War & Conflict

Implications for a Syrian transition under Assad

Though some Syrians will accept his rule, embarking on a reconciliation process would be difficult with Assad in power.

Children stand between the rubble in rebel-held Douma, Syria, February 28 [EPA]

There are many remaining unknowns of the Syria conflict but it is increasingly becoming clear that the situation is moving into its final phases.

All indications are that there will be no clear military victory and that some form of negotiated settlement is inevitable.

The Syrian context has been transformed since the failed coup in Turkey last summer and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's subsequent shift to consolidate his grip over the country.

This opening has led to the Astana process and rejuvenated hopes in an "Eastern" solution, based on Turkish, Russian and, to some extent, Iranian cooperation.

While Astana has presented the most durable set of ceasefires so far in the conflict, it reinforced the inevitability of Bashar al-Assad remaining central to the foreseeable future of Syria.

In public, the calls for his removal are becoming fainter by the day, while in private, many, including some leading figures of opposition, are actively considering their options with him in office.

A political settlement that includes Assad will have far-reaching implications for Syria's long-term peace and stability. In the immediate term, this will affect the efficacy of a transition on a number of fronts.

Simultaneous processes

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First, given the likelihood that some remnants of the armed opposition will neither be defeated nor incorporated into a political settlement, any peace agreement is likely to uneasily coexist alongside efforts to combat ongoing resistance.

Rejectionist rebels will likely regroup, rearm, and fortify in the rural hinterlands with the aim of destabilising any post-conflict transition in Syria. This is already happening to some degree in Idlib, Daraa and elsewhere.

Similarly, the militias that fought for Assad will continue to seek a role in the post-settlement era.

One of the major challenges will, therefore, be the Demobilisation, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) of tens of thousands of fighters who have known nothing but war over the last six years.

Those not addressed will quickly disperse, and be driven into the arms of new insurgent groups, most likely in the form of a hybrid insurgency composed of the hardline anti-regime and or anti-settlement forces.

Second, while the political process will likely frame Syria as one unitary state with formal institutions, such as a governing council or another transitional body, new parliament, or legal system, informal aspects of the political settlement will constrain state effectiveness.

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Given the nature of the conflict, backroom deals must, out of necessity, be formed at all levels, whether to satisfy Iranian ambitions, assuage the sectarian divisions, or reward Assad supporters who will inevitably feel that they have won the war for him on the battlefield.

These unwritten, informal agreements, pacts and alliances could prove to be an immense handicap on Syria's formal institutions.

Administratively, state revenue will be a great challenge, in particular, the issue of local taxation, which is critical to a sustainable funding base and also to reconstituting state-citizen relations.

Even with a potentially strong asset base, it is likely that Syria will, for many years to come, generate symptoms of state fragility and lack of financial resources.

Reconstructing Syria

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Furthermore, the nature of political transition will have a strong influence over the possibility for financing reconstruction. The cost of reconstruction will be high, with estimates ranging from $170bn to over one trillion dollars (PDF). Whatever way the numbers are interpreted, Syria will be in need of vast amounts of international aid.

Yet, Russia cannot afford to foot the bill for large-scale reconstruction and the United States President Donald Trump has announced an end to the era of nation-building.

The biggest contributors will therefore likely be the European Union and the Gulf states. However, under an unreconstructed Assad regime, it is unlikely that the Gulf states will go back to their prewar levels of support to Syria.

The EU has a clear interest in bringing stability to Syria, in particular since Turkey can no longer be expected to act as a buffer zone.

While the EU will have to hold its nose and deliver the cash, it will expect its funds to be handled separately from the Syrian state coffers.

This will involve the design of sub-entities and parallel structures - some of which may bear the name of the Syrian government - but under a high degree of international supervision to ensure acceptable standards of accountability.

The move of rebuilding under a protracted insurgency will lead to uneven reconstruction and development in Syria.

This poses dangers for Syrian ownership of the reconstruction process and a long-term risk in de-capacitating the Syrian state while it is in a process of state-building.

The inability to trust the government will also mean that for the transitional phase reconstruction will be conceptualised only in terms of incremental, small-scale, humanitarian-driven projects rather than the massive economic and infrastructure reconstruction efforts that are required.

Furthermore, with sanctions, travel bans and other punitive measures are likely to be put in place if Assad were to continue his hold on power, and there is a risk of creating an isolated regime in the mould of Eritrea or Sudan rather than bringing the country back into the international fold of trade and development.

Uneven reconstruction

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Fourth, the move of rebuilding under a protracted insurgency will lead to uneven reconstruction and development in Syria.

In the absence of an effective state, the private sector which in Syria has traditionally been efficient and effective - in part because of the dependable inefficiency of the prewar Syrian state - is likely to be welcomed back with open arms.

Yet, given its nature and drive to generate a high return, its investments are likely to target areas where stability and security have also returned.

This will create a situation with sharply defined corridors of growth and a national development landscape that is operating at two or three different speeds.

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Such an imbalance would offer the "warlords", who have thrived throughout the conflict, the opportunity to launder their reputation into "reconstruction lords" in its aftermath, with more or less consistently marginalised areas of Syria continuing to pay the price.

Finally, although perhaps half of all Syrians will accept Assad's rule, embarking on a reconciliation process would be extremely difficult with him in power.

Given the launch of the international commission into abuses as well as the numerous accusations that have and will be made about the regime, transitional justice - particularly at the local and village level where local communities have witnessed the worst atrocities - may require imaginative forms of integrating religious and tribal justice mechanisms to reach a degree of closure and heal the wider wounds caused by six years of war and decades of repression.

Sultan Barakat is the director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and professor at the University of York, UK.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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