The pattern of conflict in the Syrian civil war is strongly influenced by the agro-city regional organization of the country. Fighting has generally started in rural regions that fall out of direct Syrian military control, and then spreads to large market towns where Syrian military control is more concentrated but made tenuous by the rural base of operations of armed opposition groups. Urban areas that serve as hubs of agro-city regions are then affected by the conflict as their restive suburbs, where much of Syria's disenfranchised, rural population came to be concentrated in the last decade, or city quarters with social linkages to rebelling regions around the urban area, fall into opposition control. Thus, more than just a "rural insurgency," Syria's civil war is an "agro-city conflict" in which rural and urban social linkages cannot be easily disaggregated from one another.
In conducting fieldwork in Lebanon and Syria, I can attest that Syrians still view their strongest social and socio-econmic relationships to greater Syrian society through the framework of agro-city regions. Often, these relationships are indicated through strong identity with the family, clan, or tribe of the person being interviewed, and then with the village, market town, or urban quarter in the agro-city region's major urban area where the person's relatives were concentrated. While their Syrian nationality was generally never questioned as an authentic form of identity, the strongest identity affiliation of those interviewed was familial, local, and regional.
The current conflict in Syria is shaped by these affiliations. In general, Syrian armed opposition groups, including defected soldiers that do not have a strong identity with the particular unit that they defected from, are organized against the al-Assad government on the local level in their area of origin. Most armed opposition groups operate either in the area of their mobilization to defend their homes which are situated in a village, market town, or urban quarter, or attack Syrian military targets near their home areas. When engaging in larger operations, they most often choose to fight for the control of larger, strategic market towns or the agro-city regional urban hub closest to them.
This reality is demonstrated by the prevalence of opposition kata'ib (battalions), which are organized on the local level with, at best, agro-city regional area of operations. Many local kata'ib then choose to affiliate with larger armed opposition coalitions such as the Syrian Islamic Front, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool (The Descendants of the Prophet), Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army. While affiliated to large opposition movements, local kata'ib can, and do, demonstrate their autonomy and can "defect" from these armed opposition coalitions at any time based upon the predilection of their leadership or the desires of their fighters. Syria's civil war, like those of Libya, Iraq, and Lebanon before it, is becoming a conflict of militias with local, or agro-city regional, capabilities and objectives.
Aleppo Agro-City Region
The ethnic and sectarian diverse agro-city region of Aleppo in northwestern Syria is a noteworthy example of this concept due to its size over several governorates (provinces), the number of satellite market towns it possess, and for demonstrating how agro-city conflict can escalate. The Aleppo agro-city region includes the northwestern Aleppo and Idlib governorates, and has a strong influence, through social and economic connections, upon armed opposition groups in northern Hama governorate to its south and in ar-Raqqa governorate to its east. Several large market towns, some of which could also be classified as major regional cities, particularly Idlib, Jisr ash-Shugur, and Ma'rat an-Numaan in Idlib governorate, and Afrin and al-Bab in Aleppo governorate, are centers of conflict that are linked to the urban hub of Aleppo.
Prior to the civil war, Aleppo was the largest city in Syria by population, serving as a major center of commerce in the Levant since ancient times and as the most market town and urban hub for northwestern Syria. Although a majority-Sunni Arab city that was named the 2006 "Islamic Cultural Capital of the World," Aleppo also has significant population of Christians, ethnic Kurds, ethnic Turkmen, and Arab Shi'ites. Aleppo was an extremely influential city in contemporary Syria, boasting the country's second largest economy after Damascus. The city, like Damascus, was experiencing significant growth in its tourist industry due to its historical sites and authentic Arab cultural heritage. This growing economic development, however, was not enough to prevent the spread of extensive, densely populated, and relatively impoverished suburbs inhabited by poor, mainly rural Sunni Syrians that came to the city's environs not only from the greater Aleppo agro-city region, but also from the collapsing rural economies of northeastern Syria that had been severely impacted by a decade long-drought in the country.
Idlib, the second most important city in the Aleppo agro-city region, possessed an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and the agricultural industry. It relied upon Aleppo as the site of processing and distributing its agricultural products. Inflation, increasing unemployment, and a depressed wages for both agricultural and urban labor of the Aleppo agro-city region fueled discontent. In both the Idlib and Aleppo areas of the agro-city region, consistent anti-government demonstrations and eventual armed resistance formed most intensely in the hardest hit rural villages, spread to market towns such as Jisr ash-Shugur (which had also been a site of major militant Salafist resistance to the government of Hafez al-Assad during the period of 1976-1982), and into Aleppo's suburbs that had social linkages to opposition-supporting areas. The Aleppo agro-city region was also one of the earliest sites of mobilization of armed Salafist opposition groups through agro-city regional social connections. Several of the most powerful Salafist fighting groups in the country, such as Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham (Movement of the Free Men of Syria), Liwa at-Tawhid (Oneness of God Brigade), Kata'ib al-Farouq al-Islamiyya (Islamic al-Farouq Battalions), and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) have their strongest centers of power in the rural areas of the northern Aleppo agro-city region.
Utilizing the conceptual framework of agro-city regions allows for a more thorough analysis of Syria's conflict in the context of the country's most prevalent system of social and socio-economic organization. As the Syrian civil war has intensified, the Syrian military has ceded rural agro-city regional areas to the armed opposition in order to better control and coordinate its forces from major military bases and important market towns and urban hubs. This has had the effect of splintering opposition control of territory throughout the country, and concentrating it in certain pockets of agro-city regions where local armed opposition groups and opposition civil society are better coordinated and have the strongest asabiyya (social solidarity). The analysis of Syria at the agro-city regional level also has the benefit of providing a conceptual "map" to understand local and regional social dynamics in the country's conflict-affected areas. Stability in Syria, whether imposed by the al-Assad government or by a transitional successor to it, will be most likely engaged with political movements, armed groups, and communal solidarity networks that experienced the conflict not as part of a great national struggle, but through the battles fought, and the resisting and dying done, at the local, agro-city regional level.
Nicholas A. Heras is a Co-Founder of and the Research Program Strategist of 361 Security