Without money from elements of the international community, bankrupt Damascus is powerless. That is why the US must use the leverage it still holds
In Syria, Assad might be winning the war, but he is far from winning the peace
September was the deadliest month in Syria, with more than 3,000 people killed. Despite this, morale in Damascus is high, with president Bashar Al Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies all but declaring victory against the six-year insurgency that has destroyed much of his country and devastated most of its people. Mr Al Assad has good reason to celebrate, including a string of military successes and a recent decision by president Donald Trump to end the CIA’s training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels.
Leaks from Washington’s much-anticipated Iran policy review are also to Mr Al Assad’s liking, with the administration reportedly intending to counter Iran through a host of means and in a variety of geographies, but not in Syria.
When asked last week about Mr Trump’s strategy for countering Iran in Syria, national security advisor HR McMaster replied, “I can’t tell you”. In fact, it is an open secret that there is no Syria policy and no clear strategy to keep Iranian-backed forces from taking over much of eastern Syria once the US and its local allies clear ISIL out.
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Western and Arab capitals appear to have resigned themselves to the idea that the war for Syria has been lost and that Bashar Al Assad, who stands accused of repeatedly using chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of his own people, is here to stay.
Mr Al Assad may ultimately remain president, but it would be a grave mistake to surrender to him in peace what he and his allies have failed to achieve through war. Without the deep pockets of elements of the international community, his (literally) bankrupt government in Damascus is incapable of footing the country’s massive reconstruction bill, estimated by the World Bank and the United Nations to top US$200 billion (Dh740 billion).
Aware of this major handicap, Mr Al Assad struck a defiant tone at a recent trade fair in Damascus meant to herald the rebuilding process, proclaiming that he “will not allow enemies and adversaries to achieve with politics what they failed to achieve with terrorism”. Instead, in return for generous financial and military support, his government is allowing an Iranian and Russian takeover of vital strategic industries, including national ports, power plants, phone networks, oil and gas terminals, phosphate mines and large tracks of rich agricultural land.
Yet Moscow is aware that it and the Iranians alone cannot rescue Mr Al Assad from the deep financial pit he is in. Russian diplomats in New York want the international community to foot the bill with no strings attached, arguing that there is a pressing need now “to rebuild schools, hospitals and critical infrastructure”, particularly in areas where the regime has consolidated its grip.
Russia may be betting that eagerness within the Trump administration, and in some quarters of Europe, to stem and reverse refugee outflows from Syria may be enough for them to provide billions of dollars in aid without demanding a more inclusive government in Damascus or the dilution of Iranian influence. It must be proven wrong. Assad must not get a blank cheque.
So far, early signs are encouraging, with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini making it clear that “we will only go from early recovery to reconstruction once a credible and inclusive political agreement has been reached”.
But her position on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings left open the possibility of “initial recovery aid” being dispensed before a political transition has been agreed upon. It is a worrying slippery slope that risks diluting what is otherwise considerable financial leverage.
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Power of the purse aside, Mr Al Assad is also incapable of cobbling Syria back together through sheer brute force. Even authoritarian regimes depend on social and political underpinnings that allow for their perpetuation. Mr Al Assad’s father, Hafez Al Assad, ruled the country for more than 30 years by co-opting the majority Sunni population of the countryside, using generous state subsidies and appealing to their Arab nationalist fervor in the process. Together with Shiite Alawites and other religious minorities who dominated security institutions, these Sunnis were the regime’s political base. They abandoned it during the Arab uprisings of 2011, when subsidies had been lifted and Arab nationalism rang hollow.
Today, Bashar Al Assad cannot reconstruct the social, political and financial pillars of his regime – and bring his majority Sunni population back into the fold – by relying solely on Russia and Iran. It is a reality best captured by a quote from Winston Churchill, who observed that “those who can win a war can rarely make a good peace”.
Mr Al Assad needs both the financial support and the political legitimacy of the international community, including major Arab and Sunni Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to consolidate his recent military victories. Working with its allies, the US administration must recognise the considerable leverage it still holds and utilise it to shape a sustainable, stable and more representative outcome in Syria, one that helps preclude the re-emergence of ISIL by empowering mainstream Sunnis and begins to address Iran’s threat to American interests and regional security.
Firas Maksad is deputy executive director at Arabia Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank focused on the Middle East. He is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University