Capitalising on Collective Punishment: Siege Tactics in the Syrian Conflict
The conflict in Syria has had a devastating impact on its people – by the end of 2015, the United Nations estimated that over 250,000 people had died throughout the previous four years of conflict, over half of Syria’s population had been displaced, and more than 4 million Syrians had sought refuge in neighbouring countries. How has Bashar al-Assad clung on to power? How can we explain the longevity of the conflict in Syria? Rather than focusing on sectarian identities or third party interventions, this thesis investigates a new variable – siege tactics. Based on survey responses from residents of besieged areas in Syria, and interviews with diplomatic and humanitarian officials, the study argues that an exploration of siege tactics highlights various factors that contributed to the intractability of the fighting. A system of categorising sieges is also proposed.Firstly, examining siege warfare as a feature of counter-insurgency is crucial to understanding how Bashar al-Assad’s regime managed to survive by isolating areas of dissent and protecting its key strongholds. Arguing that the authoritarian nature of the Syrian regime helps explain its ability to conduct brutal campaigns of collective punishment, sieges are presented as a key element of the regime’s survival even as it suffered debilitating shortages in manpower.Secondly, the thesis examines the emergence of the war economy in Syria, and its various manifestations in besieged areas. Exploring the legacy of corruption and illicit economic practices conducted by the Syrian military and pro-government militias, the data exposes the significant financial incentives that armed actors have to besiege civilian populations. It is against the interests of the actors that benefit materially and financially from sieges to alter the status quo. Therefore, many armed groups seek to ensure the continuation of siege warfare, and work against truce agreements that limit their ability to profit. Humanitarian assistance from the United Nations and non-governmental organisations is supporting the war economy in sieges as armed groups and businessmen take fees in order to allow the entry of goods. The continuation of many sieges has resulted in various stalemates across the country, and has provided various armed groups with the financial ability to continue waging war.This thesis concludes with the lessons we can learn from the Syrian conflict about the besiegement of civilian populations, the weaknesses of the international response and International Humanitarian Law, and with recommendations for future action.
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