Reconstruction without Reconciliation: The New Battle for a Decentralised Syria

Nick Coleman


Nick Coleman is a PhD student at the University of Passau, Germany. His thesis focuses on the causes and consequences of the prevailing authoritarian regime in Syria, and the resulting internal and external ramifications on conflict resolution theory and practice. He holds an MSc with distinction from Canterbury Christ Church University.


The desire for decentralisation has increased across sectarian lines within Syria, as evidenced in studies conducted by ‘The Day After Project’. Irrespective of this, power in Syria remains highly centralised in the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his Baath government. This short paper analyses the reasons behind this continued concentration of power, alluding to the security focussed legacy that Hafez al-Assad left in place for his son, and the ability of the Assad regime to utilise foreign actors to bolster his control of the economy in a post-conflict process of authoritarian reconstruction. 



While public opinion appears to have softened with regards to decentralisation, as posited in a 2020 survey by prominent NGO, ‘The Day After Project’ (TDA 2020), large obstacles still stand in the way of a decentralised Syrian state. Chief amongst these is resistance offered by incumbent leader Bashar al-Assad, and his ambitions to restore Syria to its pre-2011 condition. While this extremely high level of centralisation may be impossible to recreate, it is important to regard the Syrian situation as outside of normative positions on post-conflict resolution. With Assad and his allies expounding what they claim to be a military victory, regular transformative ambitions that address the root causes of conflict shall be brushed aside. Instead, a process of authoritarian reconstruction shall be built, based on the continuity of Syria’s pre-war economy and reinforced legitimacy highlighted by the controversial 2021 Syrian election.


The Desire for Decentralisation

In a recent study conducted in 2020 by The Day After Project (TDA), respondents were asked for their opinions on the following question:

What is your position on the following statement? “Syria should adopt a decentralized political system that grants local authorities broad administrative powers.”

Within the sample, 65.9% of participants agreed that Syria should adopt a system of government that is decentralised, with a significant majority of those surveyed opting for a mixed or semi-presidential system of government (TDA 2020, 52). This demonstrates a softening in the opinions of the Syrian people towards decentralisation, who in a previous survey carried out in 2016 were observed to be more resistant to the idea. This was despite 55.3% of people in opposition-held areas harbouring a desire for greater decentralisation (TDA 2016, 7). Furthermore, in lieu of strong Alawite opposition to decentralisation in the 2016 study, a staggering 48% of them expressed a desire for local authorities to take up a larger mandate in policy-making in 2020. This is of large significance, as the Syrian regime built by Hafez al-Assad has a distinctly nepotistic composition. This is a trait continued by his son, Bashar al-Assad, with all top positions in both the military and intelligence services being of Alawite descent (Al-Mustafa 2020), despite the Alawite population only comprising 11.8% of the Syrian population (see map).

The Syrian state is currently in a period of immense fragmentation, and despite this new willingness to adopt a decentralised system, the degree of decentralisation is still largely influenced along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines. The majority of the Sunni population that were surveyed, 65.5%, were in agreement that Syria should adopt a decentralised system (TDA 2020). However, the trend within the data informs us that the Kurds and Druze were also in agreement over a strong desire for local authorities to take over large portions of administrative influence. Alternatively, the Alawite sect was far more hesitant. This demonstrated that support for decentralisation is likely to diminish if your privileged status, as is present with influential characters within the Alawite population, is put in jeopardy (Khalifa & Christou 2020). Kurdish minorities have long desired a redistribution of power away from Damascus. Shortly after the commencement of war, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) was established in the Northeast of the country, and has achieved a certain amount of operational success, despite no official government acknowledgment of their right to rule. Conversely, the Druze minority, which is the largest minority in southern Syria, enjoys a certain relative limited autonomy allowed by the government. Yet while this autonomy is consistently threatened by the regime and foreign actors like Hezbollah, the desire for broader autonomous powers remains strong. It then becomes vital to appreciate that the term “decentralisation” itself has a broad range of meanings dependent on your ethnic status.

Another significant takeaway from the study is the broad willingness (87.7%) along all sectarian lines to recognise the cultural and ideological rights of ethnic, national, and religious minorities in Syria. The rights of minorities being infringed upon was one of the key reasons for conflict breaking out in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011. Large swathes of the population were marginalised, and it is this issue that cannot be rectified while the Assad regime retains such a large portion of centralised control over the country.


The Legacy of Hafez al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad remains the leader of a country akin to a fractured shadow of its former self, decimated after a decade of conflict. The question then arises: How has Bashar al-Assad kept control of the country in the face of such pyrrhic victory?

When Bashar al-Assad came to power shortly after the turn of the millennium, he inherited a uniquely loyal security and military apparatus from his father Hafez al-Assad. Not only were these institutions extremely loyal, but they were also an integral mechanism in his father’s method of rule. When Hafez was solidifying his regime in the early 1970s, he chose to adopt an advanced and deeply integrated surveillance network throughout the country. It was this mechanism, combined with instances of military crackdowns on protests (for example the 1982 Hama massacre) that successfully subjugated the Syrian population for the entirety of his 30-year reign. As a dictator, Hafez al-Assad placed a distinct emphasis on centralisation, and the maximisation of power in a distinctly autocratic regime. The original hope for a less oppressive regime under his son Bashar al-Assad, a regime that was willing to compromise and delegate power away from Damascus, was short-lived as it became clear that Bashar was to continue his father’s strict military legacy. However, it was the protests inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011 which exposed numerous chinks in the armour that slowly began to cast light on the tyrannical nature of the regime. Upon observation of the weakness in his security institutions, Bashar turned to the book of strict authoritarian practice passed down by his father, beginning a brutal crackdown on the protests (torture of teenagers for graffiti, Dara’a 2011) which soon became the primary tool of control throughout the conflict.

However, it is not merely the military legacy that Bashar al-Assad wants to reassert, as he strongly desires to recreate the pre-2011 political-economy of Syria. The Assad regime and their allies will continue to use their zero-sum military policy, which is in clear contradiction of UN Resolution 2254, to maintain and expand their authoritarian influence over the country. The international community believe it is imperative that the Syrian situation is solved politically and not militarily, yet with international interest in the region waning, it is increasingly likely that Assad and his allies are poised to stay in control of Syria in the long-term. This inevitably leaves prospects for any possibility of bottom-up political decentralisation with a very difficult challenge.


Normative Peacebuilding vs. Authoritarian Reconstruction

When discussing examples of successful post-conflict reconstruction, one of the most vital precepts to consider is the potential for transformation. This is with the ultimate goal of securing a “positive peace”, akin to that espoused by Galtung (1969), which is free from the presence of violence in both a direct and structural sense. All Syrians have to live with the ramifications of immeasurable humanitarian tragedy caused by coming into contact with the conflict. Even today, in large parts of the country (not least the under-siege civilians in Idlib province) the conflict, and therefore the painful reality of war is still ongoing. This relegates any “negative peace” ambitions, an “absence of violence, absence of war”, and creates an extremely difficult proposition for peacebuilders (Galtung 1964, 2). The civilians that fled the country in their millions now recognise that returning to their homes may never be possible, as all returnees will be branded as traitors and face subsequent persecution upon their arrival home. Syrians are continually being forced to submit to a regime accused of egregious crimes against humanity, one which is seemingly immune to international prosecution via the United Nations Security Council.

In spite of this, Assad still has the loyalty of the right people in the right places, even though 37% of Syrian territories are outside of his control, and Hezbollah, Iran and Russia control approximately 87% of Syrian borders (Kawikji 2021). Assad rule is now justified by maintaining a new image of normality and continuity throughout the country. By advertising concerns over national security caused by the fear associated with a resurgence in terrorism, Assad is able to increase his grip through his entrenched security apparatus while simultaneously crippling any hopes of a democratic peace process. As long as Assad can demonstrate his ability to control the public, alongside the façade of functional institutions, he will continue to be backed by his allies in the international community, namely Russia and Iran. Elections are but one of many public demonstrations of functional institutions. The narrative he pursues is one of being the only rational alternative to terrorism and complete structural decay, a story his allies will continue to support.

After victory in an election that was nought but the vaguest impersonation of democracy, Bashar al-Assad will now remain in power until at least his constitutional limit in 2028, while he continues to propagate the root causes of conflict which are a product of a deeply flawed authoritarian regime. The successful re-election for Assad provides leverage for the regime in the restoration of international relationships broken as a result of the conflict, despite the fact that the regime stands accused of crimes against humanity. “Syria’s political economy was, and remains, corrupt, predatory, and personalistic” (Heydemann 2018), and while war has drastically changed the nature of the economy, it has failed to alter the method in which the state has kept authority and is currently moving to control the entire economy.

The economy will have a completely different guise to its previous make-up due to the dramatic toll of war across the country. However, normative theory on liberal peacebuilding tells us that the previous methods of economic governance are forced to adapt during violent conflict. Liberal economic policies are hugely linked to the creation of peace (Owen 1994; Oneal & Russet 1997; Paris 2006), yet a Syria that remains authoritarian contradicts this, and stands as a modern outlier. The Syrian regime has largely continued to exhibit the same, if not an even greater reliance on their security apparatus in order to control the economy throughout the conflict. Tight control of the economy is an integral arm of authoritarian reconstruction. What must be appreciated when viewing this method of authoritarian peace-building, is that the vocabulary used to describe the political economy will be that of “continuity”. This is opposed to a reformed economy based on both accountability and the rule of law as observed within liberal peace-building mechanisms of the past. Furthermore, the Assad regime has sought to increase state capacity for intervention in the economy by utilising the army to gain predatory control over all legal and illegal paths of private economic activity. This demonstrates that the civil war in Syria brought out the worst of Assad’s pre-war characteristics, as opposed to transforming them positively.


The Obstacles to Decentralisation

While the political will for decentralisation has increased in the years between the studies conducted by the TDA, current hope for a solution emanating from the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva appears bleak. This is evidenced by the 70.7% of people surveyed in 2020 having “little or no hope” for results from the committee (TDA 2020,62). With Assad now recapturing a high level of control over the economy and buoyed by the “success” of his recent election win, proposing a solution for the beleaguered minorities which brings an end to their hardship becomes more difficult than ever. The ever-resilient Assad regime has effectively bulldozed any aspirations for a bottom-up political solution inclusive of minority rights through their control of the economy. The expansion of state control is currently attempting to engulf every facet of Syrian life, and while Bashar is in firm command of the reigns his allies will continue to support him. This leaves aspirations for a decentralised system entirely at the mercy of an unrepentant ruler greedily set on maintaining his own legacy by re-centralising power within the country.

The conflict itself has fortified Assad’s position as the full arbiter of power in the country through the loyalty of numerous militias. These pro-government militias currently operate in complete unison with the Syrian Arab Army. The utilisation of these forces enabled Assad to conduct numerous military offences during the height of the conflict, whereas currently they serve the government largely in a security enforcement capacity. Leaders of these militias are profiting massively from the current situation, resulting in these groups harbouring very little desire for decentralisation. Many of these units operate at the behest of foreign actors, not least the National Defence Force and Local Defence Forces that were formed with large participation from Iranian forces. Iran is pursuing a strategy to increase their influence in Syria, firstly through military assistance and now in the form of various cultural projects, with the long-term goal of deep integration within the Syrian economy alongside the enhancement of Shia religious interests (Vohra 2021). The potential for increasing the branch of Shia Islam in Syria has also gained the support of Lebanese based political party and militant group Hezbollah. Russia has also become deeply involved with the militias, notably establishing the “Fifth Corps”, a specialised unit created through a unique process of ‘rebel military integration’ (Al-Jabassini 2019). Syria has long been Russia’s longest regional ally in the Middle East, and their involvement in the crisis is widely accepted to be connected to maintaining their sphere of influence within the region. Ultimately, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah all view the centralisation of power with Assad as a top priority, as they benefit from the current situation. However, this drags the future of national sovereignty in Syria into sharp relief. As long as this outsourcing of security continues, these groups will continue to take larger pieces of the Syrian jigsaw, leaving Assad devoid of the complete picture of Syria he so strongly endeavours to achieve.


Coleman, N 2022. ‘Reconstruction without Reconciliation: The New Battle for a Decentralised Syria ‘, 50 Shades of Federalism. Available at:



Al-Jabassini, A., 2019. From insurgents to soldiers : the fifth assault corps in Daraa, southern Syria. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Al-Mustafa, M., 2020. Power Centers in the Syrian Army: A Sectarian Approach. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 April 2022].

Galtung, J., 1964. An Editorial. Journal of Peace Research, 1 (1), 1-4.

Galtung, J., 1969. Violence, Peace and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167-191.

Heydemann, S., 2018. Reconstructing Authoritarianism: The Politics and Political Economy of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Syria – Project on Middle East Political Science. [online] Project on Middle East Political Science. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 January 2022].

Kawikji, H., 2021. The 2021 Syrian Presidential Election. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 8 January 2022].

Khalifa, O. and Christou, W., 2020. Syrian opinion split on decentralizing power in new constitution. [online] Middle East Institute. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 April 2022].

Oneal, J. and Russet, B., 1997. The Classical Liberals Were Right: Democracy, Interdependence, and Conflict, 1950-1985. International Studies Quarterly, 41(2), pp.267-294.

Owen, J., 1994. How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace. International Security, 19(2), p.87.

Paris, R., 2006. At war’s end. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

TDA, 2016. Syria: Opinions and Attitudes on Federalism, Decentralization, and the Emergence of Democratic Self-Administration – The Day After. [online] The Day After. Available at: <> [Accessed 10 April 2022].

TDA, 2020. Syrians and the Constitution (Survey) – The Day After. [online] The Day After. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 January 2022].

Vohra, A., 2021. Iran Is Trying to Convert Syria to Shiism. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].


Further Reading

Heydemann, S., 2020. Steven Heydemann | Reconstruction in Syria. [online] Chatham House. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Lesch, D., 2019. Syria. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Seale, P. and McConville, M., 2016. Asad of Syria- The Struggle for the Middle East. 13th ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

van Dam, N., 2019. Destroying a nation. London: I. B. Tauris.

“Syria Grunge Flag” by Free Grunge Textures – is marked with CC BY 2.0. To view the terms, visit



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