by Abdallah Al Dardari
Aleppo is a landmark in the Syrian conflict and has become the strongest signal of the failure of the western approach to diplomacy and other means of influence to end the conflict. This failure calls for a dramatic change in the approach if we want to preserve Syria as one country, safeguard its diversity, and ensure the rebuilding of the nation.
The moment fighting in Aleppo ends and the current government, along with the Russians and the Iranians, feel they have the upper hand in this conflict, the immediate goal and challenge is to rebuild. Yet, how do we deliver services and create jobs? How do we support reconstruction? How do we ensure stability after “military achievement”?
To reach any of these objectives, there is a clear need to complement political diplomacy by creating alternate incentives for peace, as peace itself is no longer incentive enough. This alternative is an economic track in the Syrian political process, based on development and reconstruction diplomacy, where a complex and sophisticated approach is designed to link economic international cooperation with progress towards United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. This is not old style conditionality; this is a proactive approach with a constructive vision rather than a destructive one.
For its success, the involvement of all parties is required. It is not enough for one side to adopt it; rather it must be based on inclusiveness and engagement from Moscow and Washington, Riyadh and Teheran, government and opposition groups. In other words, an alliance of the willing is necessary. Economic diplomacy can turn the conflict between parties into a conflict where these parties are one side, and the challenge of peace and reconstruction is on the other.
Indeed, in civil wars, war itself is the enemy. We need to develop tools to win against that enemy, not to win against the other side in that conflict. This requires visionary leadership and concessions that may be lacking in the Syrian conflict. Time has come to abandon the disastrous policies of the last six years, deal with reality, and focus on the most important aspect of the conflict: the future of Syria and the safety and prosperity of its people.
That safety and prosperity needs to be recognized as a global public good. Joint and common investments in this public good are economically and strategically justifiable. Potential mutual concessions and compromises could be justified by benefits that arise from achieving a global public good like peace in Syria. This proposal can be analyzed in a narrow economistic way, but at the same time it should be seen at as global initiative that goes way beyond the number crunching approach, even though number crunching can also justify why we should go down that road.
The forces that can play a central role here are very clear. They include the UN Security Council, which needs to adopt such an economic strategy and empower the UN Special Envoy for Syria to implement it. Efforts from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the new Asia Infrastructure Development Bank are essential, with active support from countries with influence and economic power like Germany and Japan. Likewise, the European Union has resources—both financial and human—to support such ventures, while also having interest in a peaceful Mediterranean, and therefore in a peaceful Syria. Finally but just as meaningfully, Arab countries need to be part of this diplomacy, as they, too, benefit from the global and regional public good of peace and prosperity in Syria.
Thus, this complementary approach is not a funding project per se, but rather an economic opportunity where rebuilding Syria can be economically and financially beneficial for Syria, the region and the world. It can also have positive externalities in the domains of peace and fighting terrorism.
In Sochi, the Russian government recently recognized the need for such a track with President Putin discussing the idea of a “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East. The Russians do not have financial means to rebuild Syria, nor do the Iranians. Funding will have to come from an international cooperation project. Is there political will by the different regions to agree on an international cooperation project for the rebuilding of Syria? That is not yet clear. However, what is clear is the need for a strong message to the people of Syria that there will be funds available if a political transition takes place seriously. When and how this message comes out is still to be discussed.
The United States election is also raising new questions. The western alliance was counting on Hillary Clinton to support proactive policy vis-à-vis Syria. This has now evaporated and it is unclear how the Trump administration will look at Syria and the rest of the region, which overall is going through convoluted times without a clear vision in big capitals on what needs to be done.
Meanwhile, the many parties to the conflict fear that the end of the war is also the end of the war economy. Hence, this translates into the need to press for peace at any cost. Pushing for the economic track would contain the war economy and move the country towards a peace economy that is inclusive and participatory for all Syrians. This way forward underlines my belief that an unjust peace is better than a just war, and that Resolution 2254, with all the tracks that can support it, remains the only available legitimate framework for Syria’s future.
At present, the economic track is becoming increasingly important as other levers in western policy have failed and the military tools in Moscow’s toolbox are expiring. The economy is the only sphere where both camps—international and regional—can find common interest. It is the only sphere where all Syrian parties interested in the future of Syria may also find a common ground.
Abdallah Al Dardari is the Deputy Executive Secretary for Programme of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ESCWA.