Negotiating a “Peace” in Syria: Between Whom and for What?

Most of the discussion of the Vienna talks on the war in Syria so far has focused on ISIS and its role in terrorism, on the relative roles of the United States and Russia, on bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table, and/or on whether Assad stays. What is far from clear, however, is that any negotiations that focus on ISIS can address the key issues involved, that outside voices can bring any real order within Syria, and that Assad or any elements claiming to represent the various rebel movements can speak for Syrians.

What is even more unclear, is what the future shape of Syria will be, and how it can recover from the present conflict, and more towards any stable process of development.

Assad Created the Revolt against Him Through Sheer Corruption and Incompetence

ISIS is the symptom, and not the disease. Syria exploded into civil war because the Assad regime failed to meet the needs of its people over a period of decades, was intensely corrupt and brought a form of stability and acceptance of Alawite rule through crony capitalism with a small Sunni business elite, and suppressed any sectarian and ethnic opposition ranging from the Arab Shi’ite majority to a Kurdish minority that it came close to treating as non-citizens.

The negotiators need to remember why Syria exploded into violence. It was not because of outside interference, extremist voices and actors, or the actions of some minority. It exploded because – as World Bank ranking from 1996 to the present show, Assad not only fell back upon repression every time he was challenged, he provided some of the worst and most corrupt governance in the world – impoverishing much of Syria’s population in the process.

Moreover, Assad followed his father in playing Syria’s other minorities off against its Sunni Muslims – suppressing Islamist challenges no matter how peaceful. Assad and his father laid the groundwork for sectarian warfare in a count where the CIA estimates that the population is 74% Sunni; 13% Alawi, Ismaili, and Shia, 10% Christian (includes Orthodox, Uniate, and Nestorian) 10% (includes Orthodox, Uniate, and Nestorian), 3% Druze, with a few Jews remaining in Damascus and Aleppo. The end result is a legacy where the divisions are not simply an Alawite vs. Sunni, but to some extent, Sunni Arabs versus everyone else.

Neither Assad, nor his father, came to grips with population growth so high that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that it grew from 3.5 million in 1950 to 22.9 million in 2015 – including the millions of refugees that have been driven out of the country. They never created enough jobs or promises of a meaningful future for one of the youngest populations in the world – one where the CIA estimates that 32.5% are 14 years of age or younger, and 19.9% are in the age group from 15 to 24.

The GDP was only some $5,200 in 2010, ranking only 165th in the world. Even then, real world youth direct and indirect unemployment almost certainly exceeded 25%, and the CIA estimates that the total rate of unemployment for all Syrians is now well over 30%. The World Bank ranked Syria as the 144 th worst of 183 countries in terms of the ease of doing business in 2010 and 2011. In 2015, it ranked Syria as the 175th worst of 185 countries.

Assad had the option of reform from the time when he came to power in 2000 to the point where he faced only peaceful demands in 2011. He chose repression and he governed as an incompetent thug.

The Price in Blood

The years that have followed have seen his repression and choice of violence over reform in 2011 create a truly monumental butcher’s bill. The civil war has thrust Syria into far too deep a level of chaos to track the damage accurately, but bad as ISIS or Daesh is, the human cost of ISIS has been limited compared to the fighting between Assad and other rebel groups. If one takes a hard look at the map, at least 80% of the some 250,000-300,000 civilian dead are the product of the pro-Assad forces fighting rebels other than ISIS, and the same is true of some 750,000 to 1,000,000 injured civilians.

Assad also has primary responsibility for the far broader damage done to Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has found it increasingly harder to gather data on a steadily worsening situation, and the maps issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show there are large areas where no recent data are present. The current estimates of the UNHCR and OCHA indicate, however, that the total human damage at a minimum include:

  • 12.2 million people, including 5.6 million children, in need of humanitarian assistance (6.2015)
  • 7.6 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) still inside in Syria that have lost their homes, jobs, and businesses
    • 1.5 million were displaced in the first six months of 2015, and 1.0 million more are expected to become IDPs by the end of 2015.
    • 4.8 million of the IDPs are in hard to reach areas or areas besieged by the Assad regime, and get little or no aid.
  • Life expectancy shortened by 13 years between 2011 and the fourth quarter of 2013, and school attendance cut by 50%.
  • 4.1 Million Syrian Refugees in Neighboring Countries
    • 1.9 million Syrian Refugees in Turkey
    • 1.1 million Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
    • 628,887 Syrian Refugees in Jordan
    • 248,503 Syrian Refugees in Iraq
    • 132,375 Syrian Refugees in Egypt

There is no official estimate of the scale of Syrian government attacks by Assad, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) - a United Kingdom-based human rights organization provided some good examples. Its mid-August report documented more than 33,000 Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) air raids in Syria from October 2014 to August 2015, including more than 18,000 barrel bomb attacks and more than 15,000 other aerial attacks. During the same period, SOHR documented nearly 5,500 civilian deaths, including more than 1,100 children, and injuries to at least 30,000 civilians.

The Price For Syria’s Economic Future

There is no reliable way to estimate the cost of the fighting in economic terms, but it is again clear that most of these costs have been borne by people in the areas where Assad forces have fought other rebel movements. The OCHA estimated in September 2015 that,

  • Three in four Syrians were living in poverty by the end of 2013, and 54% were living in extreme poverty.
  • The Syrian economy had contracted by at least 40%. (Some estimates put this at 60-75%.)

The World Bank summary of the Syrian economy for 2015 estimates that:

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 have exacerbated nutritional deprivation. An estimated 25 percent of schools were not operational by 2014.

The conflict has significantly damaged public and private assets including health, education, energy, water and sanitation, agriculture, transportation, housing and infrastructure. The World Bank Damage and Needs Assessment report of July 2015 (conducted for six governorate capitals namely Aleppo; Dar’a; Hama; Homs; Idlib; and Latakia) estimated the total damages for the six cities to be between $ 3.7 to 4.5 billion. Aleppo is the most affected city accounting for roughly 40 percent of the estimated damages. Latakia is the least affected city; however, the conflict’s impact on the city is manifested in the increased pressure on infrastructure and services from the population increase from Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs).

The economic impact of the conflict is difficult to estimate precisely given limited data but is large and growing. Syria’s GDP is estimated to have contracted by an average of 15.4 percent for the period (2011-14) and is expected to decline further by nearly 16 percent in 2015. The decline in GDP growth was in part attributed to a sharp decline in oil production, down from 368,000 barrels per day in 2010 to an estimated 40,000 barrels per day in 2015. After increasing by nearly 90 percent in 2013, average inflation increased by 29 percent in 2014. CPI inflation is estimated to increase by 30 percent in 2015 because of continued trade disruption, shortages and a sharp depreciation of the Syrian pound.

Public finances have materially worsened since the start of the conflict. The overall fiscal deficit increased sharply, by an average of 14 percent of GDP during the period 2011-14, and is estimated to reach 22 percent of GDP in 2015. Underlying fiscal developments were, however, much more adverse than suggested by changes in the deficit. Total revenue fell to an all-time low of below 6 percent of GDP in 2014 and 2015 due to the collapse of oil revenues and tax revenues. In response, government spending was cut back, but not by enough to offset the fall in revenues. Reduction in outlays on wages and salaries were not high enough, while military spending increased.

The severe decline in oil receipts since the second half of 2012 and disruptions of trade due to the conflict put pressure on the balance of payments and exchange rate. Revenues from oil exports decreased from $4.7 billion in 2011 to an estimated $0.22 billion in 2014, and are estimated to decline further to $0.14 billion in 2015. Therefore, 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. Depressed export revenue caused by the impact of the conflict and declining international reserves have caused a significant depreciation of the Syrian pound from 47 pounds per USD in 2010 to an estimated 177 pounds per USD at end-2014 and have depreciated further to 305 pounds per USD at end-August 2015.

Once the situation stabilizes, Syria will have to grapple with immediate economic challenges. It will also need to support the return of internally displaced people and refugees in neighboring countries, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, enhance the provision of public services including health and education, and rebuild the social fabric of the country.

A study by David Butter of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, published in June 2015, estimated that:

The Syrian economy has been devastated by conflict to an extent that defies comprehensive numerical analysis. Nevertheless, any meaningful assessment of the Syrian crisis requires an understanding of the economic context. This study finds that, after four years of conflict, Syria’s economic output – as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) at constant prices – has more than halved in real terms. This comes in a context in which the country’s population has shrunk from 21 million to approximately 17.5 million as a result of outward migration (mainly refugee flows) and more than a quarter of a million deaths. More than one-third of the remaining population is internally displaced.

The conflict has pervaded all aspects of the economy. Agriculture has assumed a dominant position in overall production as other sectors have been devastated, but farm output has also been severely affected. Meanwhile, oil production under state control has dwindled from 387,000 barrels per day (b/d) to less than 10,000 b/d, depriving the government of one of its main sources of revenue. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controls oilfields with the capacity to produce some 60,000 b/d, although its refining operations in particular have been impaired by coalition airstrikes. Most of the other oilfields are located in areas under Kurdish control. Government-controlled refineries have been supplied with oil under an Iranian credit line to allow them to produce sufficient fuel for regime-controlled areas.

The majority of Syria’s power stations run on natural gas. Effective electricity generation capacity has fallen by more than 70 per cent since 2011. This is despite the fact that natural gas production, by official data, reached a record level in 2011 as a result of the start-up of two major projects between Palmyra and Homs. The conflict saw production fall by around a third by 2014. ISIS gains on the ground threaten to exacerbate the situation: should the group seize control of the area to the west of Palmyra, electricity production may suffer a further significant fall. Moreover, the capture of Palmyra by ISIS has put the government’s phosphate exports – worth some $100 million in 2014 – at risk.

Iran has assumed a dominant position in Syria’s trade relations, by virtue of its crude oil and other credit and investment programs. Imports from Turkey fell sharply in 2012 and 2013 but have since recovered, partly as a result of the aid supplies through Syria’s northern border and partly as a result of new trade relationships – including sales by Syrian companies that have established themselves in eastern Turkey.

…The government of Bashar al-Assad has reined in subsidies on fuel and food as its budget operations have been undermined by the loss of oil revenue. The fiscal deficit (excluding subsidies) stands at 20 per cent of GDP by the government’s reckoning, which it has sought to finance largely through borrowing from the central bank and state-owned commercial banks. It is important to note that economic grievances, including popular resentment at market-oriented reforms, played a part in the 2011 uprising against the regime in Damascus.

Although they were not a determining factor, increased poverty and inequality alongside the rise of a new wealthy business elite made for a combustible mix. The conflict has served only to exacerbate the situation: inflation surged to 120 per cent in mid-2013; and although it eased over the following 12 months, it began to rise once again in late 2014. The value of the Syrian pound has fallen very sharply as Syria has felt the impact of both the conflict and UN sanctions. As at June 2015, the official exchange rate had depreciated by about 78 per cent since 2011, and the black market rate by some 83 per cent.

No one has begun to publically estimate the cost of bringing Syria back to the level of a “failed state” it had reached in 2011, much less the cost of giving it a level of governance and economic development that could bring stability and give all its peoples a reason to support its unity and work together.

It is striking, however, that Syria was almost the poster child for the 2011 estimates in the Arab Development Report that it would take many Arab states some ten years of effort under almost ideal conditions to bring their governance and economy to the point where they would be on the right path towards solid growth, development, and stability.

Who Can Speak for Syria at the Negotiating Table?

The outside states are divided enough to make any negotiation extremely difficult, and possibly more a source of increased tension than a solution: The United States, Saudi Arabia, European states, other Arab States, Iran, Russia, and Turkey all have different goals and perceptions centered around their own national interests.

Even if the outside states can agree, it is also unclear that they can do anything more than see the end result collapse because of the far more bitter and deep divisions within Syria. Nearly half a decade of fighting has left a heritage in blood, suffering, economic decline and failed governance that has divided Syria into at least four major factions – no one of which can possibly speak for Syria.

There is no way to know how much lasting sectarian and ethnic anger, hatred, and revenge various elements of Syria’s population now feel, how much trust they can ever put in other factions, or even who can possibly speak for any given element.

Consider the four factions involved.

First, it is far from clear that the current pro-Assad forces form a cohesive bloc supporting Assad. They include Alawites who now have every reason to fear Syria’s Sunnis, but also many other factions with different priorities and goals. They also include large numbers of forcibly drafted Sunnis and other minorities, as well as key cadres of Hezbollah, Iranian, and other Shi’ite volunteers.

The non-Syrian voices in the Assad faction present a major problem just by themselves. No one on the government side can now risk speaking against Assad, but it is far from clear how many would speak for him if they had the choice. As for other factions, how do you negotiate with a failed leader who has gone from military doctor and ophthalmologist to human butcher?

Second, the non-ISIS rebels remain deeply divided as does the level and kind of support they get from the U.S., European states, Turkey, and outside Arab states like Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. There is no even an agreed count of how many non-ISIS rebel factions exist, much less an agreement of what each faction stands for, the stability of its leadership, and its ability to cooperate with the others.

While some Arabs are happy to blame the U.S. for Syria’s plight, outside Arab efforts to back different rebel factions have helped weaken moderate elements, and strengthen ones like the Al Nusra Front that compete with ISIS for extremism. The U.S. and the West may want moderate rebel fighters and leaders to have control over these rebels, but creating shell organization is not real power, and it is all too clear the rebels know who they are against, but do not agree on what they are for. Moreover, the small moderate elements of governance that do exist have no experience approaching the kind necessary to cope with today’s Syria.

Third, the Syrian Kurds have emerged as a political and territorial entity with no clear structure of governance or unity. They clearly, however, have no reason to trust Assad or any Arab faction, have their own ambitions, and have their own tensions with Turkey and Iraq. They have been some of the best fights against ISIS, but the Turks now accuse them of supporting violence against Turkey by its own PKK Kurds, and the Syrian Arab revel factions that support the Kurdish YPG fighters do so out of necessity, not out of trust or a common view of the future.

Fourth, there is nothing that can be said in favor of ISIS or Daesh. It is a truly repellent mix of violence and extremist ideology that makes it the natural target of both the negotiations and the other elements in both Syria and Iraq. What is striking, however, is that it seems unlikely that even the best outcome of Vienna could create a stable ceasefire between the other three factions in Syria, much less some unified effort against ISIS. How could the Assad forces, other rebels, and Kurds cooperate effectively? Being the faction that everyone fears and hates is scarcely an enviable position, but it is not clear that it is an especially vulnerable one.

And as for the Syrian People…

Finally, it is even less clear how any form of agreement will lead to the kind of government and aid plan necessary to support Syrian recovery in any form, and rebuild the state. It may help provide better emergency relief, but this will only slow the pace of decline. Short term aid can serve short term humanitarian needs, but it does not put an end to conflict or move the country back towards a level of progress the can bring stability, inspire refugees to return, or give a clear alternative to all the anger and divisions from years of fighting.

So far, no one has even mentioned the need to bring the UN and World Bank into planning for recovery. The image is one of dragging outside states to the negotiating table, without bothering to deal with fact that the table is Syrian and that it is their fate that is really at stake.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy