Victor's Logic Syria's Uncertain Future under Bashar Assad

After seven years of war, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has three-quarters of the country back under his control. But with Western reconstruction funding still tied to his departure, the future is murky.

Christian Werner/ DER SPIEGEL

By , Fritz Schaap and Christian Werner (Fotos)


Samir al-Sarraj never left. He didn't go when the shells began raining down nor did he leave when the Syrian air force turned their murderous attention to his neighborhood, ultimately forcing the rebels into a deal allowing them to withdraw to the north. When speaking today about those who spent years laying siege to his quarter in Homs, shelling and bombing it into rubble, he says: "Yeah, there was no other choice." Without the military's determination, he adds, he never would have been liberated from the "terrorists" -- as he calls his former friends, relatives and neighbors who supported the uprising.

Al-Waer was the last quarter of Homs that Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops recaptured. Thousands of fighters and civilians were bused to Idlib while 1,150 remained and surrendered. By May 2017, all of Homs was once again under regime control.

Children ride their bikes around a destroyed fire truck as Sarraj points toward where the front used to be, past destroyed buildings whose floors hang perpendicular to the ground. "The terrorists destroyed our quarter," he repeats to make sure that the two minders from the Information Ministry hear him. The complete destruction, the years spent starving out entire city quarters: "The terrorists" are to blame for all of it, says Syrian state television. Now, so the story goes, the army has arrived and saved the residents.

It's the inverse of what actually took place. But that is the story you invariably hear in places where Assad's troops have rolled in. In Homs, on the streets of East Aleppo, in Douma and the other towns northeast of Damascus that were taken in March. You constantly hear the myth of terrorists when the government minders are around, but you also hear it when they're not there. It is a minor detail of this war, but it is emblematic of the return to subjugation, of the reestablishment of a dictatorship whose power is so all-encompassing that it can even redefine reality should it decide to do so.

With the recapturing of the southern Syrian city of Daraa -- the place where the uprising began in early 2011 -- the Russian air force, the foreign militias under Iranian command and Assad's Syrian units now have control of around two-thirds of the country. Roughly three-quarters of the country's remaining population live in that territory. It was Russia's intervention in fall 2015 that decisively turned the tide of the war. With massive air strikes on cities, schools and hospitals, ultimately forcing rebels to surrender or withdraw, the Russians broke the resistance. Assad's victory comes almost entirely thanks to Moscow.

But what does that mean for Syria's future and for the West's approach to the country's dictator? Is the war now over? Will the half-destroyed country now be rebuilt or will the plundering continue? What cards does Europe still hold after peace negotiations failed due to Assad's unwillingness to negotiate? There are many questions for which answers must now be found -- and for most of them, there are no easy ones.

Is the war now over?

The war isn't over yet. The future of Idlib, the final rebel stronghold in the northwest hasn't yet been clarified. Almost 3 million people live in the province including many regime opponents who fled or were deported to Idlib. It is said that the regime is currently preparing to launch an offensive on Idlib. The fate of the Kurdish-controlled northeast of the country is also uncertain.

But the losers of the war can be clearly identified: all of those who rose up in opposition to the Assad regime. Ultimately, though, the entire country has lost. The death toll of between 400,000 and 500,000 also includes tens of thousands of soldiers belonging to Assad's Alawite minority. Five and a half million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and there are also 6.5 million internally displaced -- making for a total of around half the country's 2010 population.

Among those who fled to Europe are representatives of the Syrian middle class from both camps. The opposition fled from the bombs while the loyalists fled from forced conscription and the country's economic collapse. Those who remain suffer from the fact that the Syrian pound is only a tenth as valuable as it was in 2011 while prices have surged and salaries have remained largely stagnant.

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There are estimates as to the damages directly caused by the war, with Staffan de Misura, the UN's special envoy for Syria, saying at the end of 2017 that the total was at least $250 billion. Such an appraisal is perhaps helpful when it comes to the destruction caused by an earthquake or a tsunami, but it is insufficient in the case of Syria. The destruction of hundreds of thousands of families, the fear of returning felt by refugees, the imprisonments and abuse, the mistrust of a kleptocratic leadership -- none of these factors have disappeared. In an in-depth study entitled "The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria," the World Bank has attempted to calculate the total losses to the economy over the several years it will take to recover. The study came to the conclusion that the subsequent losses to the economy will be greater than the damages directly caused by the violence.

How will the country be rebuilt?

Many of the country's cities lie in ruin, making reconstruction a decisive question -- particularly when it comes to who will pay for it. The expected price tag is so high that neither the regime nor its allies are prepared to foot the bill. Russia would like to see the West participate, but the West has long insisted that Assad must step down first. Money is the West's last remaining bargaining chip.

Still, one might assume that reconstruction would already be underway, particularly in cities like Homs, most of which was conquered years ago. But it's not. The search for large projects in Syria quickly leads to Basateen al-Razi, a poor but centrally located district of Damascus. The neighborhood was largely untouched by the war, but it has been almost completely razed nonetheless.

Damascus Cham Holding is planning a new luxury project for the quarter known as Marota City. A marketing video shows brightly lit rooms, indoor swimming pools complete with waterfalls, and underground parking garages into which S-Class Mercedes drive. Rami Makhlouf, one of the president's cousins and one of the country's most influential investors, is involved in the project.

On a hot summer day, the pharmacist Ahmed Talji is standing on the roof of his sons' house in Basateen, in front of which there is an expansive wasteland filled with debris and construction pits. In the distance, a bulldozer is kicking up a cloud of white dust. Below Talji are the ruins of his own home. The bulldozers arrived in September 2016 and plowed their blades into his two-story home. The pharmacist never received adequate compensation.

Marota City is an example of how the government sees the new Syria. The expropriation of the residents was conducted under the auspices of Decree 66, a predecessor of Law Number 10, which was allegedly intended to accelerate the elimination of war damage but which in practice makes possible the expropriation of private property across the country. According to the law, Syrian officials may clear certain areas if former residents are unable to prove ownership.

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Those who owned land in Basateen were compensated with shares in the development project. In theory, at least. Ahmed Talji ultimately received the equivalent of just 2,000 euros. The bicycle repairman around the corner was given 4 million shares in promissory notes. He doesn't yet know how much they are worth. Residents, though, suspect that the shares won't be sufficient for an apartment in the new world of glass and concrete that is to be built here.

In addition to Marota City, there is only one other large development project in the country that has been approved. It is called Basilia City, a new, nine-square-kilometer city quarter to the south of Damascus. And it is being built in the suburb of Darayya, many of the final survivors of which were sent in August 2016 to Idlib on the Turkish border.

It seems likely that if Syria had been hit by a natural catastrophe instead of a war, reconstruction would have begun long ago.

Is national reconciliation possible?

If anything, the reasons for the wave of protests in 2011 have intensified: the regime's total capriciousness coupled with the greed of the leading families and security forces who have a monopoly on income sources ranging from city center parking fees to signs of life from those locked away in their prisons.

Recently, a European diplomat held a meeting with the commander of the 82nd Army Battalion. The commander was driving a brand-new Porsche 911 GT3, a car that costs a quarter-million dollars in Damascus, far more than a brigadier general could normally afford. The 82nd Battalion, however, controls checkpoints along the highway between Beirut and Damascus, the main route for goods and people traveling to the Syrian capital. Syrians refer to these roadblocks as "million crossings" and everyone, whether a bus passenger or truck driver, must pay.

Plundering in all forms imaginable has become an important segment of the Syrian economy. Whether in Eastern Ghouta and Yarmouk near Damascus or in Daraa to the south, wherever the army reclaimed control, soldiers have taken what they can, including refrigerators, freezers, microwaves and fans. Air-conditioning units are pulled out and taken away on hand carts or pickups. In the Yarmouk district, the plundering lasted from April to June. After the first wave, made up of those who took what they could carry, came the second wave of thieves who removed sinks, doors and window frames.

Then, according to one resident, "army troops showed up in a tank to pull out electricity cables buried six meters deep." In other places, professional groups of plunderers were allowed to take bricks, tiles and water pipes in exchange for bribes. Such pillaging at the hands of security forces has become so ubiquitous that there is now a word for it: "taafeesh." The state's war against elements of the population has created a cannibalistic economy. And according to the victors' logic, they also own the land.

Indeed, one question remains to be answered: Who is this new Syria under old leadership actually supposed to be for? And that open question has vastly different answers depending on the place. In August 2017, Bashar Assad held a keynote speech in which he said it was true "that we lost the best of our young men along with our infrastructure." But, he went on, "in return we earned a healthier, more homogeneous society.... This homogeneity is the basis for national unity -- homogeneity in beliefs, ideology, traditions, customs, perceptions and outlook."

Those Syrians who failed to conform to that homogeneity are no longer there. They are either dead, have fled or were deported. And until recently, nothing was done to try to encourage those living in exile to return. On the contrary: The list of names recently published on the internet by the opposition website Zaman al-Wasl, a list including the names of 1.5 million people currently being sought by the various security agencies, is authentic. It includes a large number of Syrians living overseas along with their place of birth and even the names of their grandparents.

After all that has happened, does Bashar Assad have a political future?

More important than all the reasons for the uprising, however, is the fear that is now omnipresent. It was always the foundation of the Assad dynasty, with founder Hafiz Assad proving an expert at stoking the fear of his subjects and exploiting it.

And fear as a guarantor of power has a successful history in Syria -- in Hama, for example, the large Sunni city that was besieged in 1982 by Hafiz Assad's troops to quell a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Until July 2011, Hama was home to the largest peaceful protests against Bashar Assad, with up to half a million people participating. But when security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, things quickly quieted down. The memories of what the Assad family does to its opponents were still too fresh.

The fear will likely again be sufficient to keep Assad's shrunken Syria quiet. It is a fear that must be kept palpable and does not allow for national reconciliation, political change or free elections. Assad's troops followed the Hama blueprint when they began firing on demonstrators in 2011 -- and seven years later, the Hama blueprint ultimately led to the regime's victory.

European diplomats responsible for Syria in embassies and ministries in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, London, Istanbul, Beirut and elsewhere all say the same thing: There must be credible change that ultimately leads to a Syria without Assad as head of state. Political freedoms must be respected and free elections held.

They all say they are relying on the negotiations being carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. The embassies in Damascus remain closed and the sanctions are still in place. After years of air strikes carried out by the Syrian regime on its own population, after the starvation of entire cities and the use of chemical weapons, after the targeted destruction of schools and hospitals, one can't simply return to business as usual, they say.

Ultimately, though, that is exactly what might happen. The opposition is fragmented while military power is in the hands of Russia and Iran -- and both of them support Assad.

What bargaining chips does the West still have in negotiations with Assad?

The talks in Geneva, the conferences in Vienna and Riyadh -- all of them have failed. The only discussion format that has produced results that have then been implemented are the series of meetings in the Kazakh capital of Astana involving Iran, Russia and Turkey. Those meetings, though, are not focused on peace but on staking out spheres of influence. They are negotiations that pay no heed to international law or human rights concerns.

Still, Russia might ultimately take a seat at the table in Geneva, says one Eastern European diplomat, particularly if the West is prepared to accept Assad's victory and help pay for it. That, in fact, is the last remaining trump card the West still holds: money. Billions of euros for reconstruction. Europe, though, continues to insist that such financing will only be produced within the framework of a reform process.

However, Damascus has other ways of applying pressure. For example, all those Syrians who are currently living in half-destroyed homes with no water or electricity. "How to better help the Syrian populations in need without consolidating Assad's power is a difficult equation," French UN Ambassador François Delattre has said.

But a much more powerful trump card in Assad's hand are the Syrians currently outside of the country -- those who once took to the streets and who the regime does not want to return. When two Lebanese ministers traveled to Damascus in August 2017 to discuss the return of the 1 million Syrian refugees now in Lebanon with the Syrian foreign minister, they were rejected. "We don't want them back," the two Lebanese officials were told.

The fact that the Syrian ambassador in Lebanon recently called on refugees to return now that, as he said, many areas are back in the regime's hands is not without irony. After all, the vast majority of Syrians in Lebanon have been there since 2012-2013, having fled from the government and its bombs.

A woman in Douma, a town near Damascus, has told DER SPIEGEL what has been happening recently to those Syrians who remained in rebel-controlled regions. The woman regularly provided DER SPIEGEL with information during the fighting in spring. "Last week, they took three men from our neighborhood and we've heard nothing more from them," they woman wrote via WhatsApp. "We stayed because we didn't want to live in tents in Idlib. Today, I am dreaming of the tents!"

She added that she planned to immediately delete the message after sending it. And if a stranger were to come to her door, she said, she would of course speak of how happy she was to have been liberated from the terrorists.

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