Analysis

On January 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered some long-awaited clarity on US policy in post-ISIS Syria. As recently as a few weeks ago some observers (including this author) did not believe the United States would stay in Syria at all after defeating the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). Secretary Tillerson presented an ambitious US policy to be advanced by an indefinite US military deployment in areas of Syria taken from ISIS, supporting tens of thousands of local militia fighters dominated by its Kurdish partners against ISIS, the PYD.

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This past December marks one year since Aleppo fell back into regime control following six years of fighting and a bloody aerial bombing campaign. This put an end to the most violent theatre of war in Syria; marked by the departure of those expelled from Aleppo on the last convoy on December 22 to the western countryside. Russia proposed to various factions of the opposition that all fighters and civilians in areas under their control be evacuated to Idlib under Turkish supervision. 

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The Kurds in northern Syria have established their own education system in what they call Rojava, unfettered by the central government in Damascus, after taking control of the area following the Syrian regime's withdrawal. This has been achieved through rolling out a Kurdish curriculum, which has so far been introduced for Kurdish (non-Arab) pupils in the primary and preparatory stages of their school education. They hope to follow this with a Kurdish secondary school curriculum, before opening universities in the three Kurdish provinces of Al-Jazira, Euphrates, and Afrin.

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A few months ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a speech to Syrian expatriate businessmen announcing his imminent military victory over “terrorism” thanks to the support of his Russian and Iranian Allies. In his speech, Assad promised loyalists and businessmen a share in reconstruction while stressing that the US, Gulf, and other western companies would have no role to play in reconstruction whatsoever.

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The promise of foreign reconstruction aid will not induce cooperation from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is why international efforts to rebuild the war-ravaged country should focus on local solutions, removed from the regime’s sphere of influence, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“A regime that would rather have gone through what it had to go through over the past six years… than [share] political power… is not going to do so if we offer them money,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Among others, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, has deemed reconstruction funding the last bit of leverage Western nations still hold over the Assad regime. However, Itani said: “I don’t see it.” He said Assad would disrupt and manipulate any effort to rebuild in territories controlled by the regime.

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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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Although the United States government has yet to officially become involved in the reconstruction conversation, it will, with little doubt, be involved in some capacity in Syria’s reconstruction. Postponing the how, when, and where will only weaken America’s position vis-à-vis other actors in the country. In a press conference in May, special envoy Brett McGurk said that the US is not planning to pursue “long term reconstruction where projects are chosen by outsiders often with no connection to the local community,” but he did not say what type of reconstruction it will consider. McGurk alluded to US hesitance to become involved in reconstruction until a political settlement has been reached with Assad. Currently, the United States funds a number of programs focusing on humanitarian, relief, and stabilization projects, and some of these activities resemble reconstruction activities, but the US government has not officially changed its mandate to focus on reconstruction. Nonetheless, there are important takeaways that can be applied to future reconstruction projects.

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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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