What Does the Future Hold for Syria?
An era ended in Syria on March 23, when the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had retaken Bagouz, the last piece of territory held by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, known in the west as ISIS.
Civil war has raged in the country since 2011, when peaceful protests against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad were violently repressed, leading to the formation of opposition forces such as the Free Syrian Army. The ensuing conflict enabled ISIS to overtake the eastern half of the country and prolong the bloodshed.
With ISIS’s caliphate eliminated, the country now must look towards the future. While he once appeared to be on the losing side of a rebellion, Assad is once again the clear powerhouse in Syria. This turn in the tide was only possible with help from the Russian and Iranian governments, both of which view the Syrian regime as a strategic asset, and a strategy of indiscriminate slaughter, most infamously involving chemical weapons.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 570 thousand people have died over the course of the war. The UNHCR further estimates that 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced in Syria and 5.6 million more have fled as refugees.
Estimates for the cost of rebuilding Syria are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Some states — most notably Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China — have expressed interest in investing in reconstruction, but even if such comes to pass, it is questionable how much of this aid will end up helping the Syrian people.
The Civil War has created massive poverty and inequality, as whatever little wealth remains goes to the hands of high-ranking government loyalists. Conflict has only made the regime devolve further into corruption and kleptocracy, incapable of providing a basic quality of life for its citizens.
At this stage, peace and stability are not even guaranteed. It is common for violence to linger long after the official end of a civil war, and the regime still has yet to secure control of the entire country. Rebel factions such as the Free Syrian Army and the jihadist Army of Conquest still fight a losing battle against Assad in cities such as Idlib.
Meanwhile, although ISIS has lost its physical territory, bands of fighters remain scattered across the Levant. One of the most worrying reports comes from opposition activist Sarah Hunaidi, who claims that the Assad regime is enabling a second rise of ISIS as part of a “scarecrow strategy” that exploits fear of Sunni extremism to promote loyalty to the Alawite-led government among religious minorities such as the Druze and Christians.
The most powerful rebel faction in Syria, however, is one with which many Americans are unfamiliar. It is also one of the most unusual forces in the modern Middle East. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, commonly known as Rojava, is the political entity in control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which retook ISIS’s last holdout in Bagouz and previously gained prominence for capturing the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa in 2017.
Rojava’s governance is driven by the ideology of libertarian socialism, something that sounds like an oxymoron in the American political lexicon, but which has a long history connected with the anarchist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, centering around community-level direct democracy and public ownership of property. In addition, Rojava’s Charter of the Social Contract champions religious freedom, ethnic diversity, gender equality, and environmental sustainability.
This sounds like a pipe dream, but Rojava currently controls a large and oil-rich section of Syria to the northeast of the Euphrates river. Its origins, as summarized by Rod Nordland of The New York Times, lie with Kurdish groups such as the far-left Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is recognized as a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. But as Rojava found itself on the frontline against ISIS, the U.S. accepted the SDF as allies.
Objective information is hard to come by in a war zone, but Western reporters generally find that Rojava lives up to its ideals. The SDF enforce gender equality in the highly patriarchal region, helped by the presence of all-female Women’s Protection Units that hold equal status with male soldiers. Even as it faced an existential threat from ISIS, it managed universities such as the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy.
However, reports of human rights violations and political repression have also come from Rojava. The most notable of these was a 2015 Amnesty International report that accused the Syrian Democratic Forces of engaging in forced displacement. While these instances should not be ignored, analysts agree that the situation in Rojava is still far better than elsewhere in Syria.
Should it survive, it will be challenged to avoid falling into economic ruin and political authoritarianism, as often occurs with left-wing revolutions. However, its survival is not guaranteed.
Following the withdrawal of most U.S. troops in Syria, Rojava is at risk from the Turkish government, which vehemently opposes Kurdish autonomy. So far, the Turkish military has gone as far as to occupy border regions such as the city of Afrin, where Amnesty International accuses it of allowing its allies in the Free Syrian Army of brutalizing the local population.
Facing the threat of destruction by Turkey, Rojava’s only choice is an unholy alliance with the Assad regime. The solution touted by its leaders is a confederal state in which Assad retains de jure control of the country, but allows democratic autonomy in the northeast. Needless to say, it would be difficult to draft an agreement which both sides trust the other to uphold, but common interests may bring together the authoritarian government and the anarchist confederation.
With the momentary defeat of ISIS and disengagement of the U.S., the largest players in Syria include two internal factions — the Assad regime and the SDF, and three foreign powers — Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The deals that these actors make will determine the future of the country. Some chance remains for true improvement in the region, notably through Rojava’s democratic experiment, but for most Syrians, the best hope is an end to the fighting and a reconstruction that creates a semblance of prosperity in the country.