Savir's Corner: Syrian reconstruction

No Syrian regime can be worse than this one, with the biggest chemical and non-conventional arms arsenals in the Arab world.

May 23, 2013 21:58
A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra

Islamist Nusra Front fighter in Syria 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Yemen produces coffee, Egypt cotton... Palestine oranges, and Syria trouble.

This understatement comes from John Gunther, the American author of the popular series Inside Asia. Since its independence in 1946, Syria has been a theater of confrontation between ethnic and religious groups and a battlefield for outside Arab powers to gain influence in the socalled “mother of Arab nationalism.”

Syria has been governed since 1971 by the Alawite minority that constitutes only 10 percent of its population. The Assads – father and son – while propagating a blend of Arab socialism (the Ba’ath) and nationalism, enforced one of the most brutal dictatorial regimes, not only abusing human rights, but committing massive atrocities and massacres against their own population.

In February 1982, Hafez Assad had more than 20,000 of his countrymen killed, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Hama, in a period of one month. Few would have predicted that his Western-educated son, Bashar, would become an even more horrendous murderer – close to 100,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the current civil war, many if not most at the hands of Assad’s military.

The opposition to Assad, which first expressed itself in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring but was then confronted by the Syrian Army, has not been able to bring down this dictator, unlike in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Today we are witnessing a bloody battle without a winner or an end in sight, with a world community standing by in paralysis.

Syria is indeed too fragmented a society to look for a clear-cut solution. Yet this bloodletting must stop, and this dictatorship must go. The endgame to this war is of great importance to the future of Syria and the region.

The West, led by the United States, must look for a sustainable solution for the day after, taking into consideration the complexity of Syrian society. The Syrian battlefield is clearly not a “Western” bad guy/good guy story, but a Byzantine Middle Eastern gambit. On this Levantine field of confrontation, the Alawite ruling minority is still backed by most of the army (although hundreds of officers have defected), most of the army leadership is Alawite and most will not jump ship for fear of revenge. Although Assad’s regime is relatively secular, its main backing comes from fundamentalist Islamic forces, led by Iran (Hezbollah) and the Shi’ites of Iraq. Iran sees in Syria its principal ally in its aspiration for regional dominance also vis-à-vis Lebanon and the Gulf.

Assad is still backed by Russia and China, which veto Security Council resolutions against Damascus and refuse to join in the international community’s sanctions. The Russians even continue to supply sophisticated missiles to Assad.

Most of the Arab world rejects Assad and has expelled his government from the Arab League. The opposition to Assad is mostly Sunni (70% of Syrians with 10% of Kurds) and is today organized as the Syrian National Coalition, which was already recognized by the Gulf states as the legitimate government.

Its military wing is the Free Syrian Army, formed by various opposition factions and many defecting army officers. Its military activity is decentralized, yet has headquarters in Turkey. Many civilians have joined its ranks in order to defeat Assad and his army.

The opposition is also joined by radical Islamist forces, such as the Iraqi-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, among the most aggressive and violent fighters. The Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army are backed by most Arab countries, including Islamic Egypt, and by the international community.

While Assad’s army is armed by Iran and Russia, and helped by Hezbollah, the Free Syrian Army lacks arms and support. The West, led by the United States, is horrified by the humanitarian tragedy, bewildered by the complexity of civil war and paralyzed by a lack of clear strategy. There also seems to be no easy way, if at all, to intervene militarily, as was done in Libya, to overthrow the regime. Assad has proven more resilient and ruthless than predicted and threatens to use chemical weapons. His hold on Syria is shrinking but his coalition is more united than the opposition.

The onus is on the Obama administration.

It must forge a strategy, not only for “victory,” but for a sustainable solution for Syria’s future. For that it must look at the economy of the country, without which there can be no long-term stability.

Syria is completely devastated and its bigger cities are destroyed. All infrastructure has been severely damaged – roads and bridges, water pipes, the oil industry, hospitals and schools, etc. This has brought the economy to a standstill with over 50% unemployment, galloping inflation and a sharp depreciation of the Syrian pound.

The biggest cost is the human one – almost 100,000 killed, millions injured and maimed, approximately 1.5 million have become refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Much of the magnificent cultural heritage has been destroyed; mosques and churches have not been spared. The GDP of Syria decreases every year by 18%, the net foreign assets in Syria are down from $18 billion in 2010 to $2b. in 2012, also a result of the international sanctions. Today’s Syria is the Somalia of the Middle East.

If stability is to be restored in Syria, then, beyond the necessary regime change, there must be an international effort for the reconstruction of the country, with a new and appropriate governance structure.

This requires a long-term strategic outlook and policy by the West, led by the United States, to be agreed upon by the Syrian National Coalition. It should be composed of the following elements: • An internal pact by the Syrian National Coalition, bridging internal differences and reaching out to all ethnic groups and minorities in the country. Internal unity within the main opposition group is key. It must be based on a new commitment to a free Syria, with pluralistic governance, respect for women, religious minorities, economic transparency and accountability.

It should include a Syrian plan for the social and economic reconstruction of the country (the existing generic economic plan of the Syrian National Coalition is insufficient).

The Alawites should be included once Assad is out of power, and vengeance should not be tolerated. Syrian nationalism can and will coexist with Islam, but not the Iranian-exported fundamentalism. Simultaneously, terrorism and its perpetrators must be outlawed, Hezbollah and al-Qaida alike.

In favor of stability, government institutions must be planned, which should include professionals with economic and international know-how, of which Syria has plenty. This is particularly true for the establishment of a reconstruction agency and internal reconciliation body, learning from the South African model.

• On the basis of such a program for a new Syria, by Syrians, the international community has to plan its reconstruction program according to some basic guidelines: – Secret negotiations to be conducted with the Syrian National Coalition as to a plan of governance, with pluralism, transparency and accountability. Turkey should be involved as the Turkish model of more pragmatic Islam is the appropriate one. The Syrians must make a strategic chose between Turkey and Iran.

– Given an agreement on governance, the Syrian Free Army should be armed by NATO to assist in the downfall of Assad.

– In parallel, a donor mechanism should be established for the socioeconomic reconstruction of Syria. It should include the Friends of Syria framework together with Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing cannot be left out of the planning of Syria, despite current support for Assad.

– In parallel to the governments, the international private sector should be involved as an important partner to donor institutions.

Infrastructure and consultancy companies can assist in the planning of reconstruction efforts.

– The areas of reconstruction should include: a) Infrastructure repair and development, including energy, transportation and water; b) Rehabilitation of the education and health systems; c) Absorption and rehabilitation of refugees; d) Reconstruction of the tourism industry around Syria’s special archeological and coastal sites; e) The establishment of a Syrian investment agency that will be able to work with the international private sectors; f) Establishment of a chamber of commerce to reinvigorate international trade; g) Creation of professional training programs, especially to retrain fighters for civilian jobs and for the training of young women; and h) Establishment of more effective local government.

Such a plan and process that includes new governance and reconstruction should be presented publicly and in detail. The Syrian people should know the alternatives before them – either the continuation of dictatorial brutality by the minority regime, backed and infiltrated by fundamentalist radical Islamists, or an inclusive government, more modern, effective and open, with good relations with the West. There is little doubt what they will opt for. That will be the basis for a new program and partnership between the international community and Syria.

As for Israel, we can make no difference in the civil war, and should coordinate policies with the United States and Turkey. No Syrian regime can be worse than this one, with the biggest chemical and nonconventional arms arsenals in the Arab world, the arming of Hezbollah, the hosting of other terror groups, the alliance with Tehran and the mass murder of its own people.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.

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