Who can win the peace in Syria?

This long war is heading to a contest over which countries can afford to reconstruct the country and win over the Syrian people.

AP Photo
People go about their lives in the northwestern city of Azaz, Syria, Jan. 27.

One lesson from the history of war is that a military victory may be no victory at all. What comes in the wake of war – resettlement of civilians, reconstruction of a nation, and reconciliation – is often the permanent victory. After seven years of fighting and 400,000 killed, Syria may be nearing this point. The war still continues in parts of the country. But the real battle now is over who defines the peace, and pays for it.

For most parties to the conflict, from Iran to pro-democracy Syrians, the common foe – Islamic State (ISIS) – has been all but vanquished. The terrorist group’s stronghold, Raqqa, was liberated in October. Last year, an estimated 715,000 Syrians returned to their homes. More are returning this year. The Bashar al-Assad regime now controls about half the territory and population while its various opponents control the other half.

As war fatigue sets in and Syrians yearn for peace, a new contest has emerged. All sides to the conflict want to woo civilians to their side by rebuilding homes, reopening schools, and trading with the outside world. One estimate for Syria’s reconstruction is $200 billion to $300 billion. The terms of any political settlement in ongoing negotiations will probably depend on which outside powers can afford that price tag.

The final victory, in other words, could lie with those countries with the economic strength and the humanitarian spirit to help stabilize Syria. France has already said it will contribute $12.4 million to revive Raqqa. And in recent weeks, the Trump administration has committed to “stabilization initiatives” in areas liberated by American-backed local forces. In the past year, it has spent about $1.5 billion.

“Consistent with our values, America has the opportunity to help a people which has suffered greatly,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month. The United States also wants to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, erode Iran’s influence in Syria, and bring democracy to the country. For its part, Europe seeks to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and encourage some to return home.

Iran and Russia, which have provided military support to President Assad, either cannot or will not bankroll the cost of reconstructing Syria. Their own economies are too weak. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing an election at home, wants to present an image of a military victory to the Russian people. Assad does not seem to be expecting much aid from his allies.

This leaves the peace advantage to others. The US, along with the European Union and other partners, will not provide assistance to any area under the control of the Assad regime. This helps deny political legitimacy to the regime.

“Our expectation is that the desire for a return to normal life and these tools of pressure will help rally the Syrian people and individuals within the regime to compel Assad to step aside,” said Mr. Tillerson.

Will this postwar strategy work? Recent wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya – would suggest that postwar compassion fatigue among Americans and their allies can be as troublesome as war fatigue. Those countries are still not at peace. Syria could be different. The lesson of war is that victory must be defined far beyond the use of force. Peace takes another kind of strength.

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