Russia’s resolve to destroy the last bridgehead of international terrorism and support for the Syrian regime that is resisting inevitable reforms have collided with Turkey’s strategic plans to complete the creation of a long buffer zone in the north of Syria, which includes Idlib territory to the north of the M-4 road by using the anti-Assad militants under its control. In doing so, Turkey wants to ensure the security of its borders and gain more room for the relocation of Syrian refugees. This time, temporary agreements between the military and the secret services won’t be enough for reliable stabilization. It is time for Russia and Turkey to seek more meaningful compromises based on a common vision of Syria’s political future.
The al-Assad government’s understandable and lawful desire to quickly establish sovereignty over the country’s entire territory (it now controls 65-70 percent of it) less than fully commensurate with the military and economic resources of Damascus and its allies and the real situation on the ground. Obviously, the restoration of territorial integrity and the government and legal system is indispensable for the normal functioning of domestic trade and economic ties and transport considerations. The question is how to achieve it. A sustainable settlement is impossible unless the fundamental socio-economic causes of the conflict and the mentality that triggered it are eliminated.
In this context, a choice of priorities is important: should emphasis be placed on exhausting military efforts in the northwestern and eastern areas, which are fraught with the risk of a direct clash with Turkey or the US, or is it better to temporarily keep the status quo with a view to resolving the urgent objectives of postwar development, which are vital for the majority of the people.
Syria has sustained the biggest losses of all the conflicts in the Middle East. From 2011 through 2018, GDP fell by almost two thirds from $55 billion to $22 billion a year. This means that recovery costs (that amount to at least $250 billion) are equal to 12 times the current GDP. According to the World Bank, about 45 percent of housing has been destroyed, including a quarter of it that was razed to the ground. Over half of health facilities and about 40 percent of schools and universities are out of operation.
Apart from the destruction of physical infrastructure, no less serious consequences are being caused by the damage done to human assets and the economic and social ties by human losses and migration and a death rate that has increased by three times, and not as a result of the hostilities. Since the war, the living standards of 80 percent of the Syrians have dropped below the poverty line, and their life span has decreased by 20 years. Syria is short of doctors and nurses, teachers, technicians and qualified government officials.
The economic challenges now faced by Syria are even more serious than during the active phase of hostilities. It is in the economy that a web of old and new problems has emerged, and this is not just due to the catastrophic destruction during the war or US and European sanctions, although the humanitarian consequences are very sensitive, especially for the majority of the population. In the course of military de-escalation it is becoming increasingly obvious that the regime is reluctant or unable to develop a system of government that can mitigate corruption and crime and go from a military economy to normal trade and economic relations. According to prominent Syrian economists, the central government in Damascus is failing to restore control over economic life in the more remote provinces.
Local “law” continues to prevail even in the government-controlled areas, including kickbacks in trade, transit, transport shipments and humanitarian convoys in favor of a chain consisting of privileged army units, security services, commercial mediators and related loyal big-time entrepreneurs, both those that are traditionally close to the president’s family and those that have become rich during the war.
The war produced centers of influence and shadow organizations that are not interested in a transition to peaceful development although Syrian society, including businesspeople and some government officials, have developed requirements for political reform (“Syria can no longer be what it was before the war”). However, this requirement cannot be expressed openly in an atmosphere of total fear and domination by the secret services.
The conditions for implementing major economic recovery projects simply don’t exist. Neither Syria, nor a small group of foreign donors are able to cope with this task. The changing global environment is limiting the abilities of Syria’s allies to render the needed financial and economic support. The US, the EU states and the Gulf oil monarchies are making their participation in Syria’s recovery dependent on the demand addressed to Damascus to start the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 political process that provides, inter alia, for the introduction of amendments to the constitution and the holding of “free and fair elections” under UN aegis. The Syrian government isn’t ready for this: “Why take risky steps now that we have won if we didn’t take them under strong military pressure?”