Reconstruction may be underway but Syria remains unstable
Syria’s fifth Reconstruction Exhibition kicked off in Damascus this week. Although fighting continues in some areas, primarily in Idlib, many Syrians and international observers are turning their eyes toward the future and reconstruction has started. This period of transition from years of intense civil war to whatever is next raises a key question: Are any of the root causes of Syria’s civil war being addressed?
A complex mix of political, social, economic and environmental drivers led to the civil war. Politically, Syrians had experienced decades of a repressive, unrepresentative regime. Syria had a very large youth population, but its regime was unwilling to adapt in ways that might have allowed the country’s youth space to express itself and find creative ways of contributing to the country. Those young Syrians then watched as their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt rose in protest and forced long-ruling leaders from power. When young Syrians began their own peaceful protests, they were met with harshly violent responses from their regime, which soon tipped the country into civil war.
Social drivers included the demographics of a young population as well as the country’s long-simmering sectarian and ethnic tensions. These tensions often existed beneath the surface, as Alawites, Christians, Sunnis and other groups lived and worked together. Yet the tensions were there and a situation in which a minority group rules over a majority is seldom tenable without the use of regular violence.
Economic elements were also important. Unemployment, especially among the youth, was a widespread problem. The Syrian economy was suffering. Inequality sharpened potential fault lines in society, while corruption stymied economic growth and eroded trust in the government and elites.
Environmental problems contributed to an increasingly unstable environment. From 2007 to 2010, Syria experienced the area’s worst drought on record. According to several studies, climate change made the drought much more severe and longer-lasting. The drought led to extensive internal migration — a 2017 Atlantic Council report said that more than 1.5 million people in Syria “moved from rural or urban areas” during the drought, contributing to a significant drop in Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. The influx to cities increased pressure on urban areas and likely contributed to the protests that began in 2011.
Once the war began, other drivers came into play and further fueled violence. Extremist groups found a new battlefield, with both foreign and Syrian fighters joining groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and Daesh. Outside powers pursuing their own interests intervened on various sides. As in any war, a war economy developed with actors who had a financial interest in the continuation of fighting.
As the dust clears, with the Assad regime still in charge of most of a badly damaged, impoverished country, it is an important time to ask whether anything is being done to address the causes of the war and ensure a long-term peace.
In terms of Syrian political drivers, the situation has worsened dramatically. The Assad regime has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and even used chemical weapons against its own people. Frightening a population into submission sometimes works in the short term but risks constant instability, especially for a minority group ruler. Any hope of rebuilding trust between most Syrians and the Assad government is now impossible. In a post-Arab spring regional environment, Syrians may find less regional encouragement to oppose their government, and the war has graphically demonstrated the risks of opposition. Nonetheless, the political root causes of instability in Syria are worse now than they were in 2011.
Similarly, the war has vastly worsened the social root causes. Sectarian tensions that posed a risk in 2011 have deepened into a divide soaked in blood. Reconciliation between social groups that have engaged in horrific violence against each other is extremely difficult — and likely impossible without a leadership that genuinely wants to promote healing. Meanwhile, the Kurds have had a taste of self-government and are unlikely to easily accept a return to living under the Assad regime, though geopolitical realities will pressure them.
The war has largely destroyed the economy. Overall poverty rates were above 90 percent in late 2017, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. The World Bank reportsthat, “from 2011 to 2016, cumulative GDP loss is estimated at $226 billion.” Furthermore, multiple reports demonstrate that the Assad regime is using reconstruction to reward its domestic and foreign allies and punish the communities that it sees as disloyal. “By hardening social inequalities and collectively punishing a largely poor segment of the country’s population he has accused of treason, Assad may be sowing the seeds for future conflict,” Joseph Daher warned in a recent Carnegie Middle East Center article.
Any hope of rebuilding trust between most Syrians and the Assad government is now impossible.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
While it may not be possible to forecast whether Syria will soon face another extreme drought, climate change will only increase environmental risks, while the war’s destruction of infrastructure diminishes the population’s resilience to environmental shifts.
If a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions is nearly at its end, it can be difficult to look ahead and suggest that more war might lie in wait in the future. Unfortunately, the root causes of the Syrian civil war are not only unaddressed, many of them have worsened. The war may end — for now — but Syria will likely remain a source of instability and potentially renewed warfare.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch