The recent displacement of civilians and rebel fighters from the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta signals an important victory for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the face of these successes, it is worth remembering that the imminent downfall of Assad’s regime was proclaimed several times since the onset of violence in Syria in late 2011. Each time, Assad defied such predictions. How has his government, which several times looked so close to being toppled, weakened its rivals and ensured its continuity?
In a new article, we argue that a crucial component of the Assad regime’s wartime success has been its strategic use of aerial bombardment. Bolstered by its allies, especially Russia, the Assad regime has consistently targeted public infrastructures in opposition-held areas, including bakeries, hospitals, markets and schools. Media outlets, policy experts and international aid organizations have written about the humanitarian and military dimensions of such raids at great length. Yet they overlook the key political logic underpinning these systematic attacks.
Disrupting opposition governance
Our findings suggest that regime concerns with rebel governance, rather than military calculations or sectarian motivation, best explain the Assad regime’s targeted bombardment of opposition-held areas. It also helps us understand the regime’s ongoing success in the war.
From 2013 to 2016, we conducted more than 100 interviews with civilians, activists, journalists and aid workers to explore how the regime’s aerial bombardment campaigns affected various rebel groups’ attempts to govern. We found that during the conflict, carrying out basic statelike functions, from mediation to education — what we term “performing the state” — has been one of the most important governing strategies undertaken by rebel groups. At the same time, the Assad regime actively targets these institutions and services to undermine and defeat rebels that seek its downfall.
State performances by opposition forces make political authority tangible, perceptible and concrete to local residents. During the war, rebel groups have established checkpoints that control the movement of people and goods, taxed local businesses, founded courts to resolve local disputes, coordinated agricultural production and organized schooling. In contexts where sovereignty is so hotly contested, such actions can help legitimize opposition actors. When executed successfully, they demonstrate an ability to govern proficiently and allow residents to consider an alternative to the Assad regime.
Why rebels provide welfare
Throughout the Syrian civil war, rebel attempts to perform the state have been frequent, deliberate and purposeful. One of the most important of these everyday practices has been the provision of welfare. In addition to aiding the livelihoods of local residents, service provision works to build community by signaling membership in a polity.
Welfare in Syria has an especially strong association with the state because of the Assad regime’s interventionist development model. Beginning in the 1970s, the Syrian government provided its citizens various forms of social welfare, including free health care, education, subsidized food and utilities. This was part of a tacit social pact in which public goods were provided in exchange for political compliance. The legacy of this unstated agreement remains potent to this day.
Rebel efforts to provide bread and medical support — two services that have strong symbolic resonances in Syria and were frequently mentioned in the interviews we conducted — in opposition-controlled areas are hardly surprising. In the province of Idlib, they remain a crucial terrain for producing legitimacy and popular support for rebel groups to this day.
Conversely, the Assad regime has sought to disrupt these performances. By systematically annihilating the administrative institutions and public services that shape rebel-civilian relations, the Assad regime has delegitimized its competitors and prevented the emergence of coherent alternatives. Targeted aerial bombardment is especially effective in this respect. It works by not only inflicting military, financial and psychological damage but also interrupting and undermining everyday practices through which rebels generate local support and consolidate their rule.
Over the past three years, this tactic has allowed government forces to consolidate their control over strategic areas, while displacing local populations and concentrating opposition forces in designated towns and provinces. Most important, it has prevented the stability required to build alternatives to its governing institutions.
The political causes of the humanitarian disaster
Today, the Assad regime and its allies continue to relentlessly bomb the province of Idlib, one of the last rebel holdouts in the country and the destination of the population recently expelled from East Ghouta. Our findings suggest that the political logic undergirding this counterinsurgency tactic is subtler than it first appears.
These bombing campaigns strive not just to destroy military outposts or slaughter helpless civilians. They seek, through targeted demolition, something more crucial to the conflict’s trajectory: preventing the rebels’ aspirational attempts to govern from becoming full-fledged state performances. And while civilians continue to pay the price, it seems unlikely the regime will stop until any potential alternatives to its governance are put down.
Brent Eng is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.
José Ciro Martínez is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.