Rebuilding Syria (and Iraq): Reconstruction and Legitimacy


On the sixth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, moderate rebels have never been weaker, analyst Charles Lister writes for Foreign Policy.

Within two years of its resurgence, the Islamic State has erased the border between eastern Syria and Western Iraq, established a reputation for apocalyptic ideology and savage violence, and become a destination point for jihadists worldwide, analysts Eric S. Edelman & Whitney McNamara write in Contain, Degrade, Defeat, a report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

“The greatest challenges are yet to come,” they add. “Lasting peace will require more than battlefield victories in Mosul and Raqqa, and the manner in which these and other cities are liberated, as well as the identity of the liberators, will have a huge impact on their stability and the effectiveness of governance in the future.”

Alongside military power must come soft power; alongside guns must come words, analyst James Miller tells RFE/RL:

IS will lose its physical caliphate but — critically — the group will not disappear along with it. Rather, its fighters will melt into the desert and continue to fight from there. Like a butterfly regressing back into a caterpillar, the group will regress from fighting like a standing quasi-state army to fighting like the terror group it has always been. And it will not stop. Salafi-Jihadism is as strong as ever— as the continuing success of the Taliban and numerous Al-Qaeda franchises shows.

“Sectarianism and the narrative that the United States is fighting a war against Islam, or at least against Sunni Islam, are the most important enemies to defeat,” Miller adds. “And they can’t be killed with bombs.”

The US is fighting the wrong war in the Middle East, says a report from The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP):

ISIS and al Qaeda are waging population-centric insurgencies while we conduct counterterrorism operations by proxy. Defeating these groups requires the US to pursue population-centric counterinsurgency by, with, and through acceptable and viable partners in Syria’s and Iraq’s Sunni Arab communities.

What Is to Be Done?

The United States needs a new strategy in Syria and Iraq, one based on the real situation on the ground and real American security requirements, the report adds. These include:

  • Defeating al Qaeda, as well as ISIS;
  • Expelling Iranian military forces and most of Iran’s proxy forces from Syria;
  • Limiting Iranian control over the Syrian government and territory;
  • Facilitating the emergence of a Sunni Arab armed force and governance structures seen as legitimate by the Sunni Arab communities in Syria and Iraq and willing and able to expel ISIS and al Qaeda and keep them out…

“A viable settlement between the Assad regime and its opponents should facilitate regime change amenable to all Syrians, security institution reforms and disarmament, foreign military forces’ withdrawal, and refugee and internally displaced persons’ resettlement,” the report adds.

“The minimum requirements for a stable outcome in Iraq include facilitating the formation of a representative, legitimate, and effective government in upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections that is neutral or responsive to US influence and resistant to Iranian malign interference,” the report adds, and ensuring that Iraq “reaches a minimal threshold of economic viability to support legitimate and representative governance.”

The ISW-CTP planning team defines “acceptable” opposition as fighting forces that are willing and able to meet the following conditions:

(1) Break with ISIS or al Qaeda and either expel the leaders of those groups or turn them over to the Western coalition;

(2) Accept the principle that the future Syrian state will be pluralistic and unitary;

(3) Agree to uphold a cessation of hostilities with pro-regime forces under suitable conditions;

(4) Reject violent jihad, including against ISIS;

(5) Commit to ultimately disarming to the minimum level required for them to police and defend areas in which they will continue to dominate or govern (a condition that all parties to a settlement will have to meet); and

(6) Commit to eliminating the current shari’a court system by which they govern, forming new local governance structures that exclude current and recent officials of shari’a courts, and holding legitimate local elections in which shari’a court officials will not participate either as candidates or vetting authorities. RTWT

While it is difficult to look past daily destruction as the war rages on in Syria, efforts to rebuild should not wait until the violence has stopped, The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center adds:

With much of Syria lying in ruins, a history of weak governance, and vast parts of the country lacking even basic necessities, the international community should not delay planning to rebuild the country. Even today opportunities exist to rebuild what the war has destroyed. …Over the next two years, the Hariri Center will pool expertise from multiple specialists to cover the many challenges of rebuilding Syria including in: economics, finance, development, infrastructure, political economy, civil society, food security, energy, law, and employment. More than just a cursory overview, the initiative will produce a strategic roadmap to reconstruction with the participation of Syrians and the support of the international community.

The Hariri Center invites you to a discussion on the technical and political challenges ahead for rebuilding Syria with country and development experts on March 21, 2017 from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. at the Atlantic Council headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Featuring Dr. Osama Kadi, President, Syrian Economic Task Force

Mr. Todd Diamond, Director, Middle East, Chemonics International

Ms. Mona Yacoubian, Former Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East, US Agency for International Development

Mr. Bassam Barabandi, Former Syrian Diplomat and Co-Founder, People Demand Change

Introductory remarks by: Mr. Omar Shawaf, Chairman and Founder, BINAA

Moderated by: Mr. Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council

Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 12:30 – 2:00 p.m.

Atlantic Council, 1030 15th Street NW, 12th Floor (West Tower Elevator), Washington, DC


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