“Privatized Violence:” Pro-Regime Militias and the State in Syria

Going into its 6th year with no end in sight, the Syrian civil war has dramatically impacted state institutions, as well as the army. High casualty and desertion rates with a concomitant growth in the geographic scale and intensity of the fighting have seriously weakened the army. This untenable situation compelled the Syrian regime to resort to a strategy of mobilizing existing regime networks to contribute to the “national” war effort. This led to the rapid development of privately run pro-regime militias all over Syria. Analysts have interpreted this phenomenon as a sign of the growing weakness of the centralized state vis-à-vis its periphery or as an indication of its total collapse at the local level. Although not entirely disagreeing with these analyses, I shift the contours of the debate in a new direction. Rather than reading the situation as state collapse or loss of sovereignty in the Weberian sense, I argue that what is unfolding in Syria is in fact the transformation of the state and the regime in a time of war.

The Economy of Outsourcing

As observers of the conflict have stated, the majority of Assad-aligned militias have their origin in informal regime client networks and institutional structures that extend throughout the country. Local in origin, private businessmen, regime supporters and foreign sponsors help to establish and support these groups. They range in terms of fighting capacity, size and organizational composition from village guard to essentially private army units, armed with sophisticated weapons. Among the most prominent are the Tiger Forces and Desert Hawks, set up by prominent regime figures. Nominally under central command from Damascus, these groups have benefitted from the exigencies of war and rapid emergence of a war economy, which opened new and lucrative opportunities. The various militias have acquired the ability to self-finance through a variety of entrepreneurial activities, such as smuggling goods, stealing, racketeering, kidnapping and other criminal actions. As Aron Lund and Kheder Khaddour have written, this has given the militia forces some financial and political autonomy from the center. In their political forecasting, if in a post-war settlement the regime survives, it may experience issues with integrating the militias into state structures or if the war continues, it will give rise to entrenched warlordism and militia groups’ complete autonomy from Damascus. Based on his research, Tobias Schneider argues that this situation has already occurred in Hama, where the state has ceased to exist and has been effectively replaced by predatory local warlords and their armed bands.  They are engaged in private criminal activities as they fight (for now) on behalf of the regime. With the state receding to the background, Bashar al-Assad now serves as the symbolic face of a vast and growing criminal enterprise shorn of any national pretensions. Hence, the militias are widely viewed as the cause and outcome of state collapse.

Fetishized State

However, I posit that parceling the state and other institutions into neat categories is an analytical mistake that misses a crucial insight and pushes a state-centric narrative. The interpretive social sciences inform us that the state, for that matter, is not an entity that is distinct from society. Drawing from Phillip Abrams, the state as an object is a product of a (fetishized) state idea. It masks the fact the state is a fundamentally ideological project that conceals the actual disunity of political power. Moreover, it hides how the collective practice of political institutions reflects “a series of ephemerally unified postures in relation to transient issues with no sustained consistency of purpose.”[1] Abrams suggests that we should shift our analytical attention away from the state as a unified and coherent entity and instead make the state-idea alongside the “state-system,” which exists as “a palpable nexus of practice and institutional structure centered in government,”[2] the object of our attention. In a Foucauldian account, the separation between the state and society is the outcome of a structural effect, a metaphysical product emerging from a “detailed process of spatial organization, temporal arrangement, supervision, and surveillance.”[3] Either way, how can we use these insights for understanding the state in Syria today?

In the Syrian context, the state, as a bundle of institutions spread over a national territory, is not as centralized or totalitarian as the previous accounts suggest. The adjectives used there can be potentially misleading. As shown above, the post-structuralist lens emphasizes a far more fluid and dynamic situation than these accounts allow for. Furthermore, implicit in conventional analyses is an understanding of power that is one-dimensional, while in fact it is much more fluid and dynamic.

According to the standard narrative, power in Syria should be measured by the amount of men, treasure, and weapons–which seem to be slipping from the center to the peripheries either as a steady stream or a ranging torrent. However, power as Foucault tells us is always dispersed through multiple institutions and practices of subject formation. It is not a unidirectional process, but a relational one. Hence, the processes currently unfolding in Syria are too ambiguous to allow for a one-dimensional transfer or understanding of power and the state. The militia phenomenon can thus be read as a reconfiguration of state-society relations along the new lines.

State-centric narratives take for granted that sovereignty is located and represented in state institutions. Therefore, according to them, the rise of military entrepreneurs in the regime camp in Syria is a sign of state weakness or collapse. However, sovereignty is not something that emerged ex nihilo, but is formed under concrete historical conditions. For example, as historical accounts of colonial Syria demonstrate, sovereignty was enacted and preformed not only by colonial authorities, but also informally by local strong men who occupied a privileged position vis-à-vis the state and population and were a part of a larger apparatus of rule. This mode of governance continued, although in somewhat changed form, in post-colonial Syria and translated into multi-layered systems of authority. In Syria, such strong men represented the state: they could challenge the state, yet were a constitutive part of it. The rise of militia leaders in today’s Syria, a worrying development in and of itself, is not the entire story. They are the new strong men that the state depends on, but they are also the agents of the state, who further the state’s agenda, but exercise agency of their own.


Thus, in order to make sense of today’s situation in Syria, we should: 1) see the current developments in the country in historical perspective, which will give more complexity and nuance to analyses; 2) conceptualize power and state as an assemblage of material practice and ideas, and not merely as a set of coherently functioning and vertically arranged institutions. This will allow us to re-evaluate the current processes in Syria, which analysis quickly named the “de-centralization” and “collapse” of the state. De-centralization may appear as always already a sign of weakness, however, in fact it may manifest the transformation and adaptation of the state under the conditions of war; 3) not allow ideological sentiments to interfere with our analyses. Although an impartial analytical gaze does not exist, we need to be reflexive of our biases and preferences. They frequently create distortions and toxic environments, which make conversations difficult. Finally, the militia driven war economy and violence are not necessarily anathema to the project of statehood, rather are part of the process of state (re) formation.

[1] Philip Abrams, “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State,” Journal of Historical Sociology no.1 (1998): 79.

[2] Abrams, “Notes”, 82.

[3] Timothy Mitchell, “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critiques,” American Political Science Review no.85 (1991)

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