Syria at War: Five Years On

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Five years of conflict have changed the face of the Syrian Arab Republic. The numbers are eloquent. An estimated 2.3 million people, 11.5 per cent of the country’s population, have been killed or wounded,1 thousands more are under arrest or unaccounted for, 6.5 million are internally displaced and 6.1 million have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Gross domestic product (GDP), which in 2010 stood at $60.2 billion, is now at $27.2 billion (2010 prices), representing a contraction of 55 per cent. Total losses incurred in five years of conflict are estimated at $259.6 billion. Destruction of housing and infrastructure is estimated at around $90 billion. The total area under cultivation has fallen by 40 per cent and one third of the population inside Syria does not have food security. No economic sector has been spared and the impact of sanctions has been considerable. More than 80 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line (28 per cent in 2010). Millions are deprived of the essential necessities of life: 13.5 million are in need of human assistance and 12.1 million lack adequate access to water, sanitation and waste disposal. Around half of Syria’s hospitals have sustained serious damage. According to one estimate, life expectancy dropped from 70 in 2010 to 55.4 in 2014.2 Thousands of schools have ceased to operate and an estimated 2.7 million school-age children are out of school inside and outside Syria, with the rate of primary enrolment down from nearly 100 per cent in 2010 to 60 per cent today.

The degree of fragmentation is such that analysts speak of “economies” and administrative structures operating outside of Government authority. Other factors are far more difficult to quantify: psychological trauma, the disempowerment of women and, perhaps most importantly, the deep divides in Syrian society. It is important to understand how all this came to pass, not only to avoid its reoccurrence in Syria, but also to prevent it from happening in other countries.

Various political, economic and legal/administrative reasons, as well as external factors, have been posited in order to explain how and why the crisis unfolded in Syria. Political explanations focus on how the Damascus Spring was suppressed in 2001, the slow pace of democratic reform, the Government’s reaction to initial protests in the months following March 2011, and the use of overwhelming force by the army after July 2011. Economic reasons include rural poverty, the devastating drought prior to 2011, now regarded as the worst in centuries,3 corruption and the perception of severe inequality in terms of income distribution.

Legal/administrative explanations focus on the yawning gap between the avowed aims of policymakers before the crisis, and what they actually achieved, in particular with respect to the failure to put reforms that had been introduced into practice. Among the most telling external factors was the role of regional powers in inflaming and perpetuating the fighting. However, none of those factors, taken separately or in combination, is enough to explain the type and intensity of the conflict.

Syria in 2011 was certainly no fully fledged democracy, but 1,461 civil associations, more than 500 of them based in Damascus, were active on the eve of the crisis.4 Outright political dissent was not tolerated, but criticism of Government performance in official and unofficial media was widespread.

In the run-up to March 2011, GDP had grown significantly and officials were openly discussing poverty, especially in rural areas, and how to measure and tackle the problem. Through official, semi-official and voluntary channels, millions of dollars had been dispensed as income-generating loans, often accompanied by technical expertise. A commission for combating unemployment had also been set up.

The need to improve governance significantly had been recognized. Administrative structures had been established and international expertise sought in order to implement the necessary changes. Numerous presidential decrees signed in the period leading up to 2011 addressed issues that had long been ignored. Laws were passed enabling the establishment of private banks and universities and, for the first time since 1963, the stock exchange reopened. Far from being aligned with one regional power, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria had seemingly resolved long-standing problems with Turkey, and trade and cultural ties between the two countries were flourishing.

In short, much about the position of Syria in March 2011 was positive, and it could be argued that the future held the promise of further development and improvement.

The Arab uprisings that started in late 2010 had the effect of a sudden, powerful earthquake.
Many structures were shattered or underwent significant damage. In Syria, it was as though the very earth had fractured along deep societal fault lines. Those fault lines largely shaped the way in which events developed and were perceived by all major groups after March 2011. Understanding how those fault lines emerged requires a brief historical overview of Syria’s recent political past.

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918 and the arrival of King Faisal and the Arab army in Damascus, the first general Syrian conference was held in May 1919. It constituted the foundation of what would come to be known as modern Syria. In March 1920, that same body declared Syria’s independence and 85 delegates from four regions adopted a Constitution four months later. In it, Syria was proclaimed an administratively decentralized State with a civil constitutional monarchy in which executive, legislative and judicial powers were separated. The equal treatment of all citizens, irrespective of their religion, sect or ethnicity, was enshrined in its articles and women were guaranteed the right to vote and run for office.5 In the Constitution, Islam was specified as the religion of the Hashemite Monarch but there was no reference to religion as a basis for legislation. The civil nature of the State was thus ensured.

That progressive experiment in State-building was brought to a swift end in July 1920 by the arrival of French forces. Moreover, the authorities of the French Mandate, which lasted until April 1946, deliberately sought to accentuate differences between various ethnic and religious groups in Syria, often playing one group against the other. The allocation of a distinct, often autonomous, status to groups that had been marginalised during the Ottoman era did not contribute to the creation of a cohesive State, nor did it foster harmony among Syria’s citizens.

Democratically elected post-independence Governments failed to appreciate that, against that background, they had to reach out with a comprehensive economic and social programme to Syria’s rural areas, where the majority of its marginalised groups lived in poverty, without education or infrastructure and exposed to disease.6 By 1950, it had become apparent that the attention of those Governments was caught up in urban elitist interests.

They simply could not see the importance of offering all Syrians equal opportunities for political and economic empowerment. The unintended message was that democratic elections were bound to produce Governments indifferent to the plight of marginalised groups.

Rural youth, especially in coastal areas, turned increasingly to the one reliable source of regular pay: the armed forces. By 1963, they were strong enough to bring the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party into power and, by 1970, had fully consolidated their authority. The Ba’ath party succeeded where other parties failed not only because it had attracted many influential army officers, but also because it was particularly attractive to members of marginalised groups.

Indeed, under the Ba’ath, rural areas received far more attention than they had in the past. In addition to land reforms, the Government invested heavily in bringing electricity, roads and schools to areas that had been neglected previously. At the same time, however, all forms of genuine political dissent were crushed, often ruthlessly, and important segments of the population felt that their values were being deliberately undermined. That sense of dissatisfaction eventually culminated in the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency and the tragic events of 1982 in Hama, where thousands of civilians were killed as the Government retook control of the city. Society was by now deeply divided, and no one seemed to have the vision required to escape the trap of interacting on the basis of sect, class or ethnicity. What primarily mattered to the Government was authority and control, and as long as those societal divides did not constitute a serious challenge, they were ignored. Indeed, the more the legacy of the past was ignored, the more it became part of the present.

When Bashar al-Assad was sworn in as Syria’s president on 24 July 2000, the violence of the 1980s seemed a distant memory. However, a serious wound had yet to be healed. More than political, administrative and economic reform, Syria was in dire need of a courageous attempt to acknowledge the sectarian and ethnic injustices and violence of its recent past.

At the least, steps should have been taken to address the grievances of those with missing family members, or whose property had been confiscated or damaged. Policymakers failed to see that a country in which segments of the population believe they have been gravely mistreated will prove vulnerable when dramatic events occur.

In March 2011, Syria was confronted by the one challenge it was not prepared to face. On every other level, although with shortcomings and in need of reforms, Syria could not seriously have been described as vulnerable. Yet, the house that was Syria was built on soft sand. It was unable to withstand the earthquake of 2011.

In the pages that follow, indicators based on extensive field research tell the story of the aftermath of five years of violence and war. Special focus is given to the impact of sanctions, and the plight of refugees and its repercussions for regional countries and Europe.

The numbers point to significant loss and destruction, but one might have expected a good deal worse. That Syria still has elements of a working economy and a currency that has not entirely collapsed shows how solid certain aspects of the Syrian State were in early 2011. Sadly, however, it was unprepared where it mattered most.

The report is structured as follows: Section 1 focuses on economic and social indicators, contrasting where Syria was in regard to those indicators on the eve of this crisis and where it is after five years of violence and destruction. Section 2 examines the European Union’s socioeconomic cooperation with Syria, the flow of refugees and migrants to Syria’s neighbours and Europe, and the impact of sanctions on the Syrian people. Finally, Section 3 identifies guiding principles and key critical steps for post-conflict Syria. Policy recommendations are included throughout.