November 2017 marks the effective end of Syria’s armed conflict and the beginning of movement toward a political settlement. In all likelihood this will allow the Assad regime to retain much authority. Instead of forcing the regime to compromise, the mechanisms of war and destruction, including the anti-Islamic State campaign, allowed it to block any political transition, destroy the prewar order, and create a new one in which it could survive.
Syria’s destruction has its genesis in the Assad regime’s loss of control over much of the country in summer 2012. At that time, it had become clear that the regime could not simply push its opponents off the streets and silence dissent. Within months the momentum of war had picked up as rebel factions took control of pockets of territory, the regime withdrew from Kurdish-populated areas, and gradually the conflict took on a multilayered dimension involving local, regional, and international actors, provoking massive damage in the country.
The regime’s barrel bombings of opposition areas systematically destroyed entire neighborhoods of Syria’s most populous cities. Fighting displaced over half of the country’s population, and a wide array of forces contributed to the destruction, each in pursuit of its own objectives. Jihadi movements gained ground, and in summer 2014 the Islamic State established a self-declared caliphate across Syria and Iraq, provoking foreign military intervention from a U.S.-led coalition, accompanied by heavy bombing campaigns. Starting in 2015, Russian bombing helped the regime retake opposition areas. A year later it was Turkey’s turn, as it deployed troops in northern Syria in support of opposition factions and to block the advance of the People’s Protection Units affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Most participants in Syria’s war have thrived in its destruction, but many also ended up being destroyed themselves. The Islamic State is the latest and most notable example of this phenomenon. The only party to the destruction that managed to hang on was the regime, in spite of its limited military capacities.
The war offered the regime a means of navigating a transition from a prewar order to a new one. By annihilating the environment in which its opponents could operate, the war left the regime with no counterpart with whom it needed to negotiate. In fact, destruction served as a buffer against negotiations, enabling the regime to remain in place.
Seen from this angle, Syria’s physical destruction had less a military aim than being a central factor in the political struggle to win the war. The regime survived the destruction of the physical and social makeup of Syria and thereby won leverage to steer the reconstruction effort, control the return of populations, place them in positions of dependency with regard to the state, channel funding through new, loyal intermediaries between Damascus and Syrian cities, and empower new business figures. It also obliged the international community to deal with the regime in order to resolve the massive refugee crisis.
But rather than demonstrating the regime’s genius in orchestrating the conflict, the enormous scale of the damage necessary for it to retain its hold over power only proved the regime’s weakness. As it could not adapt to meet the demands of its citizens, the regime took advantage of the instruments of war to alter the surrounding environment. Faced with its own limitations, it could find no means to win except to destroy the prewar Syrian order. Aleppo, Homs, Deir Ezzor, Darayya, and most likely Raqqa, all seriously damaged, were either recaptured by the regime or are likely to be, allowing it to take the lead in their reconstruction. The ruins of war had the paradoxical effect of bolstering the regime’s potential to regain control of what, in 2012, it could not defend militarily.
Aleppo is perhaps the best example. It is a city that the regime lost and could claim back only once many of its quarters, in particular those in its eastern half, were obliterated (destruction to which not only the regime contributed, but also other political actors, opposition groups included). Because the business class had abandoned the city, the regime forged new relationships there through a fresh network of business figures.
The debate over Syria’s reconstruction frequently begins from the standpoint of returning Syria’s physical and social fabric to its prewar state. However, reconstruction is not a mere technical question. Indeed, the very sites that need to be rebuilt, versus those that remained intact throughout seven years of fighting, were a product of decisions by actors about what to destroy. Regardless of how reconstruction funding flows into Syria, a new order has been in the making since the collapse of the prewar order and there will probably be no returning to the economic or social arrangements that existed prior to 2011.
Destruction and reconstruction are not necessarily neatly complementary, with one smoothly following from the other. Instead, the cycle of destruction and construction replaced a deadlocked political transition in Syria, developing in the context of a war that none of the sides were winning. In many cases this cycle was integrated into the political objectives of the regime, creating a fertile environment in which the regime could survive, despite its shortcomings.