Syria: From Corrupt State Institutions to the Economy of Violence

An interview with Zaki Mehchy of the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR)


AMMAN – “We are now focusing on studies relating to the Syrian crisis and we are producing a regular report on the impact of the crisis in terms of the economic impact, the loss on GDP as well as the loss on social side, such as the loss in social capital, the loss in human capital.

By 2013 the Syrian economy had lost about $85 billion USD.  This is just the direct economic cost.  We also have some indicators about the social costs of the conflict, for example, in terms of its Human Development Index, Syria has lost 35 years of development achievements.  We have a 6.7 million people who have been newly thrown into poverty.  Of course in addition to this is the more tragic loss. The loss of life – so far over 100,000 people have died due to the crisis.

We are running a project on ways towards an alternative development for Syria, both during and after the crisis. So we are studying ways to overcome the crisis, and to build a better development future for Syria.  We don’t get support from any side, we are an independent research center.  This is a very important point: we are an independent research center and that’s why all parties, I can say, they trust the results.

Syria has lost 35 years of development achievements.  We have a 6.7 million people who have been newly thrown into poverty.  And the loss of life – so far over 100,000 people have died due to the crisis.

As well as the impact of the crisis, the Syrian Centre for Policy Research issued a report about the roots of the crisis in Syria. We highlighted that the core of the problem in Syria is the institutions, institutions in a wide definition – both formal and informal.

The second part of the problem is what we call the ‘low equilibrium’ before the crisis, and by ‘low equilibrium’, we mean that the government used to provide almost free – or used to subsidize – health, education and other basic goods. These things used to be subsidized, but at the same time, the government, or the regime, used to be very dominant in terms of politics.  However, during the last decade, the government started to introduce new liberal policies. So it lifted the subsidies on health, education and other goods and these public goods become much more expensive for ordinary people.  At the same time this was happening, they kept control on the political side.  They liberalized the economy, but they didn’t liberalize the political system. And this, in addition to what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, this gave inspiration to the Syrian people. They said ‘Okay, we can do things, we can change, we can do something.’”

Meanwhile, if you look at the Human Development Index, or if we take the income per capita in Syria, between 1980 and 2010, comparing to many other countries, we can see that in 1980, Syria was very average, comparing to several other countries, including neighboring countries, but in 2010, Syria become at the bottom of the list, in terms of the Human Development Index and in terms of the income per capita.  And this depressed people, particularly young people.  So, we knew we used to do better; we knew that we had the ability and the capability to be better, but the old institutions were stopping us.”

Before the crisis you had to bribe officials to do something.  So if you had a case in a court in Syria – we are talking about formal institutions and that’s why people don’t trust formal institutions – if you have a case and bribe the judge, and he or she – the judge – will give you the solution that you want.

Under the Syrian constitution, people are equal before the law. But in fact a powerful guy, or an official from a security agency, can break the law. He is much more powerful than you.  And there is cover for people in the security agencies; they can kill anyone if they suspect them. But this does not match with what is written in the Syrian constitution. So this is de jure; the Syrian constitution as written is good, not bad. It’s good – if it’s applied in a good way. So this is the difference between the de jure constitution and the de facto: what’s happening in reality.

Before the crisis you had to bribe officials to do something. People have abandoned formal institutions. And because they don’t trust the credibility of state institutions, they’ve come back to the old ways, which increases the individualism, increases the sense people have of belonging to a village or a region, but not to Syria.

When we have a crisis in Syria we have a tradition where people seek protection in their old institutions, traditional institutions – by which I mean family, village, region.  So people have abandoned formal institutions – because they don’t trust the state institutions, they don’t trust the credibility of formal institutions, and they come back to the old ways, and this is of course not very helpful to the future of Syria.  It increased the individualism, increased the sense people have of belonging to a village or a region, but not to Syria. Fragmentation, and polarization are the result. This is one of the very negative impacts of the crisis and actually I would argue it is more important than just the economic impact.

If people lose faith or trust in your formal institutions, traditional institutions become a substitute.  For example, if two people are fighting over a piece of land, due to the crisis, both of these people go to their families to support them, and at the end of the day there will be a kind of deal between the head of each family to solve the issue of the land – regardless of national laws and regulations.  And now, due to the crisis and the lack of credibility in formal institutions, people are doing this in Syria.  And then you add the economics of violence. This is a very crucial point now in Syria.  I can go to the rebels, to armed people, and say, ‘this is my land’, pay them some money and they force people to leave their land and give it to whoever can pay.  This is the economy of violence and we have many, many examples of it at the micro level. It is all due to the lack of trust and credibility of formal institutions.

I came to this Namati meeting because we are planning to conduct a study in the Centre about Syrian refugees and the displaced. I have been in touch, through Namati, with many people who are working with Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon that can help us conducting this study. Legal empowerment groups can help us in providing information about the legal status of the refugees; about the laws and regulations in Jordan and Lebanon that govern these refugees. This is important information for any study or any research that we are going to do about refugees and about displaced people and about population movement in general in and out of Syria.”

Zaki Mehchy

March 14, 2014 | Namati Author