On 15 March 2019, Chatham House’s Syria From Within project, hosted within the Middle East and North Africa Programme, held a public conference titled ‘The Future of Syria: Towards Inclusive Peacebuilding’.
Organized in four thematic panels, this conference brought together policymakers, experts, academics and civil society leaders to identify the main institutional and socioeconomic challenges to stabilization in Syria, and to offer policy recommendations in support of an inclusive peacebuilding process.
Session 4: Beyond Stabilization and Towards Inclusivity
- Salma Kahale, Dawlaty
- Lina Khatib, Chatham House
- Lina Sinjab, Chatham House
Moderator: Ruth Citrin, Chatham House
Following the last three panels on conflict economy dynamics, the politics of reconstruction and challenges for social cohesion, the fourth and last panel focused on discussing the current dynamics of the conflict and what it takes to create stabilization in Syria.
Lina Sinjab contended that, given the current realities in the conflict, Syria is witnessing a regime that is acting the same, if not worse than in 2011. There are hundreds of thousands of prisoners in detention and millions of displaced people, the regime is not welcoming refugees back, and the overall situation in Syria today is determined by the regime’s perspective as a victor that is not willing to discuss concessions but rather to draw on its military gains to strengthen its grip on the country.
The question of service provision is also increasingly pressing in regime-controlled areas, where the gap is becoming wider between the poor and the rich, posing a lot of economic challenges for the regime. The situation is getting direr and far from stable, even for those in the most regime-loyal areas.
Moreover, the regime is starving Syria’s economy, including the private sector, in order to pay back its debts to the Iranians and the Russians. At the time when the regime is still not trusted and corruption has spread, an inclusive reconstruction process and social cohesion seems unattainable, argued Sinjab.
Adding to the complexities of the situation, the state is increasingly turning into a transactional state, Lina Khatib said. The Syrian state has been hollowed out and it is no longer a typical autocracy. Instead there is a proliferation of war profiteers, not only economic profiteers but also security profiteers who are sometimes performing functions normally performed by the state.
Moreover, due to its lack of capacity and resources, the regime is obliged to engage with those profiteers, who are in turn expecting something back from the regime and becoming hybrid actors that are both state and non-state actors, similar to situations in Iraq and Lebanon. Although Syria is different from Iraq and Lebanon in many different aspects, argued Khatib, it could be useful to think comparatively to reflect on how those hybrid actors are likely to play out their own roles in shaping the future of the state and the country, as they are likely to transform into political and economic elites who demand something back for their role in supporting the regime.
With Russia and Iran being the main external actors on the regime’s side, the panel highlighted the differences between them in terms of strategies and objectives. While Russia, as explained by Lina Khatib, took the opportunity of Western disengagement to involve itself militarily in Syria for domestic reasons and to sustain a global power struggle with the US, Iran has its own agenda.
Moreover, Russia’s involvement in Syria has been largely a success for Moscow, which now wants to be the key international broker in the conflict. Iran, in contrast, is hurting because of US sanctions and because of mounting international pressure. As the panel discussed, breaking the status of political stalemate in Syria would require the US to take a bolder step and engage Russia bilaterally, and then engage the UN in the process.
Countering the negative consequences brought by those external as well as hybrid actors, Syrian civil society, in cooperation with INGOs, needs to devise new resistance strategies in order to fulfil the aspirations of the Syrian people and help different marginalized groups and communities achieve justice, dignity and freedom. This would require long-term thinking and planning, said Salma Kahale, who added that before opening a conversation on social cohesion and inclusive reconstruction, there is a need to talk about justice and truth-telling and to create the space to talk about what happened in Syria. These can start small, like asking information about missing detainees.
Khatib concluded by arguing that international policies should not be based on rehabilitating the regime, which she argued is not going to reform.