Rapid advances by the Syrian Arab Army and its allied militias into the northern city of Aleppo and the southern city of Dara’a suggest that a part of the Syrian civil war might be near an end. Massive Russian air strikes have raised the morale of the Syrian government’s forces, which have cut off rebel supply lines to Turkey and to Jordan — erasing in a few weeks gains made by the rebels since 2011. Aleppo is now virtually surrounded, while two major towns (Ibta and Dael) near Dara’a delivered themselves to the government. The western edge of Syria, from Aleppo to Dara’a, is now almost in government hands.
Out in eastern Syria, the Islamic State (IS) continues to hold territory despite the barrage of air strikes from the United States and Russia. The loss of Ramadi in Iraq and pressure from Twitter has not dampened the confidence of the IS. It continues to hold Raqqa and to spawn newer and newer ways to reach its supporters on social media. The IS hastily took responsibility for a massive car bombing near a police club and a market in Damascus’s Barzeh district on February 8. That kind of violence suggests that the IS is not prepared to go into the night without a major fight. Much the same attitude is visible from Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Nusra fighters have taken a beating from the Syrian army and its proxies over the course of the past month. It retaliated not against its adversaries, but with a bombing at the Sayyida Zainab shrine on the road just outside Damascus. That the Shia population reveres the shrine suggests the kind of sectarianism at the root of the extremists.
Death and destruction
Terrible days lie ahead for Syria. A meeting to formulate a peace process in Geneva was abandoned by the opposition. They felt — correctly — that they had come to the UN table in a posture of defeat. This was more surrender than negotiation. The Istanbul-and Paris-based Syrian opposition have found that since the Russian intervention, their military positions are now greatly reduced. Rebels groups that are being pinned down will strike with ferocity — there is no easy way to imagine negotiations or surrender. A UN Human Rights Council report on detainees in Syrian government prisons suggests a policy of “extermination” in the jails. This will increase calls amongst the exiled opposition and in the West for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. It provides kindling for the fires to keep burning.
On February 11, the Damascus-based Syrian Centre for Policy Research released their most recent report, ‘Confronting Fragmentation! Impact of the Syrian Crisis’. The centre scoured official government documentation, made estimates based on older data, collected as much information from rebel-held areas and then conducted a careful forensic assessment of the socio-economic situation in Syria. Its findings are morbid.
A few years into the war, the UN stopped maintaining a register of war dead. The general number for the dead that is often used is between 2,00,000 and 2,50,000. Based on various surveys and studies, the centre suggests that the number by the end of 2015 is near 4,70,000 — this, out of a population of about 22 million. Across the border in Iraq, the numbers are as astounding — millions dead since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and as much damage to the infrastructure and human capital in that country. With the conflict ongoing in Iraq, it is hard to consider recovery. What is remarkable about the centre’s report is that it wishes to imagine alternative development paradigms in the midst of this painful destruction.
A generation lost
Close to half of Syria’s people have been dislodged by this war, many rushing across the border but most taking shelter with friends and families within Syria itself. More than half the population is unemployed, with survival being found in the shadows of the destroyed cities and towns. Poverty rates are dangerously high — 85 per cent are in poverty, while as many as 69 per cent are in extreme poverty and over a third are in abject poverty. Life expectancy has dropped from 70 years in 2010 to 55 years in 2015 — a full 15 years lost. A close look at the socio-geography showed that “those areas of the country which had been least affected by direct military actions” were protected from the collapse of living standards. But even here — in Latakia and Sweida — the impact of the war has been startling.
No economy can survive such a sustained and complex civil war. Syria, which once ranked amongst the states with relatively stable indicators, is now in free fall. But worse, the damage done to Syria has maimed it for decades to come. For instance, 45 per cent of school-age children are not able to study. The centre notes that this itself accounts for “a human capital debit of 24.5 million lost years” — a number that seems unbelievable. An entire generation has been set aside. Syria, where the educational systems had once been the pride of the Arab world, now sees children oscillating between trauma and illiteracy.
Until last year, the Syrian government continued to pay salaries to government workers, an infusion into the economy that kept consumption alive. Under pressure last year from a string of battlefield defeats and morale problems in the military, the government shifted its priorities to military spending. Inflation struck hard, pushing up prices not only of essential goods for consumption but also for inputs towards manufacturing. Exports out of Syria collapsed and the internal market fell victim to the fragmentation of the country under different power brokers. “The Syrian economy became a black hole that absorbs domestic and external resources to sustain the armed conflict,” say the authors of the centre’s report. What resources have been available to the different parties to the conflict have gone towards war-making. Syria has been de-industrialised by this conflict. It is now reliant upon agriculture, which has been lucky to have good weather this year — and so a decent harvest of wheat, olives and fruit. Hunger would be a much greater problem than it is now if the weather had not turned.
Meanwhile, at the edges of Syria, various powers — the IS being the most obvious — are selling off Syrian resources such as oil and antiquities to finance their own agenda. It is this fragmentation that has taken on the appearance of permanence.
While others talk of division of the country on sectarian or ethnic grounds, the centre suggests that the break-up has been precipitated by socio-economic factors. The unity of Syria — long a proud part of Arab nationalist thought — is no longer inevitable. That unity is not going to be compromised by a forced partition towards a peace deal. The country has already been fragmented by the war economy. Regime change has left 23 million Syrians with no real country. It is being slowly wiped off the map.
Vijay Prashad is Professor of International Studies, Trinity College.