During the past seven odd years, the war economy has produced its own drivers of wealth, numerous mogul warlords, and a new layer of business entrepreneurs that will become part of, or perhaps the crown of, any new upper class. Iran and Russia have fully replaced the Arab Gulf countries, former economic backers of the regime.
Power relations at the local and regional levels have also been re-ordered, with a growing perception that the biggest regional winner is Iran. New forces have emerged: the paramilitary units that fought alongside the regime, local leaders in non-regime-controlled territories, and others.
While support for armed rebels was significant, supporters saw the conflict in strategic terms. In contrast, most regime allies saw the conflict in existential terms, and acted accordingly. Meanwhile, ordinary Syrians became invisible to both sides, and their original uprising against dictatorship was rendered unimportant. For ordinary Syrians, Syria has been almost wholly destroyed, and after decades of regime repression, they found themselves and their aspirations marginal to leading rebel groups with whom they have little in common. They were extras in a theatre of continuous power plays. We must center the interests of the majority of Syrians as we address reconstruction, governance, transition, and development. This does throw a wrench into the plans of most states and international organizations who have descended and will descend on Syria for profit and power.
With the passage of time, the fault lines are becoming clearer. If you prioritized the fall of the Syrian regime, your interests were not served, and you just move on, or better yet, move away from Syria. But if you prioritized the triumph of a revolution that is antithetical to dictatorship, you suffered a visceral loss, a loss you cannot move away from. The distinction is crucial and consequential in the case of Syria, considering the active supporters of all sides in the developing proxy war. Still, this distinction has been missed by many well-meaning observers and supporters of the Syrian revolution.
As individuals, groups, or states, we must understand the motives of those who want to help with reconstruction. Regime supporters are by definition interested in its survival, which clearly does not involve socioeconomically equitable or politically democratic development. Supporters of armed rebels generally wanted to replace the regime with a more compliant one, whether for domestic or regional purposes, and were unconcerned with whether it would serve or represent its citizens. International financial institutions just want a piece of the pie. The people who matter or are concerned with the interests of an equitable and free Syria have long been marginalized, and find themselves yet again on the margins of any reconstruction process.
As to the domestic setting, the last thing on the minds of Syria’s strongmen is any form of compromise, let alone a political transition in which they share any modicum of real power. Where others see the calamity of almost half a million Syrians dead, and more than half of the population of Syria displaced, the regime views what transpired as an affirmation of its power and reach, as well as being a lesson to others should they seek to re-ignite an uprising.
The regime sees itself as an embattled victor, making diplomatic efforts toward political transition a foregone failure. It sees itself in control of what it calls Sourya al-Mufida, or useful Syria, despite some areas being controlled by others. Rebuilding, reconstruction, or what are called “good governance” programs are therefore an extreme uphill battle, in the best case.
I am aware that this leaves very few and less lucrative options. But this is precisely what we have to work with if we are genuinely concerned about a Syria for all Syrians. It is the starting point from which trade-offs can be made, rather than an ideal to be discarded or held onto at all cost. Good intentions about equity and justice alone will not rebuild Syria, but there are practical and acceptable degrees of departure from principled positions that operate as necessary trade-offs. If either the regime or the values of the dominant global political-economic order have their way, unfettered, we are likely to see the reproduction of power relations, cronyism, and subsequent inequitable and/or exploitative outcomes that will reproduce the conditions that spurred the Syrian uprising in the first place.
Thus, we are not allowed to say in the future that “there was no other way but to submit to the regime or to international forces with capital.” There are paths that can be supported and have been. The task is to maximize this support while pointing out and affirming based on historical record the potential calamity of power-driven alternatives that will replace people-driven ones.
The question of business classes that can be relied on to invest in a postwar Syria has been looming for some time. Divisions along several axes–within regime circles and between it and other political actors–shattered the unity of the national economy by 2012, and the rentier business class, which existed and flourished in the pre-2011 era, along with it. Larger independent businesses have suffocated under the weight of insecurity and/or war, leading to massive capital flight. Small and medium-sized businesses stumble along out of necessity and have seen their fortunes shrink or disappear. Driven by new sources of wealth, the war economy has created its own business moguls in a variety of sectors.
The State and the Business Community
The regime wanted to build a business community, or parts of it, in its own image, from the early 1970s. The process of capital accumulation and its correlate neoliberal-like policies in the 1990s and 2000s was about to create an Egypt-like situation, where the market begins to compete with the state as a means for upward social mobility and the attainment of power. However, this competition did not seem threatening given that much of the new big capital was controlled by, or directly owned by, economic actors beholden to the regime. In the 2000s, it had an inflated sense of security domestically, causing it to overplay its hand in unraveling the state-centred economy. This process started after 1986 and culminated in the vague notion of the social market economy in 2005, which reflected the increased power of capital in Syria.
The Syrian uprising interrupted this process of capital accumulation and the regime is now far more insecure in its dealings with the business community. New state-business relations will be even more tightly controlled by the state. As it did with its allies, it will reward the business community via rebuilding and reconstruction schemes. This will be at the expense of most Syrians as well as of the worn-down state, which will be denied any benefits from the privileges that will be accrued by the new moguls. The regime will also see this process of rewarding the new economic actors as part of its political reconsolidation and will not compromise it for more rational or equitable notions of rebuilding and governance. It will instead do its best to limit, by law or by force, the empowerment of most societal segments in the process.
The Regime as Formidable Obstacle
Today, and at least for the past two years, the regime has deployed a legal and financial framework to achieve political, economic, and demographic goals. Examples include zoning and rezoning, reclamation, possession, and transfer of ownership of private property. Without local and grassroots organization, such schemes will continue to proceed at a significant rate, creating new realities that support regime reconsolidation in the short run but exacerbate the same sources of discontent and dissent that initially propelled protests.
False Assumptions, Untenable Policies, and Detached Reconstruction Programs
The idea that effective reconstruction programs and sound governance go hand in hand is logical and desirable. But many pay scant regard to the dominant realities on the ground or to the dominant new rules of the game.
The challenge has been one of agency and authority, with both being a function of existing power relations that are hopelessly skewed in favor of the regime. What authority is expected to approve the myriad reconstruction programs that are incessantly being hatched outside Syria? What agency will oversee and implement such programs?
If the Syrian regime is the answer, then much of the rebuilding and good governance discourse any institution, scholar, activist, or politician can muster will not see the light of day, unless it creates a largely dissent-less Syria, with laws and regulations that control the public.
The regime’s view of the role of reconstruction is key to understanding the realm of the possible, if not the probable. And to understand its view, we must look more closely into how the regime views the process, nature, and outcome of the last seven or eight years. In short, the regime is now in what I call fortification mode, which will certainly block efforts that benefit any other party and may even cause friction with its own allies when hostilities are over.
- Political transition is unlikely without pressure from the regime’s most significant.
- Identity politics is not going. This would be a challenge for virtually any program, even if the regime were to disappear tomorrow.
- Disciplining a new crop of warlords, moguls, and those who benefit from and facilitate their operations is a challenge even for the regime, and certainly for the local populations that suffer under them.
- Most of the Syrian populace consists of children and youth, who will grow up in relative destitution, absent sufficient education and health provision institutions and with few economic opportunities. With most children having skipped many years of schooling and a vast number of breadwinners within families having perished, this problem is significantly exacerbated and is not much discussed in highbrow discourses about the future of Syria.
- The regime will provide geostrategic, economic, and security payback for allies before considering any rational analysis or reconstruction.
- When the semblance of stability seems more permanent, internally displaced refugees and those in other countries will be under more pressure to return. With measures such as law 10 in place, where will they return to? And there are many other obstacles.
- After the question of Idlib and other areas are resolved, and all hostilities have been settled, there will potentially be divergences between the Syrian regime and some of its allies, particularly Russia. This will hinge on various factors dealing with the policies and tensions surrounding involved states, not least Turkey, the United States, and Iran.
[This article is published in partnership with the London School of Economics' Conflict Research Programme. It was first presented at the Political Economy and Governance in Syria conference organized at LSE in December 2018.]