- Sinan Hatahet, Al Sharq Forum
- Wael Sawah, The Syrian Observer
- Jihad Yazigi, The Syria Report
On 1 March, Chatham House’s Syria From Within project, hosted within the Middle East and North Africa Programme, held a public conference titled ‘Demystifying the Syrian Conflict’. The aim of the conference was to shed light on four key themes that are sometimes oversimplified or little understood in public discourse.
The second theme in the conference is regime area dynamics, war economy and reconstruction.
There has been an argument in the West that the Syrian regime and Russia are ‘winning’ the war, but Sinan Hatahet argued that the situation is one where the military opposition is losing rather than the regime winning. Hatahet explained that winning requires a certain capacity to reinstitute order and stability, which the regime lacks and does not have the ability to produce.
There is huge doubt that the Syrian government will be able to control all factions of loyalist forces and external groups, including the National Defence Forces, the Local Defence Forces backed by the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other special units like Suheil al-Hassan and the Tiger Forces, plus the Iranian and Iraqi-backed militias made up of foreign fighters, like Zainebiyoun from Pakistan, Fatemiyoun from Afghanistan, and Hezbollah. These factions are now fighting alongside each other because they have mutual enemies like the Free Syrian Army, ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but as soon as these enemies disappear, new dynamics will emerge, such as fighting over resources, which the regime will not be able to control.
Jihad Yazigi supported Sinan Hatahet’s view by citing the example of the war in Lebanon, which only ended because there was a political deal backed by international and regional actors and the intervention of the Syrian army, which disarmed fighting actors in exchange for political influence. But there is no such hope in Syria, he argued, especially as it is not clear how the regime will rein in the many factions on its side.
Similar to the military situation, the regime has begun to use the recent growth in the economy to promote its ability to restore stability. However, Jihad Yazigi explained that, although 2017 was probably the first year since the beginning of the uprising that the Syrian economy grew, the starting point was very low, and the impact of this growth has not been very meaningful in terms of increase in incomes or job creation. The economy has been massively damaged and there has been a significant outflow of capital and human resources, which require huge investments to grow back.
In recent years, new economic patterns, business networks and business figures have emerged in Syria. As Yazigi illustrated, the conflict has produced new warlords and economic elites associated with the regime that were not known before the. And unlike previous business elites associated with the regime, none of the new individuals is under any sanction. These new individuals serve a number of roles, and they are not necessarily Alawites.
Besides these business figures, new NGOs have emerged which have been established by wives or brothers of militia leaders, and they are providing most of the services in regime-controlled areas like Damascus, Hama, Lattaki and Sweida. They are registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sometimes get funded by the UN.
And as explained by Wael Sawah, these will be difficult to control. The regime tried recently to curb the influence of these groups in Hama and eastern Aleppo, where official newspapers reported cuts in support and salaries, but on the ground their positions appear secure, partly because the regime cannot fill their place. Many of these groups are now distributing gas and bread and providing basic services in place of the government. As long as the regime is still in need of paramilitary nouveau-riche businessmen to complement its role in the regime-controlled areas, it cannot be considered a victor in the war.
Jihad Yazigi also referred to the important role these new business figures will play in reconstruction, as they will likely be used by the regime as a means of persuading Europe and the Gulf to invest in Syria as they are not under any sanctions. However, Sawah said that these countries will not invest any money in regime-controlled areas before reaching a political settlement. Yazigi added that Russia and Iran do not have enough money to invest in large-scale reconstruction.
There will be Russian, Iranian and Chinese companies that are interested in some investments because they have less competition, and the Syrian government is interested in these foreign investments because the country is destroyed extensively, therefore there is a lack of supply of domestic investment. But Yazigi also explained that the regime today does not have a clear reconstruction strategy, and that its priority is paying back the Russians and Iranians by awarding them assets and resources in the long term. This is going to have a negative impact on the fiscal revenues of the government and its capacity to invest, especially given that it appears to be giving a large amount of the total shares of phosphate, oil and gas resources to the Russians when these resources are limited. Wael Sawah explained that although real, meaningful reconstruction in Syria in regime-controlled areas cannot commence before a political settlement is reached, reconstruction and restoring basic services in de-escalation areas would encourage refugees to return to these areas. He added that reconstruction needs to be used as a tool to put serious pressure on Russia and, primarily, Iran in order to reach a political settlement.