By: Muriel Asseburg and Khaled Yacoub Oweis
By November 2017, as the civil war abated and the so-called Islamic State (IS) was all but defeated, Moscow increased its efforts to reach what it regards as conflict resolution in several fora beyond the UN-led Geneva process. Moreover, as the US administration made it clear that it would not be engaging in reconstruction efforts, Russia has sought European financial assistance to help cover the costs of rebuilding the country, together with Arab Gulf states. Although the European Union had, in April 2017, ruled out support for reconstruction without a political transition, calls have now been mounting in Europe to accommodate Bashar al-Assad, help in the reconstruction of Syria, and send back refugees. Yet, the fighting is far from over.
More importantly, the mere recon-struction of physical infrastructure would do little to instill stability, but would rather raise the risk of fueling new conflicts. Europeans should therefore make clear to Russia that they will stick with their own approach. They should play the long game and devel-op leverage to make future contributions serve state- and peace-building purposes. Mean-while, they should focus on increased levels of humanitarian aid, early recovery measures, such as de-mining and restoring basic water and health infrastructure, building human capital in Syria and among Syrian refugee communities, in addition to concentrating on civil society and local governance support where they have credible partners.
By late 2017, the Syrian regime and its allies had regained control over most of the urban centers in the country, and the Caliphate proclaimed by the IS had lost all but its territorial base. The rebels had been mainly squeezed into several pockets but were still holding onto strategic junctures and main border crossings. At the same time, ever since its direct military involvement in Syria, Russia has developed into the dominant military force. Moscow has been keen to translate that achievement into taking the lead on the diplomatic stage and acting as mediator in the conflict. Washington, whose interest in Syria since 2014 has been limited largely to combating the IS, has been unwilling to challenge the Russian approach. Nor has it shown willingness to contribute meaningfully to Syria’s reconstruction after its heavy bombing of Syria’s east.
Russian bombardment, especially of Aleppo in 2016, caused wide-scale destruction, drawing strong EU condem-nation for the “deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure.” Yet, Moscow has turned to Europe for reconstruction support while chiding European countries for linking reconstruction to a political transition and predicted the conflict would soon be over. De-escalation was portrayed as having created the “de facto conditions” for full-scale reconstruction in Syria. Today’s reality, however, looks different, with control still very much fragmented between a variety of forces on the ground in the de-escalation zones, the territories liberated from the IS, the areas controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as those areas under the control of the regime and its allies – with the fighting doing anything but drawing to a close.
Moscow first used its military backing mainly to help the regime and its allies reconquer territories. Over the course of 2017, it aimed at reducing the levels of violence through a new approach that was to prepare the ground for pacification. In this vein, in the Kazakhstani capital, Astana, in May 2017, Russia agreed with Turkey and Iran on so-called de-escalation zones in regions held by various rebel forces. The deal was supposed to result in a halt to fighting in places where the revolt had not been crushed, offering the possibility of sustained humanitarian relief and the restoration of basic services (see Box 1).
In reality, the zones have evolved to present an array of local situations: from im-proved living conditions to the continued siege and massive carnage caused by the regime’s and Russia’s bombings of civilian targets in areas that Moscow had marked as being part of the de-escalation zones. For Assad, the zones were considered to be a temporary arrangement, if at all, and were to follow the path of other besieged areas that the regime had captured after “terrorists” (which is the regime’s term for all rebels) were given the chance to disarm and “return to the bosom of the state.”
Makings of a Mini-recovery
At the same time, bombing and sieges on areas in other zones abated, most notably in the countryside near Homs and in the southern governorate of Deraa.
The window of temporary stability spurred fairly brisk activity in the private construction sphere. For example, some residents in rural Homs moved back to their hometowns from camps on nearby farmlands and started to repair or rebuild their houses. Mud is reportedly being used instead of concrete, as prices for construction materials imported from regime areas remain high. The cost of most other goods and staples, such as sugar and rice, has fallen since the de-escalation deal came into effect in August 2017, breaking monopolies of local traders, who had enjoyed a captive market. Two crossings with the regime opened, increasing the overall level of supplies. An export market slowly opened, too. Rebel areas sent sheep and cattle to regime areas, and the number of farmers who planned to plant crops increased, as they expected large enough sales to make a profit.
The potential of improved access could also rejuvenate the local councils, which activists had set up during the revolt to replace the regime’s administration after Assad’s forces withdrew from rebellious areas. The councils in rural Homs are now seeking to link up with donors and with the opposition’s interim government. At the same time, the siege of the region may have been a blessing in disguise for the local structures, isolating them from out-side meddling. In the southern governorate of Deraa, local activists see the reach of Jordan and other Arab countries as having tainted local governance structures. Figures linked to third countries penetrated or took over many of the local councils, under-mining their merit and competence.
Apart from continued regime bombings and the threat of the regime attempting to reconquer further rebel areas, the highest hurdles to potential reconstruction in the de-escalation zones come from within. By August 2017, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, or the Association for the Liberation of the Levant) – an offshoot of al-Qaeda and suc-cessor of the Nusra Front – all but finished off its Salafist rival, Ahrar al-Sham, and took control over most of Idlib province.
The area of influence of HTS also included the main border crossing with Turkey, through which flows humanitarian aid and infrastructure supplies. Borrowing from Lenin’s dictum of “peace, land and bread,” HTS took over the bakeries in the various towns across Idlib, many of which relied on Western programs for wheat supply. Keen to build up legitimacy with the local population and be seen as succeeding in governance, HTS indicated that it would not prevent outside assistance to Idlib.
At the same time, the group had its hand in many of the local administrative structures, as well as schools, charities, and refugee camps, without necessarily staffing them outright with its members or conspicuously patrolling them. HTS also dissolved local councils or ousted council members who were critical of the group. In addition, they coopted existing supervisory bodies, such as the Idlib Administrative Board, or nudged civilian allies to set up new ones. Among them is the so-called Syrian Salvation Government, formed in November 2017, with the apparent aim of displacing the opposition’s interim government. Many qualified cadres in the various local administrations of Idlib remained in their posts despite their distaste of HTS. They preferred to hold onto their jobs and their links to donors to keep aid deliveries going.
Western support for Idlib’s population, in contrast, abated markedly after HTS’ takeover, as foreign donors were anxious about indirectly supporting the group or its front organizations. Activists had hoped that the entry of Turkish troops into Idlib in October 2017 would roll back HTS. The Turkish show of force was mandated by the implementation of the northern de-escalation zone foreseen in the Astana agreement. Yet, it was aimed at the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which is linked to the PYD, a Syrian offshoot of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the nearby region of Afrin; this was done with the goal of preventing a contiguous Kurdish self-administration zone along the Turkish border.
The risk, however, of renewed warfare in the zone remains high, with Turkey and Iran raising the tone of their assertive rhetoric. Ankara, boosted by its newfound understandings with Russia, said it needed to clear Afrin of the YPG. Iran, in turn, indicated that the Assad regime would soon overrun Idlib to fight the jihadists there. The mostly Kurdish Afrin region has an estimated 300,000 inhabitants living in 20 cities and towns, whereas Idlib province has an estimated two million people, of whom one-third have been displaced there from other provinces. They settled in Idlib after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the country because Turkey had closed its border to refugees. Also, thousands of rebel fighters, their families, and other civilians were transported to the province in the regime’s “green buses,” which became synonymous with the population transfers that accompanied rebel surrenders in besieged areas under so-called reconciliation agreements.
Signs have emerged of an overreach by the PYD, in particular after the United States encouraged the capture of mostly Arabinhabited territories in eastern Syria from the IS by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are dominated by the YPG, the PYD’s fighters. In addition, the PYD’s declared goal of linking two contiguous self-rule areas (the so-called cantons of Jazeera and Kobanê) with the Afrin canton also appeared to be farfetched. By late 2017, it became clear that the United States (and Russia) would not back the Syrian Kurds’ political ambitions against Turkey beyond combating the IS; nor would Russia prevent the regime from recapturing territories liberated from the IS. The PYD has set up local governance structures in these areas.
Although these structures of “people’s democracy” are nominally independent and inclusive, the PYD remains the power behind the scenes. One such arrangement has been installed in the mostly Arab town of Manbij, which the YPG captured from the IS in August 2016. The PYD appointed Farouk al-Mashi, a tribal figure, as the joint head of the Manbij City Council. The appointment invited scorn by opposition activists on social media, who compared the PYD’s methods of coercion and control to that of the regime. They also pointed out that al-Mashi was the son of Diab al-Mashi, a member of the rubber stamp Syrian parliament from 1954 till his death in 2009.