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The west’s focus should shift to boosting civil society in Syria

By Nick Haslam

Damascus is celebrating. In just three weeks, the contours of the Syrian war have shifted decisively in its favour. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been strengthened, while the position of the US and its European allies in the region has been upended by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops, abandoning their Kurdish former allies to their fate.

A UN-led political process in Geneva remains at a standstill, despite the recent establishment of a constitutional committee due to meet this week. Inside Syria, there are few legitimate levers of influence left to the west. In the absence of attractive options, it may be tempting for western policymakers to follow Mr Trump’s lead in stepping away.

This would be a mistake. Instead, it is on civilians, and the civilian-led organisations that represent them all across the country, that western governments should now focus their efforts.

The Syrian state has been hollowed out by war and is unable to provide basic services, notably education and healthcare, and vital commodities such as bread and fuel. Mr Assad’s recent moves to recentralise authority and appropriate the resources of powerful figures are an attempt to fix the problem. The impact on Syrian society has been severe. After eight years of economic collapse, 80 per cent of Syrians are living in poverty. An entire generation has regressed on almost every metric of development. Communities are scarred by trauma and displacement while ethnic and sectarian tensions are rife.

In four years of leading Syria programmes with Adam Smith International, a global development advisory firm backed by western development agencies, I have seen first-hand that civil society is highly skilled in providing community solutions to local problems.

Despite their different politics and experiences of war, Syrians share common concerns. People want security from fighting and bombing; safety from conscription or arrest; access to jobs; property rights; and to return from exile. Civil society, whether informal community groups or more formal structures, has sprung up in the absence of an effective government to serve civilians’ interests and defend their rights. These organisations are adept at operating in Syria’s precarious political environment and negotiating with nefarious characters.

The ambition would necessarily be modest. Acting under the nose of the Assad regime carries substantial risks, not least the concern that western aid might indirectly be channelled to the regime. But organisations exist that carefully guard their independence from the authorities, whether church-based organisations in Damascus and Aleppo, community groups in Suwayda, in the south-west, or tribal networks in Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor.

Any action should happen swiftly. With the opposition defeated, and western influence at a low ebb, the incentive for Mr Assad to engage in UN talks is lower than ever. Russian president Vladimir Putin can now seek to extend control over his Syrian ally by lobbying for its readmittance to the Arab League and Gulf funding for reconstruction.

The prospect of military victory for the regime should not be mistaken for progress towards peace. A political solution is still a long way off and Mr Assad is unlikely to be a driving force behind it. He has displayed no inclination, indeed only contempt, for compromise. Determined to stay in power, the regime would prefer to leave cities in ruins than accept help in rebuilding them. The millions of Syrians abroad can, in the regime’s mind, stay where they are if return means brooking internal opposition.

Absent any tolerable national government or meaningful leverage, then, western governments should dedicate themselves to bolstering civil society, while devising a strategy to unblock the UN talks in Geneva — offering sanctions relief and reconstruction aid in return for constitutional and state reform.

Supporting civil society will strengthen the Syrian community’s ownership and resilience. It will protect the rights of women and refugees and foster resistance to extremist views as civilians reconcile with Mr Assad’s advancing armies. And, given the right political channels, such engagement might offer Syrians the means to elevate their concerns to the larger political process. If a political agreement ever materialises sufficient to launch an internationally backed reconstruction effort, local networks will be vitally important.

The alternative is to disengage entirely. But in the embers of Syria’s war lie years of domestic instability and poverty, the next cohort of jihadis, and the next European migrant crisis. Whatever Mr Trump’s next steps, the west will inevitably be dragged back into this crisis. When that happens, the years of neglect will be that much harder to surmount.

Nick Haslam was head of Adam Smith International’s Syria programmes between 2015-2019.

This article was published in the Financial Times. 

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