By Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
The world is holding its breath as it watches the siege of Aleppo. What happens in Aleppo could be the ultimate tipping point in the five-year long Syrian civil war. Even so, it will be a long road ahead for Syria and whoever emerges victorious.
The Syrian regime has gained a massive upper hand over the last two years. It has taken back important rebel strongholds like Hama and Homs and continues to assert itself on the coast. The major game changer, though, came with the Russian air strikes earlier this year that helped the regime regain ground and consolidate its position in the country. Now the Syrian army heads towards the country’s largest city and what was once its commercial center.
The loss of Aleppo, which was a late player in the revolution, was a huge blow to the regime. Several attempts to take back the city showed how weak the regime had become. Now the regime has made huge advances and surrounded the city although reports are showing that rebels could have possibly broken the siege.
Two scenarios could now unfold. In the first scenario the regime could manage to retake Aleppo, which would be a gigantic blow to the rebels and opposition. Assad would have effectively retaken all major urban centers in Syria, leaving the opposition the more desolate hinterland, which the regime does not need for survival.
The second scenario is the rebels succeeding in permanently breaking the siege. This would allow for a further political stalemate and embarrass the Syrian regime.
Either way, Syria now has a long road ahead of it if Aleppo is taken and the war comes to an end. The damage to country has been immense with half the Syrian population displaced, 1 out of 3 homes destroyed, neighborhoods razed to the ground, shattered infrastructure and priceless heritage monuments gone. Many experts believe it could take a generation to rebuild Syria, which requires hundreds of billions of dollars. If the Assad regime were to win, it could only depend on Russia and Iran to help in reconstruction as the US, EU and the GCC would be reluctant.
What will determine Syrian reconstruction is the political settlement that ends the war. Whatever method or strategy is used to end the conflict in Syria will most likely be replicated in other war-torn Arab countries like Iraq or Yemen.
Slogans for Arab unity have all been too commonplace in the MENA. For years Lebanon was mired in civil conflict (1975-1990) and was only solved through an accord that has created a highly centralized government that rarely accomplishes anything. Indeed, most Arab governments chant slogans of Arab unity and have highly centralized governments that have ultimately failed to one: be inclusive of different sects and minorities that are not Arab and two: failed to help many areas on the fringe which only created more discontent. Most Arab states (especially pre-Arab Spring) rule through tough security apparatuses and bloated bureaucracies where everything is done under the watchful gaze of the central government that is dominated by one political/ethnic/religious group. Decades of stagnation and the Arab Spring helped show this system is not feasible.
There have now been calls for partition or least a federal system. Partition, long a taboo word in the Arab World, is actually not new phenomenon in the region. South Sudan seceded from Sudan and southern Morocco has its own autonomy. In a recent interview, Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem, hinted at the possibility of partition in Iraq and Syria as a possible solution going forward. For a major regional player to hint at partition, this could mean that its main sponsor, Iran, is okay with the very notion of it. It would also take the US and Russia to agree to it as well. There are some already preparing for it, mainly the Kurds, who upon the advent of ISIS’s takeover of Mosul had declared they would hold an independence referendum. But then lies the question of drawing borders and what would be the basis for creating new states. Religion? Ethnicity? Both? What about dividing major resources?
A less extreme version could be federalism or the very least decentralization, with more authority given over to governorates and municipalities. This might empower Arab citizens to participate more in political life and could lead to a more effective mode of government with power transferred to more local authorities. But then again lies the challenge of demarcating regions and how much authority the federal government would have.
Another challenge for a new Syria is solving deep social wounds. Sectarian warfare has ripped apart the country. Without a proper truth and reconciliation commission and just political settlement, wounds may never heal in Syria. There is also the tricky issue of extending government authority over all Syrian territory and the question of foreign fighters/militias.
Whatever happens in Syria, there lays a long road ahead for it to heal its wounds.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon