Public discussion of the Syrian situation has tended to focus on the plight of the Syrian refugees and their effects on neighboring countries, the internal fighting there, and the interplay between external States seeking to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war.
Much less attention is given to what it would take to restore a well functioning society, or a set of well functioning societies, in the area of Syria. But there is reason to focus on that question now. If that is the end result which local, regional and global actors should seek, then those actors need to be shaping their undertakings accordingly, from this point forward, and avoiding actions which, though appealing from an individual actor’s perspective, continue or make worse the current turmoil and suffering.
Syria has, in economic terms, deteriorated badly, as Chatham House has well documented . Syria has lost control of rich agricultural areas and a large portion of its petroleum production facilities. Thus, the energy bases for economic and social performance have been greatly diminished. A recent World Bank report suggests that Syria’s gross domestic economic production has plummeted in recent years, and “the current account balance is estimated to continue its trend and reach a deficit of 13 percent of GDP in 2015. As a result of the civil war, total international reserves have declined from $20 billion at end-2010 to an estimated $2.6 billion at end-2014, and are estimated to fall further to $0.7 billion by the end of 2015.”
The same report states “As of September, 2015, 4 million Syrians have registered as refugees with the UNHCR, and are mostly hosted in Syria’s neighboring countries, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, but also in Egypt and, increasingly, in European countries. More than 12.2 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid, including 5.6 million children (UNOCHA, Syrian Center for Policy Research-SCPR).”
Though Russia and Iran have made investments in Syria in recent years, there is reason to suggest that Syria has disintegrated so far as to be only a liability for any other State, or the citizens of such other State — including the prominently mentioned States such as Russia and Iran, as well as Europe (as a whole), the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others. ISIL, the international outcast, is the only exception. As Syria now stands, it is hard to see it as a substantial current economic asset to anyone.
There is reason to suggest that rivalries among external State actors, including the United States, have, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to the current breakdown in Syria. The authors of a 2014 Foreign Affairs article suggest that “Syria has become a dividing line among rival powers — a twenty-first-century iron curtain of sorts.” This perspective is subject to the interpretation that the ’Western’ steadfast rejection of Assad has to do not only with that Assad’s bloodthirsty reaction to political challenge, but also with his economic and military alignment with Russia, Iran and China. In overview, the combination of Western economic sanctions, a drought, local citizen disenfranchisement and abuse, civil war and ISIL is what has pushed Syria nearer, if not to, the brink of state disintegration.
The net economic and humanitarian result of this history seems to underlie the current degree of coordination between external State actors, including both Russia and the United States, directed to some degree toward ISIL, and perhaps to underlie some ambiguous statements by Russian spokespersons. This suggests that there may be some possibility of setting up a political reorganization of Syria through international concord, leading to workable domestic concord over some several months or years. The United Nations appears to be playing a constructive role in this process.
This certainly is to be encouraged. But Russia’s interjection of military hardware, and its currently continued protection of Assad, suggests it still seeks heavily to tilt any resolution of the Syrian State in its favor, and attempt to benefit economically and geopolitically thereafter. One can assume that Europe and the United States have an opposite set of preferences.
However, from a global standpoint, it is more important that there be normal and productive economic and social activity in and near Syria than that any of these State actors gain advantage over the others. A functional Syria without an inimical agenda toward any of its neighbors need be no threat to any of them. Such a functional Syria, with adequate agricultural production, petroleum production, banks, utilities, medical and educational systems, could engage in productive economic and social interaction with any and all nearby and global entities — Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Europe, the United States, etc.
Such a result need not be entirely blind to history, For example, the Russian naval base on the Mediterranean would not need to be excised, assuming it were not used for war support purposes.
Let us briefly review what will be required successfully to reorganize Syria, or something like it.
The agricultural areas of Syria need to be reintegrated, and well serviced.
Oil and gas production areas need to be restored, in normal production, transport, and sales patterns, with new investment.
The population needs to be protected from ISIL, and any other external incursion.
Banks, insurance, and similar financial institutions need to be reliably in place at reasonable scale. Though calculation of investment needs in Syria may not be obvious or easy in the current fog of war, it may not unreasonable to expect that up to or over a hundred billion dollars of investment, of various sorts, will need to be mobilized over time.
Such of Syria’s population as its State can absorb need to find or build homes to return to. They will need reliable educational and medical institutions.
All of this needs to be in place, using a workable political entity, and reliably maintained for many years, if not some decades.
This is a great deal to ask of the loose collection of political entities now addressing Syria, with all their diverse interests, notwithstanding the involvement of many able persons who, presumably, are not insensitive to the ongoing human tragedy in and around Syria.
Thus, the recent suggestion of Don Kraus that an international trusteeship for Syria, under United Nations auspices, deserves, this author suggests, widespread and receptive attention, even as the current efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis proceed.
Given all the diverse actors involved, natural reluctance to give up or compromise individual State or sectarian interests, and intricacies of construction of an institution of this sort, a massive reorganization of prevailing thought and a massive UN level organizational effort would be required. Americans, for example, seem divided over just the American role concerning Syria. This state of consciousness is well short of considering that the United States sponsor a new UN organization to deal with Syria, even though such a sponsorship might be appealing in some respects.
Thus Kraus recognizes that his proposal would seem to many to be a ‘radical’ solution. In concept, the proposal is not all that radical. Indeed, a branch of the United Nations has already begun planning for a Syrian reconstruction effort, whomever wins the current civil war.
Even so, such an action would be a rare and demanding departure from current international practice.
Such a departure might be seen as necessary if conflicts between participants in the nascent coalition of State actors concerning Syria were to escalate. An important benefit of a UN Trusteeship would be diminution of the possibility of armed conflict between the various nations participating in trying to quell the ISIL activity, and jockeying for position in the resolution of the conflict in Syria. One entity in control of Syria, known not to have global ambitions or alliance with any of the contending camps, would seem a much safer approach than we now see, with multiple national warplanes and surface missiles, cruise missiles, and ground forces intermixed. We now have a classic tinderbox situation.
Lastly, from the viewpoint of the United States, a functional Syrian State which neither favors nor opposes our particular interests, or those of Russia, or Iran, or Shia muslims, or Sunni muslims, would be a major improvement over the current tragic state of affairs. If ‘better off’ is good enough, the United States need not control a reconstituted Syria, or make it our own salient in a cold or slow motion war with Russia. Nor do we need to make it an instrument with which to bludgeon Iran, or Shiites in general, or in particular situations, as some have seemed to suggest. This would be likely only to make matters worse.
In sum, the US and Europe would be better off if Syria were just a normal State which is not hostile to them (or anyone else). Russia and Iran would continue to have geographic proximity and long term connections favoring productive relationships with such a State. From the perspective of millions of Syrians, some long term relief from ongoing personal suffering is urgently needed. Speaking from the viewpoint of the global citizen, a UN trusteeship would seem an appropriately global, and potentially much safer, solution. And whatever the form of workout for Syria, one may suggest that the perspectives here offered might be integrated in the process.