Assad Retaking Syria Would be an Unbridled Catastrophe
Predicting any outcome to the conflict in Syria is a tricky pursuit but, with the tide turning for the Syrian government, how would the country and wider region look in ten years if Damascus were to retake all territory it lost to rebel groups and the Islamic State (ISIS)?
The signs of this happening are already there. The regime is recapturing Aleppo street by bloody street, having previously ousted rebel forces from towns around the capital such as Daraa and Khan al-Shih in addition to Tadmur in the east earlier this year. Government forces are pushing slowly if relentlessly into eastern Ghouta outside Damascus. A full sweep of opposition-held areas in the coming months must now be a major consideration.
So, what might Syria, a Syria in which President Bashar Assad has regained territorial control, look like a decade from now?
First, a win for Assad would rule out a return of the 6 million people who have fled since 2011. The wealthiest Syrians left early on as the revolution unfolded but the middle-class brainpower and labour force required to run a post-war country disappeared during the great migration to Europe in 2015. Assad remaining in power would ensure they remain in Germany, Sweden, Austria and elsewhere.
It would also mean that international investors and donor organisations, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, would stay away because of the regime’s abject human rights record and ingrained corruption. Many post-conflict countries rely heavily on injections of vast amounts of foreign finance. Reports suggest the cost of the Syrian war — thus far — comes to about $300 billion. For Assad’s Syria, that essential financial aid would not come — think present-day Somalia, not Bosnia.
And having backed from the start the various rebel groups that took on the Syrian government, traditional sources of capital such as Qatari, Saudi and other Gulf investment funds and contractors would play no part in financing the rebuilding of Syria.
That would mean no building of new homes, water supply or electricity systems and no new hospitals or medical centres for the millions of physically and psychologically maimed Syrians. With the economy gutted, shabiha gangsters would rule the street, extracting bribes from the business owners who remain. Damascus, once a leading centre of Arab culture and thought, would be gutted by hyperinflation.
The country’s great cities and sites — Aleppo’s Old City, Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers — would remain in ruins and subject to low-level pillaging as the government would have no funds to embark on reconstruction efforts or to provide adequate security. True, some small-scale UN-sponsored reconstruction efforts such as the souq in Homs’ old city have begun but the possibility of revenue from international or local tourism would never materialise.
Critically, a Syria under Assad would remain a breeding ground for extremists who could easily expect to take up space at the physical verges of the country. For example, major centres of opposition where the post-war regime could not or would not fully stamp its authority, places such as Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa or Idlib may simply be blasted to pieces and left, leaving space for jihadists to congregate and scheme attacks on Iraqi, Syrian and European populations.
For neighbouring Lebanon, a failed Syrian state ruled by Assad would be catastrophic. Freed from the constraints of fighting domestic rebel groups, Damascus would once again turn its attention to taking back political control of its smaller neighbour as it attempted for decades until 2005, only this time a battle-hardened Hezbollah and Iran both operating openly out of Damascus would swamp all and any opposition.
There is no crystal ball to tell exactly how Syria will turn out but it seems, tragically, that the ideals — dignity and freedom — called for in new Syria by the brave protesters who took to the streets of Daraa, Damascus and elsewhere in 2011 may never be realised.
Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).
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