Talk of the Endgame in Syria Dodges the Question of Recovery

World Politics Review, 02.01.2019
Frederick Deknatel, editor ejecutivo

A Syrian army soldier outside Manbij, Aleppo Province, Syria (Sputnik photo via AP Images).

An estimated 4 million children have been born in Syria since 2011, according to UNICEF, which means that half of the children in Syria today have grown up only knowing war. “Every 8-year-old in Syria has been growing up amidst danger, destruction and death,” Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, said after a five-day visit to the country in mid-December. Since the government first crushed a popular uprising and precipitated the civil war that still shows little sign of ending, a third of the schools in Syria have been destroyed or damaged, or they have been turned into shelters for displaced families.

It is details like this that are lost in most headlines about Syria, especially those generated by President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement last month to withdraw American forces, which are filling the void in a third of the country. This harsh but hardly new reality is a reminder of one of the best assessments I’ve heard of Syria’s crisis—a view that is as relevant and arresting as ever even if it’s now four years old.

In early January 2015, Peter Harling, then an analyst at the International Crisis Group, was being interviewed on France 24 about the rise of the Islamic State and the inertia of every outside actor, from the United States to Syria’s neighbors, in the face of the country’s descent. “We don’t really measure in the West how bad the situation is,” Harling said in response to a question about why the conflict was stuck in a kind of stasis, and then went on.

We tend to see the Middle East as a remote part of the world—Syria could be Sri Lanka for many people in France, for instance, or in the U.K. or the U.S. And there’s this perception that the region has always been in a state of turmoil and conflict between sects and tribes and so on. I don’t think we measure how dangerous it is to allow a part of the world which is profoundly integrated with Europe within the Mediterranean basin, if you will… to let it slip this far.

If you take Syria, we’re talking about a country where a large part of the children on the scale of a whole society have not been going to school for three years. This is something we’ll pay a price for, for years to come. Half the country’s urban fabric has been destroyed; a large part of its industrial base. This is not a country that’s going to recover. And we’re far from seeing any movement towards a solution, so it’s going to be years of this. Where will that leave Syrian society, and how are we going to deal with a society traumatized to this extent, right on our borders?

Of course, some nine months after this interview, Russia intervened in Syria, but the war’s overall status quo and what fueled it still didn’t really shift, even if President Bashar al-Assad got a lifeline. 2015 was also the year that Europeans were forced to reckon in some measure with the reality in Syria, given the record number of Syrians seeking refuge and asylum at Europe’s borders any way they could. In response, though, many European countries put up fences or quotas and the European Union eventually cut a deal with Turkey to essentially act as the gatehouse for asylum-seekers and migrants trying to reach the continent.

Things have gotten even worse in Syria since 2015, and with another year of war and suffering ahead, the country may look to a casual observer like a never-ending story. Cities have been “liberated” from the regime and then pounded into rubble and retaken. There are intermittent peace talks in foreign cities while the fighting goes on. Cease-fires are declared and soon broken. And what exactly are “de-escalation zones”?

An entire generation of children not going to school may seem more concrete. So does being told that you’ve resigned yourself to never going home, as one Syrian academic told me last month. He has made his opposition to the Assad regime clear. But now that means he’ll probably never return to Damascus.

Yet the uproar in Washington over Trump’s decision to remove the 2,000 or so American forces currently in Syria didn’t touch on any of this, which wasn’t surprising. It was simply another reminder of what the U.S. has hoped to salvage in Syria as Assad and his forces—regular and irregular, Syrian and increasingly foreign—carried out a simple edict to hold on to power:

Assad, or we burn the country down.”

American soldiers weren’t on a humanitarian mission in Syria, although they were operating as the backstop for an increasingly assertive Kurdish proto-state in the northeast of the country, in the name of fighting the Islamic State. Abandoned by the U.S., Syria’s Kurds no longer have their buffer between Assad, on one side, and Turkey on the other. Syrian Kurdish leaders have already reached out to Assad for protection, at least in some of the territories they control near the Syrian-Turkish border, fearing an impending attack from the Turks.

Retaking corners of the country that have been under Kurdish control since the war’s early days would be another milestone for Assad, at a time when there is growing diplomatic outreach toward his regime from Arab states that once supported his opponents. “The rebels’ former backers have not only given up on challenging his regime, they now actively want to embrace it—whether in public or in private,” Hassan Hassan recently wrote in The Observer, just as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus. Seven years after being expelled from the Arab League, it looks like Syria is about to be let back in. On top of recent military advances in southern Syria, including taking back the city of Daraa, the rebel stronghold where the popular uprising began, these diplomatic overtures, according to Hassan:

leave no room for doubt: Assad has decisively won the conflict.”

Reconciliation between Assad and his neighbors would be the war’s denouement. Many of those neighbors are fellow autocrats who are keen to see their brand of control consolidated across the Middle East, as the hope and brief momentum of the 2011 Arab uprisings further recede. As Hassan put it:

Unlike the geopolitical winds that buffeted Saddam Hussein in the 1990s after the first Gulf war, everything is blowing strongly in Assad’s favor.”

That means just the opposite for many Syrians, especially the most vulnerable, who have borne the brunt of the world letting Syria slip this far. Amid ongoing talk of reconstruction, including Trump’s seemingly bogus claim that Saudi Arabia would foot an unspecified amount of the bill, there is little actual mention of another word for this traumatized society: recovery.

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