The political economy of violence in Syria

When the regime resorted to violence to suppress the Syrian uprising and failed to respond to their legitimate demands, this quickly created a rich environment in which violence spread, which in return allowed many unfamiliar phenomena to emerge, not to mention that they are held to legal accountability as these phenomena are considered war crimes. Unfortunately, internal conflicts legitimize vices. Damaging the public values system that rejects them and creating a new system that justifies them has disturbed the application of the law itself and damaged the tools to implement it, or had adapted a source that allows the gaining of wealth by un-economic means, especially when someone in power or of influence is concerned.  

During wars and violent internal conflicts, there is something called the political economy of violence, which is defined as when one benefits from the conflict to make wealth by un-economic means. For example, some exploit the environment of violence for trade with its different tools, some trade in all types of vices, some smuggle people abroad for money, some kidnap to ask for a ransom and others.

During the war that has been ongoing for ten years, the phenomenon of making wealth by un-economic means has spread, practiced by the government, the opposition, and even normal citizens. But what’s remarkable is that it has become more organized and run by a gang protected by the government itself or by influential people. The best example of this is what is called ghanima (looting), which has spread in all areas of armed conflict. Another example is when groups scattered on the intersections of public roads ask passengers and vehicles to pay royalties in order to pass the checkpoints, and it is no secret where the royalties go.

There are many causes of this phenomenon, some of which are political and have economic results, and others which have economic reasons in the first place. It is known that the phenomenon of political imprisonment spread during the armed conflicts; the ruling authority mainly resorted to arresting its political opponents even if it requires doing so outside the scope of the law. According to reports issued by the concerned United Nations committees and human rights organizations, the Syrian regime has arrested about 200,000 Syrians for political reasons, most of whom did not participate in any violent operations.

Although the authority has officially announced the cessation of the state of emergency, this did not stop the application of many of the exceptional laws that were in force under it, but rather it enacted new, more stringent laws. In addition, the economic return of political detention has become an essential part of the work of those linked with the authority responsible for enforcing the law. Some estimate that the money gained through these ways exceeds hundreds of millions of Syrian pounds annually.

On the other hand, armed opposition groups have practiced abduction and detention for political and economic reasons related to the armed conflict – not only against the regime forces and their loyalists, but against themselves. Although the phenomenon of abduction, detention, and even killing political or ideological opponents and rivals for influence was primarily to achieve more dominance over these groups, in all cases, it was not without an economic goal. However, what draws the attention is that the goal of some Syrians who participated in violence was to make wealth from the beginning, and as soon as this was achieved, they began to settle their situation with the authority or leave the country.

This phenomenon included some foreigners who came to Syria under the pretext of helping their brothers in aqidah (creed) or politics, while the real reason was to make money.

Among the dangerous results of the phenomenon of the economy of violence is that many capital owners have migrated and taken their money and interests with them, which has caused big economic and human losses for the country. Preventing this phenomenon will happen when the authority bears its responsibilities, controls its apparatus, enforces the law, and uncover the kidnappers, whoever they are. However, there is much doubt over the implementation of this, as it needs the dominance of the country’s logic – not the authority’s – which is difficult to implement currently, as many government officials justify it. For this reason, some citizens started to resort to what is called “self-protection,” which has complicated the state of insecurity in the country, but has increased the phenomenon of economy of violence, which only ordinary people pay the price for.