I have been reading about the situation in Syria and Iraq for several months. The word "control" gets mentioned a lot. What is its precise meaning, or in other words, when do you say that a certain entity is in control of a certain territory?

In particular, I find some statements like these quite perplexing:

  • Aleppo is under mixed control of the Syrian Government and the Syrian Rebels. – How could a city be under "mixed" control of opposing forces?
  • ISIS declared control over al Raqqa. – How does a non-state declare to be in control, and why did everyone agree with them?
  • Iraqi Government wants to retake control of Mosul from ISIS. – Great idea, but how do they know when they are done?

I would imagine that the presence of an army can be neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to be in "control". I have tried searching through several historical texts and online documents, but they all seem to handwave this and sort of assume that it is clear who is in "control".

  • Cities are big.
    – user4012
    Jan 21, 2017 at 22:18
  • 2
    @user4012 The fact that cities are big doesnt really matter. In battles like these control is literally defined in a block-by-block basis, so even in some random town you can have these very fine lines Jan 21, 2017 at 22:22
  • See also: Is ISIS considered a state?
    – Jasper
    Jan 21, 2017 at 23:09

2 Answers 2


By control they mean who is able to enforce rules in a particular area. In most countries there is a single, unified government that controls all area within its borders. That means the government is able to enforce its rules in its land. Usually they just need to tell their people of the law, but if need be they can use police or military force.

In places like Alleppo this is not the case. Assad does not have total control of the city because his military does not have physical presence in parts of the city. Those parts of the city are being physically defended by various opposition forces. So if Assad wanted to enforce some rule, he would be physically unable to because his troops physically don't have access to those areas of the city.

ISIS being a pseudo-state actor (meaning they are not recognized as a state, but functionally the are very similar in this case) is able to claim control over Al Raqqa because their troops have physical control of the city. At the moment Assad can not enforce any rules in Al Raqqa. So its not really a matter of people agreeing or disagreeing, its just a reality that ISIS can say what happens in Al Raqqa and no one else can right now.

So how do we know when an entity is done taking control of an area (whether it be Mosul, Al Raqqa or Alleppo)? The details are tricky, since you will likely have small scale resistance, but it really does boil down to who has physical control of the area. Right now ISIS has troops in Mosul, and Iraq does not. Soon (hopefully) the opposite will be true.


On the ground, there are few close cases.

Usually it is either entirely clear that one regime or another is the de facto government which is able to impose its will by the consent of the local population, supplemented by force or the threat of force. You know that one side is in "control" when that side flies their flags, patrols the streets, regularly secures compliance to their decrees, and doesn't get shot at on a constant basis. When the faction is control is shot at, they usually pursue the people shooting, rather than fleeing and hiding.

Even when control over a country or city is mixed, this almost never means that there is power sharing in one particular place. It means that one faction has control in some areas and another has control over other areas. Within a city, this would generally break down on an neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

Even when there is an active insurgency, there is usually little or no doubt in the minds of anyone present about which regime is in place and which is the insurgent regime.

In places where there is no one regime that is clearly in control, there is usually active armed conflict in progress at that moment in that particular place. For example, during an active battle over a neighborhood in Mosul, it may indeed be true that no one party is in control. But, these periods of lack of clarity usually last hours or days, not weeks or months or years.

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