by Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
Beirut: It seems the ongoing war in Syria is winding down, but its aftermath will have widespread ramifications for the region.
As Yezid Sayigh accurately puts it at the beginning of his latest op-ed in Al-Hayat “The Syrian conflict, which long seemed interminable, has entered its final phase.” With the recapture of Aleppo, it seems the tide has finally turned against the Syrian opposition. Is the war over? No. But the road ahead is tough.
A popular saying said in the Lebanese civil war was ‘you can not rule those whome you conquer’. The same can be said for Syria as well. Although now a vast majority of Syrian territory is under regime control it has not quelled a low-level insurgency with insurgents still managing to pull off massive car bombs, even in heavily controlled pro-regime areas. Assad and his allies must strike a truly comprehensive deal with Syrian opposition groups. Also the Syrian Army and security forces are heavily depleted due to defections and fighting now for over six years. Many tough battles in Syria have been won thanks to proxy militias but these militias cannot replace the army and security forces in the long term. It will be difficult for Assad to control areas that have not been under regime control for years like parts of Aleppo or Raqqa. For now this seems unlikely though as Assad has sworn to liberate every inch of Syria.
There is also the ongoing issue of refugees and the displaced. Over 6 million people are internally displaced in Syria, 1.2 million homes destroyed, and much of the population living in poverty. The task of reconstruction is monumental, especially with much of the country’s infrastructure obliterated. The Syrian regime continues to be isolated internationally, with its primary allies being Iran and Russia. The estimated cost of reconstruction in Syria is astronomical. Both Iran and Russia heavily rely on oil revenues and with oil costs at an all-time low, they may not have the resources to front the bill for reconstruction in Syria.
There have also been widespread accusations by a number of groups and activists that Assad is seeking to change the demographic make up of the country to create a quasi-Alawite state. Pro-opposition Sunnis have been increasingly moved to the interior of Syria meanwhile a number of religious minorities are being kept around Damascus and the border area. Even certain neighborhoods that supported the uprising have been leveled with evidence from sattelite photos. How exactly will Assad govern such areas has yet to be determined.
There is also the pressing concern of the refugee crisis, which affects a number of countries like Greece, Lebanon, Turkey and Germany. It is true that Hezbollah is negotiating to have Syrian refugees in the Beqaa Valley return to Syria. But worldwide there continues to be over 4.8 million Syrian refugees. For a number of them who have already settled down and placed their children in foreign schools, a return will be difficult. It is even more difficult for those who have lost their homes and businesses or who have no neighborhood to even return to. There are also those who fled for political reasons or avoiding military draft. There are no guarantees that they do not face arrest when they return. This leaves Syria without a sizable part of its population, and there are fears the regime might want to keep it this way. This also creates the problem of how these nearly 5 million individuals will be absorbed and integrated into their new host countries. As already seen, cash-strapped countries like Greece and Lebanon can barely cope with the influx of refugees. Other European countries have shut their doors and few have created strategies to deal with the refugees in the long term.
So what happens now in Syria? Unfortunately, it seems the country will continue to suffer although it will be more stable. There will most likely be some major reconstruction projects in the major urban centers and overtures to minorities who make up a large bulk of Assad’s support base. The hinterland will continue to be a problem for Assad as it has always been traditionally the poorest part of Syria and it is doubtful he has enough manpower to police it. He will also face a low-level insurgency, as security is still brittle. But as a huge part of the skilled workforce has left and with little resources, Syria will continue on as an empty shell.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon