Analysis: What Lies Ahead for Syria in 2018

The coming year in Syria will likely be marked by reconciliation deals, partial economic recovery and, ultimately, Assad continuing to hold power in the country, according to Syria expert Fabrice Balance.

Written by Fabrice Balanche Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in a street inside the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6, 2015. YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images

This year may not yet be one of peace in Syria, but 2018 may be the last year of this brutal conflict. It has become clear that President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have won the war. For its part, the West, persuaded that the Assad camp does not have the means to rehabilitate Syria, is counting on leveraging reconstruction to influence a political transition. But just as it was mistaken on the military conflict, it is also mistaken on this issue.

On the military front, the offensive in Idlib will be a priority in 2018. However, it is necessary for the Syrian army to also finish with the last rebel enclaves around Damascus and the pocket of Rastan. Recovering the eastern suburbs of Damascus will be difficult but is likely to end – as offensives have elsewhere – by way of reconciliation deal and transfer of armed rebels to Idlib.

Daraa province is unlikely to be spared from fighting, despite the de-escalation agreement between Russia and the U.S. The Syrian army hopes to reopen the highway to Jordan at the Nassib border crossing, which would entail seizing the eastern part of the province, between the Daraa-Damascus road and the Jabal Druze. As for the western part of the province, between the Daraa-Damascus road and the Golan, the situation is more or less frozen due to a Russian-American agreement in which Vladimir Putin guaranteed that Hezbollah and Iranian forces would not approach within 25 miles (40km) of the 1973 cease-fire line. Russia wants this agreement as it gives Moscow a significant diplomatic role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Russia and the Society

The thorny question of the Kurds remains. Will the Syrian army confront the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who currently occupy nearly 30 percent of the country? It will depend on whether or not the U.S. is willing to remain in the northwest given the military, economic and diplomatic cost (notably in regard to relations with Turkey). Syrian Kurds, therefore, risk being rapidly abandoned by the U.S. They have no doubt already planned to restore the Arab territories they liberated from ISIS in exchange for autonomy in the Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Qamishli. Though Rojava representatives are not invited to any peace talks, they remain at the center of diplomatic negotiations.

In this regard, the all-Syria congress expected to be held in Sochi at the end of January is a step toward a settlement of the Syrian conflict outside Geneva. While the Syrian opposition and its sponsors have never really addressed the community issue, Russia opened the debate on the future of the “Syrian nation” by recognizing the different ethnic and religious communities that compose it, despite Damascus and its Baathist dogmas. An evolution of the Syrian constitution toward political recognition of the various identities of Syrian society, without going as far as the Lebanese model, could be a prominent issue in Sochi and in shaping the political transition.

This political process escapes the Westerners who are relying only on the weapon of economics as a last resort to weigh in on the future of Syria. The World Bank estimates the cost of reconstruction at $250 billion. Other estimates speak of $400 billion or even $600 billion. Neither Damascus nor its allies have such a sum, but Syria can still rebuild with at least a few tens of billions of dollars.

If the diaspora and the merchant class are ready to invest in the real-estate sector, rebuilding the manufacturing sector may be more difficult as long-term investments are now perceived as very risky. However, the level of corruption remains a major obstacle to the reconstitution of Syria’s pre-war production base. The country is therefore likely to experience prolonged economic stagnation, especially if Westerners maintain sanctions and refuse to help.

A Diminished Syria

In the absence of sensible economic improvement, the majority of Syrian refugees are likely to remain in host countries, where new arrivals will join them. This prospect does not bother Assad, who may have come to realize that Syria was overpopulated in 2011, in terms of its economic capabilities, and that this was a major cause of the revolt.

There are already 7 million refugees (5.5 million registered with UNHCR and nearly one million seeking asylum in Europe), and a diminished Syria of some 10 million people (the Syrian population is about 23 million) – especially from the Sunni popular classes – is a goal achievable within three years at the current rate of departure.

The void will leave economic opportunities with regard to the Iranian corridor and for economic integration between Syria, Iraq and Iran (with Lebanon possible added). For Syria’s Assad, sidelined by the Gulf countries and boycotted by Europe, the solution is to turn to neighboring markets. Iraq could quickly become Syria’s first client to stimulate the resumption of agricultural and industrial production. The return of Iraqi and Iranian oil exports, if the Islamic gas pipeline is finally built, will bring “royalties” to Syria.

Syrian ports now have a potential “hinterland” that extends to Tehran. There remains the question of offshore hydrocarbon resources, exploitation of which would take years and would primarily serve to repay debts accumulated vis-à-vis Russia and Iran.

The Syrian people are used to modest living conditions, and the government has long pushed for self-reliance. Assad had envisioned turning his country into an emerging economy in the 2000s, but this change in economic paradigm has destabilized the country and nearly cost him his power.

From now on, economic decisions will be made according to political considerations, even if that slows progress. After this brutal conflict, the discontented will choose to be exiled rather than to contest – at least for one generation.

The regime came out strengthened by this show of force. It will certainly have to co-opt the new warlords, make room for tribal elites and Kurds, which is likely to force a de facto decentralization of the peripheries. But those who still dream of Assad’s departure do not understand that he is still the keystone of Syria’s system of power. Moreover, his allies have no desire to make him leave, especially since the West has nothing to offer in exchange.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published in French by L’Orient-Le Jour. This version was translated by Alessandria Masi and is reprinted here with permission.

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