By Christopher Phillips, Chatham House, 9 March 2015
Both literally and figuratively, the regime is mortgaging the future in a desperate attempt to survive.
After four years of unrest and war, the Syrian state is eroding. This is most obvious in the north and eastern regions where the Assad regime has been pushed out and local militia and committees, including Islamic State (IS), have struggled to fill the vacuum. But the densely populated rump still in regime hands, stretching from Lattakia in the coastal northwest, via the now-recaptured city of Homs and the capital Damascus, to Suwaida in the south has been severely weakened by the war and the government’s increasingly desperate lengths to win it. Even a victory, whatever that now means, will leave a hollowed-out entity facing existential economic, security and social problems.
The economy in regime-controlled Syria is on life support. Having lost control of 50 per cent of its territory, a third of its population, its oil fields and the trade routes to Iraq and Turkey, the regime has virtually no income and is instead dependent on billions of dollars worth of loans and aid from Russia and Iran. Even if the regime survives, the costs of any rebuild in the war-ravaged resource-poor country would be further crippled were Moscow or Tehran, currently suffering low oil prices, ever to call in its debts. Syrian economist Jihad Yazigi has noted that this financial support is mostly spent on the war effort rather than infrastructure or increasing salaries with inflation. The regime is even cutting subsidies and raising taxes in an effort to keep the war going.
Syria’s security structure has also been undermined by Assad’s war strategy. While Iran helped the regime restructure its depleted military and security forces, this brought with it considerable Iranian oversight. The true extent of influence by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani remains unknown, but many charge that he, assisted by Hezbollah, now leads the regime’s war effort. To combat its significant manpower shortages the regime, with strong Iranian encouragement, has allowed foreign Shia militia and newly-formed or refashioned domestic militia to supplement its forces. Such groups have considerable autonomy in some areas, setting up their own check points and collecting protection money. Some domestic Shia and Alawi militia are reportedly receiving independent ideological training by Hezbollah. Such ‘militia-ization’ will be difficult to reverse and undermines the regime’s monopoly on violence, a key feature of a viable state.
The short-term risk for Assad is that the measures taken to stay in power will cause what is left of his state to implode. Already there have been grumblings among Assad’s largely loyal Alawi community. Small protest groups (mostly online) have denounced the high number of Alawi military deaths or the continued opulence of Assad’s cronies despite their hardship. However, with the regime successfully painting the civil war as an existential threat to Syria’s minorities, and the rise of IS seemingly justifying that characterization, as long as Assad’s supporters feel under threat, such grumbling seems unlikely to spill over into outright rebellion.
The bigger question is where this will leave the Syrian state if and when the war eventually ends. Even if the regime wins or, at least, is able to pacify enough of Rump Syria to claim ‘victory’, Assad’s state will likely be weak, under-resourced, heavily in debt, lacking a monopoly on violence and with an increasingly resentful population that has sacrificed a lot in blood and treasure for Assad’s small ruling clique.
This expert comment is part of the Chatham House spotlight Four Years On: The Costs of War in Syria.