If we want to give an account of the coordinates of a country such as Syria in the global context, we should first ask a precise question; what does change in geopolitics in the 21st century? It is not enough to say that America, as a unipolar superpower, is in retreat and China is replacing it; this would be too naïve a way of interpreting the related processes that are actually going on.
For this reason, let us rather suggest that there are two main features of the “new” geopolitics:
- the first is the rise of multiple new “medium” powers which have an effective role which competes with superpowers role in more than one region, the examples in the middle east are obvious; Turkey, Iran, UAE etc.
- the other feature is the pragmatic separation of politics and economic relations, the examples are multiple; just take a look at the trade volume between two countries which have hard political controversies such as UAE and Iran, they – in a way or another – fight each other in Yemen, and UAE claims that Iran is occupying islands which belong to it. However, the numbers proving mutually realized business are high. Moreover, we should not be surprised that the second-largest importer of Syrian products is KSA, however the strong disagreement that we all know.
Then, where is Syria in such changes?!
Syria is crossing – slowly – a transitional phase, from the end of the war to full economic-political stability. And usually at phases of such kind, the situation could be a blur, unclear, and the future looks grey. However, there are some developments –bearing in mind what is “new” globally at a political level – that can be useful to any future vision considering the “Syrian situation”.
The openness and the signs of tranquility
There are a lot of indications that can give us a positive reproach towards the status in Syria at a military level;
- Deputy commander of joint operations in Iraq, Gen. al-Shammari said that more than 80% of the borders with Syria are safe, and the official crossing points are open again. Among them, most notably:
- The “Israeli Defense Forces” annual assessment – published lately by “Yedioth-Ahronot” say that “the probability of war on Israel is low, also the risk of a sudden and unpredictable escalation – which was high in the last years – is in decrease”, the report adds “the regime of President Assad and the Russian leadership are concerned in political stability and governance of the authority on most Syrian land so they can start rebuilding the destroyed areas”.
- The Turkish-Russian strategic agreement kept the north at a level of stability and going towards opening the main trade roads step by step without violent impacts.
- The significance of regional projects of cooperation between “small” and “medium” states that can open the space for development without fully involving in global disagreement between superpowers, such as “the new Levant project” (Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and more in the future) that makes the opportunity possible to work aside far from “big” problems, and such countries, are already working to reshape the position towards Syria and making an appropriate atmosphere for the full openness, which has already started with more than one event. Among the most significant of such events, suffice it to name the:
- Opening UAE and Bahrain embassies;
- The direct phone contact between the king of Jordan and president Assad, and reopening the official crossing point (Nassib–Jaber) on the borders between the two countries after the contact;
- First official visit from Lebanese government representatives and ministers to Damascus after years;
- The agreement (with an American green light) concerning energy supply to Lebanon through Syrian lands; the Egyptian gas, and Jordanian electricity;
- Meeting with official representatives of 30 countries with the Syrian minister of foreign affairs on the margins of the last general assembly of the UN;
- UAE minister of foreign affairs official visit to Damascus meeting president Assad after direct phone contact with crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed;
- Interpol decision to get Syria back to the office of Interpol;
- Syria’s director of intelligence participation in the Arab forum of intelligence in Cairo.
All these events should be encouraging, yet, nothing “real” is happening considering the start of the project of rebuilding which is the main goal of more than one effective player in the Syrian situation.
So, the question is obvious: where is the problem?
What prevents the effect of openness?
Recent events have enough validity to cross over the “deactivated status” that captures Syria. However, every silver lining does have its cloud. So, what are the facts that stand in the way of an unbound and merry rebuilding process?
The first obvious obstacle is sanctions, and the big powers which apply sanctions on Syria are missing the point; sanctions are not even – empirically – effective considering the goal of it (changing the behavior of governments; history is clear here; from North Korea to Iran). Moreover, sanctions do not only have harmful effects – by necessity – on the people, but it also unleashes distorted economical mechanisms which contribute to increasing illegal and “black” economic dynamics (smuggling, drug industry, etc), which makes it more difficult to start any beneficial economic project.
Who insists on sanctions, falls in what George Tsebelis named as the “Robinson Crusoe Fallacy”; they are ignoring the fact that sanctions and violations are a result of interaction between “two” – not one! – “reasonable” players, and such a one–dimensional vision is too simplistic considering the complications within the Syrian situation. They are also using the project of rebuilding as a negotiation card instead of a pragmatic plan that could be profiting for everyone.
The “number” dilemma
What does the project of rebuilding cost? From 2014 until these days, contradicted and divergent numbers considering rebuilding Syria are moving around. The problem being is not only statistical; World bank estimate said it is around 400 billion dollars or even more, in another statement, they said 180 billion, Staffan De Mistura said it is 250 billion, the UNRWA said rebuilding needs more than 30 years to get back to the situation in 2010, secretary-general of the Arab League said that Federica Mogherini told him Syria needs 900 billion dollars, Alexander Lavrentieve said lately it is 600-800 billion, some other estimates said it is 150 billion.
The only effect of these conflicting numbers is ultimate confusion. Such statements – whether correct or not – make it harder and harder to “clean the air” and start making a useful plan. All these numbers and statements cause distraction and waste the time, energy – and hope – needed to work efficiently.
The irresponsible arrangement of international priorities and the hidden opportunity behind
Speaking pragmatically, the basic goal of international interests in Syria – after the war has ended is – is the project of rebuilding, so what is the problem? Why waste time? We can take the risk saying that the real problem could be summarized like this: “who want, can’t, however, who can doesn’t want”; The political disagreement upon the Syrian situation makes it hard to start; Russia and Iran want to start, but they can’t afford it, however, Americans and their allies around Syria can afford it, but they are slowing down the discussion.
All big powers at this time are delaying the solution of the Syrian situation, the argument being is that they are busy with other priorities; for Americans; Taiwan and the South China Sea, Ukraine for Europe and Russia, Libya and internal economic problems for Turkey, the nuclear issue and Yemen for Iran, and other problems.
There is no point to delay the real discussion about Syria, and the more time passes, the more problems come to exist. But do we need the Syrian matter to be on the top of priorities to startup? Not being on top of priorities is a great chance to stay away from conflicts. Syrians should benefit from the opportunity hidden under this irresponsible international temporary carelessness by making a breach in the situation while everyone is looking away. That could be made by cooperating with pragmatic parties who are ready to do some real work quietly and build partial – but real – foundations which can accumulate to make a difference in the hard life of Syrians.
The rise of new “medium” powers, with – what appears as – pragmatic mentality, opens the space for a more calm, smooth, economically beneficial politics. That would give a chance to “small” countries to develop cooperating with “medium” powers – which can be relatively independent of hard–line global alliances – by keeping political disagreements aside from economic relations. Therefore, Syria should take advantage of using this “new” kind of global relations to catch the time.
However, Syrians are not fully powerless, and with minor help of some open-minded professionals they can shake things up, but they should have more self-esteem, in addition of that, a new reproach on what can they really do, under the wing of a basic idea: “people” do triumph, but only “societies” succeed.
FURTHER NOTES AND REFERENCES:
 The Abuse of Probability In Political Analysis: The Robinson Crusoe Fallacy/George Tsebelis/The American Political Science Review, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Mar. 1989), pp. 77-91
For more to the topic, see also: James Jeffry´s interview with “The Middle East” Saudi newspaper published recently here.
Fouad al-Halabi is an independent analyst and commentator. He contributes with intermittent inputs of various kinds, occasionally commenting on selected topics, mostly related to Syria and its reconstruction as well as Near East´s and global challenges, news and events.