Since the late 1960s, the Syrian government has backed a range of militant organizations in the Middle East, from an assortment of leftist Palestinian factions in the 1960s and 1970s, to the Lebanese Amal movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, and to Hezbollah and Hamas beginning in the early 1990s. In recent years, Syria has provided crucial funding, weapons and training to the latter two organizations in particular, often in concert with Iran. As the Syrian civil war continues to alter the balance of power in Syria (and the region), what effects can we expect the war to have on these organizations?
One way to answer this question, as I argue in a recent article in Foreign Policy Analysis, is to use a principal-agent model. Most commonly used to explain things like congressional oversight, principal-agent models focus on the relationship between the party giving orders (the principal) and the party receiving and carrying out those orders (the agent). The interaction between a sponsor state and the militant groups it supports can be understood as just such a relationship.
From an agent’s point of view, there are three basic types of principal: single principals (a single, cohesive entity giving one set of orders), multiple principals (two or more separate principals giving separate orders) and collective principals (in which multiple actors comprise a single principal and give a single set of orders.) A tough, cohesive, authoritarian regime in which all decision-making happens at the top is a single principal. A fragmented authoritarian state, with many competing voices fighting for control over the agent is a collective principal. (Democracies often fall into this category as well.) And a militant group with several sponsors (of either sort) is an agent with multiple principals.
Of course, each arrangement has both upsides and downsides for the agent. An agent of multiple principals may be able to play its sponsors against one other, much as the child of feuding parents may try to provoke a bidding war in hopes of obtaining a new bike for her birthday. On the other hand, being pulled in multiple directions by different sponsor states can lead to divisions within the organization. This can also be a danger with collective principals, if factions within the sponsoring regime sponsor rival factions in the client organization. Conversely, single principals may be less likely to cause this kind of factionalization, but may be better able to control their clients, leading to possible mission creep or a loss of autonomy for the agent.
So what does this imply for Syria’s non-state clients? Syria has at various points functioned as all three types of principal. At times when the regime was less consolidated, such as the 1960s, it functioned more as a collective principal. In recent years, the Syrian regime functioned as a single principal for some clients (like Amal and a number of smaller Palestinian armed groups) and one of multiple principals for others (like Hamas and Hezbollah). Looking to the future, the outcome of the civil war will likely determine what sort of principal (if any) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will continue to be to its various clients. Broadly, there are five options:
Scenario 1: The Assad regime triumphs, emerges as a fully consolidated unit, and remains a single principal for some of its clients and one of multiple principals for others.
Scenario 2: The regime retains power, but becomes fragmented and becomes a collective principal.
Scenario 3: The opposition is strengthened into a serious actor in its own right, leading the regime and the opposition to become multiple principals, or warring single principals.
Scenario 4: The regime is overthrown and its former agents are left without a principal at all.
Scenario 5: Syria’s various client militias elect to end their relationship with Syria of their own volition.
If Assad is able to fend off the threat posed by the Islamic State and the other rebel groups, the continuation of Syria’s role as a single principal is possible, in which case we can expect its relationship with Hezbollah to remain strong and the inherent tradeoffs to remain much the same. So far, for Hezbollah this has meant fighting openly in Syria, at some domestic cost. But if the rest of the regime begins to lose confidence in Assad, the situation may come to resemble the chaotic 1960s, when frequent military coups resulted in the overthrow of successive governments. If different factions in the Syrian military begin fighting for control, then Syria may come to resemble a collective principal, as in the second scenario. This would prove difficult for all of Syria’s clients but particularly for Hezbollah, which would probably like to avoid possible internal upheaval and the inconvenience of having to negotiate with multiple factions in the Syrian state. This partly explains Hezbollah’s decision to double down on its support for the Assad regime by fighting openly in its defense.
The third possibility, that the civil war produces several established poles, each sponsoring its own clients, is perhaps the most likely in the short term. Even before the Islamic State’s conquest of territory in Iraq and northern Syria, various Islamist factions had begun building alliances with Sunni factions in Lebanon, while Hezbollah and Amal had signaled their loyalty to Assad, leading to violent clashes in Tripoli, Beirut, and elsewhere. Conversely, the least likely outcome is the fourth scenario, that the regime is overthrown altogether. If it were to occur, however, it would mark the end of the Iranian-Syrian axis, and would especially problematic for the smaller Palestinian factions for whom Syria is the sole sponsor.
Finally, agents can in some cases choose to sever their relationship with their sponsor entirely. In April of 2012, Hamas severed its relationship with the Assad regime, reorienting itself toward the emerging Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood axis, although this alliance was weakened by the military coup in Egypt. Other factions, however, may not have this option – for instance, the regime’s assault on the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus placed Palestinian groups who had no alternative sponsor in a tricky position. In sum, the civil war in Syria will likely require some adjustment on the part of Syria’s non-state clients, but what kind and to what degree will largely be shaped by the outcome of the war for Syria itself.
Ora Szekely is an assistant professor of political science at Clark University.
William F.S. Miles: The Islamic State won’t find it easy to wipe away post-colonial borders
Morgan L. Kaplan: Why the U.S. backed the Kurds
Kevin Mazur: Local struggles in Syria’s northeast
Laurie A. Brand: The Islamic State and the politics of official narratives
Elizabeth Ferris and Abbie Taylor: The past and future of Iraq’s minorities