Syria After The War: A Worthy Discussion

After seven years of brutal and punitive civil war, the human and physical destruction in Syria is so deep that the thought of future stability and reconstruction is most daunting, and almost inconceivable. Particularly, so as the war remains ongoing and escalating in violence in recent months. Discussion of post-war Syria risks appearing preemptive and ignorant to the current reality of the conflict, however this should not be the case. It is important to engage in such dialogue and work toward a plan forward in order to avoid future ad hoc measures that will not serve the well-being of the Syrian people. What challenges need to be addressed in post-conflict Syria and how will this be done? As previous wars in the region have shown, a lacking contingency plan can result in entrenched instability, institutional failure and further humanitarian fallout.

Of course, for reconstruction to take meaningful shape and pace, there must be the stability and means to rebuild. Given the dizzying complexity of the many actors involved in the war, as well as the vast amount of physical and intangible consequences of the conflict, it is beyond the scope of a brief report such as this to present a comprehensive post-conflict assessment. However, it is possible to outline the broad debate surrounding the nature of reconstruction in Syria and the key challenges that must be addressed, with the intention of stimulating further conversation and progressive thought on the topic.

Sparking from protests during the Arab Spring of 2011, the civil war to date has cost the lives of over 500,000 people, forcibly displacing over half of Syria’s population including over 6 million internally displaced persons, and over 160,000 stateless persons, predominantly Kurds and Palestinians. More than 5 million Syrians have sought refuge in the Middle and North Africa, and 1 million refugees in Europe. There is no simple way to redress the displacement of these people. For many, there is no physical home to return to, nor any community or livelihood. A post-war Syria does not necessarily negate the security fears of those who have fled. Precaution must be taken at the end of the war by countries hosting Syrian refugees, as mass relocations of people back to Syria could trigger another humanitarian catastrophe.

The human impact of this war will continue long after the military fight is over. The Syria Public Health Network contends that an entire generation of children has been classified as having toxic stress as a result of the conflict. The importance of mental health, as well as truth and reconciliation initiatives in post-conflict Syria cannot be understated.

The magnitude of human impact is matched in terms of the physical destruction of the war, with damage or destruction to half of Syrian hospitals, two thirds of schools and over one quarter of all homes. Water and sanitation, power and transportation infrastructure have also been heavily targeted during the conflict. As well as needing to address these staggering challenges, reconstruction efforts will also need to focus on economic and social challenges beyond the immediate danger of war – damage to productive factors and human capital (destruction of livelihoods, lack of education, and brain drain) which will complicate the recovery process of those living in Syria. 

The vast number of actors in Syria are indicative of the state’s geopolitical value with those involved in the civil war seeking outcomes that serve their own interests domestically, regionally and globally. As such donor states, institutions and organizations will likely have their own interests, and shall seek to influence the reconstruction of Syria in a way that serves them. As a core military supporter of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia is likely to pursue an influential role in crafting the post-conflict state, depending on which side wins the war. Seeking to ensure a stable and secure southern region, Russia is opposed to any regime change that could result in a leadership that advocates political religious extremism. However, Putin has called for the peace process to be supported by the UN, allowing for the potential of opposition groups to participate in a post-conflict government. Likewise, Iran a financier of the Assad regime, is pushing for the President to remain in control of Syria, influenced by external interests vis-à-vis Israel.

Conversely, the U.S. and EU are adamant that a post-conflict Syria has no place for Assad. Rex Tillerson proposed that financial and diplomatic assistance be administered to ‘liberated’ areas, as well as calling for constitutional change and democratic elections to be conducted under UN supervision inclusive of the Syrian diaspora. The European Council’s Syria Strategy document echoes a similar sentiment, stating that assistance towards reconstruction in Syria is dependent upon a UN-agreed-upon inclusive political transition. In September of 2017, 16 countries and the EU released a joint statement reiterating that the only way forward for Syria is through full implementation UNSCR 2254, stating that, “[r]ecovery and reconstruction support for Syria hinges on a credible political process leading to a genuine political transition that can be supported by a majority of the Syrian people.”

Though this position is the ideal resolution, the priority in Syria must be a lasting cessation of violence. Given the resilience that the Assad regime has shown over the past seven years and its current control, the likelihood of a political transition void of a severe escalation in violence is low.

These dichotomous positions complicate the important question of who will pay for the rebuilding of Syria? Unable to do so itself, Russia has called on Western states and institutions to initiate reconstruction financing, however the U.S. and EU refuse to do so as long as Assad remains in power. Furthermore, both parties and the UN have enacted sanctions prohibiting investment into Syria. Serious consideration of this point is necessary. If financing the reconstruction of Syria negates the burgeoning suffering of millions of civilians, should the West’s current policy approach be reviewed? How can Assad be held accountable for his actions given the differing positions of the actors involved? In the context of war, do ideological and political priorities trump quicker cessation of violence and stability?

With estimates varying depending on the depth of reconstruction considered, mostly ranging between $100bn to $400bn (some reaching $1 trillion), multiple sources of finance will be required. Syria is in no position to foot the bill for its own reconstruction, and the current alliances may change or weaken when common enemies fall. Thus, in the post-war context, this is an area where states may compete geopolitically with China already showing interest in funding Syria’s reconstruction. Scrutiny and transparency over the financing process will be imperative to see funds are directed to legitimate areas.

Looking for a future leader of Syria will always be a challenging task, as all parties to the conflict including the ‘rebel’ opposition have inflicted violence. Focus must remain on ensuring that violence does not reignite with a risk of successor conflicts in Idlib, as well as along the borders of Iraq, Israel and Turkey. The issue of trained and equipped violent non-state actors should partially be treated as a political problem as many grievances may be unresolved, however the need for de-radicalization and reconciliation programs will be key to preventing a successive wave of radicalization. Whilst an electoral process in accordance with UNSCR2254 should remain the goal, it has to be acknowledged that a democratic system is dependent upon a civil society and institutional structure capable of upholding the system and cannot be forcibly implemented top-down.

As the war has continued, territorial zones have developed becoming further entrenched as various actors establish control over parts of the country, reducing the likelihood of the UN-backed demand for an eventual unified Syria. Exacerbating the internal divisions of the country is the asymmetrical nature of physical destruction that has affected some areas more than others. Journalist Susanne Koelbl has described the situation, “[d]ivided into Assad supporters and Assad haters, it is a nation comprised of only small functioning islands, in a sea of destruction and dissolution.” Again, it seems to be more challenges than solutions. Can partition provide security, stability and allow for humanitarian and economic recovery across the entire country? What political and social reality would institutionalized rebel controlled areas have?

One approach advocated for in an Atlantic Council report, promoting the idea that Western donors should focus on reconstruction efforts within opposition-held areas of Syria. However, policies along this vein would fail to help the majority of the Syrian people who are within regime controlled territory. Any fragmented approach is likely to suffer from this failing, and as such is less able to bring stability or reconciliation. Though reality will likely prohibit implementation in the short to medium term future, efforts should be focused on considering what an effective decentralized power sharing model would look like for post-conflict Syria to be implemented with parallel security measures, which are needed to ensure ethnic and religious divisions do not reignite into violent conflict. Levels of autonomous governance, natural resource sharing and equitable division of reconstruction aid will be key elements to such discussions.

As a brief overview on post-conflict Syria reveals, there remain great challenges, and more questions than answers. Several publications have commenced the task of addressing these. An apt example is the National Agenda for the Future of Syria Programme report – ‘Constitutional Options for Syria’ considers refugee rights, decommissioning and reintegration of militias, property dispute resolution and national reconciliation measures.

Whilst the outcome of the war is undecided meaningful rebuilding of Syria cannot take shape, however that should not stop policy crafters from looking for effective plans that will ensure lasting peace and security for the people of Syria after the conflict.