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State weakening in Syria unearthed long-dormant processes of disenfranchisement, contributing to the regime’s loss of territory in the north-eastern half of the country. Out of this state weakening, two major armed non-state groups emerged: Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Both groups have uprooted the control tools and actors of the central authority, taking on an increasingly state-like dual role of security provision and day-to-day administration. How non-state armed groups emerge in the wake of state weakening is best conceptualized by David Kilcullen, who introduced the concept of ‘theory of competitive control’ to identify how challengers to state authority need to prove their capacity in administration. Kilcullen further argues that when states fail, whichever non-state actor emerges most capable of providing administration will convert the loyalties of the local population over time. This perspective is important to understand why Rojava and ISIS are long-term phenomena and will be impossible to eliminate through military-only methods.
Ortadoğu Etütleri
Anahtar Kelimeler: devlet başarısızlığı, devlet-dışı aktörler, IŞİD, PYD, Suriye
Suriye’de devlet zayıflaması, uzun süredir sessiz bir şekilde devam eden
mahrumiyetleri gün ışığına çıkartarak rejimin, ülkenin kuzey-doğusunda
güç kaybetmesine sebep oldu. Bu devlet zayıflamasından iki ana devlet-dışı
aktör ortaya çıktı: PYD ve IŞİD. İki grup da, ortaya çıktıkları bölgelerde
merkezi hükümetin kontrol mekanizmalarını devralarak bir nevi devlet-va-
ri bir idari performans sergilemiş ve bölgelerin günlük idaresini ele almış-
tır. Devlet-dışı aktörlerin belli bölgelerde nasıl devlet faaliyeti yürüttüğü
ve yerel halkın desteğini bu idari performans ile kazandığı konusunda en
yeni kavramsallaştırmalardan biri David Kilcullen’ın ‘rekabetçi kontrol
teorisi’dir. Bu teoriye göre devletler zayıfladığında hangi devlet-dışı aktör
idari altyapıyı oluşturacak şekilde bölge halkının taleplerini ve ihtiyaçlarını
karşılarsa, o bölgenin aidiyeti bir süre sonra bu gruba dönük olacaktır. Bu
teori hem PYD/YPG hem de IŞİD gibi grupların neden sadece askeri yön-
temlerle yenilemeyeceğini de açıklamaktadır.
      
         
             
   
July 2016
* Assistant Professor, Kadir
Has University.
An earlier version of this study
was presented at the 5th In-
ternational Conference on
Conflict, Terrorism and Soci-
ety, 12-13 April 2016, Kadir
Has University.
State weakening in Syria unearthed long-dormant
processes of disenfranchisement, contributing to
the regime’s loss of territory in the north-eastern
half of the country. Out of this state weakening,
two major armed non-state groups emerged:
Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Islamic
State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Both groups have
uprooted the control tools and actors of the cen-
tral authority, taking on an increasingly state-like
dual role of security provision and day-to-day
administration. How non-state armed groups
emerge in the wake of state weakening is best con-
ceptualized by David Kilcullen, who introduced
the concept of ‘theory of competitive control’ to
identify how challengers to state authority need
to prove their capacity in administration. Kilcul-
len further argues that when states fail, whichever
non-state actor emerges most capable of providing
administration will convert the loyalties of the lo-
cal population over time. is perspective is im-
portant to understand why Rojava and ISIS are
long-term phenomena and will be impossible to
eliminate through military-only methods.
Keywords: State failure, non-state actors, ISIS, PYD,
Ortadoğu Etütleri
Volume 8, No 1,
July 2016, pp.58-78
60 Ortadoğu Etütleri
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1. Introduction
e emergence of armed non-state groups since the end of the Cold War
inherits from the refocus of threat perceptions from systemic to national. Be-
reft of the imminent nuclear threat, which was a hallmark of the Cold War,
states had to deal with increasingly more difficult questions of legitimacy and
loyalty within their diverse demography, as well as maintaining a degree of
cosmopolitanism and openness to the world economy. States that had ad-
ministered over a high percentage of disenfranchisement, be it ideological,
identity-related or economic, have begun to see increasingly stronger forma-
tions of non-state armed groups as a form of state-society power negotiations.
Lack or insufficiency of legitimacy, thus, evolved into greater internal security
threats after the Cold War and generated a vicious circle of greater repression
and counter-violence by non-state armed groups in response. While states
could predominantly devise military-only strategies in response to these new
challenges, such strategies have paradoxically led to the strengthening and
endurance of the very groups that states sought to eliminate, mainly through
the transfer of knowledge, tactics and training. As states increasingly apply vi-
olent measures against questions of legitimacy, armed non-state groups begin
establishing self-defense zones within certain urban areas, initiating de facto
control zones.
Syrian Civil War brought back the debate on failed or weak states and
how such weakening or failure impact non-state actors. e ripple effect of
state weakness has been diagnosed by Robert I. Rothberg, who argued that a
state’s gradual demise leads to weakening in neighboring states as well.1 is,
according to Rothberg, happens because of how state weakening unearths
identity-based discontent within a territorial entity and how that discontent
affects people of the same or similar identity or ideology in the wider geopo-
litical space. In that, state weakening is a discontent exporting event, which
activates identity-based disenfranchisements in its surrounding environment,
leading to the emergence of transnational, identity-based conflicts. ese
challenges can be conceptualized as vertical (within a territorial entity) and
horizontal (between adjacent territorial entities) security dilemmas, as iden-
tified by Anthony Vinci, who further discussed how state weakening in one
territory leads to the emergence of armed groups that export such weakening
to adjacent territories.2 From the point of Vinci, lack of legitimacy in one state
automatically translates into a security problem for adjacent states over the
long-term. is has indeed been the case with the Islamic State in Iraq and
Syria (ISIS or Daesh) and Democratic Union Party (PYD -Partiya Yekîtiya
1 Robert Rothberg, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States” in Robert Rothberg (ed.) When States
Fail: Causes and Consequences, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003)
2 Antonio Vinci (2008) “Anarchy, Failed States, and Armed Groups: Reconsidering Conventional Anal-
ysis”, International Studies Quarterly, Volume 52, Issue 2, pp. 295–314
Weak States, Strong Non-State Actors: eory of Competitive Control in Northern Syria
July 2016
Demokrat), along with its military wing YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or
Peoples Protection Units) which emerged from the dual state weakening in
Syria and Iraq. It also gives us a good idea on why they compete horizontally
(with other non-state armed groups) and vertically (with the standing armies
of states they inhabit) not only through armed confrontation, but also prac-
tices or administration, taxation and territorial control.
2. eoretical Framework
Most non-state actors like ISIS and PYD-YPG inherit the capabilities of the
state they inhabit. Such inheritance can both be in the form of the know-how
of violence (recruitment, training, and deployment of armed units) and also of
administration (taxation, services provision, law and order). Klaus Schlichte
drew a blueprint of how non-state armed groups model the states they emerge
within and how within state institutions that the core skills needed for armed
rebellion are transmitted.3 A state possessing well-functioning military, insti-
tutional and knowledge capacity is not, by itself, a limiting factor to the emer-
gence of armed groups, if that capacity is tasked with dealing with a question
of legitimacy. Schlichte claims that states that lack democracy, always face
the challenge of facing their own capacity for violence in the form of internal
armed groups.4 e very military/security measures states take to subdue such
groups, without making progress in political representation, also paradoxical-
ly strengthen them, as new military knowledge, equipment and training types
travel well within a single border, in addition to such equipment being lost or
stolen in conflict. However, over time, non-state armed groups also start to
mimic the states they are fighting with, along with their ceremonial, symbolic
and mobilization procedures. is is why many armed non-state groups use
symbols associated with the states they are fighting against: flags, anthems
and, in some cases, their own currency, to foster group cohesion and accep-
tance. e methodical use of these symbols become more commonplace, as
armed groups begin administering territory and population, thus becoming
the main security providers of that area.5 In turn, such non-state groups be-
come proto-statelets and engage in a horizontal competition of territorial con-
trol with states.
Security provision and territorial control are interlinked, and this is per-
haps the most fundamental linkage in administrative competition. Robert
Bunker emphasized that the dual failure in Iraq and Syria has brought about
a three-tier process whereby, one, there is a consistent decline in the supply of
state protection, two, consistent increase in the demand for protection and,
3 Klaus Schlichte, In the Shadow of Violence: The Politics of Armed Groups, (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2009)
4 Ibid. p. 146-154
5 Sukanya Podder (2013). “Non-State Armed Groups and Stability: Reconsidering Legitimacy and In-
clusion”. Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 34, Issue 1, (2007) 16-39
62 Ortadoğu Etütleri
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three, sporadic increase in non-state actors’ supply of protection.6 e combi-
nation of these factors increasingly leads to the rise in demand for local armed
groups that behave like states by dislodging both the armed and non-armed
functions of the central authority. is brings two additional questions: one,
in terms of the Weberian notion on the monopoly of the use of force as a basic
form of legitimacy of a state and two, in terms of the Westphalian notion of
sovereignty, structured upon the presumed social contract (state’s main duty
is to protect citizens’ well-being and security) between those who govern and
those that are governed. In Weberian terms, the monopoly on the use of force
existed even in feudalism, where organized use of violence has been permitted
through a loose set of unwritten laws.7
Weber conceded that in modern state system, states are not the only sourc-
es of violence, but they are the only legitimate source of violence – an ob-
servation, which builds on Hobbesian and Machiavellian understandings of
statehood. While this view explains the relationship between states and their
legitimate use of violence for the most part of the 20th century, recurring
problems of legitimacy in the Middle East, which culminated with the Iraq
War in 2003 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011, have obscured such Weberian
interpretations. e Westphalian debate, on the other hand, where non-in-
tervention is the main structural norm of international relations, becomes
further complicated.8
If we are to see central authorities as the only sources of legitimacy in inter-
national relations, if they are the only sources of legitimate violence and if this
legitimacy acts as the foundation of our respect for non-intervention princi-
ple, what happens when these central authorities grow unable to respond to
the challenges of non-state actors and fail in establishing security in parts of
their legitimate territory? While this reasoning acts as the foundational logic
of the responsibility-to-protect (R2P) literature,9 that literature in turn, fails
to address a more local and existential problem of territorial control and ad-
e events that unfolded in Iraq and Syria in the last half decade demon-
strated that central governments are not necessarily the main source of stability
in world politics. Depending on regime type and depth of representation, cer-
tain governments can indeed export instability into its wider system through
exacerbating existing divisions. Once a disenfranchising central government
6 Robert Mandel, Global Security Upheaval: Armed Nonstate Groups Usurping State Stability Func-
tions, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013)
7 Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, (1921) p. 29
8 Andreas Osiander (2001). “Sovereignty, international relations, and the Westphalian myth”. Interna-
tional organization, Vol. 55, Issue 2, (2001) pp. 251-287.
9 See for example; Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The responsibility to protect”, Foreign Af-
fairs, Volume 81, Issue 6 (2002) pp. 1-8.
Weak States, Strong Non-State Actors: eory of Competitive Control in Northern Syria
July 2016
uses indiscriminate force on an essentially demographic problem, it paradox-
ically loses control over the territory and is forced to exert increasing strength
with increasingly low returns – a policy, which eventually departs from purely
rationalistic explanations of conflict. In this context, the dislodged state au-
thority gives way to a different form of legitimacy; that of armed non-state
actors providing both security and basic services to a limited population. is
creates a new form of relationship between local population that used to obey
the previous form of legitimacy (state-centric) and the newly emerging armed
non-state actors that come with their own symbols, ideology and objectives.
is transition between state and non-state types of legitimacy is particularly
difficult to situate in international law, which has traditionally been state-cen-
tric just like Weberian and Westphalian notions of sovereignty.
One of the theoretical approaches that aim to resolve this deadlock is Da-
vid Kilcullens ‘theory of competitive control’, which outlines how non-state
armed groups interact with the populations, which they control.10 In a nut-
shell, the theory predicts that in irregular conflicts the local armed actor that
a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent,
wide-spectrum normative system, namely a “set of behavioral rules correlated
with a set of predictable consequences” of control, is most likely to dominate
that population in its residential area and develop legitimacy.11
Kilcullens theory posits that in the absence of a central authority, armed
groups that best simulate state functions such as security, taxation, services
provision in a consistent and predictable fashion will, over time, successfully
steer that populations loyalties. Kilcullen’s definition of an armed non-state
actor is “any group that includes armed individuals who apply violence but
who arent members of the regular forces of a nation-state,12 which expands
as far as to street gangs, militias, insurgents and even pirates, rendering such
specific definitions irrelevant due to these groups’ performance of essentially
the same function.
While Kilcullen believes that armed non-state groups corrupt the social
fabric of the society by undermining the authority and legitimacy of a central
administration, and by creating a new social class which he terms as ‘conflict
entrepreneurs,13 he somehow contradicts himself by admitting that the very
emergence of such groups result from state weakening and malfunction to
begin with. In that, Kilcullen yields that such ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ feed on
the most disenfranchised segments of a population – those who have lost all
10 David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2015) pp. 116-169
11 Ibid. p. 132
12 Ibid. p. 126
13 Ibid. p. 66
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hope for the future and see war as the only way to achieve upward mobility
and in most cases, mere survival.
Kilcullens theory brings a new perspective into the study of statist theories
by arguing that the collapse of central state authority doesnt necessarily lead
to homo homini lupus in Hobbesian sense, nor will it shatter the very foun-
dations of a society in Machiavellian view, but may in certain circumstances,
lead to the emergence of local buffer institutions (such as non-state armed
actors) that fill-in to provide security and services.
Kilcullen also localizes its analysis of conflict entrepreneurs. In his view,
just as city-states in history have developed a largely autonomous profile, be-
coming centers of arts, culture and science of their time, the rise of non-state
armed groups have created militancy city-states that have grown into ‘urban
no-go areas.’ Able to defend entire districts and, in some cases the entire city,
from organized state military and police forces, these urban no-go areas be-
come “safe havens for criminal networks or non-state armed groups, creating
a vacuum that is filled by local youth who have no shortage of grievances,
whether arising from their new urban circumstances or imported from their
home villages.”14
e theory of competitive control thus conceptualizes the emerging se-
curity question posed by ungoverned spaces, both for their respective central
governments and for the regional security of their strategic habitus. Regardless
of whether they are supportive of, or against, Western military intervention,
all non-state armed groups have demonstrated similar patterns of behavior
with regard to establishing alternative regimes and localized control zones.
RAND defines ‘ungoverned spaces’ as: “… failed or failing states, poorly con-
trolled land or maritime borders, or areas within otherwise viable states where
the central government’s authority does not extend.”15 US Department of
Defense on the other hand offer this definition:
A place where the state or the central government is unable or unwilling to ex-
tend control, effectively govern, or influence the local population, and where a
provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous government does not fully or effectively
govern, due to inadequate governance capacity, insufficient political will, gaps in
legitimacy, the presence of conflict, or restrictive norms of behavior… the term
‘ungoverned areas’ encompasses under-governed, misgoverned, contested, and
exploitable areas as well as ungoverned areas.16
14 Ibid. p. 40
15 Rand Corporation, “Ungoverned Territories: Unique Front in the War on Terrorism”. RAND Project
Air Force Reseach Brief #233, (2007)
[] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
16 Robert D. Lamb, “Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens – Final Report of the Ungov-
erned Areas Project.” Prepared for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy by the Office of
Weak States, Strong Non-State Actors: eory of Competitive Control in Northern Syria
July 2016
Competitive control for the administration of ungoverned spaces can be
especially useful in explaining how issue and policy compartmentalizations
occur. For example, a non-state group can provide local security, food and
garbage disposal, whereas a state can still be providing electricity, water and
banking services. is equilibrium between state and non-state administra-
tion can range from ghetto-ization, where non-state groups maintain security
in small districts and streets, to full state collapse, where non-state actors pro-
vide all components of administration, including infrastructure, municipality
and financial services. One of the best examples to this was the case of Mosul,
where civil servants continued to receive salaries from Baghdad, long after the
capture of the city by ISIS.17 In other words, the extent to which non-state
actors assume state-like roles depends entirely on the relative balance of power
between those actors and standing armies of states.
With the onset of the Syrian Civil War, local and external pressures have
led to a weakening of state authority in Syria. Following the emergence of
numerous armed groups, the Islamic State proclaimed itself a caliphate in
June 2014, rapidly expanding in territorial control and number of people it
brought under control in Syria and Iraq. Likewise, in 2014, Syrian Kurdish
groups under the control of PYD have expanded along the Turkish border
and consolidated a formidable amount of territory there. Both ISIS and PYD
thus merit deeper research into how they manage and oversee their territorial
gains, how they consolidate populations and how they administer them.
3. Dawa and Hisba: How ISIS Controls and Administers
e most comprehensive study on the territorial methodology of ISIS was
conducted by Aaron Zelin.18 Zelin divides his study into pre- and post-terri-
torial control methodologies, explaining how and where ISIS decides to ex-
pand, and how the territory it has expanded determines its administrative
style. Within pre- and post-territorial control types, there are five different
approaches: ‘intelligence, military, dawa (missionary activities), hisba (moral
policing and consumer protection), and governance.’19
In Zelin’s account, the first phase includes sleeper cell implantation and
infiltrating other armed groups, as well as ‘buying’ local clans and smaller
the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, as quoted in: David Fisher and Cristina
Mercado, “Competitive Control: How to Evaluate the Threats Posed by Ungoverned Spaces”, Small Wars
Journal. (2007)
17 Isabel Coles, “Despair, hardship as Iraq cuts off wages in Islamic State cities”. Reuters, (2 October
2015) []
(Accessed: 19 June 2016)
18 Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Territorial Methodology”. Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Research Note No. 29 (January 2016) [
ResearchNote29-Zelin.pdf] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
19 Ibid. pp. 1-3
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insurgents. is takes place through the pledging of allegiance (baya) to Abu
Bakr al-Baghdadi, after which training camps begin to form, which is the final
step of the first phase. In the second phase, which the group defines as ‘dawa
program’, IS commences outreach to establish communications with the local
populace – from ‘softer’ methods such as games and competitions to more
direct methods as literature and pamphlet distribution as a way of conducting
initial propaganda and image building.
A dedicated PR office, which organizes meals and gatherings with pow-
erful tribes and notables is also part of this process. In the third phase, the
organization begins taxing the population and enforces law through dedicated
legal outlets, with specific attention to resolving long-standing disputes as a
way of demonstrating administrative capacity. In post-territorial control, i.e.,
after ISIS establishes initial control of a recently expanded territory, it begins
to rule the area as a state-like entity, extracting resources (manpower, capital
and supplies) while exercising a more direct application of its ideology, in
terms of cultural codes and production maximization.
Zelin posits that once ISIS establishes stronger control over a territory, it
starts to fight with heavier weapons and equipment from there, assuming an
open warfare posture. While the softer, initial contact method of dawa en-
ables ISIS to control the territory, the next hisba phase introduces penalties,
punishments and stricter interpretation and enforcement of cultural norms.
Final forms of control include raising ISIS black flag in the city, in important
buildings, lamp posts and key public areas and manufacturing custom road
signs as a form of municipality work and demonstrating bid for statehood.
In more extreme cases, ISIS also changes the name of the town it successfully
employed all components of administration.
In demonstrating its competence as a source of administration, ISIS en-
gages in substantial municipality work; from paving the roads to fixing electric
and phone lines, to garbage collection and ‘beautification’ projects, including
new mosque, market and shop constructions. As a form of communicating to
the local populace that ISIS’ arrival effectively ends the conflict and provides
safety (one of the most welcome changes to a population under prolonged
duress), the group also restarts industries (quarries, poultry farms, glass, brick
and wood workshops) that halted due to conflict. Mass-production of food
– especially bread, rice and potato – is also one of the final phases of ISIS
administrative methodology.
4. Social Economy and Cooperatives: How PYD Administers
Syrian Civil War has allowed the Kurds to benefit from the disappearance of
borders. PYD and YPG, with differing levels of connections to the outlawed
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have already redrawn the map of northern
Syria, establishing a de facto control zone – Rojava. Assisted by US air strikes,
Weak States, Strong Non-State Actors: eory of Competitive Control in Northern Syria
July 2016
PYD has managed to push back the Islamic State and acquire a territorial
form, albeit at a high human cost. Nonetheless, the goal of establishing an
autonomous, self-administered territory has so far enabled PYD to mobilize
some segment of the Syrian Kurds to keep fighting and take territory from
both ISIS and the Assad regime.
PYD doesnt have the kind of maximalist expansion aims like ISIS. Rather,
PYD has so far acted in more minimalist terms, aiming to capitalize on an
ethno-nationalist territorialization, where Kurdish demography renders PYD
presence conducive. In that, PYD doesn’t enjoy a large territory like ISIS, but
benefits from greater consolidation and support, owing to ethno-nationalist
and ideological cohesion. is in turn means that PYD has less incentive to
focus on pre-territorial control methods like intelligence gathering and pro-
paganda, and more on administration and consolidation. Indeed, as PYD
expands into territories with a larger majority of Kurdish population, there is
faster and easier consolidation of administration, whereas as it expands into
more ethnically mixed areas, it is forced to fine tune and improvise its ap-
proach. Following its territorial gains after its capture of Tal Abyad from ISIS
in the summer 2015, it has rapidly expanded territory in ethnically mixed
areas, which posed a challenge to its initial model.
First types of administrative action PYD takes is to establish a framework
for municipality and infrastructure projects. Akram Hasso, PYD’s self-de-
clared Prime Minister, has defined these project types as “health, sewerage,
medical, agricultural projects, and local municipality services [such as asphalt
road connections].20 Rojava Kurds believe that their region was left backward
deliberately by the Assad regime for decades, which led to the region’s devel-
opment of a kind of colonial relationship to Damascus by supplying wheat,
cotton and oil.21 In return, however, there are few factories, infrastructure or
workshops built by the regime, as the Damascus has attempted to deny fur-
ther development in bid to restrict the Kurds’ ability to generate extra resourc-
es that may be used in rebellion against the state. is one-sided arrangement,
according to the discourse of Rojava, had led to the emergence of private fief-
doms, controlled by pro-government officials, all of which fled after the onset
of the civil war, leaving a backward and mal-administered territory behind.22
20 Tom Perry, “Syrian Kurds’ spending plans reflect rising ambition”. Reuters. (28 July 2015) [http://] (Accessed: 19
June 2016)
21 Carne Ross, “The Kurds’ Democratic Experiment”. New York Times. (30 September 2015) [http://] (Accessed: 19 June
22 Erika Solomon “Amid Syria’s violence, Kurds carve out autonomy”. Reuters. (22 January 2014)
[] (Ac-
cessed: 19 June 2016)
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In order to re-create administration in a region that had poor connection
to the nations capital, PYD emphasizes ‘social economy’ – a combination
of cooperatives across economic sectors in order to meet basic supplies of
food and fuel.23 e idea of a cooperative, as well as ‘social economy,’ import
a lot from the Soviet concept of kolkhoz24 as well as its Israeli counterpart,
kibbutz,25 both of which have been integral components of early state- and
community-building in both countries. e idea of self-governing farming
collectives has thus been central to Rojava’s political economy and act as a
pivot towards possible statehood.26
If statehood is not achieved, then, collectives are still integral to Rojava, as
they will be the basis of economic independence from any central administra-
tion. Rations of food, produced by these collectives have both been used to
supply adjacent collectives, and also wider towns and villages as well, render-
ing these collectives integral to food security for a larger area. In that, Rojava
revolution has also been – among other things – a land re-appropriation proj-
ect from former government-controlled fiefdoms into self-governing farming
collectives that feed their immediate neighborhoods.27
is is indeed a socialist experiment, as one of the stated aims of the revo-
lution has been the eventual connection of cooperatives into a larger network
economy, within which money is either minimized or eliminated altogether.28
In the town of Derik (within Jazira canton), for example, as of September
2014, municipality payment for the employees were made based on need
(number of dependents), rather than merit, and establishment of food aid
networks across communes and municipality workers were also conducted in
a similar fashion.29
At the time of writing this article, Syrian currency was still used in PYD-ad-
ministered areas and loans were made – albeit, without interest.30 While the
23 Ahmed Yousef, “The Social Economy in Rojava”. FairCoop, (11 October 2016) [
the-social-economy-in-rojava/] (Accessed: 26 October 2016)
24 Tomasso Trevisani, “After the Kolkhoz: rural elites in competition”. Central Asian Survey, Volume 26,
Issue 1, (2007) pp. 85-104.
25 Yonina Talmon, Family and Community in the Kibbutz. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
26 On Rojava’s economy, one of the best accounts is ANF’s interview with Ahmet Yusuf, who was made
President of the Committee On Economy and Trade of the Afrin Autonomous Canton. See: Seyit Evran,
“Dr. Yusuf: Rojava’s Economic Model is a Communal Model”. Fırat News Agency (ANF), (14 September
2014). Available at: [
el-is-a-communal-model/] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
27 Ibid.
28 Joseph Kay, “Rojava Economy and Class Structure”. LibCom.Org, (17 October 2014) [http://kurd-] (Ac-
cessed: 19 June 2016)
29 Ibid.
30 Evran, 2014
Weak States, Strong Non-State Actors: eory of Competitive Control in Northern Syria
July 2016
model seems to be working for now and in smaller administrative areas, it
poses questions over the future of banking and finance – two essential eco-
nomic questions if the PYD project pushed to administer over a larger popu-
lation and territory, which seeks sustainability.
5. Comparing and Contrasting ISIS and PYD’s Competitive Control
eory of competitive control helps us understand why ISIS and PYD are
both long-term and local phenomena. As the level of analysis problem in
modern conflicts are reduced to the size of cities and even districts, under-
standing competition for territorial control through administrative practice is
key. In that, a military-only thinking of both organizations prevents a proper
contextualization of why they have sustained popular support and social base.
Both groups construct authority based on coercive, persuasive and adminis-
trative approaches in which intertwined and dynamic processes of conflicts
co-exist. In comparing and contrasting both groups’ territorial methods, two
layers of analysis are required: population-economy (resources) and central-
ization-autonomy (type of rule).
In terms of resources, ISIS controls both a larger territory and population,
as well as a more expansive economy. In February 2015, Daveed Garten-
stein-Ross estimated that ISIS rules over a population of around 6,750,000;
2,247,000 of which is in Syria and 3,900,000 - 4,600,000 living in Iraq.31 In
Syria, the most concentrated ISIS population centers are Raqqa (around 1
million) and Dair az-Zor Province (also around 1 million) in Syria, whereas
in Iraq these are Ninawa Province (1,480,000) and parts of Kirkuk, including
al-Dibs, Daquq and Hawija (525,000).32 For PYD-controlled areas, on the
other hand, one of the earliest measurements of population was 4,6 million as
of late 2014, based on New World Academy report,33 although a more recent
census has been unforthcoming. Even with the 2014 figure, an important
majority of those are thought of as internally displaced people. In Rojava, the
most populated cantons are Jazira (1.5 million), Kobani (1 million) and Afrin
(1.3 million) as of May 2014.34 Both groups control similar sizes of popula-
tion and, in that regard, identifying a clear long-term demographic winner
is difficult at this point. At a time when a proper census is unforthcoming, a
31 David Gartenstein-Ross, “How many fighters does the Islamic State really have?”. War on the Rocks.
(9 February 2015) [
ly-have/] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
32 Ibid.
33 Reneé in der Maur and Jonas Staal (eds.) Stateless Democracy, (Utrecht: New World Academy, 2015)
[] (Accessed:
19 June 2016)
34 “Canton Based Democratic Autonomy of Rojava”. Kurdistan National Congress (KNK). (May 2014)
[] (Accessed:
19 June 2016)
70 Ortadoğu Etütleri
Akın Ünver
statistical survey on the birthrates – a reliable measurement of long-term de-
mography – is also hard to conduct. erefore, based on available data, ISIS
and Rojava seem to be tied down in a draw over competition for demographic
superiority. Nonetheless, the territorial gains of PYD at the expense of ISIS in
Syria and the rollback of ISIS in Iraq is likely to change this picture.
In terms of financial resources, there is a more complicated picture. In
December 2015, Financial Times ran one of the most detailed accounts of
ISIS finances, including provincial microeconomic policy.35 ere are two
types of economy in ISIS run parts of Iraq and Syria – for ISIS members and
outsiders. According to FT account, prices for commodity goods and services
for ISIS members are about half of outsider prices. Rather than maintaining
and improving existing economy in administered territories, ISIS has so far
relied more on conquest economy, where confiscation and re-appropriation of
newly acquired resources have generated more revenue than the sale of oil or
taxation.36 ISIS employs a governor (or wali), who coordinates the local Zakat
Council, which in turn collects tax, depending on the territory’s income and
level of loyalty. Taxation includes cash, as well as grain and cotton. Zakat is
taken at a 2.5% rate from all businesses regardless of size – regular grain is
taxed 5% and rain-fed corps is taxed 10%.37 In generating a sanction-proof
economy, ISIS has structured its financial system in a way that sanctions hurt
the population more than ISIS leadership or militant network – this is also
part of ISIS military strategy, whereby it has successfully embedded its com-
mand rooms inside dense civilian areas, rendering it costly to hit through
aerial bombing.38 is dual military-financial embedding into civilian areas
ensure public support (or at least loyalty) to the organization, while prevent-
ing break-aways or external pressures to destabilize the group’s control.39
As far as economy in PYD-controlled areas is concerned, there are multiple
insider accounts from different cantons. As solidarity economy and coopera-
tives are based on the idea of political autonomy and de-centralization, a fixed
35 Sam Jones and Erika Solomon, “ISIS Inc: Jihadis fund war machine but squeeze citizens”. Financial
Times. (15 December 2015) [
html#axzz4C2haXZPo] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
36 Erika Solomon and Sam Jones, “ISIS Inc: Loot and taxes keep jihadi economy churning”. Financial
Times (14 December 2016) [
html#axzz4C2haXZPo] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
37 Jose Pagliery, “Inside the $2 billion ISIS war machine”. CNN Money. (11 December 2015) [http://] (Accessed: 19
June 2016)
38 Karoun Demirjian, “Congress wants to strengthen financial sanctions against ISIS”. The Washington
Post. (24 December 2015) [
gress-wants-to-strengthen-financial-sanctions-against-isis/] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
39 Jonah Goldberg, “US Mandates ISIS embed deeper into civilian populations”. National Review.
(24 June 2015) [
ian-populations-jonah-goldberg] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
Weak States, Strong Non-State Actors: eory of Competitive Control in Northern Syria
July 2016
policy is difficult to track. Rojava’s Constitution40 specifically states a pref-
erence for democratic autonomy over the homogeneity of the nation-state,
while equally emphasizing ‘not being opposed to the state’ and ‘not seeking
to form a state’, meaning its understanding of autonomy is not against terri-
torial integrity of neighboring countries. Contrasting with ISIS’s understand-
ing of ownership, PYD governance pursues a pro-private property approach,
somewhat contradicting the socialist foundations of its collective communal-
ization system.41 Rather than taxation or zakat, however, PYD focuses more
on collective production – collective consumption and the eventual goal of
minimizing the role of currency in economy.42 Overall, however, given the
proximity of the main population centers to conflict and different practices of
economic policy in the cantons, a clear-cut, functioning economic policy is
difficult to identify there, in contrast to ISIS’s economic policy, which is more
centrally administered.
As far as population and economy are concerned, it is hard to identify a
clear long-term winner between ISIS and PYD. Both groups have only recent-
ly emerged from what Kilcullen defines as ‘shadow governance’43 (which exists
in parallel to the reach of a central authority) to active governance (where cen-
tral authority does not exist). While ISIS controls a larger population, its rigid
conquest economy creates too many disenfranchisements away from these
territories, inevitably leading to economic shrinkage. Indeed, ISIS has already
begun banning travels outside its control zones (Dar al-Harb) following large
numbers of defections of people whose properties were confiscated from cities
under its control.44
To that extent, ISIS’ economic survival depends on constant conquest, for
its economic administration and taxation policy not only prevents further de-
velopment of businesses and workshops into more advanced forms of produc-
tion, but it also structured the very basis of its economy on the accumulation
of outside resources, such as pillaging and extortion. PYD governance, on the
other hand, seems to be more understanding of the necessity of attracting
capital, rather than overtax or restrict the movement of goods and services.
However, its co-op economy may run into bigger problems as territory and
40 Charter of the Social Contract in Rojava (Syria), available online: [
charter-of-the-social-contract/] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
41 C. Massey (2016) “A new co-operative economy: Democratic confederalism in Rojava and Bakur”. Insti-
tute for Solidarity Economics. (7 June 2016) [
erative-economy-democratic-confederalism-in-rojava-and-bakur/] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
42 Evran, 2014
43 Kilcullen, 151
44 Lizzie Dearden, “Isis ‘bans all Christians from leaving Raqqa’ as military operations against group
intensify in Syria”. The Independent. (31 March 2016) [
in-syria-a6962331.html](Accessed: 19 June 2016)
72 Ortadoğu Etütleri
Akın Ünver
population expands into a size, which may require more efficient financial
planning. In addition, PYD itself is not immune from accusations of extor-
tion and other abuses of power,45 which may complicate its bid to emerge as
a more progressive and accommodating alternative to ISIS. Nonetheless, both
ISIS and PYD have effectively filled-in the need for the administration of ba-
sic goods and services in a conflict setting, providing security, food and basic
activities of livelihood to an otherwise ungoverned territory.
In terms of political administration, ISIS favors direct centralization,
whereas PYD is the complete opposite, advocating canton-style autonomy.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi made a detailed account of the evolution in ISIS’
administration, tracking it back to 2006, when the group was a fringe orga-
nization in Iraq.46 ISIS adopts a mixture of technocratic and ideological ap-
proach to appointments, where ‘important’ ministries such as oil and health
were headed by engineers and doctors with due specialization. By 2014, ISIS
had already developed an administrative model with 14 ‘ministries,’ including
education, resources, currency, public relations and agriculture.47
Strong cultural adherence is required in the application of such adminis-
tration, such as a common policy on Zakat, or other practices such as the clo-
sure of businesses during prayer times. In the application of administration,
harsh justice and rigid religious-legal apparatus have helped to bring order in
ISIS controlled places that have suffered from extended fighting. ISIS’s cen-
tralization becomes easier to enforce as warring sides have been fully polarized
across clear-cut trenches, unlike the fragmented picture that emerged soon
after the Iraq War in 2003. Also, the populace is more war-weary now, com-
pared to 2003 and is more receptive to the idea of harsh justice in exchange
for security and basic stability. In that, the structure of ISIS administration
has a clear-cut hierarchy, where Caliph is the ultimate source of authority,
which rules over a cabinet of advisors. In turn, the Caliph has two deputies,
one for Syria and one for Iraq, each of which rule over 12 governors in Syria
and 12 in Iraq. A separate Shura Council, which administers religious and
military affairs counsel both the Caliph and his deputies.48
45 “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-run Enclaves of Syria”. Human Rights Watch. (19 June 2014).
[] (Accessed:
19 June 2016)
46 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (2015) “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documenta-
ry Evidence”, Perspective on Terrorism. (5 August 2015) [
tration-evolution] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
47 Ibid.
48 Nick Thompson and Atika Shubert. “The anatomy of ISIS: How the ‘Islamic State’ is run, from oil
to beheadings”. CNN International Edition. (14 January 2015). [
world/meast/isis-syria-iraq-hierarchy/] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
Weak States, Strong Non-State Actors: eory of Competitive Control in Northern Syria
July 2016
Rojava, on the other hand, has a different structure, which follows an in-
terlinked set up of institutions that address administration at different levels.49
While different cantons have individual models, the best-defined example is
the Jazira administration, where Executive Council acts as a government with
22 ministries, with a Kurdish President and two deputies – one Arab and one
Syriac. A Judicial Council oversees legal processes, whereas a Supreme Con-
stitutional Court and High Commission of Election act within a checks and
balances system. For the Legislative Council, made up of 101 members, and
the Judicial Council, Supreme Constitutional Court and High Commission
of Election, there is a gender quota of at least %40 women. In addition, there
is also a Local Administration Council, which handles local affairs in 10 cities
of the Jazira Canton. Yet, the planned structure is currently lagging behind,
due to the persistence of the conflict and the proximity of population centers
to active combat. In addition, despite an autonomous and loosely linked de-
cision-making, the ‘Rojava project’ is still viewed by different groups of Kurds
as a ‘PYD project,’ which prevents further consolidation and unification.50
Other criticisms exist in terms of Rojava project being ‘too ethno-nationalist,’
as well as denouncement for being too rigid from its ideological standpoint
and its harsh stance against other local Kurdish political parties.51
6. Conclusion
is article aimed to outline David Kilcullen’s theory of competitive control
by focusing on Rojava and ISIS administrative models. Ungoverned spaces
are becoming increasingly important in the study of modern conflicts, where
non-state armed actors establish no-go zones in parts of urban centers. In Syr-
ia case, such no-go zones achieve a larger territorial expression as the weaken-
ing of central authorities necessitate the emergence of non-state armed groups
that are expected to grow out of their role as mere security providers and
take on more elaborate set of administrative duties. In Kilcullen’s analysis,
‘whichever actor takes on the wider range of capabilities, covering more of the
spectrum from persuasion to coercion’ will dominate a particular territory,
uproot central state authority and redirect the loyalties of the local populace.
Both ISIS and PYD have been developing administrative models for a
long period of time, as the methods and tools they use have been honed and
tested against multiple scenarios. For ISIS, administrative experimentation
go back to the Iraq War in 2003, when the fragmentation of the war brought
49 Kurdistan National Congress, p. 15
50 “Kurdish National Council in Syria condemns federalism declaration by Kurdish rival” ARA News.
(19 March 2016) [
ism-declaration-kurdish-rival/] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
51 Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, “This is a new Syria, not a new Kurdistan”. Middle East Eye. (17 March
2016) [] (Accessed: 19 June
74 Ortadoğu Etütleri
Akın Ünver
the necessity of strengthening the Sunni bid for statehood with a more suc-
cessful practice of administration. For PYD, on the other hand, the ‘Rojava
experiment’ go as far back as to 1999, when outlawed PKK’s leader Abdullah
Öcalan had outlined the basic premises of administration and state-building
in Kobani.52
ISIS has a more expansive, conquest-based approach to administration
with clear-cut methodologies on pre- and post-territorial control. With in-
telligence, network-building, propaganda and municipality approaches, the
group follows a direct hierarchy and a well-defined standard operating pro-
cedure. PYD project, on the other hand, defines its territorial aims in a more
limited fashion, aiming to capitalize on Kurdish-majority territories along the
Turkish-Syrian border and connect all three cantons of Rojava into a single
territorial expression. It has a more fragmented decision-making system where
autonomy, self-rule and gender equality in political participation are prized.
In terms of resources, both ISIS and PYD control comparable portions
of population, where ISIS administers over a negative demography (where
incentive to flee is greater), whereas PYD rules over static one (where those
that flee and join leave the population in equilibrium). In terms of economic
resource-generation, ISIS has more resources, but less incentive to cultivate/
maximize them, instead of focusing on conquest economy. PYD, on the oth-
er hand, focuses more on the cultivation and efficiency of existing resources
through the establishment of communes where resources are produced and
consumed based on ability and need, respectively. While both groups use cur-
rency and lending, PYD seeks to minimize and eliminate currency and mon-
etary interest as a form of resource.
To conclude, theory of competitive control is a crucial approach that
explains why both ISIS and PYD will not be eliminated through military
means. Both groups have entrenched themselves into their respective popula-
tions through the complex use of security, financial and administrative tools.
Both groups have successfully challenged weakening state authority in Syria
and capitalized on the populations demand for security and stability in order
to pursue their political goals. Over time, the debate over PYD and ISIS will
shape along the lines, of which ideology and administrative style fits best to
the demands of their populations and their geopolitical necessities, as well as
which group will leave a lasting legacy in the region – regardless of whether
Syria disintegrates, or a new political arrangement is made at the end of the
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Throughout the humanitarian crises of the 1990s, the international community failed to come up with rules on how and when to intervene, and under whose authority. Despite the new focus on terrorism, these debates will not go away. The issue must be reframed as an argument not about the "right to intervene" but about the "responsibility to protect" that all sovereign states owe to their citizens.
Events such as the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria have created an urgent need for the international community to engage with a range of armed groups during and after conflict. This engagement extends beyond humanitarian, conflict resolution and counter-terrorism ends to issues of democratization and political transition of such groups in legitimate, stable, and inclusive governments. This article underlines the need to reconsider post-counter-terrorism engagement styles, which frame non-state armed groups (NSAGs) exclusively as spoilers, and stresses opportunities for state-building partnership that certain NSAGs offer. Towards this end, this article emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between different types of NSAGs, based on their sources of legitimacy, resources, reliability, and partnering potential. It concludes with four entry points that promise a strong basis for incorporating ‘legitimacy, inclusion, and resource’ considerations into the planning and implementation of future state-building efforts.
Systemic theories of international politics divide the world into anarchic and hierarchic systems. Conventionally, the boundary of each system is based on juridically defined territorial borders. This article argues that within collapsed and “fragmented” states there exist autonomous armed groups, which make these states by definition anarchic systems. Unlike earlier accounts of such “domestic anarchy,” this article argues that the domestic anarchy is “open” or connected to the international anarchic system. By taking this approach, it is possible to integrate the theoretical understanding of the relations between armed groups and (external) states. Specifically, the article illustrates how there can be “mixed security dilemmas” between states and armed groups, and that other theoretical concepts usually reserved for describing interstate relations can potentially be used to describe state-armed group relations.
3rd Print Bibliogr. s. 253-260
The 350th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia in 1998 was markedby a flurry of conferences and publications by historians, but it waslargely ignored in the discipline of international relations (IR). Thisoversight is odd because in IR the end of the Thirty Years War isregarded as the beginning of the international system with which thediscipline has traditionally dealt. Indeed, the international system hasbeen named for the 1648 peace. For some time now, this Westphaliansystem, along with the concept of sovereignty at its core, has been asubject of debate: Are the pillars of the Westphalian templedecaying ? Are we moving beyond Westphalia ?
ISIS Inc: Jihadis fund war machine but squeeze citizens
  • S Jones
  • E Solomon
Jones, S. and E. Solomon (2015) "ISIS Inc: Jihadis fund war machine but squeeze citizens". Financial Times. [] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
ISIS Inc: Loot and taxes keep jihadi economy churning
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Erika Solomon and Sam Jones, "ISIS Inc: Loot and taxes keep jihadi economy churning". Financial Times (14 December 2016) [ html#axzz4C2haXZPo] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)
Inside the $2 billion ISIS war machine
  • Jose Pagliery
Jose Pagliery, "Inside the $2 billion ISIS war machine". CNN Money. (11 December 2015) [http://] (Accessed: 19 June 2016)