Small Wars Journal

Beyond Half-Measures: Influencing Syria’s Political Order through Non-State Proxies

Mon, 05/23/2016 - 4:35am

Beyond Half-Measures: Influencing Syria’s Political Order through Non-State Proxies

Steve Ferenzi

Proxy selection in Syria will have a profound impact on the post-war political order: who wins, who loses, and how they govern. While the elimination of the Islamic State is the immediate objective, emphasis should be placed on prosecuting the war to achieve a political goal that addresses that order. In the absence of direct US military intervention or a commitment to engage in an internationally led state-building project, the most effective way to shape this order is to choose and resource a proxy (or proxies) that can feasibly deliver a political solution acceptable to the United States. US choice should be informed by not only a proxy’s capacity to employ violence, but also its ability to administer territory. Instead of assuming that the Syrian state will return to a centralized Leviathan holding a monopoly of force, deliberately employing proxies to establish segmented control and effectively administer territory within the structure of a cooperative wartime political order may create a system of violence management that paves the way to stability and positions the US to better exert regional influence.


Two questions should shape US conduct in Syria: “what should the post-war political order be?” and “what can the US do to shape that order?” US leadership remains determined not to commit the nation to another large-scale ground war in the Middle East and instead opts to outsource influence through Syrian rebels. A competition in state building defines the underlying dynamic of the Syrian conflict, so proxy selection has a critical impact on both the conduct of the war and the political order that emerges. US choices should be informed by not only a proxy’s capacity to employ violence, but also its ability to administer territory.

The Islamic State (ISIS) has implemented a model of comprehensive governance in their newly proclaimed “Caliphate” that is not unique among rebel groups. While the viability of its caliphate project is questionable, its ability to outbid its rivals in violent coercion and territorial administration requires a proxy force with a comparable political strategy to supplant its influence. This competition in state building will ensue with or without American involvement.

If the United States’ actual goal in Syria extends beyond simply disrupting or imposing costs on the Islamic State, it must select or build a proxy that can both fight and govern. The Islamic State’s ability to control territory and provide services will frustrate attempts that rely strictly on kinetic means such as armed guerrilla forces or air strikes to defeat it.  Even if ground actions and air strikes somehow succeed, the US will eventually have to deal with the power vacuum created by the Islamic State’s removal. The ruthless “primitive accumulation of violence” associated with state formation and the institutional “taming of violence”[1] necessary for successful state consolidation cannot be neglected.

This paper introduces the concept that the US may deliberately employ proxies to shape the post-civil war Syrian political order according to its interests. It examines the benefits and limitations of state formation theories that have direct relevance to this order and how non-state actors serving as proxies may contribute to this process. It begins with an examination of the modern, pre-war Syrian state to illuminate potential popular expectations of a future Syrian state, and it compares the current conflict to the Lebanese Civil War, particularly the role of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, to illustrate how proxy forces can shape the long-term political outcome of a civil war. A final examination of the “rebel governance” phenomenon places proxy employment and state formation into the necessary context to better inform efforts to defeat the Islamic State.

The Islamic State in Concept (Depiction by Jihadists Posted to Twitter, March 2014)[2]

The Islamic State in Practice (April 2016)[3]


On September 10, 2014, President Obama presented US campaign objectives against ISIS, stating the United States will “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISI(S) through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”[4] One component of this strategy was increased support to forces fighting ISIS on the ground in both Syria and Iraq. On September 18, Congress passed House Joint Resolution 124 authorizing a program to provide “training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment” to “appropriately vetted” Syrian groups in order to defend Syrians from ISIS, secure territory held by the Syrian opposition, protect the US and its allies from an attack by ISIS, and to promote “conditions for a negotiated settlement” for the Syrian civil war.[5] While labeled a “strategy,” this plan emphasized only destructive efforts to be applied against ISIS; it didn’t address what should come next: the desired political end state.

Within a year, only “four or five US-trained Syrian rebels remain(ed) on the battlefield,” racking up a $500 million price tag that was supposed to produce 5,000 fighters to combat ISIS.[6]  Most of the rebels were either killed, captured, or handed their US-provided equipment over to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.[7] Critics of the train-and-equip program emphasize the failure to develop Syrian underground and auxiliary capacity alongside the armed elements, a critical but often-ignored element of US Unconventional Warfare doctrine,[8] as well as the potential long-term negative second- and third-order effects of crisis escalation caused by proxy warfare.[9]

Despite the failure of the first effort and possible blowback from further proxy warfare, Washington claims to have learned its lessons and is beginning a less ambitious program to train more Syrian rebels[10] in conjunction with an expansion of 250 special operations forces on the ground in Syria.[11] Will this “proxy re-do” yield positive results or cause more embarrassment? By choosing to employ proxy forces, the US has inserted itself into Syrian politics, but only half-heartedly; it should do so with a full understanding of how to both achieve success against the Islamic State and set conditions for enduring regional US influence. The degree of internal rivalry and foreign penetration in Syria ensure that if the US invests in proxies but ignores the post-war political order, it will lose influence to regional actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and other non-state Islamist groups like Hezbollah[12] and al-Qaeda[13] that continue to claim more physical and political space in the fractured country as the war drags on.

The Modern Syrian State

A brief examination of the modern, pre-war Syrian state illuminates several points that may help inform policy prescriptions for a post-civil war Syria. First, a future Syrian state will be hard-pressed to create a new national identity capable of supplanting increasingly sharp sectarian divisions. Second, as the Syrian population was accustomed to significant welfare provision and public employment, popular expectations may require that a future state obtain significant external resources to provide similar public services, as well as to repair the extensive destruction wrought by the war itself.

The modern Syrian state was an artificial creation born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, comprised of citizens loyal to what Raymond Hinnesbusch describes as “sub- and supra-state identities.”[14] The relevant period of state development begins with the Ba’ath Party coup in 1963. Initially led by a regime representing a narrow base facing opposition across the social spectrum, its mix of socialism and Arab nationalism allowed the Ba’ath Party to build a constituency beyond the minority Alawi sect. Defeat by Israel in 1967 led to the rise of Hafiz al-Assad in 1970, after which he implemented a neo-patrimonial strategy that concentrated power in a presidency reinforced by the army and security forces under the command of his Alawi lieutenants. This patrimonial center was linked to Syrian society by “party-corporatist institutions” that cut across social and economic divides, becoming further reinforced by nationalist legitimacy resulting from the struggle with Israel.[15]

While resilient at the time, the regime’s greatest vulnerabilities included Alawi domination that provoked Sunni resentment, and socialist policies that provided populist benefits such as subsidized food and public sector jobs. Coupled with significant military expenditures, the regime ran a permanent fiscal deficit sustained only by support from the Gulf States and the Soviet Union. An economic crisis in the late 1980’s forced the regime to pursue private investment for economic growth, but pervasive distrust of the private sector forced an uneasy balance between old popular constituencies and a newly emerging bourgeois.[16]

Upon inheriting this fragile situation in 2000, Bashar al-Assad pursued a policy of “authoritarian upgrading”[17] in which he used state power to transfer state assets to reinforce his clients. Seeking to consolidate his personal power and legitimacy, Bashar purged the regime’s old guard, unwittingly reducing his capacity to control society. This policy enriched his clients and the regime while rapidly restricting its social base. As the public sector ceased providing employment and pensions, subsidies were cut to the poor, and investments in health, education, and social security were hindered by fiscal austerity. Bashar’s authoritarian upgrading sowed the seeds for revolution as he failed to foster a bourgeois party and rejected demands of the moderate opposition while simultaneously weakening Ba’athist penetration of society outside of the urban areas.[18]

This examination illuminates several points that may help inform policy prescriptions for a post-civil war Syria. First, its sectarian divisions were only mitigated by an overarching state ideology that emphasized social welfare distribution and Arab nationalism in opposition to Israel. Without comparable sources of legitimacy, a future Syrian state will be hard-pressed to create a new national identity capable of supplanting increasingly sharp sectarian divisions.

Second, as the Syrian population was accustomed to significant welfare provision and public employment, expectations may require that a future state obtain sufficient resources to provide similar public services. Without abundant natural resources or private investment, and a national economy shattered by war, the new Syrian state will have to acquire much of these resources from external patrons. Furthermore, the standard Western package of economic aid, state building, and privatization are unlikely to work; these pressures played an unwitting role in the recent collapse of Syria under Bashar al-Assad. Overall, this poses significant challenges for a future Syrian state in attaining popular legitimacy and managing internal divisions.

State Formation in Theory

The Syrian Humpty Dumpty – Putting the Pieces Back Together?

Syria continues to fracture as the war grinds on, and destruction and dislocation physically redistribute its population internally and amongst its neighbors in refugee camps. The war has also sharply polarized sectarian divisions to the point where it may be helpful to think of the Syrian state as Humpty Dumpty, unable to be put back together as it existed before. The “Humpty Dumpty effect” in this context has parallels in ecological science concerning the inability of disintegrated communities to reconstitute themselves.[19] The process by which the previous Syrian state formed is reflected in various theories of state formation that bear directly on the current iteration playing out now. Examining these rival theories of state formation will help us understand how US proxies and their opponents might deal with the Syrian Humpty Dumpty to achieve their political objectives.

Coercion and Capital

Most definitions of statehood focus on the ability of a government to maintain a monopoly of violence within its jurisdiction,[20] and sovereignty granted by internationally recognized borders.[21] For others, a state is merely one of many actors within society and may not hold a monopoly of force.[22] More important is the relationship between coercion and capital that leads to any such state. This is the underlying process that plays a distinct role in how states have formed regardless of their specific temporal, geographical, and social characteristics. 

The state’s pursuit of power involves the extraction of resources, a process characterized as “coercive exploitation.” Charles Tilly likens the European state formation experience to organized crime in that governments organize a “protection racket” by creating threats and then charging for their reduction.[23] State formation was an iterative process by which the drive to wage war to acquire land necessitated increasing capital inputs. To optimize output that could then be extracted for war-making, rulers created institution to direct coercion and capital accumulation. As the means of coercion became concentrated, the elimination of intermediaries and opponents enabled direct rule between elites and their subjects. This accumulation of “organizational residue” was the birth of the state, the unintended result of resource extraction by elites and the corresponding bargaining over rights and responsibilities with their subjects.[24]

Taxation is a measure of state power according to this model,[25] serving as a critical component of what Western theories call the social contract between a state and its citizens: the consent of individuals to surrender some of their rights to state authority in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights. Revenue extraction through taxation allows citizens to bargain with the state over such rights.

Contemporary state formation in the Middle East, by contrast, was characterized by rentierism,[26] the acquisition of income through political and economic manipulation. The availability of rents in the form of oil wealth allows states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates to distribute welfare to their citizenry via patronage networks without requiring taxation.[27] Jordan is similar in that it utilizes “strategic rent,” or revenue from foreign aid, to sustain its patronage politics and welfare provision. Hafiz al-Assad relied heavily on external rents from the Soviet Union and the Gulf States to fund his patronage networks. This “capital without coercion” model provides for a social contract that substitutes economic welfare for political rights.[28]

The Role of Violence in Modern State Formation

If violence was a key ingredient that enabled the extraction-coercion cycle to produce successful European statehood, what is the role of violence in modern state formation? Antonio Giustozzi writes “state-making is not possible in the absence of extreme coercion and violence,” not only against enemies, but also “within the very coalition which emerges to lead the new state.”[29] While history demonstrates that the “primitive accumulation of coercive power” was ruthlessly violent,[30] the contemporary Middle Eastern experience also shows that coercion can be more simply interpreted as efforts to change behavior by manipulating costs and benefits. In cases where states have significant access to external rents, benefits such as welfare distribution and public service provision can easily supplement or supplant the role of violent coercion. Both patronage and violent coercion have critical influence over post-revolutionary state formation in determining how power is consolidated.

Managing center-periphery relations is a critical component of establishing order in a system composed of multiple power brokers. Afghan state development offers the “warlord as bureaucrat” model that rejects the notion that warlords should always be framed as “spoilers,”[31] and instead conceives of them as “constructive participants” in modern state formation under certain conditions.[32] This concept derives from the indirect rule that Charles Tilly observed in the process of European state formation: reliance on “local magnates” that “collaborated with the government without becoming officials.”[33]

In states characterized by the inability of a weak center to assert itself on the periphery, coopting subnational strongmen to serve as governing partners may represent a mutually advantageous situation whereby the strongman leverages his own assets to maintain order on behalf of the center while obtaining support to consolidate his power at the local level.[34], [35] This model bears directly on the situation in Syria where the post-war order will require a balance of power between Damascus and a periphery characterized by a surplus of armed groups with varying ideologies and resource capacities. The question is: will subnational strongmen be constructive, destructive, or both, in the emergent political order? The short-term reality will force some measure of accommodation to achieve stability, but proxy selection directly impacts who these potential strongmen are and how much influence the US will have over them.

The relationship between revolutionary violence and state formation is also especially relevant in the wake of the Islamic State’s ongoing attempts to establish its proclaimed caliphate and the consolidation of state power that must occur after the Syrian war ends. Following a revolution, it is often assumed that a “reign of terror” will be a necessary stage required for regime consolidation.”[36] The Islamic State is conducting a brutal campaign now to consolidate its control, and given the degree of sectarian polarization in the Syrian war, some level of “terror” will likely occur afterwards as the winning factions attempt to consolidate their control. Returning to Giustozzi’s observation that ruthless violence often occurs within the coalition that emerges to lead the new state, this becomes a double-edged sword; such violence will likely be necessary to achieve the level of power necessary to impose order, but proxies engaging in such activity tend to cause political embarrassment for democratic patrons.

The Lebanese Civil War – the Past as Prologue?

Non-State Governance in the Lebanese Civil War

The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) offers a useful analogy for how non-state violent actors might consolidate territory and administer alternative governance within the context of a civil war. Even more significant is the success of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, in filling the gap of local governance for its constituent population, serving as a military asset for both Iran and Syria in pursuit of their national objectives, and its eventual official incorporation into the Lebanese state as both a political party and subnational government.

Over one hundred armed groups participated at some point in the civil war, but only twelve remained at the end. Of these, four armed political parties (APP’s)[37] successfully established complex institutions and administrative control over defined territorial enclaves within Lebanon. These included the Shiite Hezbollah, the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF), the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), and the Sunni Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).[38]

Despite the vast ideological spectrum represented by the Lebanese APPs, they all converged on institutional priorities that compensated for the state’s lack of law and order and public welfare provision. These institutions were established in priority corresponding to Rotberg’s hierarchy of political goods.[39] The first institutions were directed at policing their own fighters and providing for their welfare. Growing from the need to feed, provide for, and house the fighters and their families, expansive welfare and social service institutions spread to the entire population within their jurisdiction. Governance institutions developed as social service provision and policing required an apparatus to administer revenue collection, service delivery, and law enforcement. Finally, cultural institutions were created to foster a political identity separate from the Lebanese state.[40]

This process was defined by the relationship between coercion and capital. While all the APPs taxed to varying degrees, they were mostly reliant on external funding.[41] As their means of coercion became concentrated, the Lebanese APP’s developed administrative mechanisms to optimize their capacity for violence. This accumulation of organizational residue resulted in state-like enclaves effectively out-governing the central Lebanese government.

Hezbollah as a Proxy

An examination of Hezbollah is useful because it demonstrates Iran’s successful use of a proxy to build an alternative ideologically compatible state within Lebanon, and both al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State have adopted a variant of its methodology. As a proxy, Hezbollah has historically served three distinct strategic goals of its sponsors:[42] a means of coercion for Syria to regain the Golan Heights annexed by Israel in 1967;[43] a mechanism for both Syria and Iran to disrupt Israel and Lebanon’s internal politics; and an avenue for Iran to engineer a major social transformation within Lebanon. Iran’s successful employment of Hezbollah was due to its ability to choose the right proxy and then control its actions[44] by leveraging aid, ideology, military training, material support, and embedded advisors.[45]

Following Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, its Shia leadership adopted a policy of “exporting the Revolution” by empowering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to support Islamic revolutions throughout the region. While unsuccessful in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, and Kuwait, Iran found a willing partner in Lebanon’s Shia community. The IRGC-QF facilitated the breakaway of an Islamist faction of Amal (Afwaj al-Muquwamah al-Lubnaniyah), a party founded prior to the civil war with the objectives of resisting Israeli occupation and improving the lives of Lebanese Shia. This faction became known as Hezbollah in 1982, prioritizing Islamic militancy over nationalist concerns and accepting guidance from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.[46]

By encouraging the schism within Amal, Iran was able to form Hezbollah into a group that exhibited significant ideological overlap between sponsor and proxy, a key component in mitigating adverse selection. Direct support then followed in the form of mentorship to develop Hezbollah’s military structure, establishment of newspapers, televisions, and radio stations to disseminate its propaganda, and specialized training for its elite forces in Iran.[47]

Iran cemented its control by embedding advisors that allowed Iranian oversight of Hezbollah’s activities. Thousands of IRQC-GF members[48] not only trained Hezbollah fighters, but also directly supervised its use of advanced weaponry provided by Iran to strike Israel, including long-range rockets. Furthermore, both Iranian diplomats and IRGC-QF members served on the Majlis al-Shura, Hezbollah’s decision-making body, providing a direct mechanism to ensure that Iran’s expectations were clearly understood and met.[49]

Hezbollah as a State-Builder

The Hezbollah case may be considered a model for successful management of a proxy group, but it also illustrates the extent to which proxy engagement can be a joint venture in state building. Founded on the principle of “Velayat-e Faqih,” or “guardianship of the jurisprudent,” Iran utilized Hezbollah to project its revolutionary principles into Syria.[50] However, Hezbollah became state-builders in their own right as they balanced a requirement to replicate the Iranian system with the hard realities they confronted in the Lebanese Civil War.

Returning to Rotberg’s hierarchy of public goods, Hezbollah was able to establish security by virtue of its capabilities as an effective armed group. As Hezbollah’s fighters were considerably well-paid, predatory behavior was less of an issue than for other Lebanese APPs. Therefore, its first priority was to establish a judicial system to mediate intra-communal disputes, particularly blood feuds, as they were the primary threat to social order.[51]

Hezbollah is renowned for its vast social service network. Expanding from its initial core of fighters and their families, its service provision strategy focuses on financial aid for families in distress, medical care, and education.[52] The Reconstruction Campaign (Jihad al-Bina’) rebuilt almost 11,000 units destroyed during the war. The Islamic Health Organization, consisting of two hospitals, 17 medical centers, pharmacies, and dental clinics, benefited an average of 400,000 annual patients while providing free or heavily subsidized service for martyrs and needy families.[53] The Educational Unit provided education and indoctrination through both secular and Islamic institutions. While Hezbollah’s initial educational investments served as a mechanism for recruitment and dissemination of its Islamic message, it was eventually responsible for the formal education of more than 68,000 elementary school students and 91,000 secondary and post-secondary school students.[54] Hezbollah concurrently engaged in scholarly professionalization through higher education and research institutions such as the Institution of Islamic Education and Socialization and the Consultative Centre for Studies and Documentation.[55] While incorporating existing NGOs and civil society social service organizations under an umbrella Islamic network, it also dispersed 7,500 small loans a year, surpassing all NGOs operating in Lebanon.[56]

Finally, Hezbollah expended considerable effort to create a Lebanese Shia culture and identity distinct from the state. This strategy pursued two tracks focusing on traditional networks such as mosques, religious centers, and informal education systems, and a mass media campaign utilizing radio, television, and print media. The first consisted of traditional da’wa (proselytizing) as well as youth brigades and scout troops that combined propaganda, Islamist indoctrination, and competitive sports.[57] Its media channels included the Voice of the Dispossessed radio station, Al-’Ahad newspaper, and al-Manar television station among many others.

All together these activities illustrate Hezbollah’s evolution from an Iranian military proxy to a full proto-state with its own identity and capacity for law and order and social service provision. Hezbollah also simultaneously exists within the confessional framework of Lebanon’s official government. After winning eight parliamentary seats out of 128 total in 1992’s national elections, it has continually expanded its political power and now serves alongside various other Lebanese political parties within the March 8 Alliance.[58]

Hezbollah’s experience reflects Tilly’s observations that the process of optimizing the capacity to project violence creates an accumulation of organizational residue resulting in a state-like structure, but it also represents a departure from Tilly’s emphasis on resource extraction via taxation. Although accruing revenue through religious tithes, fees generated by controlling the transit of people and goods, and legitimate business activities, a large portion of its funding was provided by Iran, placing Hezbollah in the “rentier state” camp similar to the other Middle Eastern states discussed previously. Hezbollah received about $100 million annually from Iran during the civil war and continues to receive up to $200 million annually today, [59] accounting for 20 to 40% of their annual operating budget.[60] The Syrian civil war and sanctions against Iran have negatively impacted their funding, but the existence of independent alternative revenue streams such as a global arms and narco-trafficking network, and donations from the Lebanese diaspora community have prevented Hezbollah from experiencing a significant financial crisis.[61]

Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Hezbollah Model, and Rebel Governance

Contrary to popular perceptions, al-Qaeda and ISIS have always been state builders. Although discussion today often focuses on how much of a “state” the Islamic State actually is,[62] AQ affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have also been in the business of governing territory for quite some time. Al-Qaeda has always set its sights on the reestablishment of the caliphate in the long-term despite its primary role as the vanguard of a broader jihadist movement. Its methodology does not support AQ itself becoming the caliphate, but rather it serves in an assisting role for a caliphate that will materialize in the future.[63] However, organizational shifts in directives by affiliate leadership illustrates a desire to adopt a state-building approach similar to Hezbollah to capitalize on conditions of state weakness and failure in the Middle East.

In 2004 Abu Bakr Naji published a treatise entitled “The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass.” It provided a playbook for how to manipulate state collapse and establish a new political system from the ashes.[64] He specifically addressed the need for administrative cadre to manage the chaos resulting from “vexation and exhaustion” operations and eventually transition to “establishing the state,” [65] a process analogous to Mao Zedong’s theory of protracted war that secured communist victory in China. While not explicitly calling for a Hezbollah-style administration, this represents a significant shift from strictly supporting sharia law enforcement to accepting that basic life necessities must be addressed in the territory under their control. Among the several requirements for successfully managing the savagery, he lists: “spreading internal security; providing food and medical treatment, securing the region of savagery from the invasions of enemies, establishing Sharia justice among the people.”[66] The Islamic State adopted Naji’s blueprint for their caliphate project along with the label of an actual state.[67]

Ansar al-Sharia (AAS), the alias for AQAP, attempted to convince Osama bin Laden to pursue this course prior to his death, but bin Laden rejected the premature establishment of an Islamic state due to their perceived inability to provide for their subjects’ needs.[68] While rebuffed, AAS nevertheless adopted Naji’s blueprint and successfully governed parts of Yemen’s Abyan and Shabwa provinces for some time by creating a police force to administer security, directing education, distributing food aid, providing water and electricity delivery and sewage management, and administering markets.[69] Former AAS emir and personal secretary of Osama bin Laden, Nasser al-Wuhaysi aka Abu Basir, wrote a letter to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Abu Musab Abdul Wadud in May 2012, advising him on how to replicate AAS’ successes for Mali in winning people over through taking care of their daily needs.[70]

Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, articulated this approach in a speech delivered in January 2013, emphasizing the need to provide basic services, security, and dispute resolution in order to take advantage of the power vacuum caused by the war. [71] JN even flirted with announcing an “emirate” in Syria[72] to provide rhetorical support to its governance structures on the ground, the “soft power” approach complementing its military capabilities.[73] While JN emphasized social integration and gaining popular acceptance prior to establishing overt territorial control, the Islamic State explicitly declared the existence of their new state, the reestablished Caliphate, encompassing parts of both Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State’s administrative capacity to govern both rural and urban territory exceeds anything offered by their rival Sunni groups, building “a holistic system of governance that includes religious, educational, judicial, security, humanitarian, and infrastructure projects.”[74] Not only are they attempting to physically govern a state, but similar to Hezbollah’s Shiite ideological project, they are engaged in a comprehensive effort to recreate a Sunni identity within the Caliphate framework based on their understanding of Islamic theology.[75]

Also paralleling Hezbollah is their dependence on rents to fund their operations. Before the US began targeting the Islamic State’s finances, it accrued revenue ranging from $1 million[76] to $6 million[77] a day from “cash, crude oil, and contraband.”[78] The estimated eight million people living in the territories under ISIS control[79] exceeds Hezbollah’s constituency of 1.7 million Lebanese Shia,[80] but its larger revenue stream may compensate for the scale shift. While fluid, the Islamic State has control or significant influence over six provinces including Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Salahuddin, Diyala, Anbar, and Nineveh. The combined annual budget for the Iraqi provinces alone is $2.6 billion. With a total annual revenue of approximately $1.5 billion, the Caliphate’s long-term economic viability is questionable.[81] Easy access to illicit funding facilitates the rapid implementation of ISIS’ administrative and social service programs, but rent dependence has implications not only for ISIS, but for all of the rebel groups competing in social service provision. Put into perspective, Hezbollah’s Social Service Section alone accounts for up to 50% of its operating budget.[82]

Why This Matters – A Vignette from Aleppo

The practical implications and hurdles of non-state governance and public service provision to counter the Islamic State are demonstrated by civilian efforts to reconstruct Aleppo’s administrative system from the bottom-up. [83] Following the departure of regime forces in August 2012, civilian activists that had organized daily protests began to participate in the city’s management. As the city’s access to running water and electricity were cut off and schools and hospitals were targeted by regime bombings, local councils (majlis mahali) were established in each neighborhood to maintain minimal public services.

The Syrian National Coalition attempted to simultaneously create top-down civil coordination at the governorate and municipalities levels, particularly in the form of the Governorate Revolutionary Transitory Council. However, hostility arose between the local councils and external activists, with the former questioning the legitimacy of resistance elements residing outside of Syria, and the latter accusing the local councils of incompetence and conservatism. The result was that external aid rarely reached the local councils, preventing an expansion of services and creating gaps that jihadist groups such as the Islamic State could exploit with their own administration.

Effective administrative capacity and significant funding streams are prerequisites for holding rebel urban centers or securing those already penetrated by the Islamic State’s administration. Indigenous human capital such as the local councils described in Raqqa exist elsewhere and are partnering with moderate rebel forces, Kurdish forces, the Islamic State, and the Assad regime. Administrators who don’t flee the country typically work with whoever is in charge.[84]

Two possible solutions exist to take advantage of this in the short term. One is to bypass the external superstructure and provide block grants directly to groups in the interior. Wealthy donors such as the Gulf States may facilitate such funding. A second option is to link local efforts with competent NGO’s. The US could function as a convener and coordinator by establishing the initial partnerships and then synchronizing their efforts throughout the country. This overall approach is not without drawbacks however. It must be kept in mind that external provision of support to any such elements will invariably become linked with local power dynamics that may or may not support overall campaign objectives.[85]

Rebel Governance – Excludability and the Limits of Replication

The events unfolding in Syria are part of a broader phenomenon known as “rebel governance.” This term refers to “the development of institutions and practices of rule to regulate the social and political life of civilians by armed groups.”[86] The question is whether to understand the Hezbollah/Islamic State model of public goods distribution as a tool of legitimate political construction, or contingent patronage? While patronage may be a destructive force contributing to political instability and corruption in mature states, it may also serve as a constructive force that allows weak governments to achieve the minimum level of stable control. Furthermore can these techniques be effectively replicated through a proxy? It is helpful to examine the concepts of patronage and the excludability of public goods.

Returning to Charles Tilly’s observation that state-making is akin to organized crime,[87] the style of rebel governance implemented by the Islamic State is characteristic of a “limited access order” in which a ruling coalition limits access to and control of valuable resources such as land, labor, and capital, or valuable activities such as trade, worship, and education.[88] The Islamic State is relatively adept at providing services and security, but only to a narrow base that enjoys its full benefits. Failure to reciprocate by complying with its harsh sharia proscriptions draws sanctions ranging from whippings to public beheadings and crucifixions.[89] In this case, the Islamic State can be conceived as a “club” based on cooperative membership arrangements and excludability.[90] Disagreement over the optimal club size was a decisive factor driving the original split between AQ and ISIS; AQ supported a broad popular base to attain legitimacy, while ISIS rejected their efforts to “run after the bandwagon of the majority” while softening “their stance at the expense of the religion.”[91]

The primary challenge for a club then is to determine the optimal membership margin, or “the size of the most desirable cost and consumption-sharing arrangement.”[92] Provision of public services and security may be viewed as patronage dispensed to the desperate Syrian populace in order to elicit active or passive support for the caliphate.[93] However, durability of patronage structures is dependent on the capacity of the patron-client ties to promote cooperation between non-kin.[94] The Islamic State’s policy of maximum exclusion places it at a disadvantage with respect to JN, especially since its oppressive policies drive away members of the professional classes that it depends on to provide services.[95] But as the size of the club increases, the problem of free-riding will arise as individuals will attempt to secure benefits without becoming fully contributing members.[96] In JN’s case, this poses the danger that their jihadist credentials will become diluted to the point where reality reflects the Islamic State’s accusations.

More relevant is how the theory of clubs applies to the employment of proxy forces to counter the Islamic State’s administration and social service provision. An inherent tension exists between the short-term need to replicate this patronage mechanism in order to undercut ISIS influence, and the long-term requirement for a basic level of effective state institutions. As contractual arrangements and institutional guarantees grow, patronage reciprocity decreases, [97] demonstrating a tradeoff between immediate gratification to establish order and long-term stability.

This returns the discussion to the role of coercion and capital. As demonstrated in Aleppo, lack of funding prevented civil society groups from expanding service provision, leaving well-funded jihadist groups to exploit the gap with their own administration. Assuming that a proxy force will even have the necessary human capital to effectively administer, it will still require significant external funding to implement is policies. Though the unique conditions surrounding Hezbollah’s success may prevent wholesale replication of its governing model, its ability to rapidly disburse aid during crises and its ability to integrate strategic messaging with its social service provision offer useful lessons to consider.[98] However, public goods and services may not elicit the anticipated goodwill if the proxies become exclusionary clubs. Rebel groups that emerge with the support of an external patron tend to commit high levels of indiscriminate violence compared to those that emerge in resource-poor environments,[99] placing the patron in a dilemma that forces it balance proxy control, effectiveness, and the risk of blowback.

The answers to three critical issues are central to proxy selection and employment in this capacity. The first concerns the level of funding necessary to resource such a capability. A useful starting point is the baseline budgets for the provinces that the Islamic State controls. As discussed above, the combined annual budget for the Iraqi provinces that the Islamic State currently has majority control over is $2.6 billion. This does not include money that will be necessary for reconstruction, but the total cost can be scaled up or down depending on the desired footprint of rebel control and the scope of services provided.

The next question concerns who distributes the funds. As discussed in the Raqqa vignette, block grants may be provided directly from the international community to rebel groups administering territory, or NGO’s can assume the primary interface role. The Gulf States may be ideal donors, but outsourcing the funding to intermediaries will drastically increase their influence at the expense of the US. NGOs may serve a more neutral role to facilitate legitimacy and would likely provide more efficient service delivery compared to a simple monetary transfer to rebel groups. This would reduce the financial burden born by the US, but it would also reduce its influence. A likely scenario may involve a hybrid approach that incorporates multiple relevant actors to varying degrees.

Finally, how is the distribution of goods and services used to cement control? David Kilcullen’s theory of competitive control provides insight into this question: “populations respond to a predictable, ordered, normative system that tells them exactly what they need to do, and not do, in order to be safe.” The armed actor that a population perceives to be most capable of establishing this normative system is the one most likely to dominate.[100] Recent experience in Afghanistan demonstrates that the provision of public goods by itself, specifically aid projects designed to win “hearts and minds,” does not necessarily engender goodwill and support.[101] Instead, the provision of goods and services in conjunction with armed force functions as a “fish trap” that locks the population into a set of incentives and disincentives from which it is difficult to escape.[102] This is similar to the approach pursued by Mao Zedong during the Chinese Revolution in his quest to create a communist China.[103] The proper mix of carrots and sticks determines the degree to which the armed actor can cement control. The challenge is how to make a new system just good enough to supplant that of the Islamic State, and if successful, how to sustain it in the long term.

An Acceptable Political Order?

This discussion began with an emphasis on utilizing a proxy force to shape the emergent Syrian political order. Instead of assuming that the Syrian state will return to a Leviathan holding a centralized monopoly of violence, it may be helpful to conceptualize a number of outcomes that exist within a spectrum of what Paul Staniland calls “wartime political orders.” This formulation rests on the assumption that the management of violence and indirect rule are more feasible and may result in more stability than attempting to impose a centralized, violence-monopolizing state on the periphery.[104]

Wartime political orders are a function of state-insurgent cooperation, ranging from active to nonexistent, and the distribution of territorial control, which can be segmented or fragmented. In shared sovereignty, multiple power blocs with bounded control over specified territory actively cooperate with each other. The opposite end of the spectrum is characterized by guerrilla disorder where fragmented actors impose costs on each other without clear norms or rules. Between the two extremes are a number of arrangements defined by passive cooperation between actors.[105]

This framework is instructive for Syria as the war continues to fracture the population and armed groups into a situation of segmented territorial control. Deliberately choosing proxies to establish segmented control and effectively administer their territory within the structure of a cooperative wartime political order may create a system of violence management that paves the way to stability.[106] This may result in a long-term de facto arrangement of internal partitions, or it may lead to more of a unified “mediated state” where a weak central government in Damascus relies on local authorities to execute core state functions on the periphery.[107] In either situation, the US would be positioned to exert more influence than if it chooses to engage in ad hoc proxy warfare without consideration for the resultant political order.


Effectively influencing Syria’s post-civil war political order via proxy requires a granular understanding of how states form and the mechanisms available to cement political control. Academic literature emphasizes the interaction between coercion and capital as the underlying driver of state formation. The dynamic contestation for power within a state and the ideology that frames it contextualizes the role of both violence and service provision in achieving a balance of coercive and persuasive manipulation. The source of capital that funds this defines the relationship between the state and its subjects: resource extraction via taxation creates a social contract founded on bargaining between parties for rights and responsibilities, while reliance on external rents creates weak state-society bonds substituting economic welfare for political rights.

Hezbollah and the Islamic State clearly demonstrate how non-state actors construct state-like entities through violence and service provision. Despite the hurdles inherent in creating a multi-faceted proxy, the US must choose a proxy that can both fight and govern if it wants to shape the post-civil war political order. To defeat or roll back the Islamic State, the US must address its strategy of melding relatively effective administration with popular perceptions of Sunni disenfranchisement and residual expectations nurtured by the Ba’athist welfare state. While the ability of militant groups to act like a state is hardly new, the Islamic State’s capacity to control territory and provide services will frustrate any attempts relying strictly on kinetic means to defeat it. Even if military engagements are successful, these forces will eventually have to contend with the power vacuum created by its removal.

The fracturing of Syria and the rise of the Islamic State force a reexamination of the assumptions that underpin Western concepts of statehood. A system of violence management through indirect rule may be more feasible and may result in more stability than attempting to impose a centralized, violence-monopolizing state on the periphery. Deliberately choosing proxies to establish segmented control and effectively administer their territory within the structure of a cooperative wartime political order may create a system of violence management that paves the way to stability and positions the US to better exert regional influence. This has larger implications for policy beyond Syria, including places such as Libya[108] and Yemen[109] where similar conditions exist due to state collapse and jihadist penetration that adversely impact US national interests.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Special thanks to CPT Seth Loertscher from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point for his contributions to this paper.

End Notes

[1] Antonio Giustozzi, The Art of Coercion: The Primitive Accumulation and Management of Coercive Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 227-228.

[2] Jessica Lewis, “The Islamic State of Iraq Returns To Diyala,” Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Security Report 18 (May 2014),

[3] Note: this does not include the Islamic State’s territorial expansion outside of the Levant. “ISIS Sanctuary,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2016,

[4] Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on ISIS,” Speech, Washington D.C., September 10, 2014.  

[5] House Joint Resolution 124: Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2015, 113th Congress (2013–2015),

[6] Lolita C. Baldor and Deb Riechmann, “General Only Handful of Syrian Fighters Remain in Battle,” Associated Press, September 16, 2015,

[7] Thomas Joscelyn, “US-backed rebels handed over equipment to al Qaeda in Syria,” The Long War Journal, September 26, 2015,

[8] David Maxwell, “Why the New Syrian Army Failed: Washington and Unconventional Warfare,” War on the Rocks, August 17, 2015,

[9] Erica Borghard, “Making Sense of a Syrian Proxy War Gone Amok,” The National Interest, October 26, 2015,

[10] Paul Mcleary, “The Pentagon Wasted $500 Million Training Syrian Rebels. It’s About to Try Again,” Foreign Policy, March 18, 2016,

[11] Barbara Starr and Kevin Liptack, “Obama announces an additional 250 special operations forces to Syria,” CNN, April 25, 2016,

[12] James Larkin, “A Hundred Tiny Hezbollahs,” Foreign Policy, May 15, 2016,

[13] Thomas Joscelyn, “Ayman al Zawahiri discusses al Qaeda’s goal of building an Islamic emirate in Syria,” The Long War Journal, May 8, 2016,

[14] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Syria: from ‘Authoritarian Upgrading’ to Revolution?” International Affairs 88, no. 1 (2012): 96.

[15] Ibid, 96-97.

[16] Ibid, 96-98.

[17] Ibid, 95.

[18] Ibid, 99-106.

[19] The Humpty Dumpty effect is used in ecological science to characterize a community exhibiting exploitative and apparent competition that “cannot be assembled by sequential invasions of its constituence.” Sebastian J. Schreiber and Seth Rittenhouse, “From simple rules to cycling in community assembly,” Oikos 105, no. 2 (2004): 355; the term is also used to describe a community that lacks a reassembly path, or “an assembly sequence of its subcommunities leading back to the full community.” Richard Law and R. Daniel Morton, “Permanence and the Assembly of Ecological Communities,” Ecology 77, no. 3 (1996): 768.

[20] Max Weber provides the classical definition of an empirical state as “a corporate group that has compulsory jurisdiction, exercises continuous organization, and claims a monopoly of force over a territory and its population.” Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rosberg, “Why Africa's Weak States Persist: The Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood,” World Politics 35, no. 1 (1982): 2.

[21] This is considered “juridical statehood.” The existence of states that cannot effectively claim to hold a monopoly of force or deliver the most basic services throughout their jurisdictions call into question the qualifications of empirical statehood stressed by Weber. Ibid, 12.

[22] This concept is known as “dispersed domination,” or the “state in society,” in which neither the state nor any other social force is able to achieve domination. Joel S. Migdal, “The State in Society: an Approach to Struggles for Domination,” in State Power and Social Forces – Domination and Transformation in the Third World,  eds. Joel S. Migdal, Atul Kohli, and Vivienne Shue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 9.

[23] Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, eds. Peter B. Evans, Peter B. Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169, 171.

[24] Ibid, 181-83.

[25] Youssef Cohen, Brian R. Brown, and A.F.K. Organski, “The Paradoxical Nature of State Making: The Violent Creation of Order,” American Political Science Review 75, no. 4: 905; Rolf Schwartz, “Does War Make State? Rentierism and the Formation of States in the Middle East,” European Political Science Review 3, no. 3 (2011): 420.

[26] Latin American state development similarly pursued divergent paths from the European experience. Following independence, Latin American states relied on customs and royalties from primary goods exportation and financed wars by printing money and borrowing from abroad, a process described as “blood and debt.” Miguel Centeno, “Blood and Debt: War and Taxation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America,” American Journal of Sociology 102, no. 6: 1569-1599.

[27] Schwartz, “Does War Make State?” 419.

[28] Ibid, 434.

[29] Giustozzi, The Art of Coercion, 42.

[30] Ibid, 10.

[31] “Warlord politics” in Africa is commonly perceived as indicative of state failure. Following the withdrawal of superpower patronage in the Cold War, many African rulers eliminated state bureaucracy, rejected pursuit of a broad public interest, and militarized commerce to serve personal material interests and maximize autonomy. William Reno, Warlord Politics and African States (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), 218-220.

[32] Dipali Mukhopadhyay, Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 4-5.

[33] Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” 174.

[34] Mukhopadhyay, Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan, 3.

[35] Colombia offers a similar situation where state formation and modernization have occurred simultaneously without the state obtaining a monopoly of violence in peripheral areas. The state has entered into a symbiotic relationship with non-state armed actors such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) that use coercion to secure votes in favor of politicians with preferences similar to theirs, while those politicians support legislation and policy that the paramilitaries prefer. In such cases where non-state armed actors don’t directly threaten the existence of the state, politicians with support of these groups have less incentive to eliminate them, leading to an equilibrium where the central government willingly accepts the absence of a full monopoly of violence. Daren Acemoglu, James A. Robinson, and Rafael J. Santos, “The Monopoly of Violence: Evidence from Colombia” (May 2010), 2, 37.

[36] In the case of the French Revolution, there were 17,000 official victims of the “Terror.” Similarly, the overthrow of the Iranian Shah in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution resulted in summary trials and executions until the Islamic Republic was finally consolidated in 1984. Rosemary H. T. O’Kane, “Post-revolutionary State Building in Ethiopia, Iran and Nicaragua: Lessons from Terror,” Political Studies 48 (2000): 972, 974-976.

[37] To distinguish between the various types of non-state violent actors, the term “armed political party” is used to denote a group with both a political goal and a military command structure. Anne Marie Baylouny, “Born violent: Armed political parties and non-state governance in Lebanon's civil war,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 25, no. 2 (2014): 331.

[38] Ibid, 333.

[39] Robert Rotberg defines governance as “the delivery of political goods to citizens.” These include “security and safety, rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development.” “Governance and Leadership in Africa: Measures, Methods and Results,” Journal of International Affairs 62, no. 2 (2009): 113.

[40] Baylouny, “Born violent,” 335-337.

[41] Ibid, 334.

[42] Geraint Alun Hughes, “Syria and the perils of proxy warfare,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 25, no. 3 (2014): 523-524.

[43] Syria played a direct role in facilitating Hezbollah’s creation by allowing the IRGC to utilize Lebanon as a base to provide training, logistical, and operational support for its activities.  Today, Hezbollah’s role as a Syrian client has been drastically reduced, but it was originally exploited by Hafiz al-Assad to improve Damascus’ negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel, and then again by Bashar to maintain influence over Lebanon after Syria’s forced withdrawal in 2005. Emile El-Hokayem, “Hizballah and Syria: Outgrowing the Proxy Relationship,” The Washington Quarterly 30, no. 2 (2007): 35, 38, 43.

[44] These are the fundamental issues addressed by Principal-Agent theory: “adverse selection” and “agency slack.” David A. Patten, “Taking advantage of insurgencies: effective policies of state-sponsorship,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 24, no. 5 (2013): 885.

[45] Ibid, 885.

[46] Ibid, 887-889.

[47] Ibid, 889-891.

[48] In July 1982, Iran dispatched 5,000 IRGC-QF members to Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, reducing the number to 1,500 once the region was considered secure. Marc R. DeVore and Armin B. Stähli, “Explaining Hezbollah's Effectiveness: Internal and External Determinants of the Rise of Violent Non-State Actors,” Terrorism and Political Violence 0 (2014): 11.

[49] Patten, “Taking advantage of insurgencies,” 893.

[50] Ibid, 888.

[51] Baylouny, “Born violent,” 338.

[52] Eitan Azani, “The Hybrid Terrorist Organization: Hezbollah as a Case Study,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36, no. 11 (2013): 904-905.

[53] Ibid, 905; Baylouny, “Born violent,” 340.

[54] Azani, “The Hybrid Terrorist Organization: Hezbollah as a Case Study,” 905.

[55] Baylouny, “Born violent,” 343.

[56] Ibid, 340-341.

[57] Azani, “The Hybrid Terrorist Organization: Hezbollah as a Case Study,” 905.

[58] Jonathan Masters and Zachary Laub, “Hezbollah (a.k.a Hizbollah, Hizbullah),” Council on Foreign Relations,

[59] Ibid.

[60] Exact figures are unknown, but it is estimated that Hezbollah has an annual operating budget between $500 million and $1 billion. James B. Love, “Hezbollah: Social Services as a Source of Power,” Joint Special Operations University, Report 10-5 (June 2010): 45.

[61] Oren Kessler and Rupert Sutton, “Hezbollah Threatened by Iran’s Financial Woes,” World Affairs Journal,

[62] For example, see Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool,” New York Times, July 21, 2015,; Mike Pietrucha, “Treating the Islamic State as a State,” War on the Rocks, March 3, 2016,

[63] Bryan Price, Dan Milton, Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, and Nelly Lahoud, “The Group That Calls Itself a State: Understanding the Evolution and Challenges of the Islamic State,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (December 16, 2014), 3,

[64] Jarret M. Brachman and William F. McCants, “Stealing Al-Qa’ida’s Playbook,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (February 2006),

[65] Abu Bakr Naji, “The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass,” translated by William McCants (May 2006), 36,

[66] Ibid, 27-28.

[67] Michael W. S. Ryan, “Hot Issue: Dabiq: What Islamic State’s New Magazine Tells Us about Their Strategic Direction, Recruitment Patterns and Guerrilla Doctrine,” The Jamestown Foundation, August 1, 2014,

[68] UBL writes “we are not yet ready to cover the people with the umbrella of Islamic rule. The reasons are that the people have needs and requirements, and the lack of these requirements is the main reason for their revolt against the ruler. We cannot provide for these needs in light of the battle and siege of the whole world against us.” SOCOM-2012-0000019-HT, “Letter from UBL to `Atiyatullah Al-Libi 4,” (West Point: Combating Terrorism Center), 23,

[69] Adil Al-‘Abad, “Gains and Benefits of Ansar al-Shariah control of parts of Wiyalahs Abyan and Shabwa,” Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum, 22-30.

[70] “Try to win them over through the conveniences of life and by taking care of their daily needs like food, electricity and water. Providing these necessities will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours.” Nasser al-Wuhaysi, “First Letter from Abu Basir to Emir of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” (March 2012), 3.

[71] “Then continue may Allah preserve you, aiding the people in what they need from basic services and needs: from administering ovens and bakeries, distributing the necessary petrol, and providing the basics of clinics and medical centers, and reconstruction as much as you can. Also you have to provide to the people security and centers of reconciliation and resolving disputes, since the stage of the collapse of the authority leaves a vacuum you are the best who fills it.” Al-Fatih Abu Mohammed al-Golani, “O people of al-Sham we sacrifice our souls for you,” Al-Manara Al-Bayda Media (translated by Fursan Al-Balagh Media - January 2013), 7.

[72] Mohammed al-Khatieb, “Jabhat al-Nusra, IS compete for foreign fighters,” Al-Monitor, July 18, 2014,

[73] Jennifer Cafarella, “Middle East Security Report 25: Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria - An Islamic Emirate for Al-Qaeda,” Institute for the Study of War (December 2014), 14,

[74] Charles C. Caris and Samuel Reynolds, “Middle East Security Report 22: ISIS Governance In Syria,” Institute for the Study of War (July 2014),

[75] Harleen K. Gambhir, “Dabiq: The Strategic Messaging of the Islamic State,” Institute for the Study of War, August 15, 2014,

[76] Mark Gollom, “ISIS by the numbers: How big, strong and rich the militant organization may be,” CBC News, August, 26, 2014,

[77] Janine Di Giovanni, et al, “How Does ISIS Fund Its Reign of Terror?”

[78] ISIS obtains its revenue from smuggling, Gulf donors, fake humanitarian aid, bank robberies, looting of ancient artifacts, kidnappings, and oil production. Janine Di Giovanni, Leash McGrath Goodman, and Damien Sharkov. “How Does ISIS Fund Its Reign of Terror?” Newsweek, November 6, 2014,

[79] Ibid.

[81] Between Syrian and Iraqi sources, oil generated approximately $1 billion a year for the Islamic State. The remainder of its income comes from illicit sources, including wealthy Gulf donors. Mona Alami, “The Islamic State and the Cost of Governing,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 4, 2014,

[82] Love, “Hezbollah: Social Services as a Source of Power,” 27.

[83] This section is adapted from Adam Baczko, Arthur Quesnay, and Gilles Dorronsoro, “The Civilian Administration of the Insurgency in Aleppo, Syria,” The International Relations and Security Network, December 2, 2013,

[84] Based on the author’s conversation with a confidential source working in the Levant.

[85] In the case of areas controlled by moderate rebel forces such as Idlib and Dara’a, local councils and armed forces work together similar to how the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein operate; one serves as the armed component while the other is the political and public voice. Source: conversation with the same source above.

[86] Zachariah Mampilly, “Rebel Governance and the Syrian War,” The Political Science of Syria’s War, Project on Middle East Political Science (December 2013), 44. 2013

[87] This concept views governments as “protection rackets” that create threats and then charge for their reduction. Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” 169, 171.

[88] In comparison, an “open access order” such as a democracy requires that the population be treated equally without regard to individual identities. Douglas C. North, John Joseph Wallis, Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 30-32.

[89] Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office: A guide to how the militant group overrunning Iraq wins hearts and minds,” The Atlantic, June 13, 2014,

[90] There is a continuum between “purely private” or “purely public” goods from which rebel groups can tailor their approach. A “club” is a specific type of “consumption ownership-membership” arrangement based on exclusion. James M. Buchanan, “An Economic Theory of Clubs,” Economica, New Series 32, no. 125 (February 1965): 1-2.

[91] Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the official ISIS spokesman: “The difference between the State and Al-Qāʿidah is not over any specific individual, nor is it about giving Bay'ah to any specific individual… but the matter is a matter of crooked Religion and deviated Manhaj, a Manhaj which has replaced declaring the Religion of Ibrāhim, disbelieving in the Ṭāghūt (tyrant) and declaring innocence from his supporters and their Jihad; a Manhaj which believes in pacifism and runs after majorities, a Manhaj which is shy from mentioning Jihad and declaring Tawḥīd, and replaces it with – revolution, popularity, uprising striving, struggle, republicanism, secularism..” Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, “This is not our methodology nor will it ever be,” Chabab Tawhid Media, 6,

[92] Ibid, 2.

[93] The patron-client relationship in this case is a “special case of dyadic ties in which an individual of higher socioeconomic status (patron) uses his influence and resources to provide protection or benefits, or both, for a person of lower status (client) who reciprocates by offering general support and assistance to the patron.” James C. Scott, “Politics and Political Change in Southeast Asia,” The American Political Science Review 66, no. 1 (March 1972): 92.

[94] Ibid, 103.

[95] Tareq al-Abd, “Under calm exterior, horror reigns in IS-controlled Raqqa,” Al-Monitor, August 11, 2014,

[96] Buchanan, “An Economic Theory of Clubs,” 13.

[97] Scott, “Politics and Political Change in Southeast Asia,” 102.

[98] Love, “Hezbollah: Social Services as a Source of Power,” 35-36.

[99] Rebel groups face barriers to entry, specifically material resources. The ability to easily mobilize external resources to finance war removes the consideration of civilian consent. Jeremy M. Weinstein, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 7.

[100] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 126.

[101] Paul Fishstein, Winning Hearts and Minds? Examining the Relationship between Aid and Security in Afghanistan’s Balkh Province, Feinstein International Center, November 2010,

[102] A relevant contemporary example is how the Taliban creates normative systems in Afghanistan outside of the state’s writ. “It attracts people with the promise of fair dispute resolution, just and enforceable mediation, and the prevention and punishment of crime and corruption.” Ibid, 117, 118-125.

[103] Michael Taylor, “Rationality and Revolutionary Collective Action,” in Chewing Sand: A Process for Understanding Counter Insurgency Operations, 2nd Edition, ed. James Spies (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008), 51.

[104] Paul Staniland. “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders,” Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 2 (June 2012): 244.

[105] The six distinct wartime political orders include: shared sovereignty, collusion, spheres of influence, tacit coexistence, clashing monopolies, and guerrilla disorder. Ibid, 247-252.

[106] Ibid, 256.

[107] Ken Menkhaus, “Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoilers, State Building, and the Politics of Coping,” International Security 31, no. 3 (Winter 2006/07): 103.

[108] Dam Lamothe, “Who in Libya will the U.S. send weapons to? It’s complicated, says a top general,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2016,

[109] Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda seizes more territory in southern Yemen,” Long War Journal, February 11, 2016,; “Mansour Al-Hadj, “AQAP Counters ISIS By Showing A Different Model Of Governance In Yemen,” Middle East Media Research Institute, November 25, 2015,


About the Author(s)

Major Steve Ferenzi is an Army Strategist and Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s G-5 Strategic Planning Division. He has served previously with the 3rd and 5th Special Forces Groups (Airborne) and the 82nd Airborne Division and holds a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.


Outlaw 09

Tue, 05/31/2016 - 5:12am

Video: Rescuer carries slain child from rubble of #Idlib hospital (Warning --- Graphic)…

So who says the US is not conducting a common war together with Russia....
against the Syrian civil the name of protecting their Kurdish proxy YPG which has proven ties to the terrorist group PKK...

US has ceded airspace bloc over idlib to regime, tacit exchange 4 non interference of US close air support 4 SDF

Outlaw 09

Mon, 05/30/2016 - 1:18pm

NOW with this announcement by a US CENTCOM/CIA/Obama supported Kurdish proxy....NOW convince me that Obama and his Kurdish proxy are not fighting together with Assad and Putin.........

Image the Obama WH explaining to the survivors of a US SOF that their son or father was killed fighting for a genocidal dictator Assad and for Putin and Russia....

NOW the perception of the ME Arab Sunni states about a "golden handshake" between Putin and Obama have been clearly verified.....AND by the Us Kurdish proxy.....

taken from the Syrian 2016 thread today....

Assad Regime forces coordinate with Kurdish militias for Raqqa battle

2016-05-29 22:50:56


Kurdish & Assad regime forces have reportedly met "to coordinate fate of Raqqa city after recapturing it from Isis."

(Zaman Al Wasl)- Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian regime forces are holding meetings in Hasaka city in conjunction with the recent military campaign against Islamic State in northern countryside of Raqqa entering the sixth day, a well-informed source said.

The source told Zaman al-Wasl that Peoples’ Union Party (PYD)-led SDF and regime forces held meetings to coordinate the fate of Raqqa city after recapturing it from Isis. The source pointed out they did not agree on a certian deal in Raqqa yet because the regime proposed handing the Raqqa countryside file to PYD and its allies in SDF. In turn, the regime will control Raqqa city, but the Kurdish leaderships demand running the city as they run Tal Abyad.

The source did not mention any information related to presence of American or Russian officers to these meetings since both the Americans and Russians have bases in Hasaka.

The meetings came in conjunction with statements by official SDF spokesperson Talal Silou to Sham F.M radio station close to Assad regime. He said, “ we refuse the statements saying Raqqa will join the Federal union as well as the statements disclaiming the previous statements. The focus now is on liberating Raqq and later we will negotiate with the regime the destiny of Raqqa. The Raqqa population should make that decision.”

Silou added that SDF made a proposition to the Global Coalition to counter Isis to include Moscow in the military operation in the area and the proposition is being discussed.

İn the field, clashes between Isis and SDF continued in Tal al-Samen and al-Haysha villages. Hundreds of people from the villages fled because the villages turned into battle zones and PYD controls them. PYD forced people to go to Ayn al-Arab camp in Aleppo coutnryside of al-Mabrookeh camp in western countryside of Hasaka.

SDF alliance said in a statement on Saturday that clashes erupted between SDF and Isis south of al-Shaqraq village near Ayn Essa city adding that Global Coalition warplanes bombed Isis locations near al-Haysha town.

PYD-led SDF had announced 6 days ago of launch of a military campaign against Isis in northern countryside of Hasaka supported by Global Coalition air force starting from its locations in Ayn Essa and al-Shaqraq town.

The United States had formed PYD-led SDF alliance in October 2015 to counter Isis. The SDF alliance consists of Jaish al-Thuwar, 5 militias subordinate to PYD, and Aliwet al-Jazira, unknown faction where Arab fighters are recruited from recently captured areas south of Hasaka.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 05/30/2016 - 1:53am

We are now experiencing the true "fatalism" of this Obama WH and the total failure of the US FP in the ME and in fact we might now being seeing the actually crossing of Turkey and KSA into northern Syrian if not southern Syrian as well and then the IRGC/Iran gets what it has wanted for a very long time..war against KSA.abeit proxy wise in Syria.

The Geneva process much touted by Kerry and Obama is now officially dead and will never be reborn.....

Al-Zoubi is out of Syrian high negotiations committee and Aloush resigns as chief negotiator! …

NOW remember that not PKK associated meaning terrorist organization YPG that was fully supported by CENTCOM, CIA and now with 300 US SOF THAT was suppose to be fighting IS...well they are not fighting IS in the least and then this threat yesterday....this threat if carried out will in the end force Turkey and KSA into northern Syria....NOT so sure CENTCOM, CIA and Obama have thoroughly thought through that move....

As expected, YPG/SDF threatens rebels w/ wide scale attack w/ US air support unless Mare'a is handed Arabic

Bill C.

Fri, 05/27/2016 - 12:27pm

Major Ferenzi, in his concluding paragraphs above, states:

"Despite the hurdles inherent in creating a multi-faceted proxy, the US must choose a proxy that can both fight and govern if it wants to shape the post-civil war political order."

Herein, I suggest, our author addresses but two of at least four basic requirements for our proxies.

The other two key basic requirements being:

a. An identification with our specific "transformational" goals for other states and societies, to wit: the transformation of the states and societies, in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere, more along modern western political, economic and social lines and

b. A willingness to be both led by, and be assisted by, the U.S./the West in the pursuit of our such grand political objective.

Thus, in sum, the basic requirements for our proxies are: To be able to fight, to govern, to take orders (from the U.S./the West) and to transform (as per the U.S./the West's enduring and grand political objective outlined at "a" above).

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/27/2016 - 5:59am

What about that fighting ability of the heavily US supported Kurdish proxy YPG/SDF along with 250 US SOF, Javelin Teams and the USAF......designed to fight IS.......

So much for that vaulted US SOF SDF attack designed to destroy IS......went absolutely nowhere...after much heralded MSM support.

Instead of coming to the assistance of FSA which is under heavy IS attacks SDF pulls back...the US population has been told that the US proxy was built to destroy IS but in reality it seems like US SOF and SDF are in fact assisting IS........

SDF/#YPG withdraws forces from #Raqqa battlefield towards
#Manbij after #IslamicState advance to #Afrîn & #Azaz in N- #Aleppo prov.

Syria #US airstrikes on Kafr Kalbin at south of #Azaz in northern #Aleppo
Seems #IslamicState finished #Turkey backed rebel pocket

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/27/2016 - 3:30am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Something that is extremely critical but never talked about even here at SWJ is the ongoing seriously fought social media info war against both Assad and Putin with little to no assistance from the US in any form.

The interesting question that should be openly discussed by SWJ is just how much of the so called US owned social media companies ie FB, Twitter, YouTube is actually full under the influence of Russian oligarch black money via investments into those companies.

FB, YT and Twitter have begun aggressively in the last year to block accounts after massive complaints by proAssad and proRssuain trolls who point to so called Service Agreement violations.

WHAt is interssting is that the trolls use a very effective bot network to push these complaints and Twitter or FB Support does not take the time to even review th complaints....they simply automatically block the account.

Today Twitter has effectively blocked a large number of accounts tha tboth analyze and report on Syrian events AS WELL as eastern Ukraine events and often critique Russian actions.

THIS even includes well known US journalists who have written extensively on say Syria and who are considered to be ME SMEs.

Is it time for the US government to seriously look at the use of US social media companies as part and parcel of the ongoing and intensive Russian info war being carried out against the US. is time to have the SEC check the Russian investments into these US companies via the Panama Papers and I think they will find a number of sanctioned Russian oligarchs have invested into US social media companies via off shore accounts in very large amounts....a Russian "legally" invested over 700M USD into FB and runs the European FB ops out of Ireland.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/27/2016 - 3:28am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Something that is extremely critical but never talked about even here at SWJ is the ongoing seriously fought social media info war against both Assad and Putin with little to no assistance from the US in any form.

The interesting question that should be openly discussed by SWJ is just how much of the so called US owned social media companies ie FB, Twitter, YouTube is actually full under the influence of Russian oligarch black money via investments into those companies.

FB, YT and Twitter have begun aggressively in the last year to block accounts after massive complaints by proAssad and proRssuain trolls who point to so called Service Agreement violations.

WHAT is interesting is that the trolls use a very effective bot network to push these complaints and Twitter or FB Support does not take the time to even review th complaints....they simply automatically block the account.

In some aspects these bot networks parallel criminally used Russian bot networks that many US IT departments have problems with.

Today Twitter has effectively blocked a large number of accounts that both analyze and report on Syrian events AS WELL as eastern Ukraine events and often critique Russian actions.

THIS even includes well known Us journalists who have written extensively on say Syria and who are considered to be ME SMEs.

Is it time for the Us government to seriously look at the use of US social media companies as part and parcel of the ongoing and intensive Russian info war being carried out against the US. is time to have the SEC check the Russian inv estments into these Us companies via the Panama Papers and I think they will find a number of sanctioned Russian oligarchs have invested into US social media companies via off shore accounts.

BUT here is the flip side of this comment.

A large number of the accounts are from US journalists to pointed out yesterday the wearing by US SOF personnel of the Kurdish YPG emblem on their combat uniforms and rightly pointed out the in fact the YPG up to 2014/2015 was being carried by the DoS NCTC as being a US named terrorist organization effectively tied into the PKK which is conducting an open guerrilla war against Turkey going on now for over 30 odd years.

SO hwere they effectively blocked by proAssad and or proRussian trolls.....

OR the US government for their critique of US SOF for wearing a "terrorist emblem" on their uniforms.....???

A very valid point????

Outlaw 09

Thu, 05/26/2016 - 10:30am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Have there been any other cases of US troops re-badging themselves as Communist militia?

Gents they're not 'blending in'. They have Kurdish patches but everything else 'signature' US kit

Outlaw 09

Thu, 05/26/2016 - 10:10am

US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) labelled the YPG the Syria wing of the *designated* PKK in 2014: BUT taken off of the NCTC listing in 2016.

Defected #US-Delta Forces with patches of communist #YPG militia
But now #Chuck_Norris arrived in #Syria

US special forces in #YPG uniforms were pictured close to the Tishrin dam in #Syria's #Aleppo province.

When you think, you've seen it all ...
@USArmy soldiers with #YPG insignia north of #Raqqa in #Syria.

US Special Forces in north of #Raqqa near #Fatissa village #Syria

U.S. troops in northern #Syria are wearing Kurdish YPG patches. What you just heard was Erdogan's head exploding.

Syria 5000 Sunni arabs among #SDF but 30.000 kurdish #YPG-fighters
Without Arab tribes in #Raqqa the offensive on "#IS-capital" will fail

BUT WAIT......YPG/SDF and US SOF still have not been able to move much at all against IS.....

Outlaw 09

Thu, 05/26/2016 - 2:16am

AND the newest member of the Obama WH ME "proxy group" is......

Are you aware of the fact that you bomb for Iran's al-Quds force regulars around Fallujah now??

Iraqi and Iranian Shia militias and al Quds taking control of a still civilian occupied 50K Sunni town.....and that is going to end well??

Especially when the Iraqi Hezbollah has stated....."only terrorists live in Fallujah...kill them all when you attack......."

BTW...yesterday there were serious indications that Iranian supported Shia militias have now joined with the US proxy SDF in the fighting for Raqqa.

Wow...another Obama WH "CAS supported proxy" on the move in Fallujah.....

Abu Azrael directing a Kata'ib Imam Ali convoy near #Fallujah:

Remember the US named "Iraqi Hezbollah KH" a named terrorist organization...then why are we supporting them with US CAS.......

Two things to consider:

1. When one's goal for a state, society and/or region is "transformation" -- more along the alien and profane political, economic and social lines of a foreign entity (exs: those of the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday; those of the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today) -- then one must understand that "instability," not "stability," will often be the order-of-the-day/the understood price that must be paid to achieve one's such "transformational" goals.

(This such understanding -- that "instability" -- not stability -- is often the order-of-the-day/the price that must be paid re: foreign interventions; this such understanding being consistent with C.E. Callwell's thoughts on these matters, to wit: that "small wars are the heritage of extended empire;" that "great nations seeking expansion in remote quarters of the globe must accept the consequences;" and that "small wars dog the footsteps of the pioneers of civilization in regions afar off.")

2. Given that "transformation" is our overriding/overarching political objective for the states and societies of the Greater Middle East and elsewhere today (in our case, transformation more along modern western political, economic and social lines), then it follows that the proxy(ies) that we choose (state or non-state) -- to help us pursue this such objective -- these must exhibit at least two additional and distinct characteristics:

a. An identification with our specific "transformational" goals for other states and societies (to wit: transformation more along modern western political, economic and social lines) and

b. A willingness to be both led by, and be assisted by, the U.S./the West; this, re: the pursuit of our such, common, political objective for these targeted states and societies.

This being the case, then the question becomes:

Which otherwise viable (see the authors criteria above) potential proxies (state and/or non-state) -- in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere -- "fit the bill" re: our such additional requirements for proxies today?

(To wit: they must [a] be willing to accept that "instability" will be the order-of-the-day, they must [b] identify with our transformational goals for the targeted states and societies and they must [c] be willing to be both led by, and assisted by, the U.S./the West in this such effort.)

Outlaw 09

Mon, 05/23/2016 - 1:01pm

A solid article which needs to be read and then balanced against this following article...combined both then makes sense but making sense inside the Obama WH when it comes to Syria/IS has never been a priority....

Really worth reading the entire article....

Charles Lister ‎@Charles_Lister
Excellent by @NicholasAHeras:

US must support Syria’s opposition more to counter AQ plans


Fighting Terrorism in Syria: It's More Than ISIS

The once-promising cessation of hostilities that had significantly reduced the fighting between the Assad regime and the armed opposition in Syria is collapsing, and major questions are being asked about the future course of U.S. policy toward Syria. These questions are being asked as, more and more, Al Qaeda and its allies are building a proto-state in northern Syria, which will have potentially dire consequences for the future of Middle East and international security.

A recently released Center for a New American Security report emphasizes that in order to defeat Al Qaeda and its enablers, the United States will need to more proactively support the Syrian opposition to build security and governance institutions in rebel-controlled areas of the country. Beyond the anti-ISIS campaign, there is also a preventative counterterrorism campaign that needs to be waged in other areas of the country, as Al Qaeda and its enablers in the Syrian armed opposition seek to build a sharia state based on the teaching of influential global jihadi theorists.

One of the longest running and strongest criticisms against current U.S. policy in Syria is that it needs to do more than just combat ISIS, and needs to do a better job of supporting the Syrian opposition. The latest vicious cycle of regime-initiated siege-and-starve warfare, and the bombardment of opposition-held areas in Syria’s two most important cities of Damascus and Aleppo, certainly demands stronger international action to enforce the cessation of hostilities. Many critics of the present U.S. approach are seeking a strategy that goes beyond the current diplomatic process and its product—the shaky, frequently broken cessation of hostilities.

They are seeking a strategy that protects Syrian civilians, stems the flow of refugees from Syria that destabilizes its neighbors and increasingly Europe, and which applies military pressure on the regime to bring it seriously to the negotiating table. There is open discussion within the U.S. and its regional partners of “Plan B” courses of action: a military assistance strategy that provides advanced MANPADS directly to rebel groups, and the imposition of a safe zone over rebel-ruled areas of Syria, particularly in the north along the Syrian-Turkish border. While these lines of action deserve strong consideration, as the situation on the ground inside of opposition-held areas of northern Syria stands, there is great risk that pursuing them now could have long-term negative consequences for Syrian, regional and international security.

The reason is that it is a clear fact on the ground is that the IRGC, its proxies and Russia have strengthened and entrenched Assad’s rule over a statelet in western Syria, particularly in Latakia, Tartus, Homs and around Damascus, and have begun expanding this territorial base east to Palmyra. But as much the Assad regime and its allies might like to pretend that they can reconquer all of the territory that has fallen under opposition control, including ISIS’s pseudostate in eastern Syria, they will not accomplish that mission. The reality is that post-Assad Syria exists throughout the country, and that it is unlikely anything short of a significant escalation in the conflict such as a large-scale foreign military intervention will change that.

For most of the civil war, the debate over the proper level of U.S. support for the moderate Syrian opposition has focused on overthrowing the Assad regime, particularly because of its extensive and infamous record of perpetrating human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity. While it is understandable that there is a great deal of sympathy for removing Bashar al-Assad and his enablers from Syria, including Russia and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) and its proxies, this scenario is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. For all intents and purposes, Syria is in a process of partitioning that leaves a large area of the country open to alternative governance structures to the Assad regime.

In the majority Sunni areas that are rebel-ruled, there is a looming war-within-the-war between more ideologically moderate opposition organizations and ideological extremist actors, which will have great impact on the type of Syria that emerges from the conflict. Ideological extremist groups such as Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its principal ally Ahrar al-Sham, are embedded within the rebel movement throughout northern Syria, and are a formidable vanguard within the anti-Assad fight. The two are parallel organizations established by Al Qaeda in Syria, and following jihadi theorists’ strategic directives for guerilla warfare, they are seeking to be the vanguard of the popular revolution against the Assad regime.

Working with other allies within the armed opposition, Al Qaeda and its enablers are laying the groundwork for the implementation of a sharia state, and building local community cover in Syria for the global jihadist network. It is significant that at the onset of the anti-ISIS campaign, in November 2014, U.S. aircraft struck targets in northern Syria controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham that were suspected of hosting international jihadist operatives. And the resulting furor within the Syrian armed opposition at the U.S. strikes against these non-ISIS, ideological extremist groups demonstrated the considerable and unfortunate power that they hold within Syria’s rebel movement.