The Syrian civil war drags on for over 7 years, with no swift end in sight. It is a humanitarian catastrophe and preempts any possible geopolitical stabilization of the Middle East, which is badly needed by all actors in the region and its near neighborhood (Europe, Africa, Central Asia). This multi-sited civil conflict, transformed into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as between the United States and Russia. Its death toll is estimated to be around 470,000, with 1.9 million wounded (11.5% of the total population before the war). It displaced almost 11 million people, half the population of Syria, in the neighboring countries (especially Jordan and Turkey), Europe and other countries.
This must end. And the easiest way to end it is by letting al-Assad conditionally win the war. Let his regime in place, ask the rebels to give up the fight and accept a compromise which will allow the al-Assad regime to survive, but get assurances that the Kurdish minority will receive political and legal protection in post-war Syria. I think that it is in the power of the western states to end the bloodshed, even if this will mean that in the short term Vladimir Putin will win a stronghold in the Middle East and a military port at the Mediterranean, which already exists. It will not last, Russia and Iran will lose Syria in the end. They don’t have the resources necessary to keep the al-Assad regime loyal and on their side, and the memory of the conflict will fade away in a few years, when the misery will settle in.
The 1.9 million wounded, the 11 million displaced, the 470,000 dead are just the tip of the iceberg. According to the World Bank, a third of the Syrian housing stock, half of the educational and health-care facilities are destroyed. Entire cities, towns, and villages have been eviscerated by carpet bombing. Highways, roads, bridges, and ports have been destroyed by bombing and years of neglect. The electricity infrastructure has been severely damaged, even if most power plants are still operational. It will take years and tens of billions of dollars to build back the cities and infrastructure, repair the economic networks, and recover what is left of Syria’s historical heritage. The cumulative losses in gross domestic product (GDP) have been estimated by the World Bank at $226 billion. And this is only the physical capital. Among the millions of displaced Syrians are maybe the most qualified and educated people that the country had. The brain drain will be hard to compensate and the West could help by starting programs of voluntary and, if necessary, involuntary repatriation of the Syrian refugees in Europe. Post-war Syria will need a well-educated workforce, engineers, doctors, teachers and so on.
The Syrian government will need tens of billions of dollars to build back what was destroyed by the war and Syria does not have any significant natural resources to use in order to attract capital. Therefore, it will require capital influxes from abroad. Russia will not be able to financially support Syria at even minimal levels. The entire Russian National Wealth Fund has total assets in the amount of just $66 billion dollars. And the Western economic sanctions already limit Moscow’s economic options. With a stable but slow-growing economy, expelled from the international markets by the Western sanctions, it will not afford to financially support the Syrian regime. Neither can the other ally of Assad, the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the stiff Western sanctions have mostly been waived after the nuclear agreement, Iran in no position to invest billions and billions of dollars in Syria, when its own domestic needs are hardly fulfilled. The years of economic decline caused by the Western sanctions are still visible, even with an estimated growth of over 3%. There are just two other actors who have the ability to financially support Syria: China and the West.
While China has significant resources and could invest huge amounts of money in Syria, I hardly see that happening. China does not seem to express any significant interest in the region. It abstained from voting on any major Western-sponsored or Russian-sponsored UNSC resolution and does not seem to be on the Belt and Road Initiative roadmap. I’m not saying that China could not use the opportunity to build a new stronghold in the Middle East, but for the moment it has shown no interest in doing so. It formally supported Assad, but nothing more. I’ve seen no substantial efforts made by Beijing on behalf of Damascus.
So only the West and its international financial institutions remain a viable option for building back Syria. And Assad will want to build back the country. Otherwise, he will have another war soon enough, once the misery of life will become overwhelming. And the West, with its decades of expertise and history of negotiating financial packages with authoritarian regimes, will have conditions for Damascus. The conditionality of financial assistance, the tied-aid packages, are among the most powerful and effective non-military tools that the West has. Those conditions will eventually require a realignment of Assad’s regime on the West’s side, will ask for more political, economic, and religious opening and liberalization. This is the standard package of any Western financial deal. The West may lose the fight on the ground, but it will win the war in the offices of IMF, the World Bank, and the Treasury Departments of its major capitals. I see no other option for any Syrian government,