Syria in 2030 will look a lot like 2010 but with one major difference — Opposition in exile

By 2030, exiled Syrians being educated in Western schools and universities could prove to be a very different proposition.
Sunday 05/01/2020
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with Syrian refugee children at a preschool, during a visit to a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep. (AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with Syrian refugee children at a preschool, during a visit to a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep. (AFP)

For Syria, the coming decade will likely bring many of the same challenges and difficulties it faced in the years leading up to the 2011 uprising.

Throughout much of the 2000s, Syria was isolated from the international community for refusing to support the 2003 occupation of Iraq and for its close ties with Iran. The years ahead are shaping up to look remarkably similar.

The local economy will likely see slight improvements as businesses and governments in the Middle East slowly trickle back into the Syrian market. Access to bank loans and credit will, by 2025, once again become the norm for many Syrians. However, Syria in the 2020s could basically be a repeat of the 2000s.

There may, however, be one key development outside Syria’s borders that could have major repercussions for the country’s direction — the formation of a robust, influential and highly motivated political opposition-in-exile.

There are approximately 6.7 million Syrian refugees around the world. More than 1 million are in countries such as Canada, Germany, Sweden and the United States, where human rights and democratic governance are inviolable pillars of everyday life.

For many young Syrians in those countries, it won’t be long before they question why they’ve been denied the right to set foot in their homeland. Some will turn their attention to efforts to oust the Assad regime and establish a democratic state in its place.

If a single reason explains why the Syrian revolution failed and Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power it is because the political opposition tragically failed to coalesce around a united front.

By March 2013, more than 20 major governments recognised the now-failed Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate government of Syria. The coalition had political clout in and enjoyed military backing from many countries in the Gulf and the West. Meanwhile, around the world, Syrian expats took to the streets to show support for the revolution and its democratic cause.

However, internal squabbling, huge injections of outside money and competing egos killed the political opposition. At the same time, Syrian expats marching in London, Washington and Detroit in 2011 and 2012 had little real experience in the political field or in corridors of power. Most were medical doctors, academics or leading members of the clergy, leaders within their own local Syrian expat communities but with little to no experience in the fine arts of international lobbying, diplomacy or message shaping.

By 2030, however, exiled Syrians being educated in Western schools and universities could prove to be a very different proposition. They will be deeply affected by the vast destruction and loss wrought by the war on their parents’ generation. Some will seek to create a collaborative, highly motivated and disciplined opposition in Europe and North America.

Raised in Canada, Germany and Sweden, where democratic civil society groups are a central fabric of the social contract, they will seek to undermine and sow discord in the Assad regime using methods that could prove far more successful than those used by the protesters and revolutionaries of 2011.

They will create and fund media organisations to influence the thinking of Syrians both overseas and living under the Assad regime. They will pressure governments around the world — and especially in the Gulf — to decrease or cut ties with the Assad regime because they will have built up the nous and experience to offer a better alternative, whatever that may be.

Even for Syrian expats not directly involved in efforts to upend the Assad regime, the large presence of anti-Assad Syrians in countries such as Canada, Germany and the Netherlands will make them an important voting bloc. Politicians in those countries will be forced to cede to their demands if they want their votes.

Already, regime victims who escaped Syria during the uprising are excelling in places such as Toronto, Canada. There, Syrians graduating with degrees from top universities are stating in public their goal to bring down the Assad regime.

To be sure, governments — and oppositions-in-exile — have poor records of success around the world and not all exiles will be bothered to involve themselves in creating a democratic future for Syria.

However, well-organised opposition groups and leaders have had success in shaping and galvanising global opinion against anti-democratic governments. For example, in 1986, exiled Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan and became prime minister twice before her assassination in 2007.

The Tibetan government-in-exile remains a powerful lobbying force in the West where it has high-profile celebrity support while drawing millions of fundraising dollars to its cause. Israel’s lobby in the United States is famous for wielding huge influence in Middle Eastern affairs.

Syria’s Western-based pro-democracy movement could, one day, achieve something similar. That means that, for Assad, though, the war has ended and many more challenges lie down the road.