Constructing a New Syria: Dealing with the Real Outcome of the “ISIS War”
September 4, 2015
It is all too easy to focus on the fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria, and ignore the full implications of the Syrian civil war and the challenge it poses for the future. No one can ignore the threat that ISIS poses to the region, or the immediate humanitarian threat to more than half of Syria’s population. The fighting in Syria over nearly half a decade has, however, shattered what already was in many ways becoming a failed state. Any meaningful peace effort is going to have to go far beyond some kind of political settlement: It must virtually construct a new country.
Defeating ISIS is important, but that alone cannot bring stability or security to either Iraq or Syria and the challenge is far greater in Syria. Iraq’s growing divisions into Shi’ite and Kurdish controlled areas has some demographic and economic logic and the key faction has some degree of common secular pragmatism.
Setting the Stage
Syria is a remarkably complex mix of fertile areas and desert, as well as different ethnic groups and religious factions. It is also a country that was under extreme population pressure even when the current civil strife began in 2011, with very poor governance, serious barriers to development, a population concentrated in the western third of the country, and few resources other than tourism and a small oil and gas sector that have virtually ceased to have any earnings since 2012.
The depth and complexity of these divisions are summarized in a series of charts and maps provided by the Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS in the presentation “Constructing a New Syria? The Growing Impact of the Civil War, which is available on the CSIS website clicking on the PDF above or at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/150908_Cordesman_Constructing_A_New_Syria.pdf.
This report shows the situation in Syria before its civil war, the problems in its governance and economy, and the impact of the civil war both in dividing the country and both displacing the population and destroying much of the housing, businesses, and infrastructure it depended upon before the civil war. 
A House Divided With Steadily Less in Common
Syria, however, is increasingly divided into four areas – all with unstable boundaries and often with conflicting sectarian and ethnic factions:
One is the area controlled and purged by ISIS. It has become an area of authoritarian extremism where there is no clear political replacement for ISIS. Many of those who remain support ISIS’s extremism, and there no longer is a modern structure of governance with most social service being tied to ISIS or missing, and there is nothing approaching a functional economy.
While ISIS is expanding to the northwest and the south, its area of control is also an area that is largely desert, with only a limited population concentrated in a narrow belt around the Euphrates. It has oil and gas resources, but cannot export either without pipelines to Syria’s coast or into Turkey.
It is far from clear what any defeat of ISIS will mean in terms of popular support for an alternative form of rule, even if that rule is Sunni and to some degree Islamist. It is equally unclear how any new regime can be seen as something other than an occupying power by those who supported ISIS, or how the legacy of the fighting can be dealt with through anything other than a massive reconstruction project.
The second is the area being fought for by rival Sunni Islamist movements, which include the Al Nusra Front – a movement with origins tied to Al Qaida. This area is concentrated in the west of Syria and affects both its countryside and key cities. As the maps of conflict zones in Constructing a New Syria? The Growing Impact of the Civil War show, it has no clear boundaries and often overlaps in fighting with the Kurds, Assad regime, and ISIS.
There is no meaningful structure of governance in this combat zone, much of the economy is crippled, and many urban areas have lost significant amounts of housing and businesses. Unlike ISIS, there also is no meaningful military unity, and the mix of factions and their strengthen keeps changing.
Maps provided on background show over 30 factions, the strongest of which are now Islamist. An unclassified working estimate in Wikipedia shows that the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council and Free Syria Army have 25 different elements. There are some 26 other factions and 13 joint operations rooms. The level of Egyptian, French, Jordanian, Libyan, Saudi, Turkish, UAE, and US support for given faction is unclear, as is the level of conflict and coordination between them at any given date. U.S. efforts to train or support more secular and moderate factions have to date had no meaningful impact. 
A Syrian Kurdish area has developed in the Kurdish zone in Syria’s north that has taken on the character of a mini-state with growing elements of governance and economic ties to the Kurdish zone in Iraq . The Kurdish Supreme Committee has its own combat units, and there are a wide range of small allied armed groups, as well as support from some Arab tribal factions, as well as some support from elements tie to the Syriac (Assyrian) Union Party.
Syria never fully recognized its Kurdish minority as full citizens before the civil war. It is unclear that they will accept any form of future central government control that does not offer some degree of autonomy or is not enforced by armed repression, although they seem to have agreed to remain in Syria. . The U.S., France, and Iraqi Kurds have provided armed support in the past, but the revival of Turkish fighting with the PKK makes the future uncertain. The Kurdish areas in Syria’s northwest are also now separated by ISIS forces from those in the northeast.
An Assad controlled “Syrian government” that is Alawite-dominated, includes Syria’s relatively small Shi’ite minority, and has substantial support from Arab Sunni loyalists both in the military and security services and the business community . In addition to the Syrian military, this faction has the support of Alawite led militias, a range of different Sunni factions, tribal militias, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as a limited number of Iranian volunteers and Al Quds fighters. It has the support of Russia and Iran, and some arms support from North Korea and Belarus.
This is the only one of the four elements that has anything approaching the status of a modern government, preserves some elements of a modern economy, and maintains elements of normal state infrastructure. It is, however, effectively under siege. The cities it partially controls in central Syria have been the scene of substantially fighting, and only the western coastal areas have had some immunity from the fighting. The level of government services has deteriorated sharply, and the economy is in near collapse and supported by outside funds from Iran.
Given these divisions, neither defeating ISIS nor negotiations that do not include each of the areas and factions that now divide the country can bring stability, or create a meaningful peace. It is also clear that even if the U.S. could train some 15,000 moderate fighters and field and support them effectively, this could only have a limited impact at best.
It is unclear that Syria can be put back together at all, but if it can, this will require a new structure of governance that specifically protects minority rights, finds some way to separate Alawites from hostile Islamist factions, gives the Kurds a high degree of autonomy, and offers sufficient incentives in terms of economic recovery and services to win popular support – something that will require major outside aid and a radical restructuring of the government, government services, and the government’s role in the economy.
The Economic Impact of the War
Syria’s also faces far more problems in reaching any form of economic recovery and political stability than Iraq. The religious difference between Alawites and Sunni Muslims are far greater, the fighting has been far more intense and brutal, and the war has triggered a far greater civil crisis.
The summary maps and graphs in Constructing a New Syria? The Growing Impact of the Civil War help show just how serious impact of the war has been. They do also show serious gaps in the unclassified data available on Syria. The blank areas in each map in the third section of the report show that much of Syria is too violent for anyone to fully understand what is happening to the civil population, the economy, and the ability of civil society to function on anything approaching a normal basis.
They also show that key international organizations make it clear that they have no way to accurately estimate the damage that the fighting has done to Syria’s already weak economy since 2011, or to make local estimates of the economic impact of the fighting. The CIA World Factbook only reports Syria’s GDP through 2011 and put that year’s GDP at only $107.6 billion in PPP terms and $65.7 billion at the official exchange rate. The UN put the GDP at $60.5 billion at the official exchange rate in 2010, and guesstimated that it dropped to $46.5 billion by 2012 – the last year it attempts to make an estimate for.
The data on Syria’s poverty level were grossly unreliable even before the civil war, but it was clear that Syria’s per capita income was exceptionally low even then. The CIA put the GNP per capita at $5,100 in PPP terms in 2011. The UN put it at only $2,084 in 2012. The CIA also estimates that direct employment reached 32% in 2014. This figure, while extraordinarily high, does not include under or disguised unemployment in unproductive jobs. The estimate of Syria’s budget is that it had only $1.73 billion in revenues in 2014, and $5.5 billion in expenditures even though the central government effectively controls only about a third of the country. Inflation was 89.6% in 2013 and another 34.8% in 2014. The current account balance was -$5.2 billion in 2013 and -$4.6 billion in 2014, and the balance of trade involved $7.7 billion in imports in 2014 for only $2.0 billion in exports. 
Work by the British Royal Institute of International Affairs and other groups recognizes the added uncertainties the war has caused, but still shows it is likely that today’s Syrian economy has a GDP substantially less than half of what Syria had in 2011. The Syrian stock market had virtually collapsed by 2013, and tourism – a key source of income and some 12% of Syria’s GDP – had dropped by some 95%. Specialized trade areas like Syria’s silk industry became problematic, and Syria’s ability to pay its debts had virtually ended.
The World Bank overview for Syria – which was updated in March 2015 – estimates that,
The economy has witnessed a dramatic contraction since the beginning of the conflict. According to figures from the CBS, annual GDP growth before the crisis between 2004 and 2009 averaged 5.7%. Since 2012, the estimates diverged with EIU offering a more optimistic perspective than SCPR’s and ESCWA’s. SCPR and ESCWA converge in their projection that economic contraction has significantly slowed in 2014, with GDP falling to 38% (SCPR) or 48% of 2010 GDP (ESCWA). EIU, on the other hand, projects that the economy has bottomed out, with growth averaging a modest 0.5% in 2014, driven by the economy’s adjustment to the military stalemate in addition to the considerable migration of businesses to more stable coastal areas.
The conflict has caused a drop in government revenues and a spike in spending, sending the fiscal balance into severe deficit. ESCWA estimates a 2013 budget deficit of -26.3% of GDP. EIU estimates a deficit of -12.9 % in 2013 and projects deficits of -10.7% of GDP in 2014. SCPR estimates a deficit close to 20% during 2013 and 2014 and almost doubles its estimates to 35.7% and 40.5% after adding off-budget subsidies. SCPR projects foreign debt increased tenfold from 7% of GDP in 2010 to 71% at end-2014, whereas domestic debt increased from 16 to 76% of GDP. This implies a total debt of 147% of GDP by end-2014. Meanwhile EIU estimates external debt in 2014 at a much lower 40% of GDP.
There are other warnings of just how serious the broader impacts of the war have been. The U.S. Energy Information Agency warns that, 
Syria is no longer able to export oil, and as a result, government revenues from the energy sector have fallen significantly. Prior to the current conflict, when Syria produced 383,000 barrels per day (b/d) of oil and 316 million cubic feet per day (Mmcf/d) of natural gas, Syria's oil and gas sector accounted for approximately one fourth of government revenues.
Syria faces major challenges in supplying fuel oil to its citizens. Electricity service in much of the country is sporadic as a result of fighting between government, opposition forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Further, the exploration and development of the country's oil and natural gas resources have been delayed indefinitely. Nevertheless, even if the fighting were to subside, it would take years for the Syrian domestic energy system to return to pre-conflict operating status.
… The loss of oil export capabilities severely limited Syrian government revenues, particularly the lost access to European markets, which in 2011 imported over $3 billion worth of oil from Syria, according to the European Commission.2 Prior to sanctions, European refineries were the target market for Syrian oil because they were configured to process heavy, sour oil.
Since the swift advance of ISIS in 2014, Syrian oil production has essentially ceased. The lack of domestic crude oil production has caused the country's two main refineries to operate at less than half of normal capacity, resulting in supply shortages for refined petroleum products. Further, sanctions—and the resulting loss of oil export revenues—make importing petroleum products difficult. It is likely that Iran continues to supply Syria with crude oil and refined products.3 Oil theft is also a problem, with Syrian officials claiming that hundreds of barrels of crude oil are being stolen and shipped to neighboring countries each day.
… By early 2013, more than 30 of Syria's power stations were inactive, and at least 40% of the country's high voltage lines had been attacked, according to Syria's Minister of Electricity. Syria's electricity generating capacity was 8.9 gigawatts in 2012, although damage to electricity generating facilities, high voltage power lines, and other infrastructure has likely reduced the country's effective capacity. Electricity distribution losses, already 17% of total generation in 2012, have likely climbed even further.
The Refugee and IDP Crisis Has Lasting Implications that Go Far Beyond a Short Term Humanitarian Crisis
Constructing a New Syria? The Growing Impact of the Civil War also shows that something like half of Syria’s population – which the CIA estimates at 17.1 million and the UN estimates at 22,3 million -- now consists of more than 4 million refugees outside the county, and 7.6 million people displace away from their homes, jobs, and businesses. At least another 4 million Syrians are at risk in areas that are threatened by conflict, or the scene of active fighting, but find it difficult to impossible to move.
These totals include at least 5.6 million children inside Syria, and 2.1 million more children outside it. A substantial number have lost years education, faced serious food supply or malnutrition problems, and had limited access to health care. The cost of the war to them will sometimes last for their entire lives – particularly if any form of peace or ceasefire means a return to lagging development, poor governance, and gross corruption – or government by extremists whose ideology makes it impossible to modernize or face the political and economic realities of the modern world.
The maps and charts in the UN data shown in Constructing a New Syria? The Growing Impact of the Civil War show that area after area where data are available faces major problems simply in getting potable war and electric power, or that proper health care is not available and that schools are closed or cannot function.
Taken together, it is all too clear why the World Bank states that, 
The humanitarian impact of the conflict continues to worsen. The estimated death toll has exceeded 220,000 people (UN); 840,000 were injured and many more held in custody (SCPR). As of March 2015, around half the Syrian population has been forced to leave their homes, with 7.6 million internally displaced, 3.8 million refugees (UNOCHA), and more than 1.5 million non-refugee migrants (SCPR). More than 12.2 million in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid, including 5.6 million children (UNOCHA).
The conflict has pushed millions of people into poverty, with four in five Syrians estimated to be living in poverty in 2014 (SCPR). The overall poverty rate was projected to be 82.5% in 2014, a significant increase compared to the estimated 64.8% rate in 2013 (SCPR). SCPR estimated that 64.7% of Syrians were living in extreme poverty in 2014, unable to meet basic food and non-food needs. While the accuracy of these estimates is difficult to gauge in a conflict situation, they remain highly indicative of the degree of deprivation facing the embattled Syrian population.
Key social outcomes have also deteriorated as a result of the conflict. Lack of access to health care and scarcity of medicine have led to a catastrophic health situation. Poor food availability and quality and successive cuts in subsidies on bread has exacerbated nutritional deprivation.
SCPR estimates that by Q3-2014, 25% of all schools in the country (around 5,200 schools) were not operational, including 90% that were partially or completely destroyed and the remainder that were serving as shelters for IDPs. The share of schools that have ceased operations is projected to have risen to 28 percent by Q4-2014 (SCPR).
Unemployment is estimated to have increased from 15% to 58% between 2011 and Q4-2014. Among the unemployed, about 3 million lost their jobs during the conflict, which adversely affected their 12.2 million dependents (SCPR).
In practical terms, all development activity has halted since 2012. There has been little reconstruction of any areas damaged in the fighting. The educational and medical sectors have collapsed in some areas and are under acute strain in others, and the government cannot even estimate the level of damage, and the maps in Constructing a New Syria? The Growing Impact of the Civil War show that the international organizations providing assistance lack coverage of most of the country, including highly populated urban areas.
Constructing a New Syria
It is hard to overstate the importance of such trends and estimates, the need to look beyond the threat posed by ISIS, and the need to look beyond some diplomatic solution that ends in a compromise that simply removes Assad and create some strange kind of political coalition without regard to the actual ability to govern. Syria now faces the level of destruction, economic loss, and human costs that characterized Europe in World War II, but Syria is a nation that had never made anything like Europe’s economic progress before 2011.
Syria will require a massive construction effort for every aspect of governance, its economy, and its social and physical infrastructure. Any kind of political stability requires this to be carried out with a reasonable degree of ethnic and sectarian equity for Arab and Kurd and for Sunni, Alawite, Shi’ite, and other minorities. There will be no slack or surplus to pay for the excesses and lack of realism in Islamic extremism or a mismanaged effort to return to some form of “Arab socialism.”
Syria will also be in a race to recover a future for its children as well as offer a steadily growing population some form of employment. While estimates differ as to the exact numbers involved, they do not differ as to the rate of growth. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Syria had a total population of only 3.5 million in 1950. It was 8.7 million in 1980, and 22 million in 2011. While the Census Bureau estimates that Syria’s population dropped to 17.1 million in 2015, it estimates a return to 22 million shortly after any peace, and then growth to 26.1 million in 2030 and 31.2 million in 2050.
Put differently, a largely desert country facing climate change and a drop in the water in its rivers because of Turkish dams had a population that grew more than six times between 1950 and 2011. It must now quickly cope with an increase of at least 5 million people after any form of peace and do so in a way that must involve massive rebuilding and relocation to deal with ethnic and sectarian tensions. It must then go from recovery that includes major national shifts in demographics to development as its population increases by another 40%.
In short, ISIS is only a first step at best. The same is true of high level negotiations that ignore the real character of the fighting and the changes needed in Syria’s power structure. A “peace” can only have real meaning if Alawite, Sunni, and Kurd – along with Syria’s other minorities – can find a new structure of governance and accommodation.
The U.S. and everyone else who talks about peace and recovery in Syria needs to start now to plan for what happens next. Syria’s civil war and humanitarian crisis have reached the point where no military victory or diplomatic compromise alone can hope to either bring hope and progress to its people or any lasting form of peace and stability.
For other Burke Chair Studies on this subject see:
 The impact of the fighting is also shown in the photos in an article by Sergio Pecanha and Jeremy White in an article called “ From Syria, an Atlas of a Country in Ruins” on the New York Times web site at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/02/12/world/middleeast/syria-civil-war-damage-maps.html . This article uses photos and maps of the urban areas where fighting has occurred, and it shows that large areas have been virtually flattened.
An article by Liz Sly in the Washington Post, “As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East,” available on its web site at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/as-tragedies-shock-europe-a-bigger-refugee-crisis-looms-in-the-middle-east/2015/08/29/3858b284-9c15-11e4-86a3-1b56f64925f6_story.html , provides an summary of the humanitarian impact of the fighting as of late August 2015, and additional summary graphics showing its rising impact over time.
 “List of armed groups in the Syrian Civil War,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_armed_groups_in_the_Syrian_Civil_War , accessed August 31, 2015.
 CIA, “Syria,” World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html , accessed August 31, 2015.
 Jamal Mahamid, Syria’s frail economy, before and after the revolution, Al Arabiya Institute for Studies
Monday, 1 April 2013, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/alarabiya-studies/2013/04/01/Syria-s-frail-economy-before-and-after-the-revolution.html .
 http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/syria/overview . Accessed August 27, 2015.
 EIA, “Syria,” http://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.cfm?iso=SYR, June 24, 2015; “Damascus Cash Crunch as Crude Below 10,000 b/d”, Middle East Economic Survey, volume 58, issue 18, May 1, 2015; “Syria's Economic Woes Only Set to Intensify,” Middle East Economic Survey, volume 58, issue 5,January 30, 2015.
 http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/syria/overview . Accessed August 27, 2015.
Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images