Syria has been gravely damaged by its civil war.
The country has seen hundreds of thousands of its citizens killed in bombings and fighting, with more dying as a result of war’s inescapable consequences, and yet more disappearing into regime prisons and into the hands of radical groups such as the Islamic State (IS).
The destruction is profound. Communities have been savaged and brutalised. Civilian and medical infrastructure has been systematically destroyed. It has been bombed out of existence, targeted and blown to pieces. Many millions of civilians have fled their homes; millions have fled Syria itself, seeking sometimes illusory refuge in neighbouring states.
All of this will need to be remedied if Syria is to rebuild and if the country is to thrive.
But with the regime of Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, increasingly with the tacit backing of regional and world powers, the future is looks neither good nor promising.
The Assad regime has destroyed the country. Its military crackdown on a non-violent protest movement at the beginning of the decade was the proximate cause of the violence which has come since. This cannot and must not be forgotten.
Assad himself, and his family more broadly, bear moral responsibility for the collapse of Syrian society, the destruction of its economy, and the fracturing of the country into an inchoate state existent only in name. This moral responsibility comes from physical culpability, and the guilt is non-negotiable.
The rest of the world does not seem to care, however. Tired of Syria being an international issue, the minds of world leaders have turned towards reconstruction. They want Syria to disappear, to cease troubling their sleep and their time.
After years of failed ‘peace processes’ and various negotiating tracks, other nations have come to some preliminary conclusions about what should happen to Syria.
For most, this appears to mean silently confirming that Assad has leave to remain in power. This means reversing stated policy for half a decade; it means overtly allowing a war criminal to retain power in a state he destroyed; but this is of little consequence, it seems, to so many.
There is no real end to the conflict in sight. But there has been temporary stability created by the certain collapse of IS and the ending of its control of much of the country.
The most deliberately chaotic force in Syria is being comprehensively defeated, which allows less obviously pernicious actors to reap certain rewards. The regime, which is good at presenting itself as reasonable to willing audiences, is doing its best to collect as much of this goodwill as it can.
But Assad’s regime is still weak – economically and militarily. Despite IS’ collapse, it has not recaptured many of the oil fields it will need to prosper economically. But Iranian and Russian protection has given it some safety from major military threats, and has allowed its agents some freedom to move.
They say they have begun planning for the next stage of Syria’s future. This planning affords the regime some international kudos; it’s good PR; world leaders like it.
In making bold statements about the next ten, 20, 30 years, the regime appears to be no longer solely concerned with its own immediate survival.
This is true in a way. The regime is concerned with more than surviving; its upper echelons also want to enrich themselves.
Allowing Assad, who for years has been told he must vacate office, to remain in the presidential palace in Damascus is remarkable verdict, not least because it is unconscionable and self-defeating. Allowing the prime mover of Syria’s violence to remain in power is a profoundly immoral course of action.
But more than that, it is providing a boon to the corruption of the Assad regime, which sees reconstruction less ‘as a means for economic recovery and social repair, but as an opportunity for self-enrichment, a way to reward loyalists and punish opponents’, according to Steven Heydemann of the Brookings Institution.
Dictatorships are corrupt. It is essential to their very being. They thrive on networks of patronage and the wholesale theft of national assets. Baathist regimes are no different in this respect, and Syria under the Assads, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, has been run in the interest of the regime first and the people second.
A network of corrupt officials administers the territory controlled by Damascus. And the regime itself corruptly launders ill-gotten wealth. Firms controlled by Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, were memorably part of the Panama Papers leak.
Under Bashar al-Assad, endemic corruption has continued in Syria. It has contributed to the ossification of the Syrian state, one of the fundamental causes of the protest movement which became the bedrock of the armed opposition to Assad.
The corruption of the regime could be bolstered by the process of reconstruction. It has destroyed Syrian cities. Look at the fates suffered by Aleppo and Darayya and their inhabitants. The regime wants to do this to all of Syria not currently under its control. And in the future, it may be able to benefit financially from the reconstruction of these communities and others like them.
It can control the awarding of contracts for reconstruction, which can be given to firms close to the regime and its internal allies, or even as rewards to external backers.
Iranian and Russian firms stand to benefit financially for the massive military support their nations have offered Assad. This is an adjunct to the corruption Ba’athist states and dictatorships generally create and profit from.
To see the regime, which brought about the war, and set in place the deliberately cruel and barbaric way of fighting which other forces copied, set to benefit from the proceeds of reconstruction is shocking. It heaps insult upon injury.
If the regime is able to use reconstruction to further its network of corrupt patronage, this would be a repudiation of all Syria’s revolution sought to end: the destruction of the country serving to benefit its corrupt rulers.
This piece was originally published in The New Arab.