Analysis

In January 2018, Syria Independent Monitoring published a research report titled “Understanding Market Drivers in Syria” in which it conducted field research into the olive/olive oil and spice/herb market systems in northeastern and northwestern Syria to assess the flow of food commodities—that has been highly impacted by the conflict —in the dynamic and adaptable agricultural markets that have proven to be the most resilient. Therefore, to stimulate the market, it is recommended that more aid be targeted at the agricultural sector by facilitating market actors, creating cooperatives, and offering a variety of funding options for local farmers.

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In his recent testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, former United States Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, called on Congress and the US administration to consider cutting assistance to United Nations humanitarian aid programs in Syria. He followed up with an op-ed in The Hill explaining his controversial stance: for years the Assad government has impeded or entirely blocked aid to opposition-held areas, effectively causing the US government, through the UN, to subsidize the Syrian government with one-sided humanitarian aid. This legitimizes and enriches the very apparatus responsible for the genesis of the conflict in Syria and the prolonged suffering of millions. Ambassador Ford is not alone in his call for a re-evaluation of the current US approach to aid in Syria: a recent report from Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Tobias Schneider, an independent international security analyst, suggests a de-centralized strategy that relies on established local partners in non-regime areas, thus bypassing the Assad regime and the ramifications of US entanglement.

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A key component of the new US policy towards Syria, as outlined by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his address at Stanford, is its focus on stabilization efforts in areas cleared of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Stabilization efforts, according to Tillerson, aim to bring about two of the five desired end states he enumerates: ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, and facilitating conditions that would allow for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). His concession that “no party in the Syrian conflict is capable of victory or stabilizing the country via military means alone” indicates an understanding of the root cause of both the war with ISIS and the Syrian civil war: bad governance.

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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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