The Role of Corruption in the Syrian Civil War

Many forces spurred on the development of the Syrian Civil War, a conflict that has likely led to the deaths of over half a million people, as well as the displacement of ten million more. While fighting was sparked by protests within Syria, a reflection of the larger wave of discontent in the Middle East and North Africa that spurred the so-called Arab Spring, the uniquely destructive path of Syria’s internal instability is tied to more specifically Syrian problems, including rule by a minority religious group – the Alawites – over a mostly Sunni country, early and continued support by Russia to maintain the Assad regime, a partially autonomous Kurdish minority in the north, and the rise of Sunni rebel groups including ISIS. While these larger points are important, another, more mundane factor is often overlooked: the pervasive corruption of the Assad regime, which contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in at least three ways:

  • First, widespread and accepted bribery of government officials created distrust of the Syrian government in the run-up to the conflict. While in no way unique to Syria, Syria did suffer from very high levels of corruption prior to the conflict. For many Syrians, dealing with corrupt officials became an everyday part of life, as simple interactions with police officers, or attempts to get the licenses required to operate businesses, would inevitable be accompanied by requests for unofficial payments. The process of either avoiding civil officials or acquiescing to their bribe demands built up resentment within the population towards the regime, particularly since the Sunni majority felt the economic repercussions the hardest. These issues were further heightened by the arrival of large numbers of Syrian farmers and Iraqi refugees into the cities, which forced a large population to interact with corrupt officials on a more regular basis. Eventually, dealing with the consistent issues of corruption was enough to push the civilian population to protest, inspired partially by similar protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab Spring nations. While the first protests began in February 2011, large scale unrest began in mid-March in the southern city of Dara’a , which is sometimes called the “Cradle of the Revolution.” These protests, rather than focusing on economic issues, as was the case in some other Arab Spring protests, quickly targeted the corrupt public officials in the city. The protesters lit fire to the local Baath Party headquarters, the most prominent symbol of governance in the city, as the Baath party, headed by the Assad family. is the controlling party in Syria. Once the fire was lit, the protesters engaged with the police in the city, leading to direct combat between them and the corrupt officers who held so much influence in their lives. These violent outbursts against corrupt officials were the first spark of what would become a full-blown civil war that still rages over five years later.
  • Second, though less obvious than the influence of corrupt officials on the everyday lives of the Syrian population, corruption also worsened desertification in Syria, an important environmental driver behind the Civil War. In the years leading up to the civil war, Syria suffered through an intense drought that severely damaged many of the agricultural communities in the country. The drought was a known issue among the general population and in the government, but attempts to combat the disaster and stall the desertification of the countryside were hampered by corruption. Rather than promote educated experts on agriculture and environmental issues within the Agriculture and Irrigation ministries, two of the government ministries that could have combated the issue, senior officials were promoted based on connections and nepotism. Many did not have any education beyond secondary school. Further, these positions were often underfunded, and many officials supplemented their incomes by taking bribes for illegal wells or other irrigation systems. Even as the government was attempting to address the issue, the very officials in charge of controlling water use were undermining the regulations. The drought would ultimately force many rural communities into the cities, leading to increased unemployment and other economic strains, which provided that tinder needed to allow the early protests to engulf so much of the country. Without the desertification, the initial wave of protests may not have been able grow as large or as fast, potentially preventing the evolution into a civil war.
  • Third, corruption in Syria, particularly nepotism and the elevation of only a small group of Alawite families to power, caused inflexible leadership in the country, and prevented a relatively peaceful outcome once the conflict began. This factor is in many ways harder to demonstrate, as it requires making predictions about what Bashar al-Assad was thinking in the early years of the war. However, during the early years of his regime, Assad was seen by many figures both in Syria and abroad as a potential liberalizing force due to his actions during the “Damascus Spring.” While his liberalizing measures did not continue at an even pace, the hardline stance he took in the early years of the war stand in stark contrast to his earlier, more liberal image. Many have pointed to Assad’s younger brother and uncle, who served in his cabinet and in the military, to explain Assad’s aggressive posture towards the early protests. Both figures were able to wield a high degree of influence in Assad’s government due to their familial connection to Assad’s father, the founder of the current Baathist regime in Syria. Their connection to the military made them potential threats to Assad’s own rule if he went against the wishes of his commanders and took a more conciliatory role towards the protesters. Assad’s brother and uncle were only able to exert this influence because of the entrenched nepotism and concentration of power in the Syrian government along family and tribal lines. If these forces held less sway over the Syrian regime, Assad may have continued to be the liberalizing force he had the potential to be when he first came to power.

The Syrian Civil War continues to be one of the most devastating conflicts of the 21st Century, and each respite has unfortunately only been a pause in the larger pattern of destruction. While looking for ways to mitigate the damage and bring an end to the conflict are important, it is also valuable to examine why the conflict occurred, and hopefully apply the lessons learned to ward off future violence. While corruption was only one factor in leading to the Civil War, it played a role in many of the key strains that produced and inflamed the conflict. This shouldn’t be ignored, and it is important to remember that systemic corruption can at times lead to violence.

13 thoughts on “The Role of Corruption in the Syrian Civil War

  1. Whilst accepting that corruption is a driver of conflict it also feeds off conflict itself and the victims it creates. Those criminals and corrupt enablers on the borders of Syria will seize opportunities to exploit and traffic internally displaced persons into outward refugees and exploit NGO needs to cross borders to distribute aid within Syria.

    This will create real dilemmas for NGO and the need to balance vital aid deIivery with the perhaps unavoidable need to use corrupt individuals on the border and suspect local partners within Syria to enable delivery—- not to mention international sanctions, money laundering, bribery act and other international legal restraints which all place NGOs between a rock and a very hard ethical place in needing to deliver vital aid into Syria. Put in that position do any of us counter corruption specialists really know how we would square our own conflicting counter and anti corruption and humanitarian concerns?

  2. Your second point about desertification contributing to political and economic instability in Syria is really interesting! I wonder if we could begin to use climate science as a sort of early warning indicator – flagging the places that are being the most heavily impacted by climate change for international attention. It’s bad practice to go too far into alternative history, but it is interesting to wonder how much instability could have been ameliorated through, for example, economic development aid focused at helping rural residents learn the skills necessary to succeed in urban environments. To bring it back to an anticorruption place, land-use bureaus like the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture are often hotbeds of corruption; recognizing the importance of good climate data to economic and political stability makes it even more critical to target those areas of government.

    • True, and it is likely that good climate – and other environmental – data will continue to be growing factor that anticorruption NGOs can potentially use when trying to pinpoint areas of corruption, especially as environmental regulations continue to have uneven development and application within different countries.

      • I also agree that your second point is fascinating. Similarly, one could consider the role of environmental degradation in the ongoing conflict in the Lake Chad Basin Region. Like in Syria, climate change/desertification has adversely impacted people’s likelihoods (income, employment, etc). A deeper dive into corruption as a potential driver may be worth examining.

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  5. Great post on an issue that grows more important every day. Interesting how the growth of corruption is ubiquitous in so many modern conflicts, as it takes power out of the hands of the people. Autopsies like these can help bring attention to, and circumvent other such scenarios before they happen.

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