Now That Assad Has Won, What Lies Ahead for Syria?

"Reconstruction is the most important future lever for external influence on the long-suffering Syrian Arab Republic, where conflict has been going on for seven years." Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori discusses Syria's future after Bashar al-Assad emerged victorious in the Syrian war. Opinion

Photo: AP

Many sources think that the most significant clashes in Syria are likely to end late this year.

The small clashes between the various ethnic groups and hence among their external points of reference will probably not end yet. The bulk of armed actions, however, will certainly finish since now the areas of influence are stabilized.

The first fact that stands out is that, despite everything, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have won. All the international actors operating on the ground – be they friends or foes – have no difficulty in recognizing it.

Certainly, neither Assad nor Russia alone have the strength to rebuild the country, but Western countries – especially those that have participated in the fight against Assad – and the other less involved countries plan to participate in the reconstruction process, with a view to influencing Syria, although peacefully this time.

The military start of Assad's victory was the Northwest campaign of the Syrian Arab Forces from October 2017 to February 2018. Operations against what the United States calls "rebels" – namely, in that case, ISIS and Tahrir al-Sham – focused at that time on the intersection between the provinces of Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo.

It is extremely difficult for a regular army to conduct operations against guerrilla organizations, but Assad’ Syrian Arab Army has succeeded to do so.

The subsequent destruction of ISIS pockets south of Damascus, in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, was decisive to later establish a stable and undisputed hegemony of the Syrian forces throughout the Syrian territory – and above all in traditionally Sunni areas.

There is also the issue of Al-Rastan, the ancient town of Arethusa on the Orontes River, located on the side of the bridge uniting Hama and Homs. From the beginning of hostilities, it has been a basis for the jihadism of the so-called "rebels."

Another military problem is the opening of the bridge and the commercial passage on the border between Syria and Lebanon, namely Al-Nasib, which is essential for Syria’s trade with Jordan and the Gulf countries.

Conquering the Al-Nasib pass means also conquering the road between Deraa and Damascus, as well as the Syrian side of the Djebel Druze.

Between the Deraa-Damascus road and the Golan, the situation is still largely frozen thanks to the agreement reached by the Russian Federation with the United States and Israel, in which the former guaranteed to the Jewish State that Iran and Hezbollah would not get close – up to the limit of 25 miles (40 kilometers) – to the old ceasefire line established in 1973.

Moreover, even though the representatives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava, were never accepted in the negotiations between the parties in conflict, the Kurds – already abandoned by the United States – know that the territories they freed from ISIS will be returned to the Sunni Arabs, but in exchange for the autonomy of the traditionally Kurdish districts of Afrin, Kobane, and Qamishli.

Furthermore, since the Sochi Conference on the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue held at the end of January 2018, Russia has convinced the 1,500 participants from the various parts of Syria to accept the fact that every ethnic and religious area and every group of Syrian society must be respected and protected by the new Constitution. A break with the old Ba'athist and centralist tradition of the Syrian regime, but without reaching the Lebanese paradox, i.e., permanent civil war.

The political process envisaged by Russia is a process in which the Westerners still present in the Syrian territory had no say in the matter. Nor will they have it in the future.

The going will be really tough when the time of reconstruction comes.

Reconstruction is the most important future lever for external influence on the long-suffering Syrian Arab Republic, where conflict has been going on for seven years.

The World Bank estimates the cost of reconstruction at 250 billion dollars. Other less optimistic, but more realistic estimates point to a cost for Syrian national reconstruction up to 400 and even 600 billion US dollars. Syria does not even dream of having all these capital resources, which even the Russian Federation cannot deploy on its own.

Six years after the outbreak of the conflict, in 2011, the great diaspora of Syrian businessmen met in Germany in late February 2017. Hence the creation of the Syrian International Business Association (SIBA).

With specific reference to the great Syrian reconstruction, the Russian, Iranian and Chinese governments are already active and have already secured the largest contracts in the oil and gas, minerals, telecommunications, real estate, and electricity sectors.

As far as we know, there is no similar investment by Western countries, which will still leave the economic power they planned to acquire in the hands of other countries, after having caused the ill-advised but failed "Arab Spring" in Syria.

Also, the BRICS and countries such as Lebanon, Armenia, Belarus, and Serbia invest in Syria, or at least in the regions where peace has been restored, and the "Caliphate" does no longer exist.

Usually, collaboration takes place through the purchase of pre-existing companies in Syria – something which now happens every day – or through bilateral collaborations with Syrian companies.

With specific reference to regulations, Syria is continuously changing the rules regarding the structure of operating companies, work permits, imports, and currency transfers.

State hegemony, in the old Ba’athist tradition – the old Syrian (but also Egyptian) National Socialism, which adapts itself to the structure of current markets.

It is estimated that Syrian companies can already provide 50% of the 300 billion US dollars estimated by the World Bank as the cost for Syria’s reconstruction. An estimate that many still think to be rather optimistic.

Nevertheless, it will take at least thirty years to bring Syrian back to the conditions in which it was before hostilities began.

With rare effrontery and temerity, the United States and the European Union are already putting pressure on the Syrian government to be granted economic and political concessions, but Assad has no intention of giving room to his old enemies.

In any case, the Syrian reconstruction will need at least 30 million tons of goods per year from sea lines, while the Latakia and Tartus airports can – at most – allow loads of 15 million tons/year.

From this viewpoint, Lebanon is organizing a Special Economic Zone around the port of Tripoli, already adapted by China to the international transport of vast flows of goods in cargoes and containers.

Obviously, the companies going to work in Syria must also take the physical safety of their workers and their offices into account, as well as the need to have constant, careful, and close relations with local authorities.

Furthermore, the US sanction regime also favors President Trump’s plan to topple the Syrian regime through economic pressure, which would also make the work of European companies in Syria very difficult or even impossible.

However, what is the need for destroying Syria economically? For pure sadism? The current US foreign policy is not unpredictable; it is sometimes crazy.

The US sanctions concern the new investment of US citizens in Syria; the re-exporting or exporting of goods and services to Syria; the importing of Syrian oil or gas into the United States; the transactions of Syrian goods and services carried out by non-US citizens also involving a US citizen.

Other sanctions will soon be imposed by President Trump on the Russian Federation due to its "tolerance" for the increasingly alleged factories of nerve gas and materials.

Obviously, the fact that the Syrian regime is the winner of the military confrontation, along with Russia and Iran, is now a certainty.

Nevertheless, Syrian loyalists are still badly supplied, both at military and civilian levels, and they are severely dependent on external aid, which is decisive for their survival and for preserving their strategic and military superiority.

Without Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad would have collapsed within two months since the beginning of the "Syrian spring," when the Muslim Brotherhood organized by the United States was demonstrating violently in the streets.

Hence, in the current stability of the Syrian regime, nothing must be taken for granted: the end or decrease of Russian support and the fast return back home of the Iranian Pasdaran and Afghan Shi'ites organized by Iran would bring Assad’s military and civilian power back to the 2011 level.

Nevertheless, Syria does no longer exist as a Soviet-style centralized State.

In Assad-led Syria, the centralized economy does no longer exist, for the excellent reason that four primary military powers operate in the country, namely Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States. They collectively control all the Syrian resources on which the Syrian national government no longer has any power.

As can be easily imagined, the United States holds oil reserves by means of their occupation – through the Kurds – of Raqqa and the northeastern region.

Turkey holds a nominally Syrian region of approximately 2,400 square kilometers between Aleppo and Idlib, in the area of the "Euphrates Shield" operations.

Russia and Iran already hold the majority of reconstruction contracts, while they will acquire most of the public sector to repay the military expenses they incurred to keep Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power.

Hence, if no agreements are reached between Russia and the United States, each area of influence will have different reconstruction and development plans.

As early as the 1945-1958 period, Syria had been the target of expansionist designs that were anyway bound to fragment its territory.

The two Hashemite Kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan thought they could together take control of the whole Syrian State, while their eternal rivals, namely the Saudi-Egyptian axis, thwarted their designs.

Great Britain and France, still powerful in Syria, operated through their Arab points of reference.

The CIA collaborated with the Syrian dictator, Husni Zaim. Zaim was of Kurdish origin and had taken power in 1949. He had organized a regime not disliked by the Ba’ath Party – a Westernizing and vaguely "Socialist" dictatorship.

After Husni Zaim’s fall, Syria was divided as usual: the collective leadership was held by the Sunni urban elite who had fought harshly against France.

Nevertheless, the unity of the nation – which was decisive for the Sunnis themselves – found it hard to bring together the Alawites, the Druze, the Shi'ites and the thousands of religious and ethnic factions that characterized Syria at that time as in current times.

The nationalist union between Syria and Egypt created in 1958 and soon undermined by Syria’s defection in 1961, experienced its Ba'athist-nationalist coup in 1963, with a military takeover.

Hafez El Assad – the father of the current Syrian leader, who ruled Syria from 1963 to 2000, the year of his death – immediately emerged among the military.

Long-term instability, medium-term political stability. That is Syria, from the end of the French domination to current times.

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