Our findings suggest that regime concerns with rebel governance, rather than military calculations or sectarian motivation, best explain the Assad regime’s targeted bombardment of opposition-held areas. It also helps us understand the regime’s ongoing success in the war.

From 2013 to 2016, we conducted more than 100 interviews with civilians, activists, journalists and aid workers to explore how the regime’s aerial bombardment campaigns affected various rebel groups’ attempts to govern. We found that during the conflict, carrying out basic statelike functions, from mediation to education — what we term “performing the state” — has been one of the most important governing strategies undertaken by rebel groups. At the same time, the Assad regime actively targets these institutions and services to undermine and defeat rebels that seek its downfall.

State performances by opposition forces make political authority tangible, perceptible and concrete to local residents.