The Last Vestige of Western Influence in Syria: Reconstruction
U.S. Syria policy is in an uproar over the White House decision withdraw the nation’s remaining troops from Syria. This decision signals a clear shift in U.S. foreign policy away from engagement in Syria. However, suggestions that this move eliminates the West's remaining leverage in influencing a settlement in Syria are over exaggerated. The U.S. and its Western allies still have significant influence over a critical task in Syria’s near future: reconstruction.
The White House’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops will facilitate Bashar al-Assad’s consolidation of control over Syria's northeast and bring Assad a step closer to winning the war. Yet after Assad wins the war, he will still have to win the peace, something he cannot do without the West's help. Adequate reconstruction is critical to Syria’s future. The U.S. and its European allies should engage with Bashar al-Assad to set strict pre-conditions that, if met, will lead to Western investment in Syria's reconstruction. The West still has leverage in influencing Syria’s future, but to capitalize on this, the U.S. must maintain a degree of engagement in Syria.
Syrian reconstruction is projected to cost anywhere from hundreds of billions of dollars to upwards of a trillion dollars. Assad’s primary backers, Russia and Iran, do not have the economic capacity to foot this bill. Significant financial contributions from the West will be needed.
Western governments face a problematic geopolitical and moral dilemma in this matter, however. If they choose not to fund reconstruction, Syria will continue to languish in instability. If they choose to do so in exchange for anything short of Assad relinquishing power, they will be enriching a regime responsible for the slaughter of half a million Syrian civilians. Engaging with the Assad regime is unpalatable, and sustained engagement in Syria will be challenging, but the consequences of retrenchment will be immeasurably worse.
Even after Assad consolidates control over the northeast and eventually recaptures Idlib province, Syria will remain volatile and unstable. Eight years of war have devastated Syrian society from top to bottom.
Desperate poverty, in turn, creates an environment for continued insurgency and violent extremism. Groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) will be able to regroup by seizing on the population’s grievances and the likely inability of the Assad regime’s depleted military to control the security situation in the country. The regime’s response to this dynamic will be more heavy-handed suppression of dissent. This strategy will be self-defeating and drive even more of the population into the arms of extremist groups.
To prevent this cycle of violence, the West must do what it has thus far refused to do: engage with Bashar al-Assad. Any agreement to provide reconstruction funding and lift sanctions should involve three key pre-conditions.
First, Assad must agree to implement constitutional reforms that address some of the population’s grievances, such as curtailing the power of the domestic intelligence agencies and allowing a degree of autonomous governance to the Kurds. Constitutional reforms are essential to prevent extremists from exploiting grievances going forward. A western push for allowing at least some autonomous governance for the Kurds would be a small step towards repairing the damage done by the U.S.’s decision to withdraw from Syria’s northeast.
Second, Assad must set a deadline for the departure/demobilization of Iranian backed Shia militias in Syria. The removal/demobilization of these militias will help assuage concerns over Iranian influence in Syria. The secular Syrian Ba’athist regime likely does not want to see an entrenched Iranian presence within its borders any more than the U.S. and its allies do.
And third, Assad must agree to allow government and military officials involved in human rights abuses to be tried at the Hague. Ensuring that the perpetrators of war crimes face justice will allow for at least some accountability for the atrocities committed by the regime during the war.
If such pre-conditions seem modest, that is because they are. Expecting robust reform from Assad now is unrealistic. Nonetheless, engaging with the Syrian regime is the right course of action. The U.S. and its European allies can still make a meaningful difference in Syria, and they maintain enough leverage to do so. The U.S. decision to allow Turkey’s operation against the Kurds must not spell the end of U.S. engagement in the country. Countless lives will be lost in the coming weeks as a result of the Turkish incursion, but continued engagement in Syria can help save the lives of countless more.
John Flannelly is currently an M.A. candidate at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs Security Policy Studies program. He has worked as a non-resident intern at the Hudson Institute and as a Syria Research Assistant with the NGO Cure Violence Global. He is currently an intern at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, College Park.