Saving Syria is conditional on the immediate and total removal of the Assad regime, by force or via political settlement. Otherwise, dragging on the stalemate will leave nothing to be saved. The cost of the Arab Spring in Syria has been catastrophic in comparison to other countries. Syria has suffered severe destruction at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the last two years, due to his violent reaction to peaceful demands for freedom, dignity, and reform.

In terms of the human cost, by the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution that began on March 15, 2011, over 70,000 people have been killed, three million internally displaced, and one million seeking refuge in neighboring countries, according to UN sources. Countless more Syrians have been injured, and tens of thousands are imprisoned, suffering all manner of torture and ill-treatment.

Economically, the devastation is tremendous. The Syrian economy, which before the revolution had a GDP of approximately $50 billion annually, has collapsed, losing about 60 percent of its value in 2010. According to the United Nations ESCWA (based in Beirut) economic indicators show that prices have risen by 100 percent, unemployment over 50 percent, and poverty over 40 percent. In fact, production has come to an almost complete halt in most parts of Syria. At the very least, 2.5 million homes (or 50 percent of total private housing) have either been partially or totally destroyed. This economic cost of the Syria conflict is estimated to have reached over $100 billion dollars by the end of 2012, according to our estimates, which differs from another study about Syria’s damage estimations sponsored by the UN Development Program with the Syrian Economic Research Center (January 2013).

The United States has not only a humanitarian obligation, but also strategic and values-based interests in coming to Syria’s aid with no further delay.  It must act, not only with military and diplomatic measures, but with financial action as well. To facilitate a rebel victory in Syria, the United States should encourage the opposition “to establish on Syrian territory a government dedicated to citizenship and civil society, recognize that government, ensure it has the financial resources to succeed, and defend it with means short of US boots in the ground,” a position which Michele Dunne and Barry Pavel advocated in a recent Atlantic Council paper.

US action in Syria should also include a comprehensive relief campaign.  Although the United States has already contributed approximately $300 million in humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees, reports suggest that it has been mishandled and misused by the Assad regime, whose agencies delivered it to areas largely unaffected by the crisis. The humanitarian catastrophe is growing rapidly and has expanded beyond the capabilities of the United Nations. To avert greater disaster and starvation of refugees trapped inside the country, the United States should lead an international effort to create a humanitarian safe zone and corridors inside Syria.

Financial support to the Syrian opposition is a crucial element of an effective US response. Large territories within Syria have been liberated and are under administrative control of the Free Syrian Army. These areas suffer greatly from a lack of basic goods and services, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition does not have the funds to remedy the situation. Thus, US action in Syria must include the provision of sufficient resources to the Coalition to finance local councils, basic services, the restoration of law and order, and sustainable economic activity. Although the financial burden should not fall disproportionately upon the United States, it can play a leading role in mobilizing funds from other sources. 

A National Action Plan for Reconstruction and Recovery

Given that military options are still the first priority, financial assistance to the Syrian opposition must be advanced in two phases: an immediate phase to meet the needs of the current crisis and a future phase for reconstruction and recovery needs in a post-Assad period.  The Syrian Opposition Coalition has been working toward scenarios and plans for both stages, the most cohesive of which could be called the National Action Plan for Reconstruction and Recovery. The plan is not a substitute for military and diplomatic measures, but rather it would go hand-in-hand with both.

This plan is economic in nature, similar to the Marshall Plan, spanning a three-year transitional period.  It sets out an economic identity for Syria as a liberal market economy with social justice in mind.  Specifically, with the help of the Friends of Syria Group, the plan calls for short-term emergency measures for a twelve-month period (regardless of whether implementation begins before or after the fall of the Assad regime) to prevent a further collapse of economic institutions in Syria and to support the efforts of a transitional government. In the medium-term (the subsequent twenty-four-month period) emergency measures would continue, and longer-term steps towards economic recovery can begin.  The social justice elements of the plan would include equal economic opportunity for all Syrians and the establishment of an effective social safety net.

As part of the overall economic blueprint, Syria must also have in place a financial institution capable of mobilizing liquid funds to meet the urgent needs of the Syrian people. This could be in the form of a Syrian National Fund to pool financial resources and, under the administration of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the supervision of the donors’ community, could serve as a tool to save Syria from state failure and greater suffering. 

The Syrian National Fund (SNF)

The main objective of the SNF would be to undertake the provision of funds for relief, reconstruction, economic recovery, and a revolutionary security force to protect civilians from the onslaught of the Assad regime.  The SNF’s mandate would be temporary, ending once the stated objectives of the revolution are met; sovereignty of the fund would then be transferred to a transitional government after the fall of the regime, and at a later stage recognized as an independent development institution to contribute to rebuilding the new Syria.

The mission of this fund would be to mobilize financial support for the Syrian revolution, provide relief and restore basic living standards for Syrians inside the country, assist civilian authorities in liberated areas to rebuild homes and damaged infrastructure, and revitalize citizens’ economic well-being.   But perhaps the most important task would be to ensure that the Free Syrian Army is equipped to protect civilians on the ground, and to build the capacity of the opposition-led transitional government until the regime collapses.  As such, expenditure would be organized into the following categories: civilian protection, reconstruction, relief efforts, economic revitalization, and general budget items of the state.

As Syrians’ suffering continues to escalate, the SNF strategy would be of an immediate and urgent nature.  Thus, it cannot depend on a single source of financing to accomplish its mission, but on multiple and varied sources in order to make all legal options available to the SNF and the broader SOC. Potential donors and funding would come mainly from Arab members of the Friends of Syria Group. Other possible sources of funding could include grants and donations from states and international organizations, sovereign loans and facilities, remittances and investment from Syrian expatriates, recovered assets of the Assad regime, and public revenue from government activities and the provision of utilities in liberated areas of Syria. An initial capital of $5 billion, at least, from all these sources is a good start of commitment.  

In terms of its status and structure, the SNF would be a legal public entity endowed with complete independence over its administrative and financial aspects, and owned by the Syrian people. For operational purposes, the fund would be registered and headquartered in Egypt as an offshore organization to enable it to perform its intended function. It would serve as a treasury of the revolution at first, and later as a development institution in the new Syria.  The SNF would adhere to international standards including ethical and transparent financial management, distribution of humanitarian relief, good governance, environmental sustainability, and gender equality. It should invest in the capabilities of its own staff to effectively encourage good governance, and to facilitate the participation the various levels of stakeholders, including the transitional government, civil society, the private sector, expatriates, and development partners.

The international community must come to Syria’s rescue before it is too late, mainly through military means first. Formulating an economic roadmap is no less essential to finding a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflict than military and diplomatic measures.  The Syrian National Fund, within the broader context of the National Action Plan, can serve as the immediate lifeblood of the opposition’s provisional government in liberated territories and the Free Syrian Army, as well a longer term remedy for Syrian suffering by ensuring liquid funds for the provision of humanitarian aid, the restoration of vital services, and the rebuilding of a sustainable economy. Without consensus around such a vision, hardship in Syria will live on long after the fall of the Assad regime.

Hussein M. El-Amach, PhD is an external contributor to the Atlantic Council. He is a renowned Syrian economist, previously project director with the United Nations Development Programme, and former chairman of the Agency for Combating Unemployment in Syria.