The Syrian Civil War: The Origins, Actors, and Economic Aftermath
March 19, 2017
If someone had to choose the most contentious foreign policy issue of today, they would instinctively point to the seemingly endless and grueling civil war in Syria. The country has been embroiled in a battle with sectarian clans, Islamist groups, rebel forces, and the Syrian government for nearly six years.Third-party interventions have virtually defined the conflict dynamics and power balances; for if it wasn’t for Russian and Iranian interference, the Assad regime would be practically defenseless.
Outside of Europe, the refugee crisis has inflicted a deep economic wound on both the Jordanian and Lebanese economies. Both countries house a substantial number of the 6 million refugees from Syria, which not only have social and political consequences for both countries, but they also significantly affect the diffusion of human and financial capital. Thus, in sum, the Syrian civil war has nearly unmatched significance in today’s international realm, as it not only amplifies the forces calling for the breakdown of today’s world order, but it is also serving as a site for geopolitical and proxy warfare for countries such as Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Origins of the Conflict
The civil war in Syria may seem like a relatively new development because of its constant relevance in our nation’s political debates. In reality, the Syrian civil war was sparked in March 2011 during the wave of democratic protests that had spread throughout the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. Since Assad came to power promising reform in 2000, opponents of the regime have continually been under threat and were worried about the security state Assad has created. Furthermore, sectarian violence had not been uncommon in the country and multiple groups were at odds within Syria. When the Arab Spring began and videos of the democratic protests were shared all over the world, Syrians caught wind of that revolutionary fervor. Anger was bubbling under the surface. When several teenagers were arrested and tortured over revolutionary graffiti they painted on a school in Daraa, a small city in southern Syria. Their arrests eventually led to protests where demonstrators were shot, and by April 25th the city was under full-scale siege by Assad’s government forces.  By July 2011, Syria became absolutely engulfed in nationwide protests demanding the resignation of President Bashar al Assad.  Those protests were met with violent backlash. Assad’s forces became fully committed to suppressing the unrest by any means necessary - eventually leading to the demonstrators arming themselves.
Third Parties: Proxy Warfare at its Finest
The list of third parties implicated in the Syrian Civil War makes it that much more deadly in terms of its far-reaching effects and potential to evolve into a wider inter-state conflict. To start, perhaps the most consequential external actor orchestrating much of the effort to keep the Assad regime intact is Russia. The country has been no stranger to propping up pariah regimes; it provided significant military and economic aid to the former Khan regime of Afghanistan, trained Baathist forces in Iraq, and provided economic assistance to formerly communist regimes in Yugoslavia and southeastern Asia. Russia’s involvement appears to be a remnant of Cold-War era geopolitics; Syria serves as the last outpost for Russia in the Middle East. With access to the Tartus port in northwestern Syria, the site serves geopolitical significance, as it not only connects to the Mediterranean Sea, but it also provides a gateway to Russia’s future ambitions in Western Europe. Just two weeks ago, Russia and Syria signed an agreement to expand Tartus, which is Russia’s sole foreign base. Now, it is capable of permanently hosting 11 Russian vessels, according to the Russian government. After years of backing the Assad regime, Russia has finally reaped its most consequential reward, which will ultimately amount to increasing naval influence in the Mediterranean. While most assume that Russia is being weakened by this quagmire – both strategically and symbolically – Putin has proved once again that his realpolitik mirrors Russia’s historical tendency to pursue expansionary schemes.
As one can see, the extent of Russia’s involvement in Syria is quite drastic, as it not only involves providing military manpower, but also institutional support for Syrian forces. Just last week, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it would establish a center in Aleppo to train between fifty to seventy regime soldiers to form an engineering division in the Syrian army. In addition, practically all of the Syrian Army’s jets, transport planes, and helicopters come from Russia. Russia and Syria have maintained strong relations ever since the signing of the “friendship and cooperation” treaty, which occurred between the former Soviet Union and the Syrian government. In fact, in late 2015, Putin and Assad signed a Russian-Syrian military pact, which essentially gave Putin a blank check to do what he pleases in Syria, including setting up military bases and allowing Russian military officers to come and go without visas in and out of Syria.
Iran’s connections to the Assad regime appear to be far more ideological than strategic, since both governments identify with the Shia denomination. Surprisingly, though, the Iranian government also sees Assad as a useful ally against regional threats, including Israel, Iraq, and other terrorist groups. Therefore, it is fair to say that the relationship between Iran and Syria is even healthier than that of Russia and Syria, since they are bound by mutual ideologies and interests. The Iranian-Syrian alliance dates back to the early 1980s, when the Syrian government provided the Iranian government diplomatic and military assistance in wake of the Iraqi invasion of Iran. Since then, the extensive ties between both regimes have strengthened and had arguably peaked when Iran decided to back the Assad regime when the first series of protests during the Arab Spring broke out in Syria. In 2014, Iran had already deployed over 10,000 military personnel and around 60-70 Quds force commanders to Syria. Iran’s ambitions in Syria will remain unfazed even in the face of a strong military or political opposition, since the government is seeking to obtain direct access to its Shia proxy forces, or Hezbollah, which mainly operate throughout southwestern Syria. Essentially, Iran’s strategy in Syria is governed by “war or surrender” tactics, which involve besieging Sunni towns in Syria to the point where they are choked off from any aid or food. Finally, Iran hopes to provide its Lebanese Hezbollah forces access to the Syrian coastal region, which will allow Hezbollah to gain access to the Golan Heights. This strategic positioning will further Iran’s goals vis a vis the Israeli government, and the standoff may eventually become a cause for alarm.
The US and other Sunni coalition forces have indeed played intel-related and military roles in the war, but their pursuits rarely amounted to any pivotal breakthrough. For example, the American government has conducted isolated drone strikes on ISIS forces and had provided intel and combat support to rebels, while the Jordanian government has been aiding the process of training Syrian rebels.  Despite this, their impacts have been largely subsidiary.
Current State of the Conflict
Currently at the UN, for the first time in 6 years, peace talks are taking place between Assad and the Syrian opposition with both parties sitting at the same table. Supposedly, progress has been made in the past couple of weeks, but as leading UN envoy in the discussions Staffan de Mistura admitted, he saw little hope of an actual breakthrough, but rather hoped to garner some momentum for future talks to continue. Specifically, both sides have agreed to focus on counter terrorism as part of the future agreement, something that serves as a concession to Assad who has been claiming since the beginning that he has simply been fighting terrorism all along.  With that concession comes hopes of moving forward. The United Nations ultimately would like to oversee free democratic elections in Syria as part of this deal as well as having a new constitution put into place. However, with Syrian opposition in a worse place territorially having lost Aleppo, their last major city, as well as the transition from a strongly anti Assad Obama Administration, the peace deal may look different than many rebels would hope for. Mistura has recently shied away from using the words “political transition” in reference to the possibility that with President Trump, the removal of Assad from power is perhaps not going to be a goal of these peace talks. 
Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey, each of whom backed opposing sides in this conflict, have been working together for the past few months in an effort to bring an end to the war and uphold the fragile ceasefire they crafted in parts of Syria. That ceasefire does not include the jihadist groups ISIS and Al Qaeda and it is begrudgingly supported by Assad as well as Iran.  Opposition forces continue to claim that Assad and his allies are violating the ceasefire. Turkey recently said that the insistence on the removal of Assad in any peace deal was no longer realistic. Of course, like all aspects of this conflict, no matter what the large international governing bodies may be saying, the domestic groups supporting the fighting on the ground are not all in agreement. The Saudi backed High Negotiations Committee, an umbrella group for the Syrian political opposition to Assad, said that the president must step down in any deal.  Wherever these talks lead, it unlikely they come to a clean resolution any time soon.
The State of the Syrian Economy
Six years of devastating war full of endless airstrikes on cities and civilian population centers, the use of chemicals weapons, and full scale destruction has been devastating for the Syrian economy. In physical infrastructure alone, the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) a non-profit, non-governmental think tank in Syria, estimates there has been roughly 75 billion U.S. dollars worth of damage. Furthermore, GDP has contracted by an average 19% annually since the beginning of the war.  Estimates of Syria’s Nominal GDP by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) show this bleak reality.
The chart shows Syria’s nominal GDP dropping from roughly 60 billion US dollars to 14 Billion over the course of the conflict. The IMF researchers concluded, “If we hypothetically assume that for Syria the post-conflict rebuilding period will begin in 2018,” IMF analysts wrote, “and the economy grows at its trend rate of about 4.5%, it would take the country about 20 years to reach its pre-war real GDP level”. In the following figure from the Syrian Center for Policy Research, you can see which sectors contributed the most to the decrease in GDP.
It is important to point out the 16% decrease in GDP from government services from the above graphic. The damage from this contraction along with the clear transfer of government funds to military purposes has left education and health services out to dry. Syria was once one of the most literate countries in the Middle East, however today, 45% of children in Syria are out of school. Furthermore, it has been estimated that 50% of hospitals are either fully or partially closed. The proportion of doctors to patients has shifted from 1 doctor for every 600 people to care for to 1 for every 4,000.  Not only have oil prices been dropping, but many of the oil fields Syria once had are currently in the hands of ISIS and other jihadist groups. With 30% of the government’s 2010 revenue prior to the civil war coming from oil, the losses in the industry will pose a huge problem for any attempts to rebuild the country’s’ economy in the future. 
Impact on the Regional Economy
The economic effects of the Syrian Civil War on the region cannot be understated: the Turkish, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Iraqi economies have all borne significant damage as a result. The primary factor contributing to rising debt in several neighboring countries is the refugee crisis. The scale of human suffering in Syria is quite abysmal; it is estimated that over 6 million Syrians are internally-displaced, while another 4.8 million have already left the country.
To give some perspective, the World Bank estimates that the cost of housing the refugees in Jordan has incurred a cost of around $2.5 billion a year, which is around one-fourth of the Jordanian government’s revenue. Despite the heavy cost, the Jordanian labor market has largely remained unaffected.
The Lebanese economy, on the other hand, has been rattled by the influx of refugees. Estimates show that around 200,000 Lebanese nationals have fallen into poverty, and around 300,000 Lebanese citizens became unemployed, due to the lowering cost of labor incurred by Syrian workers. In addition, trade has been particularly stifled, since there are few convenient routes that enter the country. As a result, Lebanon witnessed a 60% decrease in land transportation from Jordan and Iraq.
Turkey houses approximately 2.9 million refugees, which costs the Turkish economy somewhere around $850 million annually. Lastly, the Iraqi economy has been ravaged due to the power vacuum that was exacerbated by the civil war. The majority of the Iraqi state is either run by Kurds, Sunni tribal groups, or ISIS, which has significant implications for the state of the Iraqi economy. Iraq has seen per capita income declining by 23% to 28%, and estimates say that 16% of the reduction in per capita GDP can be directly attributed to war. All together, the greater Levant has lost close to over $35 billion in output, in terms of 2007 prices.
Solutions? Think Again
Clearly, the solutions to this seemingly eternal war are extremely convoluted and multifaceted, however, one solution seems to be overlooked due to its own simplicity and insensitivity to the casualties of the conflict. Edward Luttwak argues that perhaps we should consider “giving war a chance”. According to Luttwak, wars “can resolve political conflicts” and have a sole function: “to bring peace”. For this to happen, though, all belligerents have to become exhausted, or, one side simply wins decisively. Such an assumption, granted, is fairly intuitive and lacks the nuance that most modern-day military solutions have vis-a-vis the Syrian civil war. Judging by the intricacy of the alliances involved, the fruitless prospects of power-sharing, American reluctance to interfere, and increasing sectarian conflict, the Syrian Civil War will continue to wage on until it dies out.
The Syrian Civil War, plagued with unending third-party intervention, would fare better if it did not become an increasingly internationalized war. One can deduce that American intervention would inevitably lead to some form of confrontation among the various militaries that are involved. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to presume that the only power capable of ending the conflict can do so, due to internal political constraints and the presence of powerful interests, beholden by Iran and Russia. Of course, that’s not to say that the humanitarian loss cannot be addressed. UN refugee relief activities need continued support from not only the West, but also from countries neighboring Syria.
Additional Blog Posts
Student Blog Disclaimer
The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.