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Struggling to Perform the State: The Politics of Bread in the Syrian Civil War

José Ciro Martínez, Brent Eng
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ips/olw026 olw026 First published online: 9 January 2017

Abstract

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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