Opinion |

It’s Not Just a Fake Election, It’s a Fake Syria

The real news is that the rump over which Bashar Assad is presiding can’t begin to lead the country to recovery. There’s no easy way out

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Syrian soldiers holding up Baath party flags and a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, May 26Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

“We came to elect president Bashar al-Assad...without him, Syria would not be Syria.”

No doubt, Amal, the nursing student who said this to a Reuters reporter on her way to the polls on Wednesday, intended them as words of praise. But, given the state Syria is in today, it has to go down as one of the most backhanded compliments in history. With Assad, Syria is a rump state, lying in ruins, with no hope of recovery in the foreseeable future.

None of this will prevent Assad from being elected because (despite the presence of two other straw candidates), everyone knows it’s a fake election. But why not? The election is over who controls what is, for all intents and purposes, a fake country.

The Syria that existed before the civil war exploded a decade ago, had a territory of 185,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 21 million.

The Syria Assad actually rules today is 120,000 square kilometers, the rest being in the hands of the Kurds, Turkey and a mélange of militants. Assad’s fake Syria has a population of about 12 million; the rest are living in areas he doesn’t control or are refugees abroad. A half-million or so were killed in the fighting.

The real Syria had a gross domestic product of $60 billion in 2010, on the eve of the civil war. No one knows for certain how big the Syrian economy is today, but the best estimates are that it’s no more than 40% of its 2010 size, and Assad controls only a portion of that. His rump Syria is so impoverished that the standard of living in the Turkish-occupied parts of Syria is higher.

The real Syria had a gross domestic product of $60 billion in 2010, on the eve of the civil war. No one knows for certain how big the Syrian economy is today, but the best estimates are that it’s no more than 40% of its 2010 size, and Assad controls only a portion of that. His rump Syria is so impoverished that the standard of living in the Turkish-occupied parts of Syria is higher.

Three years ago, fresh from its victories over rebels, Damascus had engaged in some happy talk, unmoored from reality, about its being time to rebuild and international investors began scouting around for opportunities.

But reality quickly got in the way.  The war, as it turned out, wasn’t really over, the American Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act slapped sanctions on anyone doing business in Syria and the Syria economy is in freefall.

Re-election or not, Assad’s fake Syria is too small, too enfeebled and too beholden to its Iranian and Russian patrons to make even the first steps toward rebuilding after a decade of war.

At that rate: 1,700 years to rebuild Syria

The Syrian government itself is on life support and has nothing like the kind of money to begin attacking the problem of rebuilding.  Syria’s 2021 budget is a testament to how tiny Assad’s domain is and his ability to squeeze any tax money out of it. It calls for spending of just 8.5 trillion Syrian pounds ($7.2 billion at the official exchange rate, much less on the black market rate). And, even that’s a stretch because, with virtually no tax base left, revenues are projected at just 6 trillion pounds.

Nearly all the paltry amounts are all going to keep the remaining mechanisms of the Syria state up and running. By one estimate, the government allocated a pitiful $66 million for reconstruction last year. At that rate, an Atlantic Council study noted that it would take 1,700 years to rehabilitate Syria. Reconstruction funds will have to come from outside, but the prospects of that happening anytime soon are dim.

So who will save Syria? The answer is no one, under the current circumstances.

Start with Russia and/or Iran. They are excellent foul-weather friends: When a dictator needs to put down a rebellion, they can be counted on to provide the arms and men to do so brutally. But now that the war is over – at least as much over as Assad can expect – they’re not the kinds of friends a dictator needs because they don’t have the money to finance reconstruction. In the past Iran spent heavily to shore up the Assad regime, but now limits itself to funding militias. The mega-projects that Tehran once touted never panned out. Russia has reportedly never offered any economic aid.

The West, of course, isn’t interested in helping an Iranian ally and mass murderer. China has fewer qualms, but right now Syria looks like a bad investment from its point of view – an imploding economy and a fractured state is just too risky.

It is true that the Gulf oil powers have been making tentative moves toward warmer relations with Assad’s Syria, with investment and aid presumably to follow. Russia, for one, is encouraging them: witness the trilateral consultation process unveiled in March that involves Qatar, Russia and Turkey.

Interestingly, the process doesn’t include Iran. Thus, some have speculated that this is the beginning of a Russian initiative to ease Iran out of Syria and maybe even remove Assad from power. That, in turn, would remove Western and Gulf objections to financing Syria’s reconstruction.

But even if that is what Moscow is scheming to do, it looks like a long shot.

Between its militias and religious ties, Iran is so heavily entrenched in Syria that it would be virtually impossible to expel it. Ousting Assad might be easier, and there have been rumors that something like this is being engineered. But in lieu of an obvious successor, his exit risks plunging rump Syria into political instability. The Assads have been around for 40 years, so the transition to a post-Assad era is almost certainly destined to be messy.

Poor Amal. She probably wasn’t given much of a choice about whether to vote or not on Wednesday, much less who to vote for. She and millions of other Syrians are trapped in a status quo with no good way out.

Comments