Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is well on the road to a military victory over his numerous enemies. A coalition of Syrian government, Iranian, Lebanese, and Russian forces now control upwards of 80 percent of the country, signaling an approaching end to the six-year war.
Assad’s hard-won military victory over a motley coalition of ex-Baathists, Islamist forces and IS, however, will not bring much-needed peace to Syria. The continuing contest for control of Syria’s destiny is about to enter another phase—the battle over the country’s reconstruction.
The war has wreaked havoc throughout the country, killing close to a half million people and forcibly displacing more than half of the country’s prewar population of 21 million. Two of every three Syrians live in extreme poverty, in a war economy that in 2016 generated only a third of its prewar (2010) value. The World Bank and others have estimated that Syria’s reconstruction will require upwards of $200 billion.
Once upon a time war was the ultimate arbiter. The coalition joined by Washington and its allies has failed, at great cost, to defeat Assad on the battlefield. But while nothing it has done to prevail has worked, its members are not prepared to concede defeat. Instead these so-called “Friends of Syria” are prepared to use reconstruction aid as a weapon in the next stage of what is shaping up to be a never-ending battle to undermine the victorious regime’s postwar effort to consolidate power.
Reconstruction aid is viewed by proponents as offering the best vehicle for regime change, a successor to the now discredited and all but abandoned policy of arming the opposition. The emerging consensus among western governments and their international institutions is that aid for Syrian reconstruction will not be forthcoming as long as Assad rules Syria. A joint statement by CARE International, the International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, and Save the Children argues that assisting in the reconstruction of Syria under current conditions will bolster the regime and thus “risks doing more harm than good.”
In remarks at the end of a September 18 meeting of the U.S.-led “Friends of Syria,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “We believe that the only way forward is to get a political process going and to make it clear to the Iranians, Russians and Assad regime that we, the like-minded group, will not support the reconstruction of Syria until there is such a political process and that means, as Resolution 2254 says, to a transition away from Assad.”
Supporters of this strategy apparently believe that a victorious Assad regime will now surrender the peace in order to win access to the coffers of the West and the privilege of being drawn and quartered at The Hague.
Notwithstanding the best efforts of Syria’s erstwhile “friends,” Russia, Iran, and even Hezbollah are today far better placed than Washington to affect the kind of government sitting in Damascus. What does it say about U.S. policy that it continues to be rooted in the same assumptions that produced such an outcome?
Support for Syria’s continuing misery as long as Assad and his cohort remain in the chair is the unarticulated subtext of this strategy, which resembles the draconian policy adopted by the U.S.-led Quartet towards the Palestine’s Hamas Party a decade ago. The widespread opposition to assisting the Palestinian economy in the wake of a Hamas electoral victory in January 2006, and the international effort to keep Hamas-led Gaza Strip “on a diet” after its rout of Fatah in Gaza in June 2007, offer a number of useful and instructive precedents as to how a U.S.-led boycott of a postwar Syria under Assad might proceed.
State Department official David Satterfield, a top Middle East diplomat, explained on September 18 that the U.S. would continue to provide humanitarian but not reconstruction aid—totaling more than $4 billion since 2001—to the beleaguered Syrians.
Such a policy will see that Syrians, like the Palestinians in Gaza, do not die of hunger, or disease. They will survive—just—but the U.S. commitment to their well being will not extend to providing them with the tools to rebuild their country and their shattered lives.
Gaza continues to suffer from a similar policy. The World Bank has noted that continuing the engineered deprivation of Gaza’s two million Palestinians could make the isolated enclave “uninhabitable” by 2020.
The U.S.-led campaign against current reconstruction efforts aims to keep Syria on the Gaza diet. It will retard but not stop Syria’s reconstruction, nor force Assad’s ouster.
But in this instance Washington is not playing chess with itself. As instructive as the Gaza precedent may be, there are substantive, qualitative differences that militate against the success of anti-Assad policies—and also risk undermining U.S. allies (Lebanon, Jordan). This approach will perpetuate the travails of stateless Syrian refugees, and enhance the regional power of Russia, Iran, and China.
We may not like it but the wartime victory of the system of rule and governance implemented by Hafez al Assad and continued by his son represents a referendum on the historical balance of forces within Syrian society.
The Assad regime is far better placed than Gaza and Hamas post-2007 to prevail: Assad has powerful benefactors—Iran, Russia, and China—who helped to win the war and have a stake in the postwar peace. These allies are already mobilizing for reconstruction, sending delegations, and making deals to rebuild critical infrastructure, no matter Washington’s willingness to bankroll such efforts. Assad himself has declared that supporters of his wartime opponents, some of whom have compelling reasons for an uneasy rapprochement, are not welcome to participate in reconstruction.
Some in the West may not like it, but Syrians, increasingly confident that the guns have fallen (relatively) silent, are already voting with their feet, returning in ever increasing numbers to their country and homes. “The generation of new internally displaced persons is dramatically reduced and, equally important, those displaced outside of Syria’s boundaries have begun to return in significant numbers,” explained Satterfield.
Both Lebanon and Jordan, who have hosted millions of displaced Syrians at great political and political cost, are anxious to end the refugees’ bitter sojourn. The return of refugees to Syria, along with the desire to grab a share of the business of Syria’s reconstruction, are powerful incentives for Beirut and Amman to reconcile with Damascus, a process that is now underway.
Humanitarian aid provided by the U.S. and others has value. But countries committed to Syria’s reconstruction are pursuing a politically and economically more palatable and effective strategy. Engineering the permanent penury of long-suffering Syrians—and consolidating an enormous and disruptive Syrian diaspora in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—is no recipe for success.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.