The recent cascade of military victories by the Syrian regime and its allies marks the beginning of the end of the violent war that erupted in 2011 and the commencement of a new stage in the conflict.
The central issue in Syria is no longer the survival of the regime or the eventual military defeat of its varied opponents. It is rather the reassertion of the power and authority of the state, the commencement of a government reconstruction campaign, and the associated reintegration of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.
The White House, which has had little trouble rehabilitating the image of its new negotiating partner in Pyongyang, continues to abhor the idea of dealing with that “animal,” Assad.
But Syria cannot wait for Washington. The Assad regime has begun a campaign to consolidate its victory by repairing the damage in the 80 percent of the country where its writ now stands unchallenged. On May 22, the cabinet approved what Syrian state news agency SANA described as “an integrated plan to develop services and the economy” in areas newly restored to regime control. IDPs and returning refugees are increasingly choosing to move to regime-controlled areas rather than risk continued dislocation in the shrinking islands of territory controlled by the opposition.
The southern province of Daraa and the area controlled by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, in Syria’s northeast are currently the only areas of the country where the regime’s control has yet to be re-established. However, a deal is in the making. Even in the Kurdish areas hugging the border east of Manbij, which comprise approximately 20 percent of the country’s territory, Damascus never disengaged completely from this region. To this day, the local population pays taxes to the government, while a growing political- and security-focused dialogue between the regime and its opponents, mediated by Russia, aims at a new power-sharing arrangement.
As a result, for the first time since the war began in 2011, government forces control the roads between Syria’s three main cities, establishing a basic prerequisite for a national program of economic reconstruction. The route connecting the political capital of Damascus to Syria’s commercial and trade capital of Aleppo is being secured as part of an agreement between the regime, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Restoration of trade along the route from Aleppo to Gaziantep in Turkey, via the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, is currently being negotiated.
Russia, Iran, and China, along with Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, are foremost among the countries keen to promote and profit from this effort.
“I think it’s about time to focus all efforts on the development and reconstruction of Syria, and I think China will play a bigger role in this process by providing more aid to the Syrian people and the Syrian government,” explained Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador to Syria.
Trade delegations from Damascus and Iran constantly exchange visits and tout the prospects of cooperation. Meanwhile, Jordan is engaged in a broad political, security and private sector economic dialogue aimed at re-establishing the regime’s control in the south and facilitating the resumption of trade across long-closed borders.
Jordan cannot afford not to re-engage economically with Syria, no matter who sits in the chair in Damascus. Syria’s reconstruction is viewed both as an engine for vital economic growth and a requirement for possible refugee return to Syria. The same is true for Lebanon.
“Trade ties between Syria and Jordan are very important for the two countries and in our meetings, we stressed on the need to reopen the border crossings to facilitate trade,” explained Mohammad Rifai, vice president of Jordan Chamber of Industry.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has a long-standing commitment to Jordan’s economic prosperity. Despite the ban on Syria, it is currently supporting the effort to establish a logistics airport and hub in the Mafraq Development Zone to position Jordanian companies to profit from reconstruction in Iraq and Syria.
However, Washington will have difficulty squaring the circle—promoting economic development and modernization in allied countries while undermining one of their principal trading partners, regime-controlled Syria.
Withholding reconstruction assistance from the Syrian regime and opposing even the voluntary return of refugees until the situation improves is indeed the policy adopted by Washington, with significant but declining support from other “Friends of Syria.”
This U.S. policy toward Syria is a variant of the Gaza formula pursued by the international community since Hamas’s rise to power there in June 2007. Having failed in the military effort to oust the Assad regime, Washington will now keep Syria and Syrians on a postwar “diet” by maintaining economic sanctions and opposing reconstruction and development assistance.
This policy can frustrate and impede reconstruction and help to perpetuate the misery of the Syrian people, but it will fail, as did its military precursor, to topple the regime.
In Syria, the Trump administration is not playing chess with itself. Iran and China, as well as U.S. allies like Jordan and Turkey, are eager to cash in on the economic boon that Syrian reconstruction will provide.
Washington’s limited effort is aimed at maintaining an admittedly inadequate level of humanitarian assistance and rehabilitating basic infrastructure in areas under Kurdish control ostensibly to serve as an attractive model for the post-Assad era. The alternative model in the northeast aims to boast clean water and rebuilt schools, if not economic reconstruction and the rehabilitation of the vital agricultural economy. As long as Assad or the regime rules, neither Syria nor Syrians will receive sanctions relief or reconstruction aid from Washington and its coalition partners.
Who indeed wants to be counted in Washington’s corner as the guns fall relatively silent? U.S. President Donald Trump would like to close the books on the “horror show” that is Syria altogether.
He has frozen $200 million in aid earmarked for stabilization efforts in the Kurdish-controlled northeast, hoping to engage Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a quixotic effort to step in as Washington steps out.
The U.S. House of Representatives, with bipartisan support, recently passed the No Assistance for Assad bill (H.R. 4681), in order “to keep taxpayer dollars out of the hands of the murderous Assad regime and its proxies.” Speaking in support of the legislation, Chairman Ed Royce observed that “... It would be unconscionable for U.S. government funds to be used for stabilization or reconstruction in areas under control of the illegitimate Assad regime and its proxies. We are not going to support the building of infrastructure that will benefit Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, or foreign militias recruited and paid by the Iranian regime.”
The regime, supported by an increasing number of countries, not all of them part of the “resistance axis,” is pursuing a different and more tenable strategy. Their model is not Gaza, which the World Bank warns will be uninhabitable if the draconian measures aimed at regime change persist, but a post-war effort to begin the reconstruction tasks of the coming generation. Washington has the power to obstruct, delay, and increase the cost of this effort, but it cannot stop it.
Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images
In Syria, the Trump administration is not playing chess with itself.