It is a truism that all conflicts must end, but they don’t necessarily end fast or conclusively. While announcing an end to the Syrian civil war is grossly premature, it nevertheless has become clear over the past year that the conflict has started to wind down, owing to the military commitments of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and largely on the Assad regime’s terms. When and how it will end depends on either decisive victory or a negotiated truce and subsequent political transition. But whether whatever peace is achieved will endure will be determined in part by the extent of post-war reconstruction. And so the question arises: who should do it, and on what conditions?
In war, the spoils go to the victor, but so does the burden of maintaining the peace, lest the conflict flare up again, requiring new investments in blood and treasure. Are Russia and Iran both willing and able to take on this burden? The current scale of destruction is almost beyond imagining, and it will take years of at least relative calm and a significant influx of funds to restore even a measure of liveability to areas worst affected. Russia and Iran have displayed their military prowess, but can they back it up long-term with the required financial resources? This is highly doubtful, and yet they cannot afford to let things linger post-conflict. They may have the will, in other words, but they appear not to have the ability.
The solution that has been tendered is that Western states and institutions take on the primary responsibility for financing reconstruction. But they have made clear, as the EU has stated, that “it will be ready to assist in the reconstruction of Syria only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition, negotiated by the Syrian parties in the conflict on the basis of UNSCR 2254 and the Geneva Communique, is firmly under way."
Here the question of Russia and Iran’s willingness should also be put in doubt. To preserve their military gains, would they readily sacrifice their main political dividend – the regime’s survival – by consenting to the likely removal of the Assad family from power if they allow the steps outlined in Resolution 2254 to be implemented in both letter and spirit? Only they can answer, and they may not be of the same mind about it. For example, it is clear that Russia wants to preserve the state apparatus, but it is possible, albeit not very likely, that it would agree to do so without Assad as the outcome of a political transition. By contrast, Iran, based on a model it has applied elsewhere, would more likely prefer to see Syria governed by competing centres of power, which it can control, under the overall leadership of the Assad family, its long-time strategic ally.
The Europeans and Americans have set their conditions but they may not have the leverage to enforce them. After all, refusing to finance reconstruction may prolong a war that could send new waves of refugees into a Europe that has proved politically wobbly in absorbing them. Western states therefore have a vested interest in seeing the war come to an end and produce a durable peace through meaningful reconstruction. The argument they have tried to sell is that a Syria under Assad’s continued rule could never bring a stable peace, and so the conditions contained in Resolution 2254 are reasonable. But Russia and Iran may not be ready to buy this argument, preferring a different calculation: that preserving the regime will ensure a “good-enough” peace, with or without significant reconstruction.
Moreover, cracks have started to appear in EU member states’ nominally unified approach, with some starting to hint that they might back reconstruction without fulfilment of the EU’s stated conditions. But even if all sides can agree on the principle of a political transition, the challenge of implementing it will be tremendous. Quite apart from the proverbial devil hiding in the detail, one of the primary obstacles will be a thriving war economy that has benefited a small group of entrepreneurs – “entrepreneurs” being a generous term – in and around the regime. They will need to become convinced that they will be able to profit more from the influx of reconstruction funds – if they are given access to them – than from the war’s continuation. Yet subsidising war profiteers as if in reward for helping inflict so much misery on the mass of the Syrian people may not go over well with Western publics asked to foot the reconstruction bill.
It’s still too early for Russia and Iran to declare victory in Syria. The war may not end soon, or may spawn successor conflicts: in Idlib between the regime and jihadists, on the Iraq border between the U.S. and Iran, on the Golan Heights between Israel and Hezbollah, and/or over the de facto autonomous region the Kurds have carved out in the north. But it is no longer too early for them to start a discussion on what strategy they should adopt to win not just the war but also the peace, now that the war could come to an end.
If they choose the way Moscow has proposed to the EU – that Western states and institutions take the lead in financing reconstruction – then Iran and Russia will need to provide the kinds of assurances the latter are seeking. And the latter will need to decide whether supplying such funds will serve their fundamental interest in producing a post-war Syria they can live with.
Not starting such a discussion can only produce a default outcome in Syria: endemic conflict and instability, refugees and the internally displaced unable to return to their home areas, and indeterminate Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah military deployments that solve little and could prove unpopular with their respective domestic publics. That, truly, would not be the way to “end” the conflict.