When I left Syria in August 2003, it seemed inconceivable that less than 10 years later the country would be plunged into the horrendous situation that it finds itself in today.
At that point, Syria had made it through the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq more or less unscathed, despite becoming the object of hostility from the U.S.-led coalition for its perceived meddling in the conflict. What’s more, the economy was looking up, with the introduction of commercial banks, growing tourism and the easing of some of the Soviet-style central economic controls. In later visits, up to 2010, there were even more signs of economic progress: the hotels were fully booked, new cars were popping up in the showrooms and even ATM machines were being installed.
Though the hope for political reform under newly appointed President Bashar al-Assad in the early 2000s had faded, there were still a few encouraging signs, such as limited government sanction on civil society organizations, that had previously been treated with suspicion by the state.
What remained hidden, however, were the deteriorating economic conditions for the poorer sections of society, where years of drought had taken a heavy toll on the vital agricultural sector. This, coupled with continuing restrictions on the expression of political opinion, were helping ferment popular discontent in Syria that eventually led to wide-scale protests against Assad in 2011.
During the early days of the uprising, the regime seemed to think that, because of the stability it offered, support for the Syrian Baathist system would prevail over the temptation for democratic freedoms.
The government was wrong.
The brutal crackdown on initially peaceful demonstrations, in the southern city of Daraa, for example, led to an increasingly militant opposition. This was probably later fanned by extremist elements, but not led by them, as the regime claimed by labeling their opponents simply as “terrorists.”
As the opposition grew more violent, extremist groups did indeed gain prominence, due partly to moral and material support from sponsors in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The West on the other hand, hesitated to provide more than verbal support for the outgunned moderate rebel groups pressing for democracy.
Rather than back the foot soldiers of Syria’s nationalist revolution, Western countries put their main support behind diplomatic efforts for a political solution. However, successive peace initiatives by the U.N. and other key parties to the conflict, have so far failed to produce results (although the 2012 “Annan Plan” remains a potentially viable blueprint for a political settlement).
Meanwhile, the Syrian war has become more complicated than ever.
Time and infighting have crippled and splintered opposition factions. The rise of militant organizations such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked factions has helped turn what is left of Syria’s battered nationalist opposition into secondary players. The conflict has also exacerbated ethnic divides between Arab rebels and Syrian Kurdish groups, who are accused of being separatists.
Additionally, competing interests between the main foreign players in Syria have exacerbated the conflict. Russia and Iran continue to stand steadfast behind the Syrian regime, while the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf proceed to push, with varying degrees, for Assad’s departure.
Although the conflict may seem intractable, various cease-fire agreements brokered under the broad auspices of Russia, Turkey and other outside parties, have been accompanied by the revival of a political negotiating process of sorts. There is no indication of an imminent breakthrough, but there are some signs that suggest there may be a little hope for progress in Syria in 2017.
Firstly, and at the very least, the existence of a political process is unquestionably better than its absence. Foreign players entrenched in Syria may want to reduce their involvement in the conflict, worrying that it may negatively affect their own interests (whether in terms of human casualties among their forces or increasing exposure to terrorist attacks at home). The existence of a political process and a stable communication channel could give these actors space to downsize involvement on the ground, while maintaining some measure of participation at the negotiating table.
Secondly, the issue of setting up some form of “safe havens” inside Syria is now firmly, if belatedly, on the agenda. Although some worry this will lead to a de facto partition of the country, establishing areas of refuge for non-combatants could help dissipate some of the heat generated by mutual accusations of atrocities against civilians.
These positive signs are worth noting, but there remains a missing ingredient: the involvement of Syrians themselves in plans for the country’s future.
This is perhaps one of the areas where the outside world can help. At what one might call the human level of reconstruction, Western countries in particular should be actively looking at the provision of technical and professional training, including capacity-building for civil society institutions. This will help local community organizations cope with the daunting task of rebuilding their country.
This training should include preparing Syrians for the reconstruction of historic sites and the preservation of Syria’s outstanding archaeological heritage. They should also strengthen skills in architecture and urban planning, so that Syrians themselves, rather than outsiders, can lead the rebuilding of towns and cities. Capacity building should also focus on nurturing administrative skills to boost grassroot participation in public administration – something that was missing in the pre-war Syrian state.
The international community should not wait for more tangible signs of progress towards a settlement before planning along these lines.
There is a wealth of talent among Syrians currently either displaced outside the country or still living inside Syria, but they have limited opportunities for useful employment. While some efforts are already under way by international organizations and NGOs to harness this talent in preparation for the future, there is scope for a good deal more.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.