Time for Assad to finally embrace a political solution to Syria crisis

bashar al assad
Syrian crisis can end if Syrian President Bashar Assad decides to engage his Arab counterparts and embrace a genuine political solution. (File photo: Twitter/X)
bashar al assad

Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

The eruption of protests in two Syrian government-held provinces, Suwayda and Deraa, last week is threatening to get out of control days after President Bashar Assad doubled public sector wages and pensions, triggering a new wave of inflation, and coinciding with a decision to lift fuel subsidies. The Syrian lira has tumbled further against the US dollar in recent days. Protesters in the mainly ethnic Druze province of Suwayda were joined by religious clerics and even local Baath Party officials. In some areas, protesters burned tires, blocked roads and chanted anti-government slogans.اضافة اعلان

A general strike was observed while placards were raised condemning the government’s failure to provide essential services, resolve bread shortages and curb inflation. The civil unrest spread to more than 40 locations in the province and, on Monday, similar protests took place in the Deraa countryside. Video clips shared on social media showed protesters calling for the downfall of the regime.

The fear now is that other cities and provinces could join the unrest at a time when the economy is in freefall.

Twelve years after the eruption of the Syrian uprising, which quickly turned into a bloody and protracted civil war, it now looks like the regime has come full circle. The fact that the protests began in Suwayda, where the minority Druze community sided largely with the regime during the civil war, should worry Assad.

The Druze had formed armed militias to protect citizens from Daesh and other extremist groups. These militias, known as the Druze Popular Committees, worked alongside government forces. They reportedly engaged in fierce battles to repel attacks and protect their territory in places like Suwayda and Jabal Al-Druze. As a result, most of Suwayda remained in government hands during the conflict and was spared the unrest seen in other parts of the war-torn country.
Twelve years after the eruption of the Syrian uprising, it now looks like the regime has come full circle
But the Druze elders were not comfortable with pro-Iranian militias, which were dispatched by Tehran to defend the regime, being positioned so close to their community. The deployment of Syrian forces along the border with Jordan has complicated matters, as some officers, including those close to Assad, are allegedly involved in narcotics smuggling.

The lira’s decline against the US dollar has accelerated this year. The exchange rate shot up from 7,000 liras to the dollar at the beginning of 2023 to 15,000 liras a few days ago. At the start of the conflict in 2011, the dollar was trading at 47 liras.

Despite the regime’s decisive victory against armed groups in 2018, it has failed to improve the lives of people under its control. The UN estimates that 90 percent of Syrians in government-held areas live in poverty and that more than half of the country’s population — some 12 million people — struggle to put food on the table.

The economic cost of the war has been devastating. It is estimated that the war has caused immense economic losses, including the destruction of infrastructure, loss of human capital, disruption of trade and commerce, and a declining gross domestic product. According to a 2017 report by the World Bank, Syria’s GDP contracted by more than 60 percent between 2011 and 2016. Furthermore, the cost of physical infrastructure damage alone has been estimated to be well over $200 billion. Not a single cent has been spent on reconstruction and millions of Syrian refugees and displaced persons are unable to return to their homes.

There is no doubt that Western sanctions have crippled the ability of the Syrian government to maintain the provision of basic services. Also, the US and Turkish military presence in parts of Syria has added to the regime’s woes. But other factors have made things worse for ordinary citizens, such as official corruption and mismanagement of the public sector. The devastating earthquake that hit northwestern Syria in February made things worse.

But there are other issues that Assad has failed to address: reconciliation and the launch of a political process to bring the country together. Almost four months since Syria regained its seat in the Arab League and Assad attended the organization’s Jeddah summit, the normalization process is yet to deliver an end to the Syrian debacle. The restoration of ties between Damascus and several Arab capitals was supposed to be reciprocated by a meaningful gesture by Assad to present a political solution to end the 12-year civil war. He has not done so and, judging by his latest media statements, he remains as reluctant to cough up political concessions as he was in 2011.
Judging by his latest media statements, Assad remains as reluctant to cough up political concessions as he was in 2011
But this new challenge should come as a wake-up call. The worsening economic conditions will continue to pressure middle and low-income households in government-held areas. The 2018 victory was over armed groups, but now ordinary citizens are taking to the streets. High fuel prices, electricity cuts, inflation, lawlessness in Deraa and other parts, and bread shortages are pushing civilians to the edge. Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers cannot provide a solution. The regime also risks an open war with Israel as it allows Iran to send weapons to its proxies in Lebanon and Syria.

An end can only come if Assad decides to engage his Arab counterparts and embrace a genuine political solution to the Syrian crisis. That would prepare the ground for a process of reconstruction to begin, thus alleviating the economic crunch his government is facing. It would also allow Assad’s Arab allies to put pressure on the West to adopt a new approach to Syria, rather than the one in place that has only hurt ordinary Syrians.

A failure to do so will push people to the brink, igniting a new cycle of violence with uncertain outcomes.

Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.