Syrian Arab Republic
- Strategic geographical location
- Energy transit country
- Oil potential
- Civil war since 2011: hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of internally and externally displaced people, and much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed
- Divided territory, under the sway of different groups
- Official oil production has been sharply reduced
Humanitarian challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 and continued foreign influence
After ten years of civil war, the situation in Syria will remain very unstable in 2021. Compounding unresolved territorial tensions, the COVID-19 crisis further undermined the already shaky socio-economic conditions, which will continue to weigh on the country in 2021. The health system, already extremely damaged by the war, found itself on the brink of collapse as health care workers were highly exposed to the disease. Moreover, the lack of transparency about the numbers of infections and deaths and the almost non-existent government response to the crisis further weakened the country and increased humanitarian needs. The chaotic economic situation was exacerbated by the health crisis, particularly by the significant drop in household consumption due to rampant inflation and the resulting explosion in food prices, which soared by 250% compared with 2019. Humanitarian challenges are mounting and are expected to persist in 2021.
Meanwhile, the regime is growing stronger but the influence of foreign powers remains. Since the fall of Aleppo in 2016, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has retaken much of the territory. Other participants have joined the confrontation between the regime and the Free Syrian Army. On one side, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are providing the military and logistical support needed to keep the Damascus regime in place. On the other, an international coalition of Western and Arab countries has formed to curb the expansion of radical Islamist groups (al-Nusra and Daesh) in Syria and Iraq. Although these jihadist groups have been defeated, coalition forces remain present in the Kurdish-held areas east of the Euphrates. Some Islamist militias continue to be active in the desert areas of southern Syria. Turkey, which shares a land border with Syria, has intervened several times in the conflict to protect its borders and interests in the region. While supporting the rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey is trying to limit the influx of Syrian refugees into its territory and to make sure that the end of the war does not lead to the creation of a Kurdish state. Despite the ceasefire in the Idlib region, violence persists in the area, which is torn between jihadist groups and opposition rebels.
In September 2019, the UN established a constitutional committee, composed of members of the government, the opposition and civil society, to initiate a political transition. The committee met again on 23 November to draft a new constitution. However, it is unclear at this time what progress this committee might achieve.
A difficult and controversial reconstruction process
The return of several provinces to the Bashar al-Assad regime is expected to trigger a gradual recovery for the Syrian economy, which remains badly weakened by ten years of conflict, to which the impact of the health crisis has now been added. Syrian GDP shrank by more than 60% during the 2010/2016 period, according to World Bank estimates, and recorded its worst economic performance in 2020. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed during the fighting. Industry has shrivelled up, while economic sanctions make it difficult to access financing. Bashar al-Assad's regime has been under American and European sanctions since 2011, but it can count on China's support in addition to that of its main allies. Despite the backing of Russia and Iran, the country still has considerable needs. The Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) has estimated the total cost of Syrian reconstruction at USD 388 billion. While some Western countries would be willing to participate in the financing, they are making their assistance conditional on the establishment of an inclusive political process. Another factor limiting the reconstruction process is the lack of human resources. Ten years of war have taken a severe human toll. The number of conflict-related deaths is estimated at 586,000 (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 2020). In addition, 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, have been displaced in the country and 5.6 million are officially registered as refugees (UNHCR, November 2020), mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The issue of refugee return remains central to the success of the peace process. While countries hosting large numbers of Syrians would be in favour of facilitating their return, the regime continues to send mixed signals. Announcements made by the government are intended to be reassuring and support a return of displaced persons. However, starting back in 2012, the government has used property law to seize the assets of displaced persons. In addition, many refugees fear conscription or arbitrary arrests, not to mention the threat of insecurity that persists in many Syrian regions.
Last updated: February 2021