Analysis

Syria’s situation—the massive amount of discussion, fragmented governance, and ongoing fighting—are not going to disappear anytime soon, and education models in Syria need to better adapt to it to address the growing learning gap. Although many organizations have programs to address education gaps for Syrian students, their approaches—focusing on access over quality, building traditional schools, supporting underground schools—are not the only way to keep Syrian students learning. These approaches sweep the following under the rug: the reality of politicized curricula by state and non-state actors, dangers the journey to and presence in schools pose, as well as the psychological impact of learning under threat, specifically in areas out of government control vulnerable to shelling and airstrikes. While education overhaul in Syria goes hand in hand with a seemingly-distant political solution, new models can keep communities connected to learning while minimizing exposure to threats in the current environment.

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International political opinion about the future of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has shifted. President Donald Trump's revocation of any remaining support for the covert CIA 'Train and Equip' program, and French President Emmanuel Macron's recent admission that the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is no longer a key policy objective, demonstrate the faded political will to force a transfer of power in Syria. Within that context, the complexity that the current landscape presents for stabilization and reconstruction merits consideration.

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Throughout the conflict in Syria, regime forces and their allies have deliberately and systematically targeted medical workers, ambulances, and hospitals in opposition-held areas. There have been more than 454 attacks on medical facilities in the conflict, with the Assad regime and Russia responsible for ninety-one percent of them. Over 814 Syrian health workers have been killed since 2011. There is a strategic logic at play: by inflicting widespread injuries on local populations and then routinely destroying the healthcare that would treat them, areas eventually become unlivable. This strategy aims to break the will to resist in opposition-held communities and displace populations outside of regime control.

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As the Syrian conflict escalated, preemptive plans to rebuild the country started early on. The United Nations and IMF estimate between $100-200 billion is needed to bring Syria back to its pre-war GDP. However, with the central government weak and trying to reestablish itself internationally, it is also an opportunity for other countries to achieve political goals in the region. Several overlapping motivations drive countries to invest in Syria: economic positioning, re-investment to recoup losses, and containing radicalized fighters.

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In early April, two days before the United States attacked a Syrian airbase with cruise missiles, high-level representatives from some seventy countries convened in Brussels for a conference on the future of Syria. The issue of Syria’s post-war reconstruction featured prominently on the agenda. Its presence signaled more than a concern with the daunting challenges of rebuilding a country devastated by six years of violent conflict. Reconstruction has become the latest political battlefield in struggles over the terms of a post-war settlement for Syria, and the future of Bashar al-Assad.

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The fall of Aleppo in December 2016 marked a turning point in the Syrian uprising from a civil war where the opposition still had a chance, to one where the regime was on the path to victory. Amid this pivot marked by widening military asymmetries and international accommodation to the Syrian regime; governments, multilateral donor agencies, and working groups have begun to consider reconstruction strategies for Syria. 

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With no end in sight to a war that started six years ago, has claimed more than 465,000 lives, and displaced millions, it is fair to ask when is the right time to launch a much-needed effort to rebuild Syria. Should this effort start now, while the country is still ravaged by war, or once the conflict is over?

This quandary will inform the work of the Atlantic Council’s Rebuilding Syria Initiative, a two-year project that aims to identify what can be achieved now in terms of physical reconstruction in Syria, while simultaneously developing “a long-term plan that would address the massive reconstruction requirements of Syria in the future,” said Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“This project, however, is not just about bricks and mortar,” said Hof. “It will inevitably have to grapple with the question of how, if at all, investments, loans, and grants can proceed on a suitably massive scale if legitimate governance is absent.”

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Below are remarks by Omar Shawaf and audio of the event on Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy hosted by the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington on March 21, 2017:

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Caught in the sixth year of its interminable civil war, Syria today is beset by a combination of fleeting ceasefires, bombings, localized offensives, and meandering negotiations. Most of the country is controlled either by terrorist groups or by a weak, isolated central government in Damascus. Meanwhile, the United States finds itself in the midst of a dramatic political transition that is reverberating globally. In such an unstable environment, the question of actually rebuilding Syria may appear fanciful, abstract, or at the very least peripheral next to the issues of counter terrorism and humanitarian catastrophe.

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