Syrian reconstruction will only come from Syrian realism

With Arab states slowly bringing al-Assad back in from the cold and beginning the long process of reconstructing Syria, there are lessons to be learned from the region

This 2013 pictures shows the destroyed Khaled bin Walid mosque in the al-Khalidiyah neighbourhood of the central Syrian city of Homs.
This 2013 pictures shows the destroyed Khaled bin Walid mosque in the al-Khalidiyah neighbourhood of the central Syrian city of Homs.

Syrian reconstruction will only come from Syrian realism

The perennial dilemma that haunts every diplomat is how to balance idealism with realism.

For a diplomat, idealism means incorporating moral principles and values in one’s strategies. It emphasises the importance of international organisations, diplomacy, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

On the contrary, realism emphasises power and self-interest. It relies on military, economic, and diplomatic might in the pursuit of power balancing, deterrence, and alliances, while de-emphasising the role of international organisations.

Both are needed. Idealism fuels the imagination, helps articulate a vision, and opens new horizons for action. Realism ensures that the vision is implemented, not always in its entirety, but at least its core objectives.

Sometimes, idealism is used as a cover for the pursuit of more sinister objectives, and likewise, realism can be used to justify atrocious acts. This makes balancing them all the more challenging.

Gaining personal insight

Dealing directly with the Syrian tragedy as a United Nations Deputy Special Envoy from 2014 to 2019, I had to grapple with this dilemma daily. In taking the assignment, I was guided by two principles.

The first was the interest of the Syrian people in realising their aspirations for freedom, human dignity, and prosperity. I fully sympathised with these aspirations and sought to help them in their quest.

At the same time, I was aware of the domestic, regional, and international constraints that complicated the fulfillment of this vision. I saw my job as delivering what was possible given the circumstances, always hoping that it would contribute to a constructive process.

I sought to help Syrians meet their aspirations but constraints complicated things… I saw my job as delivering what was possible

The second principle was to contribute to the peace and security in the Middle East, where a vicious circle of crises has stopped the region from reaching its true potential.

The reasons are many, including systems of governance and foreign intervention, but without a stable Syria, peace and security in the region will remain elusive.

Henry Kissinger is reported to have said that 'he who controls Syria controls the Middle East'.

It is in the strategic interest of all Arab countries for Syria to survive as a nation state, but a reformed nation state, one that meets the needs and aspirations of its people.

Building Syria back up

I am firm believer in the democratic system of governance. It is not ideal, but as Winston Churchill said: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

That said, democracy cannot and should not be reduced to the mere holding of elections.

It is a process of establishing building blocks that include an independent judiciary, a free press, a vibrant civil society, and the primacy of the rule of law.

Given the history of the Middle East (in particular, of Arab countries) in establishing democratic rule, this will be a long and complicated process, with many ups and downs. But the goal must remain alive.

Before 2011, the Syrian people suffered from repression. Today their suffering has multiplied. They are not only repressed, they also lack safety, nutrition, education, economic opportunity, and a great many are displaced.

A displaced Syrian worker rests with a child at a makeshift oil refinery near the village of Tarhin in an area under the control of Turkish-backed factions in the northern countryside of Aleppo, on February 25, 2021.

When they took to the streets to demand freedom and dignity, little did they know that they would be caught between heavy-handed security measures, terrorism, and foreign machinations, all of which fed on one another, with calamitous consequences.

Learning lessons from Iraq

That was the picture when I took up the UN assignment in 2014. Vivid in my mind was the example of Iraq, a country of great potential ruined first by the rash actions of a brutal leadership and by a foreign invasion that transformed the country into a failed state.

Read more: Can Iraq escape its endless cycle of chaos?

Syria is not Iraq. Every country, no matter how close they are from a historical, social, and economic perspective, is unique.

But to me, there were lessons to be drawn from Iraq that were relevant to Syria. For one, while Iraqis had legitimate grievances, seeking support from abroad did not produce the desired results.

Every country is unique, but there are less to be drawn from Iraq that are relevant to Syria. For one, seeking support from abroad does not always give the desired results.

Quite the contrary. Outside intervention has had catastrophic long-term consequences, unleashing a cycle of violence, terrorism, and sectarian conflict, while exacerbating corruption.

Read more: How the Iraq invasion set the stage for IS

The US military intervention weakened the nation state in Iraq first by dismantling state institutions, then by introducing a constitution based on sectarianism.

The lack of an active Arab role has also been a complicating factor. Without Arab support, Iraq was less able to deal with the interventions of the US, Iran, and Turkiye.

The absence of an Arab role in the search for political settlements has exacerbated conflicts and opened the door to even more foreign interventions in Arab affairs.

From performing to surviving

In 2010, Syria was country with much promise. It was amongst the best performers in achieving the UN Millennium Goals, such as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, and reducing child mortality.

Yet it also faced serious political, social, and economic challenges. Below the surface, disruptive forces were brewing, owing in part to an increasingly skewed income distribution, an urban-rural schism exacerbated by environmental degradation, and little space for political freedoms.

Since 2011, more than 500,000 Syrians have died. The World Bank estimates that more than half its population has either emigrated or else been internally displaced, while 60% of its pre-2011 GDP has been lost.

Of those who have remained in the country, more than 80% now live below the poverty line. In 2011, that figure was 10%. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 14.2 million of Syria's 16 million population are now food deficient.

Elsewhere, UNICEF reports that 2.4 million Syrian children currently have no formal education, in part because 40% of the country's education infrastructure has been destroyed. In 2011, primary school enrollment was at 97%.

A foreigners' military playground

Syria became an arena for foreign military interventions from countries such as Iran, Israel, Turkiye, Russia and the US. It also became a haven for terrorists.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov before their meeting in Ankara on 7 April 2023.

The irony is that, 12 years later, with much of the country destroyed, few of the major players are better off than they were before the crisis.

Iran has not been ousted, nor has it consolidated its position. Turkiye has not installed a friendly regime, while its refugee problem persists, and it continues to suffer from an unstable 900km border. Likewise, Israel has not eliminated the Iranian threat, and the EU has not tackled illegal immigration.

Russia and the US have fared a little better. Russia finally realised its dream of establishing a naval base on the warm waters of the Mediterranean, but beyond that, it has not transformed its military gains into clear political dividends.

Russian soldiers stand aboard a ship at the Russian naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus on September 26, 2019.

On its part, the US has more or less defeated Daesh and maintained pressure on Damascus at minimal cost by depending on the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Meanwhile, Syria's President al-Assad now presides over a divided and devastated country with a destitute population that plays host to terrorist groups and is an arena for conflict between four foreign armies and countless militias.

What has added to the tragedy is that almost everyone was prepared to live with the situation. Not a single country showed sufficient interest in reaching a political solution. This bleak picture persisted… until last December.

Erdogan's timely entrance

From concern that Syria would become a frozen conflict, there is now a glimmer of hope for a political settlement. Finally, it appears realism may prevail, albeit at a very late hour. Are we soon to see an end to the long suffering of the Syrian people? I hope so.

Russian efforts to bring about a rapprochement between Syria and Turkiye culminated in the meeting in Moscow in December between the two countries' defence ministers and intelligence service heads.

With no tangible benefits from Turkiye in northern Syria, Damascus is reluctant to give President Erdogan a PR victory ahead of elections in May, so progress has somewhat stalled, but importantly the blockage has been cleared, so whether Erdogan is re-elected or not, the process of rapprochement will now continue.

The blockage has now been cleared, so whether Erdogan is re-elected or not, the process of rapprochement will continue.

A breakthrough in Syrian-Turkish relations would be a game-changer, but on its own it will not be sufficient to bring about a political settlement.

It will stabilise their shared border, but it will not put an end to Israeli and Iranian interventions still undermining Syrian sovereignty, nor will it release the funds that Syria requires for reconstruction.

Also accelerating is the process of normalisation between Damascus and several Arab capitals. It is this development that may completely alter the situation.

Read more: Syria: A microcosm of global polarisation

Arab states are acting out of self-interest and within a broader realignment in the region, as many move away from excessive dependence on the US, which does not serve their interests.

Shifting to shuttle diplomacy

The mounting rivalry and confrontation between the US and its allies on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other, has led Arab countries to shift their stance towards neutrality, given this new Cold War is being waged with non-military means that could have dangerous consequences for the global South.

Arab diplomats have been busy. Al-Assad was received with full honours in Abu Dhabi in March, the Emirati foreign minister having visited Damascus twice in the past few months.

Likewise, Egypt's and Jordan's foreign ministers visited Damascus for the first time in 11 years, Syria's foreign minister visited Cairo in early April for the first since 2009, and the Saudi foreign minister visited Damascus on 18 April, paving the way to the restoration of full diplomatic relations.

All these developments point to the possible return of Syria to the League of Arab States at its next summit scheduled to be held in Riyadh in May.

No less important is the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran to re-establish diplomatic relations. If the implementation of the agreement proceeds smoothly, it will no doubt have important implications for Syria.

Readmission and reconstruction

It remains to be seen whether the Arab League involves Syria again. Yet although it would be of significant symbolic value, it would not bring stability. Regardless, the process of normalisation at the bilateral level will continue.

Read more: Arab normalisation with Syria gains appeal amid clashes in Sudan

For Arab states, this is not just about whether to return Syria to the Arab fold, but whether to actively engage in its reconstruction, which is one of the elements of the package contained in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Arab countries have their own priorities. These are contained in statements and minutes of meetings, for instance after Saudi and Syrian ministers met on 12 April, and after the meeting between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq just days later.

Arab priorities include the return of refugees and displaced persons, ensuring access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians, and combatting terrorism.

On aid, UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently welcomed al-Assad's decision to open two crossing points (Bab al-Salam and Al Ra'ee from Türkiye to north-west Syria) to allow for aid deliveries.

Diplomats hope that realising these priorities will generate a dynamic that leads to a more complete implementation of Resolution 2254.

Seeking Syrian stability

Without reconstruction, there is no chance for stability in Syria and no chance that foreign military intervention will come to an end.

More importantly, Syrians will continue to suffer from deprivation and misery, unable to realise their aspirations for a better future. Syria will simply continue to be a tinderbox with regional implications.

Without reconstruction, there is no chance for stability in Syria. Foreign military intervention will continue, Syrians will continue to suffer, and the country will continue to be a tinderbox.

Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, need to manage this situation, given the sanctions imposed by both the US and the EU.

These include Caesar's Act, passed by US Congress, imposing primary sanctions against the Syrian government and secondary sanctions against those that deal with Damascus.

Some Arab countries could use their influence in Washington and major European capitals to argue for changes to allow for the reconstruction of Syria.

In the US, Congress will be more of a challenge than the Biden administration, but it is not impossible. In response to the devastating earthquake earlier this year, the White House temporarily suspended some of its Syria sanctions.

This may open the door to a further easing of restrictions if Damascus responds to Arab requests regarding the return of refugees and displaced persons and enables access to aid for all Syrians.

Ultimately, an enduring political settlement in Syria will only be realised when there is genuine national reconciliation.

This is a complicated, sensitive, and emotive process, but there are many examples from other countries of how it can be wisely handled.

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