Proxies, Laboratories, and the Production of Space in Syria’s Liberated Territories

By Ali Hamdan
Submitted to Session P4977 (The Impact of External Actors on Political Economy, 2017 Annual Meeting
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If it is true that political violence fragments state sovereignty, then transnational forces have become crucial to shaping how this process unfolds in Syria today. Although so-called non-state actors represent some of these, it is also true that state actors openly foster cross-border networks that support all parties to the conflict. That the United States, Turkey, and Qatar (among others) back the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime is nothing new. Less clear is how this support opens up, but also closes down, space for opposition politics in Syria despite access to a wealth of resources. Indeed, external support has prioritized bringing stability to Opposition-held communities, in practice turning these spaces into laboratory polities that quietly push contrasting models of governance for Syria’s “liberated” territories. How do Opposition networks articulate these diverse projects with the goals of the Syrian Revolution? More practically, how does this tangle of experiments shape governance? This paper investigates the transnational forces shaping the Syrian opposition, focusing on governance in the “liberated” territories. I argue that the entangled projects of donor states introduce an emergent process of wartime regionalization, one that realigns, and consequently strains, the political relationships upon which opposition actors rely for efficacy within Syria. I do so by illustrating how this spatial process is shaping governance practices in two communities in the opposition-held north: Idleb and Jarablus. This project is informed by twenty-six months of fieldwork in Turkey and Jordan, drawing on in-depth semi-structured interviews as well as research on geographies of conflict and political mobilization at a distance. It hopes to show how locally-situated actors navigate the tensions, but also benefits, created by external ties in civil war.

Keywords: Proxy, laboratories, political violence, civil war, Syria, Syrian Opposition, governance.