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There is a strong relationship between organised crime and civil war. This article contributes to the crime-conflict nexus literature by providing a consideration of the role of organised crime in the Syrian conflict. It provides an overview of pre-and post-war organised crime in Syria. The article then builds the argument that war provides opportunities for organised crime through the state’s diminished law enforcement ability; the economic hardship which civilians face during war; and the abundance of armed groups who all need to generate revenue. Secondly, the paper argues that organised crime also affects the intensity and duration of war by enabling militants to reproduce themselves materially and to build institutions amongst the communities where they are active. The relationships between armed groups and local populations emerge as a central theme in understanding the crime-conflict nexus.
Steenkamp, C 2017 The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in
Stability: International Journal of Security& Development
6(1): 11, pp. 1–18, DOI:
The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War
in Syria
Christina Steenkamp
There is a strong relationship between organised crime and civil war. This article
contributes to the crime-conict nexus literature by providing a consideration
of the role of organised crime in the Syrian conict. It provides an overview of
pre- and post-war organised crime in Syria. The article then builds the argument
that war provides opportunities for organised crime through the state’s diminished
law enforcement ability; the economic hardship which civilians face during war; and
the abundance of armed groups who all need to generate revenue. Secondly, the
paper argues that organised crime also aects the intensity and duration of war
by enabling militants to reproduce themselves materially and to build institutions
amongst the communities where they are active. The relationships between armed
groups and local populations emerge as a central theme in understanding the
crime-conict nexus.
By January 2017, the Syrian civil war had
produced close to 5 million refugees, 6.3
million internally displaced persons, 13.5 mil-
lion Syrians who required humanitarian aid
(UNHCR 2016) and estimates put the num-
ber of fatalities due to the war at 500,000
(Graham-Harrison 2017). Western popular
interest in the Syrian civil war tends to focus
on the use of chemical weapons by the gov-
ernment of Bashar Al-Assad; the military suc-
cesses and brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq
and Syria (ISIS);1 Russian military involvement
and the refugee ‘crisis’ which resulted from
the conflict. This paper focuses on an often-
overlooked aspect of the conflict, but one that
is central to its longevity and intensity: the
role of organised crime in the Syrian civil war.
Early in the conflict, UNESCO raised alarm
about the increased illegal trade in antiqui-
ties and artefacts from Syria. Both the poli-
cymaking (Yazigi 2014; Hallaj 2015; Taylor
2015) and academic communities (for exam-
ple Lister 2015b; Kravitz and Nichols 2016;
Keatinge 2014; Herbert 2014) have since
acknowledged the proliferation of organised
crime during the war. These studies show
how protagonists in the Syrian conflict are
involved in a range of illegal economic activi-
ties, including people trafficking, oil smug-
gling, the illegal narcotics trade, kidnapping
and looting. These activities vary in profit-
ability, but they generate sufficient funds to
allow insurgents and the government to buy
weapons, pay combatants, provide social ser-
vices and establish institutions in the areas
under their control. These factors are crucial
in reproducing the armed groups and main-
taining the conflict. Yet, very little is known
about how the war provides opportunities
Oxford Brookes University, GB
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in SyriaArt. 11, page 2 of 18
for this illicit economy to expand. This paper
asks how war and organised crime affect each
other in the context of the Syrian civil war.
There has been a steady recognition of the
role of organised crime in sustaining violent
conflict (summarised by De Boer and Rosetti
2015) and the threat it poses to international
peace, security and stability (Bergeron 2013;
Bosetti et al 2016; Briscoe 2015; Cockayne
and Pfister 2008). This interplay between
organised crime and war, the ‘crime-conflict
nexus’, has been studied in various contexts,
including Colombia (Felbab-Brown 2005);
Mali (Lacher 2012); Afghanistan (Goodhand
2008) and Iraq (Williams 2009). This article
contributes to the study of the crime-conflict
nexus by illustrating, in the Syrian context,
how armed groups simultaneously engage in
political and criminal activities, how organ-
ised criminal activity is politically signifi-
cant in the context of war and how civilians
engage with the crime-conflict nexus.
This article states that organised crime in
Syria is both a consequence of the war and, at
the same time, a driver of the war. It proceeds
from the premise that the crime-conflict
nexus is central to understanding the civil
war in Syria. In the first half, the focus will
be on how war creates space and opportuni-
ties for organised crime. The civil war weak-
ens the state’s law enforcement capacity and
thus lowers the opportunity costs for those
engaging in organised crime. Furthermore,
the war causes unprecedented levels of hard-
ship amongst the population. This creates a
domestic demand for consumer goods on the
black or grey markets and produces a pool
of labour, which can be absorbed into the
illicit economy. Consequently, the civil war
produces a range of non-state armed groups
that need money to wage war. These groups
turn to the illicit economy to raise funds and
are instrumental in expanding these markets
and opening new avenues for international
organised crime.
The second half of the argument focuses on
how organised crime drives war. The expand-
ing illicit economy, which characterises
the Syrian civil war, affects its intensity and
duration. Armed groups now have access to
funds, which means they can afford to wage a
longer and more violent war. Secondly, armed
groups also have resources to spend on pro-
viding social and political goods in the com-
munities where they are based. This means
that they can become perceived as legitimate
political actors and this can translate into
popular support. This further fragments the
central state and destroys the social con-
tract between state and society (Grynkewich
2008), making a resolution of the conflict
more complex. These relationships between
local populations, armed groups and organ-
ised crime are central to understanding how
organised crime and war interconnect.
This research provides an analysis of the
ways in which crime and conflict mutually
reinforce each other: how war creates oppor-
tunities for an illicit economy to expand and
how organised crime, in turn, facilitates war.
The study begins with an overview of the lit-
erature on organised crime and war. It then
proceeds to a description of organised crime
in Syria, both before and during the civil war.
Following this overview, the first part of the
argument (that war provides opportunities
for organised crime) presents a considera-
tion of the conditions which make organised
crime in Syria feasible. The second part of the
argument (that organised crime is a driver of
conflict) is then advanced through an analy-
sis of how armed groups use the revenues
gained in the illicit economy and how that
impacts the conflict. The article concludes
with reflections on the contribution of this
case study to the crime-conflict nexus and
the prospects for peace in Syria. But, first
a conceptualisation of organised crime is
Organised Crime
Organised crime remains a heavily contested
concept. The dominant conceptualisations
of organised crime assume a law enforce-
ment perspective. The Palermo Convention
and the United Nations Office for Drugs and
Crime (UNODC), for example, defines an
organised criminal group as:
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in Syria Art. 11, page 3 of 18
A structured group of three or more
persons, existing for a period of time
and acting in concert with the aim
of committing one or more serious
crimes or offences…to obtain, directly
or indirectly, a financial or other mate-
rial benefit (in Hansen 2014: 64–65).
In 2011, the UK Home Office defined organ-
ised crime as:
Individuals, normally working with
others, with the capacity and capa-
bility to commit serious crime on a
continuing basis, which includes ele-
ments of planning, control and coor-
dination, and benefits those involved.
The motivation is often, but not
always, financial gain (in Bergeron
2013: 6).
The definitions share several characteris-
tics: they emphasise the collective nature of
organised crime (perpetrated by a group, not
individuals); its longevity; that it takes place
outside the law and that the overall aim is to
turn a profit. This approach is underpinned
by normative assumptions about a ‘legal’
vs ‘illegal’ dichotomy (Cockayne and Pfister
2008: 13) which is assigned by the state.
These traditional definitions lead to a focus
on state building and the ability of political
institutions to respond to organised crime.
The law enforcement perspective fits neatly
into the Liberal Peace paradigm with its
focus on democracy promotion, the rule of
law and the building of state institutions.
Yet, there are significant weaknesses to this
law enforcement perspective. It assumes that
the state is legitimate and criminal organisa-
tions are illegitimate – even though this view
might not be shared by the population in
places where state authority is contested or
weak (Cockayne and Pfister 2008: 13). These
state-assigned labels might thus not neces-
sarily reflect civilian notions of what consti-
tutes legitimate economic activity. In fact,
there may be significant local support for an
‘illegal’ economy.
A further weakness of the law enforcement
perspective on organised crime is that it
underplays the way in which these activi-
ties change the nature of the state itself.
The close relationships fostered between
organised crime and state officials lead to a
distortion of local economies as government
policies aim to serve the interests of organ-
ised crime, rather than the population
(Jesperson 2015: 26). Local economies
change over time as organised crime groups
extract taxes and enable civilians to circum-
vent formal markets.
Another criticism of the law enforce-
ment approach holds that organised crime
is often an activity, rather than an identity,
as actors dip in and out of illegal activi-
ties. Organised criminal networks possess a
range of motivations, which are not always
financially-motivated, but could be political
(James 2012: 223–225). This recognises the
diverse portfolio of activities to which one
conflict actor can subscribe.
This alternative conceptualisation of
organised crime moves away from the legal-
illegal dichotomy, towards a recognition of
the complex political, economic and social
environments within which organised crime
networks operate. This approach is undoubt-
edly more in line with the assumptions of
this study, which recognises that organised
crime networks can have a range of goals.
Consequently, violence becomes dual-pur-
pose, serving both individual and strategic
organisational needs simultaneously (Green
and Ward 2009).
This is particularly relevant to the crime-
conflict nexus where the boundaries
between political and criminal actors are
increasingly blurred. Not only are their
goals varied, but their impact can vary as
they establish social, economic and politi-
cal relationships with the populations and
states where they are active. In addition,
the critical approach to organised crime
emphasises the relationship between
local populations, armed groups and the
illicit economy – a recurring theme in this
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in SyriaArt. 11, page 4 of 18
Civil War and Organised Crime
The relationship between organised crime
and conflict has become increasingly recog-
nised in the study of civil war. Theories of
‘new wars’ developed in the 1990s as scholars
turned their attention to the opportunities
which globalisation and war present to the
growth of organised crime (Duffield 2001;
Kaldor 1999; Kaplan 1994; Münkler 2005;
Van Creveld 1991). In the new post-Cold War
context, regimes and insurgents alike had to
find alternative sources of revenue as exter-
nal backers (particularly the USA and USSR)
retreated from involvement in internal con-
flict (Williams 2012: 39–40). Some scholars
(notably Collier and Hoeffler 2004) analysed
how civil war presents profit-making oppor-
tunities to insurgents and states – often by
exploiting natural resources such as oil, dia-
monds or minerals. The argument was that
the potential for self-enrichment in a conflict
setting will determine the war’s feasibility,
intensity and longevity. This greed thesis elic-
ited a great deal of academic interest and cul-
minated in a debate about the importance
of political economy explanations for war,
vis-à-vis more conventional political expla-
nations related to inequality, discrimination,
and political grievance (Ballentine 2003;
Berdal 2005; Herbst 2000; Pugh et al 2004).2
Both new wars theories and the greed
thesis emphasise the role of globalisation
in facilitating the activities of international
criminal networks and, at the same time,
the increasing cooperation between organ-
ised crime and violent political actors. This
cooperation is beneficial to both the politi-
cal actors and the organised crime groups:
those engaged in political violence engage in
organised crime to raise funds, whilst organ-
ised crime benefits from the opportunities
which war presents.
An interpretation of this relationship
gained prominence in the years following the
9/11 terror attacks on the USA. The ‘crime-
terror’ nexus literature focuses on the dynam-
ics and networks involved in the funding
of international terrorism (Dishman 2005;
Hutchinson and O’Mally 2007; Makarenko
2004; Oehme 2008; Sanderson 2004; Shelley
and Picarelli 2005). In doing so, these stud-
ies uncover the alliances between organised
crime and terror networks which exist for
their mutual benefit. The literature illus-
trates how international terrorism became
involved in a range of organised criminal
activities in order to fund political violence
(Makarenko 2004; Shelley and Melzer 2008).
Increasingly, a similar approach to the
study of civil war was adopted. Here the
spotlight falls on particular, geographically
bound conflicts – as opposed to the global
nature of international terrorism. It became
known as the crime-conflict nexus (De Boer
and Bosett 2015; Lacher 2012; Cornell and
Jonsson 2014; Kemp 2004).
The crime-conflict nexus literature exposes
the fallacy of upholding a hard distinction
between organised crime and political vio-
lence: organised criminal groups can assume
political goals and, likewise, political groups
can engage in organised crime in efforts
to fund their use of violence (Bosetti et al
2016: 3). Violence increases in a context
where the aims and activities of organised
crime and political violence become increas-
ingly blurred. Organised crime and conflict
become interdependent and exacerbate
each other (McMullin 2009: 84). In the war
economy that results, violence becomes an
entry point for participation in these activi-
ties (Taylor 2015: 2) as groups that use force
are more successful in gaining access to
economic opportunities. Indeed, the crime-
conflict nexus literature illustrates the extent
to which organised crime during violent con-
flict is political: it funds political violence, it
changes the abilities of local political actors
and it has long-term political consequences
for the state and peacebuilding.
The focus in this article is on the ways in
which civil war presents opportunities for
organised crime – as activities, rather than a
set of actors – to flourish. A central assump-
tion that underpins this approach is that all
or most armed groups in Syria are involved
in both political and criminal violence. This
research is interested in how large-scale
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in Syria Art. 11, page 5 of 18
political violence present opportunities for
organised crime, which in turn, stimulates
and prolongs the conflict.
Different sections of society are typically
involved in the illicit economy during war:
the populations that produce and consume
the illegal goods and services, the crime
groups such as mafia and drug trafficking
organisations, armed military groups such
as terrorists, insurgents or paramilitaries,
as well as corrupt government officials and
law enforcement personnel (Felbab-Brown
2012: 3). A major theme in this paper is
the centrality of the relationships between
armed groups and the local populations in
the crime-conflict nexus. War creates space
for strengthening this relationship between
insurgents and civilians. The following
discussions show how these relationships
underpin the illicit economy that expanded
during the civil war in Syria.
The Civil War in Syria
The current conflict in Syria started in March
2011 with popular protests against the
authoritarian regime of President Bashar
al-Assad and demands for the release of
political prisoners (BBC News 2016). The
government responded violently and the
protests spread and escalated. It was initially
seen as part of the 2010–2011 wave of popu-
lar uprisings against authoritarian regimes
in states such as Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and
Libya, known as the Arab Spring. However,
the Syrian uprising soon proved to be a more
sustained and longer-term conflict and by
2012 the International Red Cross officially
labelled it a civil war.
More than 1000 different groups are
thought to be involved in the conflict
(Al-Abdeh 2013). These include the govern-
ment of President Bashar al Assad, supported
by Hezbollah in Lebanon; ISIS (the Salafist
jihadist group who advocates a conservative
version of Islamic rule); the Sunni Jihadist
Jabhat al Nusra (the Front for the Defence
of the Syrian People, which was allied with
Al Qaeda, but since its split with Al Qaeda in
2016, is now known as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham);
the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection
Units); the Islamist groups Ahrar Al-Sham
and Jaysh Al-Islam and the Free Syrian Army
(Al Jazeera 2016; Crowcroft 2015). In addi-
tion to these high-profile groups, there are a
myriad of smaller groups who come and go,
and who exist in varying degrees of coopera-
tion with the larger groups (Sorenson 2016).
The conflict has become internationalised,
with Russia and Iran emerging as major mili-
tary and financial supporters of the regime,
whilst the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia sup-
port the Sunni Islamist groups (Al Jazeera
A range of political, economic, ethnic and
social factors caused this conflict. These
include growing inequalities and youth
unemployment that resulted from the eco-
nomic liberalisation policies that the Assad
regime had implemented in the years pre-
ceding the uprising. The outbreak of war
also signals dissatisfaction with the system of
patron-client relationships which have been
carefully cultivated by the Syrian Ba’athist
regime. The state concentrated its provision
of public services such as the provision of
electricity, employment, schooling, agricul-
tural aid and health care in the areas where
its support was strongest (De Juan and Bank
2015: 94). The Alawite sect (of which Assad is
a member) has long dominated the state and
the resulting discontent amongst Sunnis also
contributes to the conflict.3
Pre-war Organised Crime in Syria
Organised crime is not new to Syria. The
country has long been a transit point for
drugs originating from Europe, Turkey and
Lebanon and destined for Jordan, Iraq and
the Persian Gulf (Al-Hemiary et al 2014).
There is also a long-standing tradition of
looting and antiquity smuggling from
archaeological sites prior to the war in Syria
(Casana 2015: 147). Herbert (2014) provides
a comprehensive historical narrative of pre-
war smuggling and organised crime in Syria.
Local cross-border tribes and groups have
engaged in trafficking livestock and con-
sumer goods (and to a limited extent, drugs)
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in SyriaArt. 11, page 6 of 18
between Syria and its neighbours since the
inception of the state after the fall of the
Ottoman Empire. Initially, the Syrian govern-
ment was not directly involved in the illicit
economy – except for individual government
officials who may have benefited financially.
In Herbert’s analysis, two major events cre-
ated motivation and opportunity for the
Syrian regime to become more actively
involved in organised crime.
Firstly, Syria’s 1976 invasion and sub-
sequent presence in Lebanon heralded a
period of entrenched cooperation between
the Syrian government and Lebanese-
based criminal groups. Networks of bribery
between government officials and smugglers
developed. The Syrian military, in particular,
became firmly entrenched in the Lebanese
trade in hashish and heroin by taxing
Western sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s
are the second major event that provided
motivation and opportunity for the Syrian
regime to expand its involvement in the
transnational illicit economy. Syria helped
Iraq to bypass these sanctions by encourag-
ing and directly operating smuggling net-
works that moved weapons, luxury goods,
food and oil to and from Iraq. The Syrian
regime retreated from direct involvement in
smuggling after the 2003 US-led invasion of
Iraq, but continued to tax the lucrative Iraq-
Syrian trafficking of artefacts and oil.
Several factors can explain the success of
the illicit economy in Syria before the civil
war. Syria’s central geographic position in
the Middle East makes it attractive for organ-
ised crime. It has access to the coast, which
provides it with connections to international
markets and gives it value as an export point.
Syria is surrounded by weakened states and
shares lengthy and poorly controlled borders
with states that are known to harbour active
international organised crime networks,
notably Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon (The Global
Initiative 2013). The country’s pre-war infra-
structure enhanced the feasibility of illicit
economic activities: it has an elaborate road
network linked to seaports, good electricity
supply and relatively high levels of industrial
development (Kravits and Nichols 2016: 35).
These factors, combined with the state’s
inability (and unwillingness) to control its
borderlands, create a fertile environment for
organised crime.
This discussion implied that a range of
actors were involved in Syria’s pre-war organ-
ised crime networks and many of them
remain active. These include the local tribes;
small-time cross-border smugglers; larger,
more sophisticated trafficking networks
and the Syrian regime itself. The Shabiha
are an interesting example of a group that
has straddled the pre-and post-war organ-
ised crime periods (Starr 2012). The Shabiha
were a small group of government militias
(mostly from Assad’s Alawite sect) who were
deeply (and brutally) involved in trafficking
and smuggling in the borderlands during the
1980s and 1990s. The outbreak of civil war
has led to an explosion in their numbers. This
was partially due to the government’s policy
of releasing career criminals in exchange for
political loyalty during the early years of the
conflict. The Shabiha illustrate how armed
groups can simultaneously assume politi-
cal and criminal roles and how these roles
can change over time: these groups remain
deeply involved in war-time organised crime,
but they also play a role in political violence
as government militias which control towns
and villages. The Shabiha illustrate an impor-
tant aspect of the crime-conflict nexus: an
armed group’s ability to assume and shed
political and criminal identities as circum-
stances change.
Participation in the illicit economy in Syria
widened as the conflict intensified. The traf-
ficking of weapons into Syria at the start
of the conflict illustrates this (The Global
Initiative 2013: 2): initially, armed groups
in Syria would procure weapons in neigh-
bouring countries (usually Iraq) and these
would be smuggled into the country by
vehicle, donkey or on foot. However, as the
conflict intensified and became prolonged,
weapons smuggling became more sophis-
ticated. By 2012 the Free Syria Army was
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in Syria Art. 11, page 7 of 18
acquiring weapons through professional
arms traffickers and international weapons
dealers. Entirely new business networks have
emerged since the start of the war to supply
the demand for weapons, fuel and consuma-
bles (Yazigi 2014: 7). It is difficult to paint an
accurate picture of the nature of cooperation
between armed political groups and criminal
groups – not least because the distinction
between political and criminal motives and
activities are blurred (McMullin 2009: 89).
What is clear, however, is that that insurgent
groups have learnt how to capitalise on the
economic opportunities which war presents.
Organised Crime During the Syrian
Ultimately, this paper argues that organised
crime both aggravates and is a consequence
of the war in Syria. An overview of the range
of illicit economic activities which exist in
the context of the civil war in Syria is useful.
The activities which will be described often
co-exist in the same settings and are under-
taken by the same actors. Consequently, the
focus is on discussing the activities which
constitute the war-time illicit economy in
Syria–rather than producing an account of
each armed group’s involvement in these
The crime-conflict nexus literature pro-
vides a ready tick-list of illegal economic
activities which typically present profit-
making opportunities to conflict actors: the
illegal trade and smuggling involving natu-
ral resources such as alluvial diamonds (e.g.
Sierra Leone); timber (e.g. Cambodia); miner-
als (e.g. DRC) and oil (e.g. Iraq). International
drug trafficking is a major explanation for
the intensity and longevity of the Colombian
civil war, where the FARC have been involved
in cocaine production for decades (Cornell
2005: 756), the heroin trade is closely asso-
ciated with Taliban involvement in poppy
cultivation in Afghanistan (Goodhand 2008)
and the Kosovo conflict was heavily influ-
enced by the billion-dollar narcotics trade
in the Balkans (Andreas 2004; Chossudovsky
An armed group’s ability to control
movement from and into its territory is
crucial to its political and economic success.
Control over territory in Syria is not only a
sign of geopolitical military prowess, but also
provides access to sources of revenue. A sec-
ondary, illicit economy has been built around
the unofficial movement of commodities
into areas and neighbourhoods under siege.
Extracting bribes and fees at border cross-
ings or on highways is an important source
of income for local militias and army officers
(Ohl et al 2015; Yazigi 2014: 5). Rebels that
control border crossings set fees for allowing
vehicles and individuals to cross and for the
movement of luxury items, food, livestock
and oil to and from neighbouring countries
(Herbert 2014).
The most profitable form of cross-border
trafficking involves oil. There is significant
variation between different groups and
regions in terms of how oil is extracted,
transported, taxed and sold (Almohamad and
Dittmann 2016). In some cases, local tribal
chiefs are in charge of extracting oil from
small oil fields under their control and pro-
duce about 300—1000 barrels a day (Hallaj
2015). Local militias then tax oil smuggling
in their territories or provide armed protec-
tion (at a price) to the rudimentary refineries
(Herbert 2014: 78).
ISIS, for example, is heavily involved in oil
smuggling and extraction. At the height of
its power, it controlled around 80 per cent of
Syria’s oil fields (including the largest oil pro-
ducing area of Deir az-Zour) and produced
65,000 barrels of oil per day (Almohamad
and Dittmann 2016). Oil has become one of
ISIS’s main sources of income. It is impossi-
ble to get an accurate estimate, but accord-
ing to some reports the organisation earned
approximately US$2 million per day through
its control and sale of oil in Syria and Iraq
(Lister 2015b). ISIS sells oil to various local
and international buyers, including its main
adversary, the Assad government, through
a series of middlemen (Almohamad and
Dittmann 2016: 11). This strategic coop-
eration between the regime and one of its
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in SyriaArt. 11, page 8 of 18
fiercest adversaries illustrates the shifting
and varying patterns of cooperation between
armed groups which typify conflict settings
(Staniland 2012).
Considerable international media atten-
tion has fallen on the production and smug-
gling of the illegal narcotic, Fenethylline, in
Syria. This amphetamine is marketed under
the street name ‘Captagon’ (Baker 2013;
Henley 2014; Holley 2015). Captagon is pop-
ular as a recreational drug on the Arabian
Peninsula (Herbert, 2014), but there are
reports that combatants on all sides in the
Syrian war are using it too – prompting TIME
magazine to refer to them as ‘super-human
soldiers’ (Baker 2013). By early 2014, the UN
reported increases in the Syrian production
of amphetamines (Kalin 2014) and some
armed groups are directly involved in this
production and cross-border trafficking of
Captagon (Kravitz and Nichols 2016: 38–39;
The Global Initiative 2016: 23).
Looting is another form of economic activ-
ity that is dependent on the illicit market.
Post-Saddam Iraq is an obvious example of
large-scale looting in the context of violent
conflict. Hospitals, museums and shops were
emptied during the chaos that followed the
toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Looting is often a symptom of the collapse of
a political and security structure at the start
of the war (Mac Ginty 2004: 863). In the case
of Iraq and Syria, the availability of lootable
items (like oil or cultural artefacts); the pres-
ence of large groups of people (as individuals
and armed groups) who are able to loot; and
a culturally permissive environment (Mac
Ginty 2004), were all in place to make loot-
ing possible. According to reports, members
of pro-government groups are allowed to
loot in areas previously held by rebels. Rebels
loot factories and industrial areas under their
control, selling the bounty on local or inter-
national markets (Hallaj 2015).
The looting of antiquities has become a
prominent feature of the Syrian conflict’s
symbiosis with organised crime. In October
2013, UNESCO warned about the increase in
the looting of antiquities and other valuable
artefacts from Syria and there were reports
of endemic racketeering and smuggling
in many of the rebel-held areas (Fielding-
Smith 2013). The stripping of archaeologi-
cal sites in Syria and the selling of artefacts
on international markets are commonplace
(The Guardian 2016; UNESCO 2013). By 2015,
satellite imagery comparing historical sites
before and after the start of the war, showed
a significant increase in illegal archaeologi-
cal excavations in Syria (Casana 2015: 147).
Interestingly, this analysis of archaeological
digs found evidence of an increase in both
minor looting (which is probably done by
individuals and civilians who are merely try-
ing to survive economically), as well as severe
looting which requires some organisational
and mechanical capacity and is generally
more destructive. The revenues for rebel
groups through this trade have been esti-
mated at US$300—US$500 million in the
two years since 2013 (Hallaj 2015: 4).
Control over grain is an unusual activity
that forms part of organised crime in Syria.
Martínez and Eng (2017) provide a fasci-
nating account of the political capital that
bread provision holds in Syria, which helps
to explain why bakeries are often targets in
military campaigns. The subsidised provision
of bread has long been a corner stone of the
welfare state in Syria. As insurgent groups
took control of new territory, they contin-
ued the provision of this public good as part
of their ‘hearts and minds’ strategy. Various
armed groups in Syria have become involved
in a protection racket in the grain industry
where bakeries must pay for ‘protection’
from other groups. In other cases, insurgent
groups are directly involved in the milling of
grain themselves (Al-Abdeh 2013).
Kidnapping and hostage taking is another
common activity for those involved in organ-
ised crime in conflict zones. Both rebels and
state security forces in Syria are involved in
kidnapping and hostage taking. Ransoms are
often negotiated through chains of contacts
involving local peace committees (Hallaj
2015: 4). It is estimated that, in 2014, ISIS
earned US$45 million from ransoms (Lederer
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in Syria Art. 11, page 9 of 18
2014). Hostage taking is of huge symbolic
significance to terrorist groups, in particular:
it provides them with publicity and a psy-
chological advantage vis-à-vis their enemy.
In contrast to the indiscriminate nature of
terror attacks in general, terrorist groups are
generally selective in who they take as hos-
tages in order to maximise the publicity and
impact (Forest 2012).
This section described how a range of
conflict actors are involved in the very lucra-
tive illicit economy in Syria. These economic
activities vary from the highly profitable
extraction and trafficking in oil, to the illegal
trade in narcotics and antiquities; from con-
trol over grain and bread production to kid-
napping and hostage taking. The activities
discussed above are not necessarily exhaus-
tive of all illicit economic endeavours in this
conflict, but they illustrate the diversity and
complexity of the crime-conflict nexus in
Syria. There is evidence that the illicit econ-
omy has expanded since the outbreak of the
war and many of these activities are highly
lucrative. The following section provides an
explanation for this expansion of the illicit
economy during the civil war and consid-
ers how civil wars provide opportunities for
organised crime.
War Provides Opportunities for
Organised Crime
Several aspects of the Syrian war created an
environment that created further opportu-
nities for organised crime. These conditions
include a diminished state capacity, which
reduced opportunity costs for the illicit
economy; a population that faced unprec-
edented economic hardship which made
participation in the illicit economy attrac-
tive and the existence of armed groups who
needed to raise funds for weapons and other
war-related expenses (Usman and Khan
Firstly, armed conflicts weaken state legiti-
macy and capacity to function, and thus
provide opportunities for organised crime.
This lowers the opportunity costs for insur-
gents and civilians to become involved in
the illicit economy. It makes the black and
grey markets more attractive and viable
alternatives for civilians in need of consumer
goods and employment (Bosetti et al 2016: 3;
McMullin 2009: 85). The state diverts much
of its resources to the war, which reduces
its capacity for maintaining law and order.
Consequently, the state is less able to con-
trol borders and to contain illicit economic
Secondly, sanctions against the Syrian
government since 2011 contributed to fuel
shortages for households, a decline in oil rev-
enue and had a negative effect on the liveli-
hoods of poor Syrians, in particular (Nasser
et al 2013: 13). The sanctions, combined
with the general economic catastrophe that
accompanied the descent into war, stimu-
lated a demand for grey and black market
goods and provided incentives for the smug-
gling of consumables. Drug production and
trafficking, for example, provide profits for
insurgents with which to buy weapons and
to pay recruits. But, importantly, it also pro-
vides employment opportunities for civilians
(Clarke 2016: 3) who can become couriers,
be involved in the manufacturing process, or
sell the drugs.
The relationship between armed groups
and the communities where they operate
is central to understanding the opportuni-
ties which war presents for organised crime.
In her focus on the illegal drugs economy,
Felbab-Brown (2012: 4) argues that the non-
state armed groups provide security and act
as economic and political regulators to local
populations through their involvement in
the illicit economy: they protect the local
population’s livelihood from government
efforts to repress the illicit economy, they
mobilise revenues from these illicit activi-
ties towards social services and they pro-
tect local populations from other predatory
An example of how the population directly
benefits from the decentralisation of the
economy that characterises the crime-con-
flict nexus is again found in the oil industry
in Syria:
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in SyriaArt. 11, page 10 of 18
With the rebels selling a barrel of oil
for anything up to $22, refiners can
make a profit of 30 cents on every
litre of gasoline sold to the public.
Those who make their living from
road haulage and associated trades
have seen their business boom; body
shops, for instance, can’t keep up with
the demand from truckers who need
giant tanks fitted to the backs of their
vehicles. Unemployed young men can
now make a living selling fuel from
roadside kiosks, and mechanics have
plenty to do in repairing engines dam-
aged by the low-quality fuel. The free
market that the rebels have uncon-
sciously fostered is a win-win for
suppliers (the rebels themselves) and
consumers (everyone else) (Al-Abdeh
This illustrates how the insurgents’ stake in
the oil industry has created a range of eco-
nomic opportunities for civilians in Syria.
Armed groups expect to gain some level
of popular support (even if this support
is strategic and opportunistic, rather than
principled) in exchange for the economic
opportunities they provide.
Thirdly, as the greed thesis emphasises,
armed groups require funds in order to be
able to afford to wage war. The illegal econ-
omy gives non-state armed groups access to
resources that enable them to wage war. As
the earlier section has shown, it is not only
insurgents who turn to organised crime to
raise funds, but states do so, too. Sanctions
also affected the Syrian regime’s involve-
ment in the illicit economy as they became
forced to seek alternative intermediaries for
international transactions (Yazigi 2014). This
provided new opportunities for the culti-
vation of local and international networks
involving the state.
This section has considered the ways in
which war provides opportunities for organ-
ised crime in the Syrian context through: the
state’s weakened law enforcement capacity;
an economically vulnerable population that
creates domestic markets and participates
in the illicit economy; and the abundance of
armed groups that require an income. These
combined factors provide a suitable environ-
ment for organised crime to flourish.
Organised Crime Contributes to War
The flipside of how war creates opportuni-
ties for the illicit economy, lies in asking
how does organised crime contribute to the
conflict? An obvious contribution lies in the
funding streams it provides for rebel groups
and the government to buy weapons, pay
insurgents and help them to capture terri-
tory. This helps to prolong and intensify the
conflict. These funds also enable them to
provide political and social goods to commu-
nities, such as subsidising bread or setting
up local mechanisms for resolving disputes.
In exchange for these services, armed groups
receive protection, loyalty and cooperation
from local communities. It leads to a further
fragmentation of a central authority. This
section will illustrate how organised crime
during war is political: it enables the mate-
rial reproduction of armed political groups
and affects the socio-political infrastructure
of a society.
Clearly, militants in Syria— as in most con-
flicts— raise significant profits from their
involvement in the illicit market. We need
to consider how armed groups spend these
profits in order to understand the medium to
long-term impact of this symbiosis between
organised crime and armed conflict. Of
course, it is entirely plausible that a certain
amount of the profit disappears into the
pockets of powerful individuals. However,
much of armed groups’ expenditure goes
towards paying its supporters; the acquisi-
tion of weapons and technology needed to
fight the war; and lastly, into the institution-
building projects which many of the protag-
onists engage in.
One of the major expenses for armed
organisations in Syria are stipends for com-
batants. A new member of the FSA, for exam-
ple, would be paid $50 per month, but it is
well known that the Islamist organisations
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in Syria Art. 11, page 11 of 18
pay their members the highest salaries (Ohl
et al 2015: 8). ISIS fighters claim to receive
$100 per month from the organisation, in
addition to other privileges such as stipends
for their families or their rent and electricity
(Weiss and Hassan 2016: 338). It is impossi-
ble to know the exact numbers of ISIS fight-
ers, but estimates vary wildly between the 17
000 suggested by the Pentagon to 200,000
suggested by the Kurdish forces (Fromson
and Simon 2015: 9). Whatever the real figure
may be, if all the tens of thousands of sol-
diers receive similar benefits, the organisa-
tion’s monthly expenditure is significant.
Another obvious expense is weapons and
ammunition for military campaigns. Its
international allies, notably Russia, supply
the Assad regime with weapons (Cordesman
2015). However, the rebel groups tend to
use weapons from a variety of sources. Many
weapons are recycled from nearby conflicts
in Libya or Iraq (Robson 2015) or had origi-
nally been sold by European manufactur-
ers to other MENA countries such as Saudi
Arabia, Jordan and Qatar (Taylor 2015: 3).
There is clearly a great degree of recycling
and transferring of weapons which involves
international weapons smuggling networks.
Evidence shows that ammunition used early
in the Syrian conflict was manufactured in
a range of countries such as China, Sudan,
Romania and Iran (Jenzen-Jones 2014). The
varying suppliers and sources of weapons
used in the Syrian conflict points to a sophis-
ticated (and expensive) weapons trafficking
network which all groups tap into to con-
tinue their campaigns. Organised crime thus
contributes to the political struggle by ena-
bling armed groups to buy weapons and to
pay combatants.
Insurgent organisations often engage in
complex processes of institution-building and
service delivery in the areas which they dom-
inate. Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon,
for example, has established a sophisticated
network of organisations through which
they fund and manage schools, medical cen-
tres, urban infrastructure development pro-
jects and provide municipal services such
as garbage removal in the Shia areas under
their control (Flanigan and Abdel-Samad
2009; Harb 2008). It is crucial for armed
groups to enjoy some level of legitimacy and
acceptance in their communities. If the pop-
ulation does not acquiesce to their presence,
they will either withhold compliance with
taxation, production or conscription policies
directed by the military group, or they can
instigate a violent challenge to the group’s
presence in their community (Martínez and
Eng 2017: 2). Armed groups’ provision of
public and political goods is an important
technique for acquiring this tacit acceptance.
It is therefore unsurprising that insurgent
groups are keen to engage in some form of
institution-building in the regions where
they have established military control. The
notion of the caliphate is central to ISIS ideol-
ogy and means that the group has a dual pur-
pose of Jihad and state-building. The latter
implies governance and the delivery of pub-
lic services. In contrast to ISIS’s well-known
brutality, this use of soft power (the ‘carrot’
in the carrot-and-stick approach) is an impor-
tant part of their strategy for dominance
and control (Khalaf 2015; Lister 2015a: 49;
McCants 2015: 152).4 It provides not only an
extensive network of courts based on a very
strict form of Sharia law (Lister 2015a: 45),
but also schooling, medical care, public trans-
port, water and sanitation, flour for bakeries
and price caps on necessities such as bread
or rent (Lister 2015a: 47–8). Insurgents’ wel-
fare provision and governance roles are also
central to their long-term military success as
it creates an impression of a viable alterna-
tive to the existing regime and affirms their
political legitimacy (Martínez and Eng 2017).
The state and insurgents, alike, use the
funds raised through their involvement in
organised crime to pay combatants; buy
weapons and technology; and most impor-
tantly, to provide public and political goods
to the populations where they are based. The
provision of these social and political goods
is essential in acquiring legitimacy and sup-
port from the communities where they are
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in SyriaArt. 11, page 12 of 18
This article describes the range of activities
that constitute the war-time illicit econ-
omy in Syria. Various actors, including the
state, insurgents, and local populations are
involved in activities that include drug man-
ufacturing, oil trafficking, extortion and loot-
ing. Local populations are clearly important
in the crime-conflict nexus: inhabitants of
conflict areas directly participate in the illicit
economy. In return, they are the recipients of
political and social goods, which the armed
groups provide and which are funded by the
proceeds from organised crime.
The research shows how war provides
opportunities for organised crime by cre-
ating an environment where the central
authority is unable to regulate economic
activity within its borders. The economic
hardship facing populations during war
often leaves them with little choice but to
engage in organised crime – either as direct
participants in the activities, or as consum-
ers. Lastly, war facilitates organised crime
by creating a pool of armed political groups
who need to raise revenue in order to wage
war. These groups dominate and expand the
illicit markets.
In turn, organised crime also exacerbates
the conflict. Organised crime enhances an
armed group’s capacity for violence. It thus
affects the intensity and longevity of the war
by providing armed groups with revenue with
which to buy weapons to intensify their strug-
gle. Furthermore, it enables these groups to
engage in institution-building and to provide
social and political goods to the communities
where they are based. This can buy them loy-
alty, cooperation and protection from civilians.
This paper illustrated how militant groups
in the Syrian war succeed in straddling both
the political and criminal worlds. Organised
crime during war is undoubtedly political in
its effects. It enables armed groups to repro-
duce themselves materially, to build insti-
tutions and to gain some level of political
legitimacy and cooperation. Local popula-
tions are central to the crime-conflict nexus:
civilians provide markets and participants
to the illicit economy and they are the
beneficiaries of armed groups’ spending.
So, if war creates opportunities for crime,
and organised crime can drive war, then
where does that leave the prospect for peace
in Syria? It is not the intention of this paper
to engage in depth with the implications of
the crime-conflict nexus for peacebuilding,
but it will certainly affect the post-war state
and society.
Militants could be unwilling to negotiate an
end to the conflict, as peace (and the accom-
panying disarmament and demobilisation of
armed groups) will be bad for business. Armed
groups may actively resist or spoil peacemak-
ing and peacebuilding activities, because
their economic interests are so closely aligned
to the informal economy. Local populations
too, may be less enthusiastic about peace and
the economic uncertainty that it could bring.
It could lead to a strategic trade-off where
peace operations accept organised crime as
part of the political settlement to achieve
short-term stability. This could entrench
organised criminal structures into the post-
war state. Smuggling networks rely heavily
on the cultivation of political relationships
and these are likely to exploit the fragile post-
war context. In addition to these political-
criminal networks, the close relationships of
mutual dependency between civilians and
armed groups will probably continue amid
the unstable security, economic and political
contexts which often characterise immediate
post-war societies (Steenkamp 2009, 2014).
Peace processes in places as diverse as Bosnia-
Herzegovina, Northern Ireland and South
Africa have shown that peace could indeed
strengthen war-time criminal networks.
Insurgent groups leave behind formal and
informal institutions, which could become
an obstacle to the new post-war state’s
attempts to provide centralised governance.
It is unlikely that the future Syrian state will
resemble the centralised version that existed
before the war because of the way that the
conflict has fragmented authority, territo-
rial control and governance in the country.
The continuing relationships between local
Steenkamp: The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in Syria Art. 11, page 13 of 18
communities, politicians and armed groups
will pose a significant threat to the success of
peace operations (Kemp et al 2013) and may
well thwart efforts to establish a fair, transpar-
ent and effective post-war state and society.
1 The organisation is also known as the
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),
‘Islamic State’ or by the Arabic acronym
of ‘Daesh’.
2 This became known as the ‘greed vs griev-
ance’ debate in war causation literature,
but a deeper engagement with this debate
does not fall within the remit of the paper.
3 More detailed discussions of the causes
of the Syrian civil war can be found in
Sorensen (2016) and Erlich (2014).
4 ISIS’s effectiveness as a shadow state is
debatable (Fromson and Simon 2015: 38)
and some reports suggest that this might
not be as sustainable as initially declared
(Sly, 2014).
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How to cite this article: Steenkamp, C 2017 The Crime-Conict Nexus and the Civil War in
Stability: International Journal of Security& Development
6(1): 11, pp. 1–18, DOI: https://doi.
Submitted: 03 February 2017 Accepted: 18 June 2017 Published: 28 September 2017
Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Stability: International Journal of Security & Development
is a
peer-reviewed open access journal published by Ubiquity Press.
... Just as the community members in La Paz that were connected to gasoline smuggling by helping stockpile the product, in Syria, community members were also involved in related forms of business. This included transport and services, such as repairing engines damaged by the fuel of low quality, offering food, fuel, and other goods to smugglers along the road, or helping truckers fit large tanks to their vehicles (Steenkamp 2017). Likewise, one can distinguish among different forms of smuggling. ...
... On the other hand, large-scale smuggling has been controlled by more powerful and violent non-state groups, especially IS. The group controlled around 8% of Syria's oil fields and sold the oil in Syria and Iraq via brokers to local and international buyers (Steenkamp 2017). ...
... Just as the community members in La Paz that were connected to gasoline smuggling by helping stockpile the product, in Syria, community members were also involved in related forms of business. This included transport and services, such as repairing engines damaged by the fuel of low quality, offering food, fuel, and other goods to smugglers along the road, or helping truckers fit large tanks to their vehicles (Steenkamp 2017). Likewise, one can distinguish among different forms of smuggling. ...
... On the other hand, large-scale smuggling has been controlled by more powerful and violent non-state groups, especially IS. The group controlled around 8% of Syria's oil fields and sold the oil in Syria and Iraq via brokers to local and international buyers (Steenkamp 2017). ...
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Recent studies of civil war have problematized frameworks that rely on a strict binary between state-sanctioned order and anarchy. This paper extends these insights and combines them with theories of performativity to examine welfare practices during the Syrian conflict (2011-2015). Specifically, we argue that conceptualizing the state as a construct—as an effect of power—can expand the study of civil war beyond its quantifiable aspects and embrace the performative dimensions of political life. By means of everyday, iterative acts such as welfare provision, competing groups summon the state, and the political order it seeks to enshrine into existence: they make it both tangible and thinkable. During civil war, the ability to perform these prosaic acts becomes a matter of pressing military and political concern. Through close scrutiny of various cases, we dissect the impact of subsidized bread provision by the Assad regime, the Free Syrian Army and armed Islamist groups as they struggle to perform the state. Our aim is to bring attention to under-studied governance practices so as to analyze the otherwise opaque relations between welfare provision, military success and civilian agency during Syria’s civil war.
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Defining Hezbollah as a faith-based organization (FBO) may seem unusual as it is normally labelled by many Westerners as a terrorist organization and is thus rarely examined as an ‘ordinary’ or legitimate political player. Yet, this is the position I adopt here. This chapter considers Hezbollah as a Lebanese political party which has been in charge of the elaboration and implementation of development policies for middle and lower-income Shi’i groups for over 25 years. I will also analyse the role of Hezbollah’s affiliated institutions as FBOs and will argue that their successes in service provision and management makes them, in certain conditions, effective and accountable partners for development stakeholders. Before proceeding, I will briefly relate Hezbollah to the Lebanese political context.