There is a path to a secure future in Syria

El-Mostafa Benlamlih, a former UN humanitarian co-ordinator, asks what’s next for the country and outlines the circumstances it faced either side of a disaster that has also brought its people some hope


There is a path to a secure future in Syria

The massive earthquake that hit the north and west of Syria on 6 February 2023 struck a country that was already devastated.

The day before the natural disaster, Syria was broken. It had lost millions of its people to civil war, via a death toll of 500,00. It also created 6.5 million refugees – one-in-five of the global total – and 6.8 million internally displaced people, who fled within its national borders. Those who remained were labouring under the weight of harsh sanctions.

Its President Bashar al-Assad was not ready to leave, even after 12 years of war. The conflict pushed millions of Syrians into poverty, ignorance, and insecurity.

The future looked just as grim. Fuel shortages had forced the government to declare additional non-working days in December 2022. That was hard to grasp after Daesh was able to smuggle out oil worth between $1 million and $4 million every day when it controlled the oilfields in the northeast. By February 2023, they were under the control of the United States and the Kurdish Social Democratic Forces.

Billions of dollars in military support and humanitarian aid four United Nations Special Envoys, several UN Security Council resolutions, and numerous meetings and summits have failed to produce tangible results, just like the programme of international sanctions.

Read more: Rebuilding torn cities in Syria, using Berlin as a model

The commitment to to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity – championed by the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2254 of December 2015 – was waning, as was hope for an inclusive Syrian-led political solution with the resolution has helped establish. The step-by-step approach advocated by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, was not producing results.

Diplomatic language internationally remained bellicose. US and European Union sanctions were hurting the economy and rippled through society. There was a lack of capacity in health, education, transportation, security, water, and electricity, with problems sourcing equipment and spare parts.

Even humanitarian groups was struggling to comply with the requirements of a risk-averse private sector, amid higher costs and multiple red lines imposed by theit partners. Some prominent donors feared that early recovery could legitimize the “Regime”, but the sanctions designed to harm it were hurting vulnerable people the most.

And yet Syria is still standing. Support from its allies certainly helps, but it cannot explain everything. Smuggling is a thriving business across borders and ports. Fuel, arms and some consumer goods flow in and out of Syria, bringing much-needed income for imports. There is also the trade in the drug Captagon, produced in Syria.

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have become a burden on their host countries and communities and face daily threats of expulsion. Many refugees would like come home, but the conditions for a safe and dignified return do not exist. Basic infrastructure, schools, hospitals, protection, and livelihood opportunities are missing. The biggest donors often opposed UN efforts to improve conditions in areas of return.

There is a rampant feeling of fatigue. Syrians want peace to go on with their lives. Whenever security and stability allowed, they rebuilt their businesses and houses in the midst of ruins and rubble.

And so, on the eve of 6 February, the circumstances of the country were desperate. And then came the earthquake

"A portable toilet needs water, sanitation, electricity, security, and a functioning local administration. None is available! Not investing in early recovery has been total nonsense." 

Natural disaster strikes

The tremours of the powerful earthquake were felt across much of Turkey and Syria. The earth shook as far away as Damascus.

Almost 8,500 Syrians died in the north of the country. Roads, bridges, reservoirs, hospitals, schools, and power plants were heavily damaged. Humanitarian groups immediately realised the scale of the difficulty it would cause for operations in the area.

In a temporary Aleppo shelter called Souq Al Harir, which hosted almost 1,500 displaced people, there was only one toilet to share, insufficient lighting, and no running water. When asked why no additional toilets were installed, a UN agency worker said: "A portable toilet needs water, sanitation, electricity, security, and a functioning local administration. None is available! Not investing in early recovery has been total nonsense."

But along with the suffering, the earthquake brought hope, because it spurred change. .

Humanitarianism – and hope

Countries previously supporting Syrian rebels offered the whole nation condolences. Humanitarian aid was sent in. Diplomats visited Damascus, ignoring condemnation from the US and the EU.

The burden of refugees, the flow of the addictive Captagon pills, threats of further regional instability, and the absence of a solution all called for direct and open contact and dialogue. And the existing processes offered limited leeway for credible Arab Countries' involvement.

Within weeks of the earthquake, change began.

Syrian President Bashar Assad attends the Arab summit in Riyadh

Syria's Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Tunisia. On 18 April, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Bin Farhan arrived in Damascus and held discussions with President Assad.

By mid-March, talk about the normalization of diplomatic relations with Syria no longer seemed farfetched. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) took the lead in resolving a crisis which had also had a direct effect on them.

They had the resources and the political capital necessary to establish credible dialogue. And shifts in wider global geopolitics meat they were bolder in the face of pressure not to engage with Syria from the West.

Then came a landmark moment. On 10 March, an unexpected rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran – engineered by China – surprised the world and pointed to the end of Syria's political isolation.

For over a decade, Assad had only had contact with Russia, In under six months, he has visited Oman, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and China. He met China's President Xi, who strongly condemned the Western sanctions imposed on Syria. Beijing considers Syria and the Middle East an essential hub in its signature investment programme, the Belt and Road Initiative, and has backed the admissionof Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to the internatonal bloc BRICS, named after its original members Brazil Russia India China and South Africa.

On 10 March, an unexpected rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran – engineered by China – surprised the world and pointed to the end of Syria's political isolation.

Peace comes from talks

You make peace by talking to your enemy. Twelve years of ostracising Syria produced heightened mistrust, suffering, instability, and waves of refugees and internally displaced people.

On 1 May, 2023, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq met in Amman, with the participation of their Syrian counterpart. The  Amman summit followed a meeting called by Prince Farhan of Saudi Arabia, who had invited ministers from the GCC, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.

Read more: The complex "sociology of emotions" afflicting Syria's forced migrants

The statement which camne out of the Amman talks was balanced and courageous. It supported the step-by-step approach and reiterated its commitment to the UN Security Council  resolutions 2254, 2642, and 2672.

Most importantly, the ministers agreed to boost cooperation between the Syrian Government and refugee host countries in coordination with relevant UN bodies, adding that the ministers will work with the international community to meet the positive steps of the Syrian Government with more positive steps.

Political progress and national reconciliation would "allow Syria to embark on reconstruction towards a safe future." On 7 May, the Arab League readmitted Syria. In plain language, it became legitimate to deal with Assad.

The US and the EUwatched the process from outside. They could not prevent the normalisation process and, unwilling to relinquish a lead role in a highly strategic region, embarked on an effort to hinder it if it did not meet their demands and preserve their strategic interests.

Marco Rubio and Jim Risch, senior senators in the US Republican Party, recently called for more sanctions against the Syrian "regime" and his backers. Officials from the EU, UK, US, and Israel expressed support for the Druze protests in Suweyda, which could have escalated the crisis. Top US military officials stated that their troops will remain in Syria "for many years and decades to come."

Nontheless, even in the face of protests and condemnation of the geostrategic shifts underway in the region and beyond, the change in dynamics favours a political solution based on UN resolution 2254. It is taking shape. Significant opposition members joined the calls for a political solution, insisting on an inclusive process, principles of justice, equal citizenship, democracy, and the rule of law.

Divergent and conflicting positions persist, however. For many opposition leaders, a political solution would involve overthrowing Assad. And it remains to be seen if the Syrian Salvation Government, Hay'at Tahrir Al Sham, or other extremist movements will accept any political process, or be allowed to join it. Regional opposition supporters can undoubtedly play a role in softening extremists' positions.

A mother mourns the death of her Syrian-Kurdish son in his funeral as he was among dozens of migrants who were trying to reach Europe on a boat in the Mediterranean in November 2022

Meanwhile, conflict continues in parts of the country. In the northwest, shelling intensified. Fighting erupted between local Arab tribes and the Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir Ezzour. Protests increased in Suweyda, opposition forces bombed the military academy in Homs, and the government reacted with harsher reprisals against in Idlib. Escalation of these conflicts might jeopardise the chances for a political dialogue. That is a a prospect that would raise objections in  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan.

Geir  Pedersen, the UN special envoy, called for compromise from all sides in a recent address to the Security Council. The alternative would be a future of "deterioration across humanitarian, security, and institutional fronts, with significant implications for all."

A wider view

Suppose one zooms out of Syria and the 21st century and looks at a region I call the Larger Middle East (LME), which includes Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and everything in between.

Broad dynamics would come into focus, with relationships shaped over the centuries between the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.

The condions of our present times are the latest episode created by these forces. They began with the implosion of the Ottoman Empire and the West's determinaton to stop a new competitor forming in its place in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Israel, the war against Iraq and Syria, and the blockade against Iran are essential events in the episode.

But times are changing again. European economies are aging and highly indebted. The median age in the EU is 42 years, and their debt-to-GDP ratios are over 100%. The entrenched interests, complex rules and procedures,  and rigid institutions of Europe make reforming costly and challenging.

Conditons in our LME region are very different. It has a younger population, a lower debt-to-GDP ratio, and more flexible rules and institutions. It can mobilise enough resources to seize new opportunities within the emerging global paradigm. The median age in the region is 30 years, and most countries' debt-to-GDP ratio is lower than 50%. Building and reforming for the 21st century might prove more manageable than in Europe.

The LME is poised to become a critical, independent part of the Belt and Road initiative, and some of its nations are gaining global stature through new groups, such as rhe BRICS. These conditons can help Iraq and Syria can build back better and move forward

The alternative would be a future of "deterioration across humanitarian, security, and institutional fronts, with significant implications for all."

A better – reachable – Future

Peace in Syria can bring fresh dynamics to the whole region. "Normalising" countries should consider the long-term strategic trends beyond the short-term crisis resolution. The future is encouraging, provided the leadership understands and grasps the opportunity.

The rebuilding of Syria will be a massive undertaking of over $400bn. This is a gigantic opportunity for the regional economic powers, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Europe could still join the effort without demanding a lead role. But times have changed and Europe would benefit from adjusting its attitude to the Syrian crisis accordingly. Various individual European countries have a more balanced approach than that of the EU.

 Instead of fearing such a prospect, an independent and pragmatic Europe, rather than clinging to an asymmetric relationship, should recognize the potential and seize the opportunity to build a positive partnership for the 21st century with the LME.

Read more: Whatever happened to the Responsibility to Protect?

Syria must do its part to seize a rare opening to build forward for the 21st century and re-establish its historical role in the Eastern Mediterranean. Many of 14m Syrians scattered outside the country, or displaced within it, could return, bringing back skilled labour, engineers, doctors, IT developers, technicians, and a young generation with worldwide networks.

An open, constructive, pragmatic, and inclusive political process is necessary, without pre-conditions or pre-determined outcomes.

The only outcome should be a sovereign, stable, and reconciled Syria, prosperous and inclusive of all Syrians. The wealth of Syria is its diversity and inclusiveness. The Syrian-led and owned process should consider all options but those that might lead to more bloodletting.

Russia, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia can help all concerned produce compromise and stability.  The Syrian crisis should come to an end. Today is the time.

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