One of the issues that has bedevilled attempts at creating an alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been the absence of a viable governing structure. There has been no real Syrian government in exile, and attempts at putting together such an organisation have failed to provide a united political opposition.
Internally, it has been rent by self-interest, differences of outlook and a lingering suspicion from the early days of the civil war that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood sought to use it as a stalking horse for its own interests.
Externally, the competing influences of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey almost guaranteed that the political opposition in its various guises would reflect the competition between its external supporters. And for the West, the problem with the Syrian opposition has been the same as for the greater region: to what degree secular liberal democracies should support groups that are neither secular nor liberal.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the Assad regime has been quite deliberate in maintaining its administrative reach into as great an area as possible. In much of the Middle East, the state sector is the key provider of services and employment. This was, and remains, true in Syria despite civil war raging for more than five years.
As his forces have lost control over parts of Syria, Assad has consolidated his administrative centres in defended locations so the organs of the state still function. Registration and travel documents are still issued and public-sector wages still paid. For all of Islamic State’s inflated claims to sovereignty, only the Syrian state can issue passports recognised by any other country, or education certificates that are recognised. In Syria, the state still matters.
The continued functioning of the state apparatus has allowed the Assad regime and its international supporters to couch the fighting in terms of maintaining the integrity of the state. Although it has lost significant territory to opposition groups, the government still administers wherever it feasibly can. In Deir az-Zour the bureaucratic chain still functions despite being surrounded by Islamic State; in Hassakeh it does the same even though Kurdish forces dominate and are much stronger than those of the regime.
This administrative continuity has presented even more challenges for the West. The fractured nature and predominance of Islamist groups of the armed opposition has meant that finding reliable allies whose values system aren’t unacceptably different to Western values has been difficult. The YPG, or armed wing of the Syrian Kurds, has proven one of the most reliable and its role in supporting the campaign against Islamic State and using the effects of the Western air campaign to retake territory has been one of the West’s few success stories.
But in the medium term the political aims of the YPG are unlikely to be satisfied by the West. Turkey will not accept a Kurdish enclave on its southern border, and no other state is likely to recognise a Syrian Kurdish political entity. The Syrian government is best placed to exploit the efforts of the YPG post-conflict by negotiating a modus vivendi whereby it is able to grant a degree of autonomy while maintaining Damascus’s sovereignty through the government agencies that have remained functioning.
Elsewhere, the maintenance of Syrian government agencies will strengthen the negotiating hand of Damascus. There is talk that on the sidelines of negotiations lists are being drawn up of which opposition groups are terrorists or not, and therefore who may have a role in a future Syria. There are also proposals for elections.
But for those hoping that this will open a window for democratic governance there is little to cheer about as it is unlikely that many, if any, of the groups deemed not to be terrorists will be secular liberal groups. Even if lists of “acceptable’’ groups are drawn up and the proposed elections are held, these groups will find it hard to challenge centralised Ba’athist rule.
To begin with, the desire for Assad’s backers to maintain Syria within their geopolitical orbit by ensuring as much of the regime as is feasible remains in place will be strong. Tehran has not invested billions of dollars and a rising number of its soldiers and proxy militias to lose influence in such a strategically important country.
And none of the opposition groups will have national reach in Syria or control any of the levers of government or the sources of administrative and fiscal power on which most Syrians rely. Those are held by Damascus and have been maintained throughout the conflict.
The Assad regime’s decision to maintain the functions of the state as far as is possible for as long as it can may end up proving a strategic masterstroke. Even if the regime hasn’t been able to win the war, by maintaining the facade of governance it still aims to win the peace.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College.