August 21, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Lasting Damage of the Syrian Civil War

• The end of fighting in Syria—when it comes—will usher in a new set of problems for the country and the region

• The Islamic State will not disappear easily, nor will its supporters

• Syria is already destroyed and regional powers also face long-term difficulties

• The Middle East will continue to challenge international peace and security for many years to come.


One way or another, the war in Syria will eventually come to an end. But when it does, the landscape will look very different than it did at the start of the conflict. What began as a limited revolt against an abusive government has become a struggle involving over half the countries of the world—if only because one or more of their citizens are taking part. Local disgust at the arrogant brutality of a few regime thugs in cheap leather jackets has morphed into international anxiety about the box-office brutality of an international body of extremists, half-hidden in balaclavas and numbering in the thousands.

Violence is so deeply imprinted in the DNA of the so-called Islamic State that it is unlikely that fighting in Syria will ever stop completely while the group has a presence there. Its eschatology is so closely bound to the geographical area of Syria—especially towns like Dabiq where an apocalyptic battle is meant to occur—that it is hard to imagine what might make it change direction towards the rest of the world. And even if it did change, or was driven out of Syria altogether, it would leave many supporters determined to avenge its fall, or prepared to move on to Libya, or somewhere else where the Islamic State has established a foothold.

Even without the Islamic State, the ‘day after’ in Syria will see a country fundamentally changed. With over half the population displaced, and most children under 18 receiving little or no education—and even less stability—the country’s human capital will be severely disrupted and depleted. The traditions of tolerance and a sense of shared history and culture will be lost. Communities that have had to fight for their survival will not easily trust people from outside their own narrow circles. If strong fences make good neighbors, Syria is ill-equipped to face its divided future.

The Syrian state, in some form, is likely to survive, if only because its key backers—Russia and Iran—have enough power to ensure that it does. But it will be a rump state, stretching from Damascus to somewhere around Hama and then across to Latakia, with uneasy borders and little international standing. Whatever legitimacy the Assad regime once had was lost long ago in choking clouds of chlorine barrel bombs and the dark corners of underground torture chambers. Society is shattered, the economy is in ruins, and the integrity of the state has collapsed, both physically and politically.

As for the rest of what was once Syria, territory will be divided between the  Islamic State, the Kurds, competing rebel groups, and neighboring powers—all calculating how much they can grab and hold on to, and at what cost.  Even if the fighting turns into protracted negotiation, tensions will persist and reconstruction will be slow to non-existent. Reconstruction will be particularly hard in the ashes of the Islamic State. There will be nothing to build on, and no pre-existing structures that can offer the people the levels of governance they crave. A benign dictatorship is the best the people can hope for, unless it is rule by an occupying force, which is more likely to postpone solutions than provide them.

Neighboring countries will also continue to feel the effects of the Syrian war. Turkey has torn up the growing pile of confidence-building measures that—since the capture of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999—had led to a ceasefire, and real hope for a lasting accommodation of the Kurdish minority within the Turkish state. Partly as a result, the Kurds have moved closer to establishing their own state along Turkey’s southern border than at any time in their long history. But this will put them in lasting conflict not just with the Turks, but also with all non-Kurds in the area.

To the east, Iraq will be too tied up with its own problems to be of much help to its western neighbor. The history of Iraq since 2003 has been calamitous, despite all its advantages of oil, and a civilization that dates back to the dawn of history. The weakness of Iraq will perpetuate the weakness of Syria, and vice versa.

Saudi Arabia, which is burning through its cash reserves at a rate of over $12 billion a month—and would need oil prices to return to $106 a barrel in order to break even—will by 2020 be down to its last $200 billion. No longer a rich state accustomed to buying its way out of trouble, Saudi Arabia will face difficult choices at a time when its population is getting younger, living longer, becoming more intolerant, and even less self-sufficient.

Iran has the potential to be a force for good, but its policies are mired in suspicion and mistrust, and it will find no new friends among its neighbors once the Syrian war ends. It too needs oil prices to be far higher than they are now, or will likely face financial difficulties in the near future. Although it has a far more diversified economy than Saudi Arabia, its natural markets such as Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, will not be healthy enough to guarantee the growth of exports.

Although every effort should be devoted to bringing the fighting in Syria to an end, peace will not solve the humanitarian problems, nor the regional tensions that are likely to challenge the stability of the Middle East for many years to come. Things will most certainly get worse before they get better.


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