The war is just entering a new phase, Nir Rosen writes. Syria is destroyed and there will not be a reconstruction. There will not be any political changes and there will be only a minimal return of refugees. It will never go back to what it was. And if things don’t change and the war on the economy and the siege on Syria continues then there is a threat of new social collapse.
The war in Syria is not over. Just last night and today Aleppo city was shelled by insurgents, and the government bombed locations in Idlib. The war is just entering a new phase. Syria is destroyed and there will not be a reconstruction. There will not be any political changes and there will be only a minimal return of refugees. There will be a construction, but there will not be reconstruction. It will never go back to what it was. And if things don’t change and the war on the economy and the siege on Syria continues then there is a threat of new social collapse.
The world owes Russia and Iran a debt of gratitude for preventing the collapse of the Syrian state but while they succeeded in doing so they did not improve the government and instead empowered the most brutal and corrupt elements in Syria. Right now Syrians are not being given any political space to breathe while they are being strangled by sanctions and the incompetence of their own government. Defeating the insurgency required the thugs and killers, the men with muscles and guns. Rebuilding Syria will require the intellectuals and businessmen, the thinkers. And they have fled Syria, either because of lack of hope in the country’s future or loss of hope that the government will improve.
The same West that was protesting the sieges imposed by the Syrian army and the humanitarian suffering it caused is now imposing a siege on the Syrian people and hoping that their suffering will lead to political concessions. You condemned the regime for using starvation and sieges and now you are doing it. You condemned the regime for using indiscriminate bombing and now you are imposing indiscriminate sanctions. This is disgusting and criminal and no western official involved should feel good about themselves. The same countries who claimed to care about the Syrian people and speak on their behalf supported insurgents, tried to overthrow the government and now are trying to starve Syrians. That the Syrian government behaved abhorrently does not justify the international intervention that followed and in fact the intervention helped cause these crimes. Flooding the country with fighters and explosives and undermining a state are sure to provoke a defensive response by that state, by the people who depend on it for safety, employment, and the basic services that modern citizens have come to expect. The sanctions of course did no damage to the “regime.” In fact, they strengthened it, as is normally the case, because the population became more dependent on the government for its survival and less connected to the rest of the world. These economic measures did not put pressure on Syrian elites. They had the same effect on millions of Syrians living in government-held areas as did the government’s besieging of hundreds of thousands in insurgent-held areas. Poor and middle-class Syrians lost their electricity supplies, health care, and other goods and services. Their quality of life deteriorated, their days being taken up with basic survival rather than investing in their dreams or future, let alone thinking about civil society or politics. Their sons died protecting government areas from insurgents who brought only chaos. Prices rose, salaries lost value, supply chains were disrupted, and the country was deliberately de-developed, losing decades of progress. Sanctions perpetuate the power of the regime in Syria and make people depend on it exclusively for survival.
Middle eastern states like Syria were already weak even before the sanctions. Many Arab states are victims of what political economist Sara Roy called “de-development.” She referred to Gaza but this applies to Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Palestine and is currently happening in Iran (as well as Venezuela). Infrastructure destroyed, social ties and connections torn apart, life expectancy goes down, populations flee and especially young men die or run away. American imperialist wars have destroyed or prevented Arab development, argues professor Ali Kadri. He defines sovereignty as “the right of working people to determine the conditions of their livelihood.” Using this frame of reference it is clear that wars and sanctions have destroyed sovereignty. Sovereignty is not just defending yourself, it’s keeping your working class inside, controlling your economy, controlling your ability to make plans and determine your destiny. A state cannot be secure when it is being weakened socially and economically. Its people will flee abroad or they will struggle to pursue only basic subsistence, not education or employment or their dreams, and it becomes easy for external actors or dangerous movements to take advantage of them. So Middle Eastern states were never secure, they were always under pressure. They lacked national security and the populations lacked security about how they would be educated or employed. In Syria, thanks to the uprising and the government’s response to it, the garb of a republic has been stripped away and the feudal nature of the Syrian state has become more apparent. Now we see a king who relies upon his lords to raise private armies to protect him in exchange for the privileges he bestows upon them. All countries have dissatisfied populations with grievances. But in the third world, as we see in Syria, or Venezuela, the West and specifically the US use these grievances to intervene, ostensibly on behalf of the people but in fact the most reactionary, nihilistic, obscurantist and dangerous forces receive support from outside and they destroy the country socially, economically, and physically, which is the goal. Then the West comes in with solutions based on sect or ethnic group that implant a permanent conflict into the system. Middle Eastern states are weakened or destroyed through wars or capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t work the same way everywhere. Korea has a different function than Syria. There is nothing to extract from Syria, but a war in Syria can create billions in arms contracts, or change the geopolitical situation in a way that makes things profitable elsewhere or serves Western interests. So the value of the middle east is the accumulation of capital through war. It is easy to do this in the Middle East since states there are weak and lack sovereignty. US control over the global economy makes it easy for it to reduce a country’s sovereignty so that it lacks the power to determine its own course, as they are trying to do with Iran, Venezuela and Syria today. The continuous American wars have led to the US military surrounding and strangling Middle Eastern states more and more. As Kadri writes, “wars dislocate workers and farmers and remove national resources from even potential political control by national working classes.” Middle eastern states exist in a permanent condition of American wars, preparing for American wars, enduring them, or emerging from American wars and dealing with the consequences of those wars. People cannot think of struggling or seizing control of their fate when they are being deliberately impoverished by the Americans. Middle eastern states are under constant assault with outsiders calling for their demise. People have been losing their sovereignty thanks to preparing for wars with Israel or the US or each other. The constant threat of war, Kadri writes, “justifies the rise of the class in power and the security apparatus that sustains Arab regimes.” It has justified and strengthened dictatorships. The Arab ruling classes use this as an excuse to tighten their grip on society and they use the state as a way to accumulate resources for themselves. The constant threat of war also means you cannot plan for the long term or invest and develop for the long term. It is not just that Middle Eastern states have bad policies, or are dictatorships, which they are, it is that they lack control over their policies. These states are severely restricted in their options between the threat of war and the assault of neoliberalism. Oil revenue helped relieve some of these problems but oil is also the cause of western imperialism and wars that people in the region endure. Those states not directly involved in conflicts are the neighbors of those states in conflict and so they still suffer the consequences of refugee flow, the destruction of trade and economic ties, the radicalization of their population, and they all become more fragile. As revolutionary pan Arab causes have disappeared we see the cooptation of elites into global capitalism and into the interests of the west, or the embrace of pan Islamic causes.
It is important to keep gulf states stable, they have a huge purchasing power and we need them to provide us with essential resources. But purchasing power in places like Syria, Yemen, Iraq was not so important, and western interests were better served by weakening them. For some powers there is more value in the results of violence than there is in stability in the Middle East. People in the middle east, in Africa, do not produce, they lack the right machines to give them value, so their value is in our wars. Some countries are of value because they produce iPhones, automobiles, shoes, while others have value through war and the production of weapons. And the more they are destroyed the more capital accumulates for some. This constant threat of conflict and destruction means people cannot focus on anything beyond survival, they lose their sovereignty and become enslaved.
Every state in the Middle East that tries to set an independent course of development for itself is destroyed.
Western sanctions are a manifestation of a morally bankrupt strategy and the refusal to recognize reality. At every step of the way the West has escalated the war, prevented solutions, and made things worse. Rather than engaging with the government to find solutions it declared the government illegitimate and appointed a group of corrupt, useless and unrepresentative individuals as the representatives of the Syrian people while supporting insurgents. The West refused to look at solutions that did not involve regime change so America and the Europeans opposed local ceasefires and reconciliations and ordered the UN not to support them. So the only experiments with potential were ignored when they could have helped, but this was seen as helping the regime win. Well the regime won and you were not able to influence anything. Instead it was further isolated and its creative officials who pursued peaceful and negotiated local solutions were marginalized. At every step of the conflict the West undermined potential solutions and prolonged the conflict, with the former UN envoy facilitating this. The West clung to the hope that the threat to the state would force it to offer concessions, so it tolerated or even supported half the country collapsing to insurgents, Nusra and ISIS, hoping that this would give the West leverage to pressure the regime. But it did not. And now that this has failed the West wants to punish Syrians once again by imposing a siege on them. It is as if they are trying to bring the country to its knees, like Iraq in the 90s, or Venezuela today.
The West’s latest obsessions are targeting Syrian businessmen and punishing the Syrian government for its land redevelopment laws such as the famous Law 10. I have yet to find a western diplomat who has read the law or its amendments, let alone understands it. They appear instead to be deliberately misinterpreting it. The law is dangerous because it is neoliberal and adversely affects the poor in the context when Syria desperately needs housing for the poor, but it is mostly a typical land redevelopment law and it was written by sunnis, it is not sectarian. It will benefit middle and upper class sunnis at the expense of poor sunnis. But it will also affect poor alawites and druze and whoever else was living in destroyed slums. As with much of what is written about Syria, absolutely ignorant journalists, diplomats and think tank analysts make uneducated assertions based on their emotional and ideological bias.
Law 10’s origin is in fact in post war Germany. It seems these laws are the result of modern warfare, which destroys urban areas. The problem in Syria is that it had massive informal settlements, slums where people did not formally own their houses or apartments. So when these areas were destroyed during the war, hundreds of thousands of families did not have the usual legal deeds of ownership. So when the regime drew up neoliberal and utopian redevelopment schemes that were creating middle and upper income housing in a country desperately lacking housing for poor people, it became clear that Law 10 would not adequately compensate the residents of these slums. This was not sectarian or political, it was just neoliberal and capitalist and the result of poor planning. Western officials chose not to engage with the government on these legitimate concerns but instead interpreted it as some kind of anti-Sunni or anti-refugee law. Many of the residents of these areas will become wealthier, it’s just that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. These things don’t bother western policy makers when it comes to their own countries but they discovered a sudden love for Syria’s poor people, if they happened to be Sunni and pro-opposition. And so as a result they decided to impose further sanctions on Syria as well as businessmen, effectively potentially criminalizing all Syrian businessmen. The West could have sent Western experts on urban planning or reconstruction to suggest wiser courses of actions, but they insisted that the regime is illegitimate and everything it does is illegitimate and motivated by evil so they chose to punish it.
The Russians, lacking an ideology and avoiding imperialism in pursuit of pragmatism, were much more realistic. But they were new to these kinds of adventures and they are still getting to know Syria, and sometimes it seems Russians on the ground are more concerned with taking pictures of themselves succeeding so they can send them back to the chain of command in Moscow, rather than actually succeeding. And Syrians have been very effective at manipulating Russians to serve their own personal interests.
We should not expect to see a political process. The Geneva process was always based on an irrational fantasy but now even though it’s obvious to everyone, governments still stubbornly cling to it. And even if a constitutional committee is finally formed, this constitution will never be enacted. The Syrian government views it as an attempt to weaken the state and plant its enemies within. And anyway the problem in Syria was not the constitution but that the constitution was not being implemented. And Syrians are hungry and tired and nobody cares about these things anyway except Western diplomats. Syrians are desperate and people might soon come out on the streets regardless of what side they belong to. Loyalists are no longer loyal in Syria, and if nothing changes they will not send their sons to fight on behalf of the government next time, but they might be part of an internal fight. Loyalists in Aleppo and elsewhere are boiling in rage over checkpoints extorting from them. Yet while even loyalists hate the regime now there is no conversation about how to reform. All this anger could easily explode just as it did in Tunisia in 2010, all it might take is one security officer slapping a former soldier in the face and the fire could start. In his speech two days ago Assad was transparent with the population inside that the war is not over, that things will get worse and that the government can do little for them. On the other hand he did not introduce any solutions for participation, inclusion, or return. Assad had some points, but he has very few solutions.
Refugees will not come back. Why would anyone return to Syria? For Military service, sanctions, poverty? there is no hope. The dream of every family is to send their sons outside of Syria. Families rely on men who are working and now they have to worry that even a 38-year-old will be called for military duty. The government and its allies celebrated their victory too early and never expressed a vision for an organized peace. The Syrian government thinks it won the war but it has done nothing to help the nation recover. And by this I don’t mean cooperating with the west or hopeless fantasies like the Geneva process, but articulating a vision and reassuring all Syrians, inside and outside that there is a future and that they are welcome. The country needs genuine reform even if it is poor. Reform will bring resources. If the government announces that the citizen, whoever he is, is part of the rebuilding process, the money will come in, if it shows openness, the money will come in. but instead the mindset of the government in former opposition areas that are newly accessible is worse than before, the government is not in a reconciliatory mood, it is in a victorious mode—I won the war and now you shut up and eat shit. This victor’s mentality is the most dangerous thing in Syria today. The government does not seem to recognize that unless things change there is no future. The current state machinery is like a Volkswagen Beatle from the 70s while the state needs a modern Mercedes engine. The state in Syria is archaic, ancient, rotten.
There is no socialism in Syria, no capacity building process, just the last vestige of socialism giving people barely enough to eat, but not to improve, they are simply surviving. It’s a failure when you get to that point, when you have become a feudal system where the state is the one source of livelihood for people. The state becomes more powerful, people depend on it to live. The regime in Syria has proven that it is capable of continuing like this for a long time, it won’t fall from sanctions, it will just be a very poor country with a strong central state. An open reconstruction process creates a new bourgeoise and new capital the state does not control. Sanctions only serves the so-called regime. Today in Syria there is no space for intellectuals and economic life is stagnating. There is no transparency and no trust
between the street and the state. The state has not declared what is the role of the citizen in the post war phase. Syria has no history of having conversations about anything, not on political reform, not on religion and identity and not on why it’s stupid to have 8 children per family.
And Assad has just effectively admitted in his speech that reconstruction will not happen.
The government did produce a plan but it is a top down centralized Baathist vision of Syria. They say the right things but have no tools to implement anything, and they act as if Syria is a normal country before the crisis. They have no vision for the new Syria that exists today after the crisis. But at least they produced a new document and its clear they expect to cooperate with UNDP. And yet the government makes life hell for international organizations trying to help. We see a return to the 80s when Syria was ruled by fear and force. The current ruling mechanism is not supportive of discussions about the future, and most ministries do not care about the people. Despite this there remains a dedicated bureaucracy in the Syrian state, but state employees are just trying to survive and hunger produces corruption and apathy.
The war economy is coming to an end, there are less things to loot, no sieges to profit from, less scrap from destroyed towns to sell. We see more competition for smaller pieces of the pie. Smuggling remains profitable and will continue to be so since the sanctions have criminalized businessmen. There are more clashes between gangsters and militiamen. The sanctions will deny these men alternative sources of employment and they will have to live by the gun. At the same time we see the Syrian state coming back with a vengeance and arresting loyalist militiamen for committing crimes while trying to end the militia phenomenon and force them to integrate into the army, and we see the state zealously preventing too much outside influence, whether Russian or Iranian.
The Syrian state, like other some other Arab states has emerged stronger after 2011. The state as a territorial entity, meaning Sykes-Picot, rather than being challenged after 2011 was reconfirmed. But inside these borders there was a collapse of the post-colonial state. The system was challenged, damaged or destroyed. Now we see a fragile center that is militarized. The new states with their empty nationalist rhetoric do not project norms, they have no values, nothing political. Parties are dead. A security regime is in control of a massively fragmented society. In Syria and Iraq the center has to accept to deal with non-state actors. Despite attempts to renew it in Syria, the Baath cannot return as an ideology, only as a structure of control. It lacks resources and nobody is redistributing resources, or if they are it’s from the poor to the rich. If we look at Syria more recently, we see that since 2011 Syrian nationalism has been shrinking. It’s not about inclusiveness like Arab nationalism, it’s a narrow right wing identity that excludes entire segments of the population much like the Lebanese Christian embrace of a fictitious Phoenician identity. Included in this new identity is a resentment of most other Arabs and especially Palestinians. There used to be mobilization and politicization because of Israel but this stopped as increasing neoliberalism corrupted all ideologies and the Syrian state abandoned the Baath party during the 80s as the Baath felt like a burden. The Syrians ended up training and arming people, but they were not politicized. This started under Hafez but Bashar finished it off. It helped create the insurgency they would face in 2011. And now with a massively mobilized armed population that fought for the government but also fought in order to steal refrigerators and televisions and cows from Duma or Daraya and lacks all ideology, we can imagine further instability.
We see more autocratic regimes emerging with empty nationalist rhetoric as in Egypt and Syria, with the role of security increasing. Nationalism in the days of Nasser had content. Now it is bankrupt. Counterrevolutions in the Middle East are not linked with a specific axis. Regimes resist and they fall back on their international backers and the opposition describes it as a counterrevolution. This is as true in Syria, which relied on Iran and Russia, as it is in Egypt, which relied on the US, Saudis, and Emiratis. The US promoted the counterrevolution in Egypt and the revolution in Syria. Counterrevolution is also a regional dynamic. The Saudis and the UAE sent 21 billion dollars to Sisi after the coup and the UAE backed the media campaign for him.
The government’s allies succeeded in preventing state collapse and restoring Syrian sovereignty over much of the country, but they failed to improve anything in Syria. They could not produce a single professional and disciplined military unit, they could not influence the government to reform politically or economically or to be more humane when dealing with prisoners, to extend a welcoming hand to people who lived in former opposition areas. The amount of work needed to help places like East Ghota and the former opposition areas of the south is huge. But huge constraints are put on NGOs, they are treated as if they are helping the terrorists but these poor residents don’t care about politics anymore. They just want to move on with their lives.
The Russians cannot do state building. They do not have this colonial legacy to try to come in and improve. Not that the record of Western intervention and conflict resolution has ever led to a lasting peace or stability either and there is no reason to think Syria will be otherwise. It’s a structural reason in the way that peace building takes place and restructuring states takes place. America does not really want a stable and sovereign Iraq that controls Iraq for example. It creates constitutions that divide countries and prevent economic sovereignty and lead to future wars or perpetual dependence on foreign aid and support which if lifted will lead to war the next day.
Unlike the US the Russians don’t push their allies, saying we give you this if you do that. The Russians do not condition things on their allies, or they would not have any allies, because it’s not like they can offer money. For very little investment Russia achieved a lot in Syria. But why is Russia in Syria, what is Russia doing in Middle East? It supports the Saudis in Yemen, it offers the Saudis weapons it won’t give to Syria. There is no consistent or overarching view of why you are in Middle East. Syrians complain that they are being exploited by Russia, that Russian companies are extracting their resources, that Russia is gas wealthy while Syrians don’t have gas. In the south Russia has empowered former insurgents but it has chosen the wrong local partners and violence is increasing as a result. Recently in Daraa there have been at least 25 security incidents, attacks on checkpoints, assassinations of security forces members, assassinations of at least one mayor who did reconciliations, and assassinations of others who worked on reconciliations. Russia needs to know that the current machinery of the Syrian state cannot satisfy any Syrian regardless of their political orientation. Assad has a terrible team of advisors and he needs good advice.
Russia should offer solutions, and not ones based on the Geneva process. Russia will not rebuild Syria but it could help create the stable and transparent conditions to make people feel safe to return and invest, and to encourage countries to come in and invest. China does not have the tools on the ground to play a role but for very little money the Chinese could offer a substitute for western support. China puts money into states but it has no reliable partners in Syria. It’s in China’s interests to expand its presence in Syria given that it is in a mortal struggle with the US. Russia cannot offer money. So it is irrelevant at the financial level, but the Chinese can substitute the lack of western aid. If it is not a western led process then Syrian reconstruction costs do not have to be high. Public infrastructure could be rebuilt for little.
The Syrian government’s greatest challenges is itself, and it is a more difficult challenge than it faced during the war. Even before the war the government was struggling to reform when it had very smart people working for it, but now its best minds have been removed or left and the system is eating itself. The same officials who failed to foresee or prevent the crisis remain in power, so how can we expect them to offer solutions for the post crisis period?
The government committed most of the crimes the west claims it did, as it was fighting the insurgency the west was helping that was just as criminal. No state will tolerate a threat to its existence and the greater the threat the more the state and its personnel will lash out with brutality. And the west that encouraged and supported this insurgency is as responsible as the government that responded to it. And despite these crimes the west should support the government because the Syrian people need this help. And the risk of another collapse or uprising due to the fragility of the Syrian state and economy is real. We have seen what happens to the region and even to Europe when there is instability in Syria. The west has never defined what the term regime means, and it sometimes seems as if it views the entire government down to local municipalities as one evil regime. In fact the west should be supporting the institutions of the Syrian state to strengthen them and make them more effective.
The government fears information and is preventing an informed decision-making process and they lack the capacity to analyze. They are submitting plans for cities that have no residents. They have no experts capable of dealing with the recovery the country needs. Planning in Syria now doesn’t belong in this century, it’s not involving the people. They need help and advice with these plans from western experts. Right now it’s a Mussolini style of planning. Architects who don’t know anything about the world outside Syria and who hate the population are trying to plan dream cities and assuming that somehow the money will magically materialize for the fancy futuristic buildings. Architects and university professors are working day and night to design the future of Syrian cities, cities that nobody owns, cities designed for obedient citizens, cities that do not have a civil society, cities that do not have homes, cities that do not allow people to thrive. The worst theories of reconstruction and renderings that feature cities as pieces of land are being made, featuring in turn the most atrocious security mind-set Syria has ever known. The government’s strategies as well as the west’s stubborn cruelty appear to guarantee that Syrian suffering will continue. The planned utopia for Syrian cities is not economically feasible, and it is not giving space for people's initiatives, and for bottom-up approaches. Syrians are desperately poor and planners are designing cities that look like Dubai. There isn’t even a fire department in Syria that can put out fires in towers as tall as they want to build. There are no laborers skilled at constructing such modern cities. But the planners looked at Syria and saw that the formal upper class areas didn’t rebel against the state while the informal settlements and poor slums did. So they decided to design buildings for the wealthy, as if this will produce that class of peaceful and obedient people. They are designing cities without people and there is no local capacity to even build these projects.
If the benefits of reconstruction only go to oligarchs and cronies of the inner circle we will be missing an opportunity to improve stability and ease frustration. In the 1980s Hafez al Assad struck a fragile social contract with elites to help the country recover from the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency and the government’s counterinsurgency campaign. But this social contract did not include the Syrian people and it did not include those outside the country. It was instead imposed on those inside. This time Syria must strike a new social contract and expand the government’s base and those engaged in this contract. Syria’s businessmen have been the regime beneath the regime, ruling the country regardless of who is in the government, a shadow government resembling the way Italian society functions despite a weak and corrupt government. Syria’s prominent businessmen and families did not embrace either side of the conflict openly and largely avoided supporting insurgents or militias. They, like Syria’s technocrats, wanted change and improvement but they held the official opposition in disdain because it had nothing to offer and threatened to destroy Syria. They carry with them the institutional memory of the Syrian state and society. There are Syrians inside and outside who have the expertise and technical rigor to provide the right advice to the government, but they have no influence and do not represent anybody. They should be connected to the traditional elites, the conservatives who know how to talk to the government and the Islamist trends in Syria. Their family names and reputations bestow influence upon them from all sides. And they should be part of an advisory council supporting the Syrian president. To the fix economy you need functioning institutions, rule of law, and to open up to the old Sunni bourgeoisie to return. The Syrians in Syria are the ones without experience or the capacity except to obey orders. you need hope and a lot of money so you have to incentivize the middle class to return. Why would I return from Germany? Give me hope and a job. There is no middle class, no purchasing capacity, no wealth being generated. Eighty percent of people are living below the poverty line. Working class and poor people can exist without legal institutions, but a middle class needs legitimacy and legal institutions. The new class of warlords do not create jobs, they do not produce. The communities who had workshops and farms, who produced, have been destroyed.
Russia must build an independent reconstruction process in Syria that has checks and balances to protect it from a corrupt system or nobody will put money in Syria. Russia needs to secure amnesties for Syrians to return, and it needs to provide enough of a social contract so middle class Syrians feel comfortable returning. For every dollar the west puts in the Syrian middle class will put in ten dollars if it is secure and there are checks and balances, and Assad will rule a country that belongs in the 21st century. This will make Syria a major investment center for the Chinese, and the Arab gulf. Syria is not as difficult to solve financially as Egypt with a massive deficit that the international community has to fill. But don’t talk about returns when it’s a few hundred refugee families coming back, that’s only poor people being added to poor people. Can you bring back an engineer?
The government cannot improve while under sanctions. It feels under siege, threatened, its officials thinking only of the desperate struggle for survival. Their salaries are worthless, prices are going up and quality of life is going down. If we reduce the existential threat to the state we open the space for the regime’s stakeholders to make changes and expand their base so that they too emerge stronger.
The west has not learned anything, but where are the Russians who could at least encourage the government to open up and stop alienating potential friends in the international community? The Russians never used their influence over the government’s internal affairs, they only focused on military issues and broader strategic agreements such as negotiating with Americans, Israelis, Jordanians or Turks. The Syrian government did not engage in a lessons learned process, did not punish anyone or reward anyone for success or failure. The Russians meanwhile have relied on corrupt businessmen and brutal warlords in Syria to win the war and have empowered them.
Instead of trying to support and improve the government the west only threatened it. European diplomats who visited Damascus avoided meeting with the government, fearing this would legitimize the regime, and instead they threatened from their capitals. Their threats achieved nothing and now they have carried out their threats and punished the Syrian people while not helping to reform the government. Mogherini and top European diplomats should have gone and advised them on European concerns, this would have been more effective. Syrians will not propose anything, but they respond to ideas. They just want to survive. So offer things that can help them survive, don’t threaten them. You cannot go to them with threats or sanctions.
Syria needs help securing the country and its borders, supporting security forces, law enforcement. The loss of human resources is a generational challenge. There are lost skills, the labor force has lost its ethics, soldiers have emerged from 7 years of service with no skills. The country’s youth are gone. There are social wounds that nobody is healing. Values have been destroyed. Syrians look up to the new class of warlords and war profiteers. Syrians are more corrupt than their own government now. And now the west wants to continue torturing and tormenting this country just because the political elites won’t change.
One interesting piece of good news that could be expanded upon is that something that resembles the Afghan national solidarity program is now being experimented with in Syria, it is a community-based bottom up approach led by the UN. The Government has approved a pilot project, so there is space for activity. This is a formula that can make the west comfortable and prevent the collapse of country. It’s one of the few examples where the government has been earnest to do something positive. The Russians and international community should support it. There will never be a political deal in Syria but a nationwide community building program of national solidarity can work, Assad himself has just spoken about strengthening communities, the role of municipalities in bringing local knowledge to help rebuild the country. The focus should be on the tactical issues that can make the country slightly better.
The credibility of institutions is not high so these local solidarity programs can work as an alternative. The Syrian government is not progressive, but they approved a project that allows communities to get together and open a bank account and they have public meetings to identify their priorities and work to improve their community with UN oversight. There are two pilots now in Syria. One of them in Zabadani, which was under siege, and one in Jaramana, which had a population that tripled thanks to internally displaced people. For a west which refuses to deal with Assad but claims it wants to support Syrians there is an opportunity to engage with the government to improve the lives of Syrians at a local level.
Public services are a key to reconciliation. If they are improved the state is sending a message to the public that institutions are back. It will be reform based on community outreach, not the traditional Baathist approach of telling people what they want, but instead listening to communities telling the state what they want. This will also help buy peace and stability by making the community busy with non-political issues. Or at least issues that are not overtly and exclusively political. Municipalities are the neutral structure at a local level. This is why the opposition’s local councils were briefly successful. We start by identifying the least politicized sectors and we initially avoid a dialogue about and reconciliation or the constitution, or justice, and we focus on just the basic services that communities need. Unlike Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan or Somalia, the structures and institutions were preserved. They did not collapse, but their area of operation contracted. Now that the state is returning, how do we strengthen it to deliver better services and to rebrand the regime as the state?
Syria still has a chance to recover and emerge from this war. Changes have taken place in Syrian society, on both sides of the divide, that could be cultivated so that the bloodshed will not have been completely in vain. Just as environmental shocks punctuate the equilibrium of the world’s ecosystem, provoking evolutionary changes, so too do wars and struggle. On the government’s side, a generation of officers has become accustomed to negotiating and compromising with the other. They are no longer provoked by differences of opinion. A regime that struggled to talk to civilian opponents has for the last few years been regularly negotiating with insurgents it called terrorists, striking deals with them, calling them patriots, and cooperating with them, acknowledging their grassroots legitimacy and authority. Senior regime officials regularly explain that Syria can never be ruled as it was before. The social contract between the state and its population was broken in 2011. For the state to return to much of Syria and be accepted, it will have to rely on local leaders and a devolution of power to the local level. Meanwhile, the media and social media in loyalist areas have become more diverse and tolerant of dissent, as long as red lines are not crossed. Loyalists today often sound like the opposition of 2011. They believe they have struggled and sacrificed and they are entitled to make demands—their loyalty cannot be questioned. They have also grown disillusioned with a government that failed to deliver them out of this crisis thanks to its corruption and incompetence. At the same time, in opposition areas a core of leaders and activists have survived the war and emerged as competent managers, relying on creativity and the freedom that results from anarchy. They have made connections with international networks and have key skills to bring to the new Syria that will emerge from the ashes and rubble. If left alone by the international community, these Syrians will have an opportunity to find their own way out of the crisis, and in so doing to create a new and independent model for recovery.
Syrian businessmen outside want to reengage. They care about Syria’s future. But they want to hear from the government an acknowledgement that Syria cannot be ruled the way it was before and that there is a serious desire for real reform. Our message to the government should be that together we can change Syria’s destiny through a partnership between the government and all the Syrian stakeholders inside and outside. As a recent World Bank report found, “the breakdown of the systems that organize both the economy and society, along with the trust that binds people together, has had a greater economic impact than the destruction of physical infrastructure.” In a sense the government controls the useless Syria, the part without resources. Or at least the government only has the human resources. We should work on reconnecting and reorganizing Syria so that the area with the demand is connected to the area with the supply, which is currently held by the Syrian PKK. The government’s institutions lack the capacity to reconnect to these areas. The government’s institutions cannot even deliver efficient governance to the Syria they control, they certainly lack the ability to reach across the frontline and appeal to people who lived in insurgent controlled territories.
The insurgent held zones of the country will not accept the return of the “regime” overnight. But they might accept an organic and gradual return of the state, beginning with services provided by the Red Crescent, bakeries, water, health, education, and an increased connection to government held areas through economic cooperation with the blessing of the prominent families and businessmen who are respected in opposition areas.
So bring together Syria’s sectoral based technocrats and begin with the least politicized sectors, engaging the people who left the area in the reconstruction. We need to bring people back home even if the government does not want them back and even if the neighboring host countries want them to stay to extort more money from the international community. The biggest problem with the West’s political approach is that it still says Assad must go. This can lead nowhere. It is better to have a process based on the notion that the regime won. Then you have a process with which it in the interest of the regime to engage. We are dealing with a system in Syria that is not ideological, it is pragmatic, like the Syrians who will attend our consultations. We should rely on Syrian pragmatism. Syria is going through a transition. The state remains weak and not fully restored. As Gramsci said, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Now is the time to shape the outcome with minimal cost. The Syrian state needs a partner on the opposition side. We can create a new opposition, a technocratic opposition the government can make a deal with. This technocratic “loyal” opposition will be interested in reform, not upheaval or collaboration with the enemies of Syria. This new opposition will be an alternative to what has come to be known as the opposition for the last six years, the international backed people appointed by the so called “Friends of Syria,” and these new opposition technocrats genuinely seeking a national solution and participation in the government can be governors, ministers etc.
By showing Damascus what this group has to offer we can transform how the “regime” views the opposition from a malignant tumor to a cure for Syria’s ailments. We can offer the government an alternative to the foreign imposed opposition, the SOC, SNC, HNC, SIG etc. We can show the government that these Syrians outside are technocrats looking for a national solution, they want to participate in the economy and government, they can become governors and ministers and bring with them much needed expertise, experience and resources. They can work on the social and development and administrative issues that must be addressed.
Since 2013 in my meetings with senior officials in Damascus they have clearly acknowledged that Syria cannot be ruled the way it was before. This is because an implicit social contract was broken. Before 2011 Syrians obeyed the law and accepted the state and its system. Many cities did not have a security or military presence. This is why much of Syria fell to insurgents in 2011 and 2012 without any fighting, and the government had to send forces from outside the area in a futile attempt to retake it. The city of Minbij is such an example. It fell without a fight. But this applies to much of Syria. It was enough for Damascus to send a policeman to a remote area and he would be feared and obeyed. But this belief in the state’s authority was broken in 2011. Now Damascus would have to militarily occupy every town to control it, and no state has this ability, especially not the Syrian one with its depleted security forces. And the allies of the government, the Russians, Iranians, Iraqis or Lebanese, are not occupying forces, they only help retake territory from insurgents before handing it over to government holding forces, but the government lacks holding forces. This is why since 2014 the government has been making offers to insurgents that they administer territory on behalf of the state, in effect the opposition becoming the regime. Year after year the West rejected this instead of investing in this opportunity and strengthening it and turning it into a solution. The government’s vision was that locals can have the administration while Damascus controls the resources, whether borders, power stations, national highways, oil or gas. The government’s lack of ideology or plan has confounded some but also allowed it to pragmatically adapt to these realities. The official opposition and its backers refused some of these offers and were left with less than what they could have had, or nothing. In addition to its recognition that it must rely on locals to control or administer territory on its behalf, the culture of the government has also evolved. Since 2014 it has become routine for commanders in the security forces to make deals and form partnerships with the enemy, with men they used to call terrorists. Individual commanders would become invested in their partnership with former insurgents and find themselves defending their former enemies, sympathizing with them, explaining to colleagues what motivated their initial betrayal and praising them as patriots for returning. As older more hawkish commanders retire or die this new generation has risen to dominance and for them it is normal to talk to the other, to negotiate, make deals, form partnerships, acknowledge that these men have local authority and legitimacy. And lastly, unlike any other civil war or conflict we have identified, in Syria it has become routine since 2014 to grant safe passage to surrounded and defeated insurgents and their families too, often with their weapons, through government territory to some other insurgent held territory from where they may fight the government again. And in almost 4 years there have been no breeches of these agreements. This pragmatism should come as no surprise to those who know the “regime.” From the beginning of the uprising it sought to offer local concessions to appease communities and buy calm. It also offered concessions regarding the constitution, decentralization and other issues, culminating in Assad’s 2013 promulgation of a vision based on a national dialogue conference, constitutional reforms and elections. Critics might argue that this was just a way for the regime to survive with Assad at its head and they are correct. But this does not negate the fact that the government demonstrated pragmatism and a desire to compromise. It just was not the total surrender or suicide sought by its enemies. But now we are where we are and all sides have to pursue pragmatism if they want a better Syria.
The war has only lasted six years and people have not severed all ties, and they remember the Syria they loved before 2011. We can help them formulate a new discourse, get reacquainted with each other and each other’s problems and work on projects that can bridge the divide such as joint economic or humanitarian projects across opposing lines. We can work on transforming the war economy into a constructive economy. If we reduce the existential threat to the state, we open the space for the regime’s stakeholders to make changes and expand their base so that they too emerge stronger.
How do we convince Syrians inside and outside that there is a national project, one that gives them enough security to invest in? The refugee crisis will only be solved through confidence and guarantees. The Russians can help with this. Syrian institutions need to reform or else communal wounds on both sides will reopen as they did in September over the new school curriculum.
How do we convince decision makers in Damascus that they need to change; how do we convince them to work with civil society to reduce external influence? If we want Syrians who can rebuild the country, and investors to feel secure, how do we begin institutional reform? How does Assad achieve a new social contract the way his father did after the traumatic 1980s? How does Assad lead the transition towards stability and putting the country back together? What can be done on judicial reform, decentralization, local governance, social reconciliation, land dispute resolution; what are the models that we should be working on for a future Syria that is better than pre-war Syria? How do we get the productive Syrians back to work; how do we restore or build their trust in government institutions? Today Syrian families dream of sending their sons abroad. There is no Syrian dream and no hope. How do we change that? what is local governance in Syria and how do you reform it? what are the historic grievances and how do we address the easiest ones? How do we ease military service requirements so young men will not flee the country but will stay and work? How should the government reward its loyal base to prevent criminality and anger being channeled into negative activities? How should historic centers of cities like Homs be rebuilt so that communities regain their identity and are inspired? What are the strategic sectors the government should support to restore Syrian growth? How do you get Syrians to rebuild Syria? How do we make reconstruction a process to bring Syrians together? What are the new administrative models needed in Syria? How do you make Syrian institutions more accessible? How do you prepare Syrian institutions for reconstruction? How do you improve their capacity to absorb international aid? How do you give municipalities more oversight over services? These are the questions we should be taking to Assad. The Europeans and Russians should be engaging with him directly on these issues.
The government is going to want its modern Syrians to come back so it will have to engage in a compact with them, official or unofficial. They will need clarity—what is the space in the economy allocated for the government’s allies (Russia, Iran, China etc), what is the space allocated for the oligarchs and war profiteers who arose in the crisis, and what is the space allocated for traditional businessmen? Most of the business community did not embrace the uprising but withdrew and waited out the storm. They were pragmatic and cynical. They do not care about who is the president, they just expect him and the security forces to provide a stable environment for them, their families and their businesses. The businessmen who moved to Lebanon or elsewhere do not need to return, but they want to because they are emotionally committed to Syria and they want their children to live in Syria.
The international businesses who want to return cannot do so via the so called “shabiha” or the oligarchs affiliated with the “regime.” They need to do so via the legitimate businessmen they dealt with before the war. This may seem like it’s about business but in fact this approach is very political. We want the people who had factories, farms, services, and companies inside Syria to come back.
As I have argued before regarding local ceasefires, there are no macro-solutions for Syria, only small ones, and if individual solutions fail it will not lead to a cascading effect. The economy, like stability, will improve through the consolidation of small successes. But the micro-solutions we pursue should have a big impact. We should propose things that can be implemented the fastest and have the fastest impact.
Syria is in a transition period now, its final shape still not clear or determined. This is the time to try and shape the new Syria born out of the war. Our message to the Syrian government should be, together we can change the destiny of Syria through a partnership between the government and stakeholders like businessmen and technocrats, from outside and inside, people who cannot be attacked because they were not openly “regime” or openly opposition. We have to talk about the future of Syria economically, socially etc, and discuss implicitly political issues like reconstruction, social issues, education, rehabilitating the Syria people, constitutional reform, decentralization, and improving laws so their can be growth. The end result will be a Syrian government that relaxes its control over administrative issues and retains control over sovereign issues.
Growth is hope. The Syrian conflict will be over when we restore economic growth. Take East Aleppo. Its residents are the losers of the war, their homes destroyed, their families displaced inside or outside Syria. But they were the engine of Aleppo’s thriving pre-war economy. They were its laborers. There has to be a housing program that formalizes informal housing so that they can reclaim their homes. They then have to be helped to rebuild their own homes. The government should not view areas like this as the social base of the insurgency the way it did during the war, but the engine of recovery. If they do not return then Aleppo will never recover. And their return will have secondary and tertiary effects. They will attract products from the surrounding agricultural areas, whether food or the raw materials for workshops and factories, cotton, olive oil etc. And if the residents of these surrounding agricultural areas are unable to find a market for their labor they will remain poor and insecure, an unemployed labor force not attracted to work in the city, angry at the city, easily recruited for trouble making. Rebuilding East Aleppo, old Homs, etc, brings back “Sunni” money. This is the working class, and they move money through their traditional systems outside the control of governments. This money can be moved to support an insurgency, as it was, or to support reconstruction and a renaissance. And their areas were the focus of international attention, romanticized by the backers of the “revolution,” so it will receive positive political support. The government will be able to raise resources and demonstrate that it has a reconciliation agenda by supporting growth in Sunni hubs that were iconic centers of the “revolution.” These areas can mobilize a lot of money from expats in the Gulf. Large scale infrastructure projects will go to Iran, Russia, China, but it’s Syrians from the Gulf who will rebuild all the small things. We can create a new model for the post war recovery of a shattered country.
Thanks to Russia and Iran and even the Syrian government itself, Syria avoided the worst possible outcome, a collapse of the state or an ISIS takeover, but we are left with the second worst outcome, a securitized system winning the war militarily but offering no reform agenda. Syria has a major displacement problem. To solve it you need housing. But housing needs the legal capacity to solve disputes and a land management capacity, it needs statecraft, builders, engineers, and a middle class. Those do not exist in Syria anymore. These issues would not be solved even with reconstruction money. And these issues certainly will not be solved with more sanctions. Syria needs hope. Today the greater Damascus region, the Capital/ metropole area, is being planned. Each line drawn by a junior architect in Damascus is trampling over thousands of properties, livelihoods, lives and memories. Those are un-sanctionable offenses that no one can see, but they are happening, and they are shaping Syria's future for generations. It's not Syria after the conflict that will be born, it's a post-Syria that is being pulled apart. Options and entry points are very limited, and the context is so policed and traumatized that no space is left for good intentions. It is difficult to appeal to the best intentions of government officials when they feel so victorious or when they are afraid of being called unpatriotic, or when they feel under siege. The worst mistakes that the Syrian government will make are still ahead of it, at least for the Syrian people. Attempting to plan reconstruction without even the inclusion of even a minimal local voice will only create huge grievances that will grow bigger by the day. Even if the displaced never returned to reclaim their rights, even if the enemy is walled or kept outside Syria, this injustice will still haunt Syria's future, along with the unknown fate of tens of thousands of missing detainees, their families desperate to know if they are dead or alive. Instability is only one generation away and next time might involve other segments of the population. Someone needs to say to the government of Assad that Damascus will be built by its own people, not by the Emirates. Syria also needs its defeated people to participate, not only the loyalist base. The government needs to reach out, or else it will be strangled by the hands of its own supporters. What is left of the Syrian pie is not enough to feed its base of supporters.
Within the Syrian government, there are many level-minded people that recognize the issues they face. They also know what's wrong with Syria and that its fabric is torn. Those individuals are also in very authoritative places of power, but they are not empowered to push back against the regime's worst security impulses. Reformers fear being stabbed in the back and everyone wants to prove he is a patriot.
In “The Great Partition: the Making of India and Pakistan,” British historian Yasmin Khan asserted that the Partition of India, which killed over one million and displaced many millions “stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths.” The same lessons can be learned from the past and Iraq and Libya, today from the clumsy international intervention in Syria, and tomorrow from the war in Iran, or whatever country is next. Those who supported intervention should ask themselves if they wittingly or unwittingly made things worse? Those who call for justice and accountability in Syria should begin with the policies of their own governments.
Lastly, sanctions could be seen as an opportunity to
increase independence from a western system that holds you hostage, to
cooperate more with your neighbors, integrate economically and even politically
with your neighbors like Iraq and Jordan, even Turkey. The future is in greater
middle eastern unity, not divisions.