Joseph Daher teaches at Lausanne University in Switzerland and is a part-time affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he works on the Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project. Daher completed a doctorate in development studies at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 2015, as well as a doctorate in political science at Lausanne University in 2018. He is the author of Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience (Pluto Press and Haymarket, 2019) and Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God (Pluto Press, 2016). He is also the founder of the blog Syria Freedom Forever. Diwan interviewed Daher in early September to discuss his recent article for Carnegie titled “The Paradox of Syria’s Reconstruction,” on the Syrian regime’s approach to rebuilding Syria and the problems it is engendering.
Michael Young: What is the main argument in your recent Carnegie article?
Joseph Daher: My main argument is that Assad regime’s reconstruction framework and policies are designed to consolidate its own power by fulfilling the regime’s political, economic, and security objectives. The reconstruction and economic strategy seeks to guarantee that all power in the country flows toward the regime and its clientelist networks, notably by strengthening the control of crony capitalists over the economy and public assets, at the expense of the interest of the large majority of Syrians. This applies more particularly to the poorer socioeconomic classes, in which we find refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The privatization and liberalization of reconstruction projects will continue and this will intensify the regime’s predatory activities even more. At the same time, the regime will pursue economic and austerity policies that deepen Syria’s impoverishment as well as inequalities and injustices in society.
MY: Why has the regime’s reconstruction policies hardened social inequalities and what are the likely consequences of this?
JD: The reconstruction plans formulated by the government and the private sector are focused on providing housing for the wealthy in Syrian society. This does not facilitate or encourage the return of IDPs and refugees to regions that suffered destruction, at least not in decent conditions. This is especially dangerous as refugees in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon and Turkey, are facing growing political pressure and oppressive actions to return to Syria, without security guarantees. Those countries do not recognize most of the Syrians living in their territory as refugees. So far, the Syrian authorities are only taking in small numbers of returnees. For many of them the Syrian state still presents a threat to their safety, even as it creates administrative obstacles to their return.
The return of civilians to certain areas has also been prevented because of various measures taken by the regime’s security institutions. It has been hindered as well because most areas from which the displaced come have been devastated and there has been no reconstruction or rehabilitation, even in terms of restoring basic services. The likely consequences of this are more poverty, inequality, and injustice, which could lead to protests. Examples of dissent have taken place because of the regime’s repressive actions and violations of so-called “local agreements” with armed rebel factions. People have also reacted against the absence of any economic recovery and provision of services. This has been visible, for example, in Der‘a.
MY: In your article you write that even in pro-regime circles discontent with Syria’s economic situation is spreading. Where do you see this leading?
JD: The regime will most probably try first to silence these voices by attempting to calm tensions through small or symbolic measures, promises, and so-called campaigns against corruption, as they have in the past, while accusing foreign and some local forces of obstructing Syria’s economic rebirth and development. However, the profound socioeconomic crisis in the country, alongside a rise in insecurity mostly caused by pro-regime militias, will ensure that such measures will not suffice. Regime forces will, therefore, increasingly resort to repressive measures and forbid all criticism, even from circles considered “loyalist,” who in recent years were allowed a bit more space to express their frustrations with some state policies. Similarly, the growing influence of Russia and Iran over all sectors of society has led to the undermining of Syria’s sovereignty. This has also provoked criticism from regime supporters.
However, repressing these sectors of society will be much more difficult to justify and will create new instability and insecurity for the regime. This situation also shows that populations considered pro-regime should not be viewed as a single homogenous bloc. They are characterized by socioeconomic differences and their interests are not the same as those of the ruling elites. The regime’s resilience does not mean an end to its contradictions or to forms of dissent. Despite its engaging in repression, the regime will still face challenges as the reasons that led to the uprising are more than ever present. These include the absence of democracy and profound socioeconomic injustice and inequalities.
MY: Can this be translated into opportunities for the regime’s foes?
JD: These conditions do not necessarily directly translate into political opportunities, particularly after more than eight years of a destructive and murderous war and the general fatigue of the population. Most Syrians simply desire a return to stability, even under authoritarian Assad rule. No viable organized opposition has been apparent, with the failures of the opposition in exile and armed opposition groups leaving many people who had sympathized with the uprising feeling frustrated and bitter. The absence of a structured, independent, democratic, and inclusive Syrian political opposition, which would have appealed to the poorer classes and social actors, has made it difficult for various sectors of the population to unite and challenge the regime on a national scale.
MY: With reconstruction costs in Syria phenomenally high, how do you anticipate the regime will be able to rebuild the country?
JD: For the time being and in the short term I don’t see any reconstruction or economic development taking place on a large scale. This is especially true for those that need reconstruction and development the most. Thus far, only one major real estate project is moving forward—the Marota City development in the Mazzeh district of Damascus. All investment in the project has come from the state and private investors mostly linked to the regime. The lack of national funding, whether private or public, the uncertainty of the scale of foreign funding, and international sanctions on Syria are all preventing significant economic actors from participating in reconstruction, which represents a serious problem for the country. This comes on top of the destruction of health and educational services, the massive displacement of Syrians, the enormous losses in human capital, and the virtual absence of foreign financial reserves.
The regime’s capacity to rebuild the country is therefore linked to many issues. Damascus will mostly depend on the possibilities that would come if the regime is legitimized again regionally and internationally, allowing foreign actors and international organizations to participate in reconstruction. In addition, and in the framework of reconstruction, a new political and economic orientation is needed to allow the redevelopment of Syrian society.