A cantonised, post-war Syria, best chance for peace

Friday 25/03/2016

Predicting a future for war-torn Syria is a fool’s errand. If we look at how the major players in the conflict have conducted themselves over the past several years we can, however, postulate that some scenarios are more likely to happen than others.

The stop-start dynamics of the most recent set of peace talks in Geneva have undoubtedly marked the most concrete step away from conflict. What has become clear this month is that neither side wants to walk away.

So when a deal is finally bro­kered, and that may take years, we can roughly sketch what a post-war Syria would look like.

First of all, the Syrian regime will, in all likelihood, remain the chief actor in Syria through its control of Damascus and the Mediterranean coast. We must not forget that millions of Syrians still support the regime either through blind faith or a palpable fear of any alternative. Alongside it, Iranian military and officials, who enjoyed a strong presence in the city even before 2011, can be expected to stay on.

Hezbollah has suffered sig­nificant personnel losses in an unpopular war and may regroup to focus again on its enemy to the south, the de jure reason for its existence, Israel.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s calculation for the past five years has arguably centred on the fate of Homs. He correctly figured it could rely on Hezbollah militants to secure the Lebanese border along which a series of insurgent towns once caused the government serious headaches. It is Homs that is central to the regime’s survival because it links Damascus to the coastal region.

Would rebel groups be able to stomach the regime’s continued control of Syria’s capital? Absolute­ly. It has been almost three years since rebel groups last looked like they were making a serious push on central Damascus and since then have instead been forced to back-foot in Homs, Hama and eastern Syria.

Were the war to end today, the rebels who first took to the streets to protest would settle for an end to the humanitarian crisis and control of sections of rural Homs and Hama provinces, Idlib and eastern Syria, once, of course, the Islamic State (ISIS) has been defeated there.

Because the so-called moderate rebel groups and Kurdish militias share relatively similar goals and are backed by the same sponsor, it is probable that they, supported by US air strikes, will take on and weed out ISIS and al-Nusra Front in the north and east in the aftermath of a deal with Damascus. This would be something just about palatable to Turkey — if the 2.7 million refugees it currently hosts return home and the border definitively closed to stop the ISIS-linked terrorist attacks it has been subjected to for the past year. The remnants of the Assad regime has, in truth, long since cast off the notion of winning back the entirety of the north and east.

But two essential elements are necessary for Syria to make a post-war recovery: money and a peace to allow investors to risk sink­ing billions into reconstruction. Reports suggest the war has cost Syria $275 billion so far and were it to end today an additional $175 billion to $415 billion would still be lost in gross domestic product growth. Still, there are reasons for optimism: For the past three years, Syrian and international experts in Beirut have been working on a detailed economic and infrastruc­tural rebuilding plan, while it is not difficult to envision Gulf countries and Turkey sinking money into infrastructure that would benefit Syrians in rebel-controlled territo­ries.

As such, Syria’s best-case scenario is for its cantonisation, a reality that would mean the end of the country as we knew it in 2011, but also its best chance for a du­rable peace. Even in this scenario, serious questions would remain over control of Aleppo, today a city divided.

But years of war, migration and loss have tired out Syrians and the various military factions claiming to represent them. All involved, except perhaps Russia, have had enough as reflected by the im­probable continuation of talks in Geneva.

Syria as a state has clearly disin­tegrated; recognising that will al­low for the first step towards peace.