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What’s next for Syria?

A vehicle drives along a road as Syrian flag is seen barely on the background due to heavy fog and rainfall in Azez district in Aleppo on December 19, 2018. ( Samer Owaid - Anadolu Agency )
A vehicle drives along a road as Syrian flag is seen barely on the background due to heavy fog and rainfall in Azez district in Aleppo on 19 December 2018 [Samer Owaid/Anadolu Agency]

“There is no national feeling. Between town and town, village and village, family and family, creed and creed, exist intimate jealousies… to render a spontaneous union impossible. The largest indigenous political entity in settled Syria is only the village under its sheikh, and in patriarchal Syria the tribe under its chief.” These words were written by a British army officer in some review notes under the heading Syria: the Raw Material compiled during World War One from his experience and travels throughout the Levant, decades before the Syrian Arab Republic – or what’s left of it – existed as we now know it.

At the time that T.E. Lawrence wrote those words, “Syria” was regarded in a very different context: it was not an independent country, but simply a collection of major cities – Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Beirut and Jerusalem – with countless surrounding villages and rural populations all under Ottoman rule. Lawrence’s reference to his discovery that, “An Aleppine always calls himself an Aleppine, a Beyrouti a Beyrouti, and so down to the smallest villages” displayed the lack of definition, the disunity and that patchwork nature of Syria in his day; it rings true today with regards to its political and ideological tribes. The breakdown of Syrian society and the rapid descent into civil war in 2011 revealed the delicate divisions in the very fabric of the country.

Civil wars, by their nature, destroy all civil bonds that might have previously existed between communities and identity groups, forcing one to remember what the other did to them and their kin in years gone by. A member of one community kills another, which then retaliates against the aggressor, making them in turn respond more harshly before other communities are trampled underneath and form their own web of alliances and enmities. What follows is a vicious cycle of injustice and pent-up vengeance, up to the point in which the original aggressor and victim can no longer be discerned. It is, essentially, the return to tribalism in which every man from every village must take up arms and choose which side to join. At such a point, there is little or no easy path to forgiveness and reconciliation once atrocities have transgressed all bounds. That is the case with Syria.

Reconciliation

Since the fall of Daesh and the rapid recapture of territory by the Syrian Army, “reconciliation committees” abound across the country; whole towns and villages formerly under the control of the “caliphate” and other opposition groups have been directed to them. The regime of Bashar Al-Assad promises them reconciliation and peace, with the promise of building a new Syria hand-in-hand with each other.

Read: Syrian army takes strategic town from opposition forces in new advance

Even opposition groups who negotiated with the regime through Assad’s ally Russia were made the same offer, and were incorporated into the Fifth Corps, a unit of the Syrian Army under Russian supervision and training, which granted them a certain degree of protection. The groups within the Fifth Corps could patrol their own slices of territory as part of the negotiations and were deployed to other areas to fight alongside the Syrian Army. When Russia withdrew its protection from the Corps as the six-month deadline passed, however, the territories were handed over to the regime and its paramilitaries, and Syria’s military security and intelligence began the widespread arrests of the militants and potential dissidents, including children, young men of military age and high-ranking commanders.

The same process was inflicted upon Syrian refugees who lived in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon: the offer of peace was made and accepted; they crossed the border with dreams of rebuilding their lives, and were met with arrest, interrogation and, in many cases, torture.

Such prospects, along with the dread of being again subjected to the ever-watchful eye of the Syrian intelligence services, have deterred the people of the provinces not yet captured by the regime such as Idlib from surrendering and negotiating.

Reconstruction

Following Assad’s suppression of the revolution, one of the primary issues that the regime – as well as international investors – would need to consider in order to build upon his fragile semi-legitimacy is the reconstruction of Syria. The UN has put the cost of the country’s reconstruction at around $250 billion, which is roughly the size of the Egyptian economy and four times the size of Syria’s pre-war GDP.

Civil defense team and locals carry out search and rescue works at the site around the collapsed buildings after warplanes of Assad regime forces and Russian forces hit the de-escalation zone, Jisr al-Shughur district of Idlib, Syria on 11 July 2019. [Bera Derwish - Anadolu Agency]

Civil defence team and locals carry out search and rescue works at the site around the collapsed buildings after air strikes were carried out by the Assad Regime in Idlib, Syria on 11 July 2019 [Bera Derwish/Anadolu Agency]

There is one problem, though: no one wants to invest in Syria’s construction, at least not directly. Since the Arab League has considered allowing Syria back into its fold, there has been talk of its Arab neighbours contributing to the effort, but neither they nor the US and EU want to play a role until there is a political transition in the war-torn country.

As an unnamed Western diplomat told the US magazine The Atlantic, “Assad is a principal obstacle to rehabilitation of Syria, and eventually the Alawite business class and those who support the regime externally will find that he’s a liability and an albatross that will grow.” The diplomat added that Syria itself does not have any ability to rebuild its devastated infrastructure: “I’m told that before the war, the capital budget was $60 billion, and last year the capital budget was $300 million, of which only 20 per cent was actually spent. Not only does it not have the money, but they don’t have administrative political capacity to build the country.”

The only foreseeable contributors to the reconstruction of Syria are those who supported Assad during the conflict, which is not a very long list and consists mainly of Russia and Iran. Russian investment, however, will reportedly be limited due to its own economic struggles resulting from the strict sanctions imposed on it by the US and EU, as well as Russian businesses being wary of investing in the reconstruction. That being said, there has been talk of Russian companies seeking to get involved in Syria’s government structures and needs, including the IT sector.

Read: Iran’s ambitious post-war reconstruction in Syria

A player which is entirely willing to invest in Syria is its giant Shia ally to the east, Iran. During the past few years, apart from providing a dedicated military and advisory role to the Assad regime, Iran has taken steps to invest heavily in Syria’s post-war infrastructure. Its agreement earlier this year to build 200,000 housing units in the capital Damascus is one example; reports of Iran buying up real estate in Syria’s eastern Deir Ez-Zor province provide another.

Investing in a country’s reconstruction is, in effect, recognising the legitimacy of the government, and so it is still too early to say whether states other than Assad’s allies would be willing to do so. Seeing that any external efforts at reconstruction and investment depend on the stability of the country, though, this does not seem to be a possibility on any large scale in the near future, despite the regime’s regaining of ground.

Regression

Transcending any reconciliation and reconstruction efforts is the ever-present threat to the regime of a resurgence in hostilities and subsequent regression into another civil war. It is a very real threat. The Turkish Army and its proxy groups in the Syrian opposition currently hold a large swathe of territory in northern Syria consisting of major towns such as Afrin, Azaz, Al-Bab and Jarabulus, with a view to expand east of the River Euphrates through the use of the deal that Ankara struck with the US in August to establish a safe zone. Meanwhile, Kurdish militias such as the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) continue to hold territory in north-east Syria; rebel groups are holding their ground stubbornly in Idlib province against the regime’s and Russian air and land assaults; and Iran and Russia are vying for influence over the country.

There are simply too many actors involved in the conflict and too few solutions to repackage Syria as it once was. The most likely outcome awaiting post-war Syria, therefore, is one that sees the country dismembered. Even if Syria was miraculously to be united again, it will be by the iron fist policy of the Assad dynasty, with millions of seething, revengeful and resettled Syrian citizens just waiting to erupt once more. Such conflicts do not disappear, but only lie dormant when repressed, as the 1982 massacre of a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama by Bashar Al-Assad’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, illustrates; it was in many ways the predecessor of today’s conflict and the discontent from which it sprung.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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