Why is Syria still such a mess?

Almost a year after rejoining the Arab League, the government seems powerless to address major challenges

Demonstrators rally in the town of Binnish in Syria's north-western Idlib province on March 1. Much of the country suffers from economic problems, social unrest or is controlled by different armed factions. AFP
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In war colleges, young officers are often taught that winning a battle is not the same as securing peace. In the case of Syria, we might add that controlling a region is not the same as establishing a government. For the past 13 years, the Syrian state headed by President Bashar Al Assad has been subject to an intractable paradox.

In one way it is strong, firmly anchored by its roots in the country’s Alawite community and its network of political alliances. In another way, the administration is weak, insufficiently present on the ground and too powerless to address the major challenges facing the population, such as insecurity and poverty.

The latest report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, presented recently to the UN Human Rights Council, notes the "fragmentation of authority in government-controlled areas". In those areas – mainly Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Raqqa – the silence of the guns is maintained at the cost of impoverishment. Most Syrians who have not been killed in the civil war face a daily struggle to survive.

The inability of the authorities to solve citizens’ most basic problems, such as getting enough to eat, is all the more worrying given that UN agencies have been warning for years about cases of child malnutrition, bread shortages, health centres without medicine, schools without teachers and galloping inflation that cannot be remedied by wage increases. The situation is not improving – at least, not enough to begin to pull the country out of its systemic crisis.

With each passing day, the disconnect between the top and bottom of Syrian society becomes more pronounced. At the top, where the heart of power rests, a circle of insiders who secure themselves in a few affluent neighbourhoods like that of Al Malki where the Tishreen presidential palace is based. At the bottom, people trudge through a geography fragmented by armed groups, the national army and Iran-backed militias – notwithstanding the military presence of Russia and America. In addition, since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, Syrian territory has become a proxy battlefield as Israel attacks Hezbollah's rear bases. A recent strike on a rocket depot and training centre in northern Aleppo belonging to the Lebanese militia killed about 50 people.

With each passing day, the disconnect between the top and bottom of Syrian society becomes more pronounced

It is as if the government, if not hermetically sealed, is at least out of touch with the dark realities of the country. It focuses its attention on issues that affect its own security. In recent weeks, the issue has been a merger of the Military Intelligence Division with the Air Force Intelligence Administration to form a new organisation: Army and Armed Forces Intelligence. The question is not so much whether such a measure is appropriate, but whether it will have any bearing on the country’s socioeconomic crisis.

Damascus's choices are all the more inscrutable given it has been almost a year since Syria’s fellow Arab countries agreed that it should re-join the Arab League. This pragmatic gesture, an expression of sincere goodwill, was made to help Syria turn the page on more than a decade of conflict and begin the work of reconstruction – restoring essential services, organising the return of refugees and rebuilding damaged cities being just three of these priorities.

Last year’s earthquake, which killed more than 7,000 people in Syria and left tens of thousands homeless, sent a warning to Damascus about its governance. Although the emergency was humanitarian in nature, the authorities – completely overwhelmed by the natural disaster – has been accused of playing politics by imposing draconian conditions on the distribution of aid. Despite Arab countries pouring in aid and money for reconstruction, the results have been disappointing, a point noted last month by Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, who said that since the tragedy “the humanitarian crisis in Syria has only worsened”.

The report presented to the UN Human Rights Council offers no glimpse of a solution. The international organisations that are supposedly working to resolve the conflict seem to be clinging desperately to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 – which calls for a ceasefire, elections and an overhaul of Syria’s political system – but without much reason to believe in it. Worse, over the years they have come to be suspected of partisanship: the UN of being pro-western and the Astana talks process of being pro-Russian. Both have positive qualities but in the end share one thing: impotence.

The government in Damascus is often accused of inertia. This argument may be true, but it needs to be qualified. At the beginning of the civil war, when Damascus fragmented its forces with the paramilitary groups of the National Defence Forces, it was merely replicating the opposition model that also consisted of an almost-infinite number of armed and opposing entities. Since 2011, neither side – the government nor opposition – has managed to unite and win a clear victory.

These two ecosystems, which are still fighting each other today, particularly in Idlib, are porous zones for foreign ambitions, particularly Russian and Iranian. They have saved the government from collapse at the cost of weakening its sovereignty. How many Russian troops are there? How many pro-Iranian militias? What does it mean to preside over Syria when the government's authority hardly extends beyond the big cities and the main roads, when it is up to tribal leaders to take decisions on daily life and when the presence of the state is diminishing in remote provinces?

In the grey zones on Syria's eastern coast, where the chemical drug Captagon is produced in industrial quantities, the Syrian security apparatus is far too fragmented and inadequate to prevent traffickers from crossing the Jordanian border to sell their illicit wares, a fact that infuriates the authorities in Amman. Even if Damascus had the will, could it act with authority? For one thing, the area is teeming with pro-Iranian militias suspected of involvement in the trade, parts of Syria’s security apparatus are suspected of collusion.

Mr Al Assad may have retained power, but it is a power to do very little across the country. The international community also has little power. Next on Syria's calendar is the ninth meeting of the UN-led constitutional committee in Geneva at the end of April. The date is imprecise, but the outcome is increasingly predictable, unfortunately.

Published: April 02, 2024, 4:00 AM