To many, Western policy towards Syria over the past six years – to the extent there has been coherent action – looks largely a failure. Russia and Iran (and now Turkey) have won both diplomatic and military battles in Syria and now appear in place to shape the eventual outcome in their interests – game over.
But look closer, and Western powers – specifically the US, the EU, the UK and France – still retain some leverage. If applied effectively – and that is a huge if – they could still shape the final political settlement, support an inclusive reconstruction process, tackle extremism and help alleviate the refugee crisis.
Holding the purse strings
The greatest leverage Western countries possess is economic: the regime’s external sponsors, Russia and Iran, have neither the capital to fund large-scale reconstruction efforts nor the interest in doing so. The World Bank estimates it will require $180 billion in investment just to return Syrian GDP to its pre-conflict level. This gives an opportunity to offer support for reconstruction with conditionality (for instance, regarding the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas or origin).
This leverage can also prove significant in determining Syria’s post-settlement future, which must take into consideration the dynamics of the changing landscape and avoid the assumption that state institutions can be automatically restored to their pre-2011 status. There is no guarantee that Russia and Iran will remain fully aligned in the long term – differences between Russia and Iran may open up opportunities for exploring potential political transition scenarios in Syria more amenable to the US and its European allies.
One area already allowing the US and Russia to find common cause is the fight against extremist groups. As international interest in the conflict has focused more and more on the fight against jihadists like ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, space has opened up for the US to return to the diplomatic table. Indeed, the need to counter extremist groups has been one of few issues related to Syria on which the UN Security Council has been able to pass a resolution acceptable to all its members.
By applying lessons learned over the past six years, further leverage can be recovered. First, Western countries must avoid being vague about the endgame in Syria and failing to match rhetoric with action. For example, calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down from the US, UK and French governments were never backed by adequate diplomatic or military pressure, and their credibility suffered as a result. This freed Russia to present itself as the leading external player in Syria. It also allowed extremist groups to exploit incoherent support from the US and European countries to opposition armed groups. As a consequence, by 2014 the Obama administration found itself in the curious position of being more afraid of the fall of the dictator it publicly opposed than of the defeat of the rebels to which it provided support.
Second, extremist groups in Syria have exhibited a remarkable ability to take advantage of opportunities to expand their presence and scope of influence. Countering this trend requires the design and implementation of effective long-term conflict resolution measures. Western countries have dedicated significant funding to supporting humanitarian aid, civil society, local governance and the Syrian political opposition, but it is has been on short-term cycles of one year or less. When projects end, extremist groups are ready to step in and present themselves to local communities as providers of services, security or funding. This has contributed to the rise of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, for example, in Idlib. Future initiatives must have a longer-term focus to mitigate the opportunism of such groups in the future.
Finally, there must be some acceptance that the Syrian conflict will have no clearly identifiable end. An agreement that freezes hostilities will not trigger an automatic end to the flow of refugees, while a political settlement – should it follow similar parameters to those of the ongoing Geneva process – would not cover the whole of the country. It would exclude the Kurdish PYD and its allies, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s new umbrella organization of groups under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and ISIS. This means that fighting would continue in many areas of the country. Displacement of the civilian population would likely continue for an extended period.
Furthermore, a qualified Assad ‘victory’ in the military context would raise questions about the viability of the return of 6.3 million internally displaced Syrians to their homes and of 4.9 million who have sought refuge outside the country. In many cases, refugees and internally displaced persons already face obstacles to returning to their areas of origin, either because they have invested in new lives elsewhere or because their homes have been devastated or taken over by other groups. Inadequate support for refugees may push some of those refugees – especially young people growing up without education or career prospects – towards crime and extremism. At the very least, a lack of support will make them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. So there will be no ‘quick fix’ resettlement solution to Europe’s refugee crisis.
Still in the balance
Since 2011, Western policymakers have not only failed to bring an end to a brutal conflict but also shied away from confronting the biggest refugee crisis ever experienced, Despite this, there is still an opportunity to re-shape Syria for the good, drawing on painful lessons learned from the past six years and using the leverage that post-settlement reconstruction offers. This may be their last chance.
Neil Quilliam is a senior research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme and project director of the Syria and Its Neighbours policy initiative.