Ibrahim al-Assil is a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a nonresident fellow at the Orient Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He is also a founding member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement.
The Syrian civil war is now well into its sixth year. Over the years, the conflict has passed through a series of distinct phases. Now it is entering a new one. More than any before it, however, the current situation is giving rise to a host of false conclusions.
The first misconception is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has won. The military map shows that Assad has regained control over wide swaths of Syria over the past couple of years, thanks to the Russian air force as well as Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias. But more than 40 percent of the country remains outside of regime control, including the areas where most of its oil fields are located. The areas outside of Assad’s control include most of northern Syria, as well as Deir al-Zour province in the east and Daraa in the south.
Militarily speaking, Assad has not yet won. What he has done is to prevent anyone else from winning. This nuance is important, because winning gives the impression that the conflict is over and that one side has totally defeated all its opponents, leaving the international community with no further course of action. But this is a mistake. There is no victor in Syria to this day, and the rule that “there is no military solution for Syria” still applies.
The second misconception is that Syria can be stabilized under Assad’s leadership. In fact, the institutions of the Syrian state are weaker than ever. The Syrian army has shrunk to a third of its size. The state is bankrupt, and the economy has been destroyed. The civil war may have calmed down somewhat, but all the root causes of the disaster are still there. Grievances against the regime have only increased with time. If these are left unaddressed, the conflict will erupt again unless a political settlement is achieved.
This brings me to the third misconception — the idea that sending reconstruction funds through Assad’s government will benefit the Syrian people. Most of the rebel-held areas were marginalized by the regime for decades before the revolution. These areas are the ones most devastated by the regime, as well as where most of the refugees came from.
It is irrational to expect Assad to send any aid or money to the areas that he has bombarded, besieged and starved for the past six years. Assad will use any funds sent to the Syrian government to strengthen his cronies and his warlords, to feed his paramilitary militias and to keep punishing disloyal communities. These have consistently been his priorities, and there is no reason for the international community to assume they have changed.
For this reason, aid to Syria should be sent directly to local communities and those who are in need. This will prevent Assad from weaponizing the aid, and it will ensure that the aid actually reaches the people who need it most. This can be done through the areas liberated from Islamic State forces. Doing this will help to prevent the Islamic State from returning, because it strengthens local communities and allows them to use funds to address the root causes that enabled the jihadists to exploit their situation to begin with. It also incentivizes local communities in Syria to take ownership of expelling both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State from the country.
Additionally, most of the refugees come from areas that are still outside regime control, and improving the conditions in those areas is the only way to facilitate their return. Rewarding Assad with reconstruction funds will not achieve that; it will only fund his machinery of oppression. Assad should not receive anything until he offers tangible reforms in return, which, if we judge by history, is highly unlikely. Depending on Assad’s goodwill has never been a successful strategy.
The final misconception is that the military campaign is enough to defeat the Islamic State. While the United States can bomb Islamic State fighters, it cannot bomb their ideology. Without addressing the root causes that brought about the rise of the terrorist movement, any “defeat” is only short-term. The United States should stabilize and invest in the areas outside of government control as a way of ensuring the permanent defeat of the Islamic State. Such support will empower local communities to govern themselves while giving grass-roots civil society the space it needs to continue working on countering the radicalism of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, since they know their local population best.
The Islamic State has been spreading its ideas in Syria since 2013. Some places, such as the city of Raqqa, have been under full Islamic State control for nearly four years. The group controlled all aspects of society, including education, mosques and the media. It will take a lot of work to undo the Islamic State’s harsh effects on society, and only Syrian civil society can do this work. Why? Because it is indigenous, it understands the culture and it has local credibility. Syrian civil society is a strategic partner for the United States in countering terrorism and radicalism, and the United States would be wise to maintain and even increase its support for civil society groups on the ground.
Assad has committed a variety of war crimes to achieve his military gains, and the Islamic State’s atrocities are beyond imagination. Syria’s future is still gloomy, and the next phase of the war remains uncertain. But all is not yet lost. The United States and the European countries should help Syrians start to rebuild their communities after the Islamic State while preventing Assad from cashing in on his Pyrrhic victory.