What happens to Syria if Assad wins?
The conflict in Syria has been going on for nearly six years and at times has been characterised by a grinding and violent inertia. That can no longer be said to be the case as the regime and its allies have made dramatic inroads in the east of Aleppo and gains elsewhere in the country.
To add to this sudden rush of territory seized is the situation to the east where the Islamic State (ISIS) is losing Mosul street by street and faces the prospect of operations to seize its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, gaining momentum.
Moscow is behind Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus and behind Moscow appears to be the new president of the United States. The “Arab spring” feels like a distant memory of a bygone age and old footage of peaceful protesters marching in Syria has been replaced by scene after scene of rubble and urban destruction.
Despite the call for Assad to stand down being repeated ad nauseam by Washington, London, Paris and others for years, he appears suddenly able to reclaim control of enough of the spine of the country to declare a victory.
So, if 2016 has been the year of the unexpected, what would an Assad victory mean?
I would argue that if Syria has redefined the brutality of modern conflict, then any victory in that context should be interrogated as to its meaning. To quote HBO’s Game of Thrones: Assad would appear to see his “country burn if he could be king of the ashes”. A nominal victory for the regime may be hollow indeed and simply signify a new chapter of different difficulties and challenge for the country ahead.
The first thing to remember is the scale of damage that has been inflicted on the country and its people. The World Bank has put the reconstruction figure at some $180 billion and observers have estimated it could take Syria 20 years to recover to where it was in 2011.
While the Russians have been happy to display their military hardware in Syria, which has boosted sales by $7 billion, the continued low global price of oil and wider sanctions mean they are unlikely to lead their own version of a Marshall Plan for a post-war Syria.
This is unless Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to recreate the levels of Soviet assistance to Syria in the 1950s. These were estimated to have seen Russia responsible for 90 industrial facilities and pieces of infrastructure, one-third of Syria’s electrical power capability, one-third of its oil-producing facilities and a threefold expansion of land under irrigation — aided in part by assistance with building the massive Euphrates dam.
The high cost of rebuilding will be made even more challenging by the wider sanctions facing Syria and the likelihood of prolonged instability albeit of a very different type and tempo of violence.
EU sanctions were extended in November, targeting 18 Syrian officials, including Syria’s Central Bank Governor Duraid Durham and Finance Minister Maamoun Hamdan, who were both banned from travelling to Europe and had their assets frozen. The European Union already has an oil and arms embargo on Syria and a ban on dealings with the Central Bank. In addition, there are 234 people and 69 companies and institutions subjected to EU sanctions.
Also in November, US legislators passed a bill that would sanction the government of Syria and its supporters, including Russia and Iran, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country. If the bill is signed off by US President Barack Obama, it will apply to anyone who provides aircraft to Syria’s commercial airlines, does business with the transportation and telecommunications sectors controlled by the Syrian government or supports the country’s energy industry.
These sanctions would be difficult to rescind and, while Western powers may move away from rhetoric concerning regime change in Damascus, they are unlikely to actively support Assad while he remains in power. Indeed, the prospect of him visiting a Donald Trump White House would appear far-fetched.
The cost to Syria of its protracted war goes beyond dollars. The scale of the death toll, the tens of thousands who carry life-changing injuries, both seen and unseen, the whittling away of the size and capacity of state functions may combine with tough sanctions to recreate a version of Iraq in the 1990s.
To add to this let us not forget many of the pre-existing problems that bedevilled the country in the run-up to the uprising. Mismanaged urbanisation, the decline of the agricultural sector and worsening climate change, high youth unemployment and a moribund and corrupt bureaucracy, all of these will be extenuated by the legacy of the conflict.
The prospect of moving away from a bleak present does not necessarily imply a brighter future. We should be clear that the immediate and obvious legacy of the Syrian conflict is the complete absence of winners. Instead, in the rush to the bottom, Assad may be left standing and carrying the responsibilities and the burden of being the king of ashes.