tended to use a more brutal version because they needed to domesticize a Sunni majority population, in whose eyes they had little legitimacy – neither democratic, “traditional,” nor religious.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the demise of Sunni minority rule in Baghdad did little to change the strategy of the Alawite regime in Damascus. The Assad clan seized upon chunks of the economy and awarded enormous privileges to other elites associated with it. Underpinning the system – apart from the security apparatus – were partnerships between the top Alawite tier and Sunni merchants, mainly in Damascus and Aleppo. The regime subjugated the largely Sunni tribes, which, as a result, disintegrated over the decades. At the same time, it gave them a role in communal management.
Peasants were subsidized before the partial liberalization of the economy in the mid-2000s, and the lifting of subsidies contributed to socio-economic havoc.
The Kurdish community was maltreated and disenfranchised, except for onand-off regime backing of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
As the first wave of the Arab Spring hit North Africa in late 2010, Bashar al-Assad tried to preempt the Syrian revolt by making rhetorical commitments to improve the lot of the regime’s non-Alawite base, but societal and economic rifts had grown too deep to be contained by the system that had fostered them. For instance, the regime no longer could manage the young jihadis and other Islamist actors who it had, in part, nourished in order to present Assad as the only alternative to chaos and to pressure the West into ending periods of limited isolation on the regime from 2005 to 2008.
Social Impacts of the War Economy The dynamics of the civil war, which followed the crackdown on the 2011 revolt, produced massive social fragmentation.
It broke down social, economic, and generational hierarchies, and it fueled new military-economic networks.
The power balance between religious and ethnic groups was altered. Social mobility no longer depended on having links to the regime; as a result, the Assad clan’s control over a governing system that fused cronyism and sectarian rule abated sharply. New Markets for Junior Actors The progressive loss of central authority diluted the concentration of economic spoils among the regime’s top tier.
New or bigger markets opened to previously junior actors, typically in their 30s, in regime areas and in rebel territory.
Among the loyalist ranks, loot and a slice of the black market were the main incentives for thousands recruited into the regime’s militias. Relatively low-ranking personnel in the intelligence apparatus who had lived off relatively petty bribes enriched themselves by charging for information of detained persons in the regime’s jails and al-mukhabarat (intelligence) dungeons.
It has been common for families to sell all their assets for cash just to learn whether their sons are dead or alive.
Others rose to the top of the extortion rackets of the besieged areas. Fuel supplies to regime territory and energy dealings with areas under the control of the so-called Islamic State (also derogatorily called Da’ish) became big business.
The new profiteers sought to enhance their social stature. Backed by their own private militias, they bullied former pillars of the business community in order to take over their positions, as a more outwardly violent mode of doing business developed after 2011.
A main figure and typical representative of this new business elite is Ahmad al-Foz. A previously unknown young figure in Latakia, Foz apparently bought assets in 2017 belonging to Imad Ghreiwati – one of a generation of businessmen known as “friends of Bashar” before the revolt – with cash from war profiteering.