The Biggest Hurdles Facing Post-Assad Syria

Barak Barfi is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. He recently returned from Aleppo. Barak writes often for publications including The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and The Atlantic, and is a regular guest on CNN, Fox News Channel, France 24 and other international networks. He is based between the U.S. and the Middle East.

Written by Barak Barfi Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

With Syria’s civil war at a stalemate, opposition politicians and their Western backers are contemplating ways to regain their momentum (lost when rebel forces got bogged down in urban impasses like Aleppo.)

Options like establishing a no-fly zone and arming the fighters are once again making the rounds in policy circles.  Although they look good enough on paper, implementing them is another, trickier story.

Syria’s civil war has presented decision makers with numerous dilemmas.  But the real Gordian knot will be solving the battle that starts the day after the fighting ends – when reconstruction begins.

From national reconciliation to budget allocations, Syria faces a myriad of challenges that have will challenge its future leaders – whoever they may be.

The biggest test confronting those who take the reigns following the (likely) eventual fall of President Bashar al-Assad?

Piecing back the delicate ethnic and religious mosaic shattered by the uprising’s fanning of sectarian hatred.

Though Sunni Arabs constitute 64% of the population, the heterodox Shi’i offshoots, bolstered by ten Christian denominations, largely rule the country.

Today, the country’s Sunni majority is spearheading a revolt to restore their perceived birthright.  In doing so, some have demonized their non-orthodox regime opponents as enemies of Allah.

The indoctrination supporters of both sides have experienced will impede the reconciliation process necessary to rebuild the country.

Some of these groups, such as the Alawis (Assad’s sect), Druze and Kurds, are compact minorities living in isolated regions, where a new government’s writ will not extend.  Having backed the losing side, they will not share in the spoils of this war.

Though it is doubtful that minorities like the Druze will participate in an insurgency, they are just as unlikely to back a new government composed of Islamists who brand them heretics.

Such lack of support will undermine the stature of a new central government at the very time when it needs it most.

Lack of legitimacy is bound to be a recurrent theme confronting Syria’s future leaders.  The National Council that leads the Syrian opposition is little more than a debate society that hopscotches around Western capitals to meet with politicians and officials for photo-ops.

Its leaders have little name recognition inside Syria, and even less support.

Instead, it is the frontline warriors from the rebel-led Free Syrian Army who have borne the brunt of the fighting.

When the guns fall silent, these farmers-cum-fighters will want to claim their share of the spoils and the political power that comes with it.  Such aspirations will likely clash with the politicians who have the support of Western nations backing the revolution.

Devising a power-sharing scheme that satisfies FSA leaders will be a Herculean task that the disorganized, maladroit National Council is not likely to achieve.

Those left out of the power stakes are likely to play the role of spoiler, and a back slide into renewed fighting is certain to be another primary concern.

With no central opposition group leading the battle on the ground, every local commander has been transformed into a type of regional warlord.

After defeating the regime, power-hungry rebels are likely to skirmish among themselves, further stalling the country’s rebuilding efforts.

With foreign fighters from Iraq and other Arab countries pouring into Syria, the biggest challenge will be to contain the Islamists and jihadists bent on creating a theocratic state as a launching pad to attack neighboring Israel.

These groups have no interest in creating a stable Syrian state.

Nor do their supposed foreign backers, including Saudi Arabia.

Conflict simulation games found that ‘the Saudi team explicitly concluded that the Kingdom could accept very high levels of instability in post-Assad Syria,’ because the group ‘felt that it was important to get rid of the Assad regime, and little else.  This meant that they evinced less interest in the nature of the post Assad government as long as it was Sunni.’

With views like these guiding regional policy makers, Syrian society is likely to be split along religious, ethnic and social fault lines.

Another concern is wild card Israel, whose hawkish leaders are unlikely to watch passively as Syria descends into a state of chaos, its enemies emboldened.

It will preemptively respond to any threats emanating from Syria, which will, again, further erode the legitimacy of a fragile post-Assad government.

The new leaders will have to work hard to keep jihadists in check in order to keep their rebuilding project on track.

Another hurdle? How to allocate their scarce financial and bureaucratic resources.

In most wars, major urban areas are given pride of place in reconstruction planning.  But in Syria, it’s the village – not the city – that has spearheaded the revolution.

And rural regions are just as devastated as their urban counterparts. Fighter jets strike hamlets daily, while in metropolitan neighborhoods, buildings have been transformed into frontline bunkers.

FSA leaders are sure to push hard to prioritize rural reconstruction over urban rebuilding.

But for a country teetering on financial collapse, funding projects in sparsely populated areas is a poor allocation of resources.

Equally challenging will be finding the right balance between private and public reconstruction.  In devastated cities like Aleppo,, where residents have been chopping down tress for firewood and waiting in hours-long bread lines, about 50% of infrastructure has been destroyed.

Favoring the rebuilding of power stations, roads and sewage systems seems like sound policy.  But in a conflict that has created 645,543 refugees and has internally displaced another 2 million Syrians, getting them back to rebuilt homes must be a priority.

The war has reached an unwanted and unexpected intermission that is consuming the opposition’s time and resources.  But with post-war reconstruction posing so many challenges, these leaders need to begin focusing on the day after.

Otherwise, toppling Assad will not usher in an interregnum but, rather,  force a second act in the conflict.

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