In the first half of 2012, around a year after the start of the Syrian conflict, the US Institute of Peace (USIP) and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) convened a group of representatives from the Syrian opposition and international transition experts to discuss the future of Syria. What came of this meeting was a document published in August of 2012 (less than 18 months after the start of the conflict). This document was entitled “The Day After Project”, and provided a fairly extensive set of reforms and recommendations for Syria’s transition from autocratic regime to liberal democracy. With this document, a temporary office for the Syrian Transition Support Network was set up in Istanbul to oversee the implementation of key reforms outlined by the document.
It does not take an expert in transitology or politics to understand that this report and framework are premature at best. While it is absolutely important to “increase prospects for [success]” in any peace-building exercise, the pre-conditions for this process must be met before a real transition or lasting peace can even be discussed.
TDA also failed to fully address the root causes of the civil war in Syria, and without addressing true root causes, even the best prescriptions will fail. (Below, I will explain an important few root causes of conflict in Syria that USIP, SWP, and their Syrian cohorts missed.) One wouldn’t think a doctor to be especially successful at treatment should he prescribe an antihistamine for a broken arm. Even if the doctor treated a broken arm with painkillers, we still would not consider this doctor to be fixing the root problem.
The goals of TDA center almost exclusively on governance, and within governance almost exclusively political actions of the Syrian government. Primary goals include equality, security, and unity of the Syrian polity, encouraged by policy from the executive and legislative branches of the government. The only mention of natural resources and economics states that “the economy should be managed to realize social justice… sustainable development, and the protection of natural resources”. This language is probably purposefully general, but a major development in Syria’s recent environmental history seems to have been left out.
Syria is just now coming off of one of the worst recorded droughts in its history. The Syrian government has a few times claimed that Syria is not experiencing a drought because it is only certain regions that have been majorly affected, but nonetheless huge damage has been done to farmers in the north and east of the country. Within the ruination of several rounds of failed crops comes increased economic struggle on the farmers and cost many farmers their livelihoods. Those with the means migrated to urban areas in Syria, which (with very little jobs to meet a rising tide of internal migrants) soon became rallying points for protests and dissent against the Syrian government.
This is not to say that the drought is the only reason that Syria has entered into this violent conflict. Syria has a tattered history with both Bashar al-Asad and his father, Hafiz, including the leveling of Hama in 1982 (which has not at all been forgotten) and a form of crony capitalism that has left many excluded from Syria’s economy.
These problems with the regime have continued through the current revolution, and aren’t likely to let up soon. Bashar, after the US finally stepped up with condemnation of chemical weapon use and Syria turned almost its entire stockpile over to international actors, has intensified operations dropping barrel bombs throughout Syria. These are, of course, a huge human rights violation and are indiscriminate in who gets hit. There are countless stories of aid distribution centers nearly being blown up, children torn apart by bombs, and entire blocks riddled with nail shrapnel and the fumes of the petrol inside the bombs.
Hafiz al-Asad (and continuing with Bashar) restructured the economy of Syria through a series of neoliberal economic reforms that served to reward his supporters by giving them control over critical niches in the burgeoning economy (reforms supported by international actors like the United States). What this did was tie Asad’s political power to the economic success of many in Syria. It essentially became wielded not only as a tool to reward his past supporters, but as a weapon, a constant reminder that if Asad’s government were to fall, so would the massive business prospects his cronies were enjoying. This is partially why there have not been a lot of high level defections, and especially not during the first year of the conflict, a time when many defections are common in civil wars. This purposeful structure has been resolidified under Bashar al-Asad, which became troubling following the global financial crisis in 2008.
The financial crisis was coupled with Syria’s drought, which moved Syria from a net exporter to a net importer of wheat, a crop that has been the pride of Syrian farmers and politicians alike for years. The system which had held up his father started to fracture under the reign of Bashar. Those excluded from structural privilege in the economy grew in number and in grievances, which eventually led to the tipping point and the start of the revolution in March of 2011.
These omissions suggest that The Day After Project missed a number of causes of the conflict in the first place, so no matter how well actors follow the plan for transition, Syria would be doomed to fall to conflict again. It is not unimportant that transition plans be made should Syria be nearing political transition, but one year into the conflict was far too early for outlining goals and steps for a democratic transition.
It is also of note that foreign powers have learned a bit from past mistakes in the region and moved from the tragedy of Sykes-Picot to the arrogance and condescension of Condoleeza Rice’s “New Middle East” to inviting regional actors to determine their own fate with technical and logistical help from those who are qualified to help. This means that international actors and those helping to facilitate peaceful transitions are learning. These advancements seem to indicate that these organizations are truly committed to succeeding in the future, which means that there is hope in future efforts should the trend in policy scholarship continue forward.
Image Source: Associated Press/Ben Curtis