The future of Syria

Who, if anyone, will be called presi­dent? How much more of the country, including the ancient city of Damascus, will remain standing?

What’s next?

2015/05/22 Issue: 6 Page: 5

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

ISTANBUL - What will Syria look like a decade from now? Who, if anyone, will be called presi­dent? How much more of the country, including the ancient city of Damascus, will remain standing?

There are few serious answers to these questions but any discussion about how Syria will look in the long term must surely focus more on actors inside the country than those looking in. It is true that international actors in the form of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah and Turkey bear some responsibility for the ebb and flow of the day-to-day war since 2012, as is the nature of conflict in bellwether countries such as Syria.

But when the war ends — and it will — these states are likely to enjoy far less authority, regard­less of whether they are on the winning or losing side, because, through long-standing experience on the ground, local actors will return to shape the fray and chief among them will be Assad regime elements and supporters.

It takes a very particular balance of know-how, brutal­ity and propaganda to rule a country for 40-plus years, some­thing the Syrian government has managed to do. It has faced other threats to its grip on power: a war with Israel, the forced military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and the popular revolt of 2011, because it is engrained in the fabric of society — unlike, for example, Islamic State (ISIS).

Today, almost every home in Assad-controlled Syria is armed with at least one firearm.

Conversely, among those hop­ing to take the reins in Syria once the war ends is the constellation of defected army officers, dissi­dents and others who make up the disparate political opposition. But what would the Western-backed exile opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition’s (SNC) politi­cal, social and economic mani­festo look like were it to rule from Damascus?

Would the SNC — or any other alternative political force for that matter — implement, for example, some of the crucial and detailed reconstruction plans being drawn up by Abdullah al-Dardari, a Syrian former deputy prime minister and deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commis­sion for Western Asia? Who would run the army post-Assad? What forces would make up a working army under a new government? We have no idea; the SNC has no idea.

What we do know is that not a single Syrian citizen would take the SNC seriously were it to continue blaming Bashar Assad while at­tempting to govern the country and that is exactly what it has been doing.

The language behind the fan­tastical notion promoted on the SNC’s website that “Syrians of all backgrounds and in all areas are resolutely determined to bury all forms of sedition and division” is the same type of language used by the Assad government to sell its message for years.

The first to do away with the SNC or another flip-flopping governing authority would be the militias of various stripes — whose ideol­ogy can only be guessed at today — with the result that Syria would likely slip into a low-intensity con­flict similar to that of Libya.

As bad as that sounds, it would be better than the Syria of today. The process of post-conflict reha­bilitation takes time, generations even. And, believe it or not, and though neither the United States nor Damascus would admit it, Assad must be part of any negoti­ated “settlement.” He has too much support along the Mediterranean coast, in Homs, Damascus and among business and myriad local security forces not to be at the table.

Furthermore, that the Syrian regime’s entire public image has been built around the president suggests that Assad himself must be the public face of the regime — in or out of power.

None of this is to say the regime, or Assad, would persist at a govern­ment level or that a decade may pass before any of the above comes about. But time stands still for no one and all wars do end, let us hope soon.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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