David W Lesch, James Gelvin
NOW that forces supporting the Syrian government have completed the takeover of Aleppo, and Russia, Turkey and Iran have negotiated a tenuous cease-fire, it is more than likely that President Bashar al-Assad and the regime he oversees will continue to govern Syria, in one form or another. In an interview with French media published last week, Mr. Assad stated that Aleppo signalled a “tipping point in the course of the war” and that the government is “on the way to victory.” But if that is the case, what will Mr Assad actually win?
Let’s take a look at the numbers. More than 80 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line. Nearly 70 percent of Syrians live in extreme poverty, meaning they cannot secure basic needs, according to a 2016 report. That number has most likely grown since then. The unemployment rate is close to 58 percent, with a significant number of those employed working as smugglers, fighters or elsewhere in the war economy. Life expectancy has dropped by 20 years since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. About half of children no longer attend school — a lost generation. The country has become a public health disaster. Diseases formerly under control, like typhoid, tuberculosis, Hepatitis A and cholera, are once again endemic. And polio previously eradicated in Syria — has been reintroduced, probably by fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Upward of 500,000 are dead from the war, and an untold number of Syrians have died indirectly from the conflict (the price for destroying hospitals, targeting health care professionals and using starvation as a weapon). With more than two million injured, about 11.5 percent of the pre-war population have become casualties. And close to half the population of Syria is either internally or externally displaced. A 2015 survey conducted by the United Nations refugee agency looking at Syrian refugees in Greece found that a large number of adults — 86 percent — had secondary or university education. Most of them were under 35. If true, this indicates that Syria is losing the very people it will most need if there is to be any hope of rebuilding in the future.
The cost of reconstruction will be astronomical. A March 2016 study estimated that the total economic loss as a result of the conflict was $275 billion; industries across the country are decimated. Added to this will be the cost of needed repairs to infrastructure, which the International Monetary Fund estimates to be between $180 billion and $200 billion. Paying for rebuilding would require uncharacteristic generosity from the international community, but there is no reason to believe other countries would want to reward Mr. Assad for out-brutalising the other side. His allies Russia and Iran have their own economic woes and are unlikely to be of much help.
And how would Mr. Assad rule the rump state? Pre-existing patronage networks have been shattered and replaced by semi-independent warlords, militias or local governing bodies. This is even the case in government-controlled areas, where pro-regime militias and gangs who remained loyal would expect rewards. Indeed, the Syrian leadership grossly underestimates how far the Syrian population as a whole has moved away from it. Syrians by and large have for years now been empowered by living, surviving and governing on their own. It is an utter delusion if the regime thinks it can return to anything close to the status quo ante.
The Syrian government may have a representative to the UN, have embassies in some countries, stamp passports and print currency, but it is hardly a state. Mr. Assad’s control, power and legitimacy have been severely circumscribed, whether he and his supporters know it or not. He will have to depend on continuing large-scale assistance from outside if he wants to restore even a portion of what Syria was. But it is a new Syria. He is the one who will have to reshape his political system to fit this new reality, rather than the other way around. David W Lesch is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio and James Gelvin is a professor of Middle East history at UCLA.
— Courtesy: The New York Times