This is the second part of two-part article on the Syrian Civil War. The text has been reproduced from a report, Syria’s Bloody and Unforgiving War, published by Tricontinental. The first part may be checked out on the link below:
To understand the war at this stage, Tricontinental spoke to Syrian economist Omar Dahi. Dahi, who has been involved closely with the Syria project of the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission of West Asia, is a close observer of the tumult in his native land.
Edited excerpts from Dahi’s interaction with Tricontinental:
Q. What is the current status of the war?
A. The Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015 marked the end not just of the idea of military overthrow of the Syrian government but also that of using military pressure to force the government to the negotiating table. The opposition would also point to Obama’s decision not to attack the regime following the August 2013 Ghouta attacks.
From that time on, Russia broke a deadly conflict of attrition that was slowly draining the government’s forces along with its allies given that it was stretched on three fronts (North, East, and South). Russia went on to help the government achieve a series of military victories against anti-government forces throughout the country, the most important of which was that of retaking East Aleppo.
Syrian civilians paid an unbearably high cost. Critical infrastructure such as medical facilities were repeatedly targeted. Along the same lines, there was a dilemma in the political process. There was a stalemate in the UN-sponsored Geneva process largely due to the lack of clarity about the war. In addition, the parties that are necessary to negotiate a settlement, particularly those who represented fighters on the ground, were not present. To that end, Russia sponsored the Astana Process which would not only include countries like Iran – excluded from Geneva – but also anti-government opposition fighters and militias that were brought to the table by Turkey. The US presence here was minimal.
Unfortunately, to bring Turkey on board, the Astana process excluded independent Kurdish or Kurdish-led parties like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Astana Process succeeded in bringing about ceasefires in different parts of the country and eventually led to the so-called four ‘De-escalation Zones’ in Idlib, Homs, Ghouta, and along the Jordanian border. These ‘De-escalation Zones’ were set up as places where ceasefires would be enforced. Those zones were the remaining places that had significant antigovernment forces present. Throughout this process, al-Qaeda inspired groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (or the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, as it rebranded itself) were excluded.
While Russia has been militarily successful, politically it has been less so. The best scenario would have been for the government and its allies to arrive at the Geneva peace process with the upper hand, then negotiate a political settlement from that position of strength. This would have required the government to offer the political opposition significant and serious compromises. It could have ushered in a new stage in Syria. In the aftermath of the battle for Aleppo in 2016, there was a missed opportunity.
The Syrian government’s desire to push for a full victory must be blamed in large part for this. It appears that Russia wanted this to be the course of action. But it did not occur. Each subsequent negotiation seemed farcical, including the Sochi ‘Syrian National Dialogue’ of January 2018. This has been the story of the conflict. Whenever a side is on the upswing, it pushes for a full victory rather than a compromise. Playing the geo-political battle and negotiating with outside powers cannot substitute for a historic compromise with one’s own population.
Sooner or later the government will run out of deals to make with external powers when the ones they should be making are with their own population. We are now seeing the end of the ‘de-escalation zones’ with attacks in Ghouta and Idlib in the past months. The violations have been from all sides. This has more or less coincided with the failure of the Russia-engineered political solution. Why is this happening? For their part Syria’s regional enemies may not have achieved their goals but they are in no rush to hand the government a complete victory. The chief concern, of course, is the way that the United States has positioned and entrenched itself in Syria.
It took the pretext of ISIS to solidify control over territory, particularly in oil-rich areas. The US lacks a clear endgame in Syria but it is building up a longer-term presence through military bases. It uses the remnants of ISIS as a pretext to push back against Iran and Hezbollah as well as to pressure Damascus. The longer-term build up is a US military-led policy that is not tied a specific administration: it started late in the Obama administration and has continued under President Trump. Consolidation of the US military presence in Syria caused the Syrian government to solidify its control over other parts of Syria, including those previously marked for de-escalation. US airpower gave the Kurds the ability to increase their territory, which pushed the Syrian Kurds into a confrontation with Turkey.
The more the US pushes for territory and power in Syria, the more chaos ensues. The Syrian people are exhausted. The regional powers should fight their battles elsewhere. Throughout the past years, the framing of the conflict (by all sides) in narrow terms, such as whether every action is pro-Assad or anti-Assad, has served to distract from the way the Syrian state, its institutions, its environment and its capacity to sustain a population, is being destroyed.
Q. Do you feel that there is any hope for a reconciliation between the parties? If so, what are the parties that should be at the table for a reconciliation?
A. Reconciliation is a longer-term process. If what you mean is a political settlement, even the possibility of beginning that process seems unlikely right now. A political settlement should be Syrian-led and offer a true and historic negotiation between the government and the main sectors of the political and military opposition, including the now displaced or ‘external’ opposition. Of course, this process must also include Syrian Kurdish or Kurdish-led political parties. However, every escalation, every bullet or bomb or mortar dropped against another Syrian is a further step towards the destruction of Syria. Within Syria there is today, and has been since 2011, a wide spectrum of opinions. There are those loyalists who oppose the savage bombing of Ghouta and humiliation of its population.
On the other side there are those in the opposition who have criticised the crimes committed in the name of the revolution. They know full well why many oppositional groups have lost credibility as they readily accepted the influence and agendas of external forces. Many of those same people have also lost loved ones during the conflict.
Most do not truly feel that any side represents them. However, they are either too scared or too resigned to speak out. They are not interviewed on television. They do not post on social media. It is these voices that can lead the process of reconciliation and reckoning with the terrible legacy of the war one day. For now they are silent, or more accurately have been silenced. For those on the outside wishing to see and engage with Syria in a positive way that truly centres Syrians, all Syrians, there is an important point to be made here.
Dial down the rhetorical overkill. The debate about Syria seems to mirror the military battle taking place there, a proxy war of sorts where some activists, journalists and academics see themselves as foot soldiers of the different combatting sides. We need a different and more generous kind of critical engagement that does not replicate the war itself.
Q. What has happened to the Muslim Brotherhood groupings now that Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as Turkey appear to have lost interest in the war in Syria?
A. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was empowered by Turkey and Qatar in 2011. It was based largely in Istanbul (Turkey). The Brotherhood is not solely a political organisation. To be relevant in the Syrian war, it sponsored several military outfits, including the so-called Shields of the Revolution around Idlib. None of these were decisive on the ground and most of its members have defected to more radical formations.
When the coup against the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood took place in 2013, the Brotherhood saw its fortunes decline across the region. Saudi Arabia, in its fight with Qatar, has attempted to set aside the Muslim Brotherhood and push its own proxies forward. The Russian intervention complicated issues for Turkey. It began to increase its dealings with Russia and Iran, allies of the Syrian government. This meant that the Syrian opposition – as well as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – saw its influence lessen. The Muslim Brotherhood is still there, but less empowered and either marginalised or regrouped in other political bodies.
This long process has also created divisions within the Muslim Brotherhood itself along generational and ideological lines with the younger section tending to be sceptical of the top-heavy decision making and pragmatism of the old generation. The Muslim Brotherhood faced a challenge. Should it emphasise its Islamist or its liberal credentials? Who would it appeal to as the opposition landscape inside Syria began to become more extremist? The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood remains, but it is severely weakened.
Q: Will the Assad government be able to raise the resources for reconstruction?
A. No. The level of destruction is too large. Syria’s Gross Domestic Product is estimated to have shrunk to less than 45% of its 2012 value and physical capital destruction alone is estimated at $100 billion. This is a vast amount of money. As long as there is no UN-sponsored political settlement, there will be no reconstruction funds coming from the United States and the Gulf. Europe, which is not unwilling to fund reconstruction, will not do so as long as the United States is hesitant. Europe will not lead on its own.
Iran and Russia will not be able to provide the funds. It is not clear how much China is willing to invest at this point. Patchwork reconstruction will be the order of the day. Most of this is happening through land grabs and contracts from the government to its allies. Or else by outside powers who have taken hold of territory – whether by the United States in the north-east or Turkey in the north-west. The form of reconstruction that is now ongoing is fragmenting the country. Displaced Syrians will be forever banished from their homeland. Land, once part of Syria, is now being seized by outside powers. Syria is being permanently broken.
This is why it is urgent that the military conflict must end. It is why a political settlement is necessary. Otherwise, Syria will have no future.
(Tricontinental identifies itself as an international, movement-driven institution focused on stimulating intellectual debate that serves people’s aspirations).