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Episode 63. Can Syria Be Rebuilt?

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We are entering the next stage of the Syrian Civil War, a less bloody stage, but a far more impactful one. The major powers that ratcheted this war to the level it's at today are now looking to finalise the future for the country. Will it be divided into zones of control, will the US look to negotiate a settlement, or will Assad regain control of his former nation?

There are few good options on the table, and each one of them comes with a myriad of consequences for the Syrian people.



Joshua Landis

  • Head of the Centre for Middle East Studies for the University of Oklahoma

  • Well published expert on Syria and its Civil War

  • Founder of the website Syria Comment, which provides up-to-date analysis and commentary for on-the-ground situation in Syria today.

Doug Bandow

  • Senior Fellow at the CATO Institute, specialising in Foreign Policy

  • Former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan

  • Editor of The Inquirer Magazine

Robert Ford

  • Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute

  • Professor at Yale University

  • US Ambassador to Syria during the Obama Administration

  • Former Ambassador to Iraq and Algeria

Charles Lister

  • Senior Fellow and Director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute

  • Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute in Qatar

  • Senior Consultant for the Internationally backed Syria Track 2 Dialogue Initiative


Part 1: From Bad, to Worse (5:23)

  • Landis takes us through the deep religious, cultural, economic, and ethnic divisions in Syria that played a part in the country's civil war, and the extent to which it was caused or sparked by the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

  • We look at the early days of the conflict, how it quickly devolved into an ethnically driven war, the early involvement of al-Qaeda, and the short amount of time it took for any democratic opposition groups to be pushed out by more authoritarian factions.

  • The northeast of the country had long been under resourced and treated unfavourably by the leadership in Damascus, with the region's oil wealth and agricultural potential largely having their economic benefits exported to the capital. This played a huge part in ISIS' ability to quickly establish themselves over so much of the region, and one must understand that part of the goal of ISIS was to create a state for Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq where they had long been discriminated against by Shi'a ruling groups.

  • We take a brief look at the evolution of the US' role in the region, from supporting Assad's opposition, to its working with Russia against Islamic extremism, to its move toward the goal of forcing Assad to the negotiating table, instead of overthrowing him.

  • The Kurds have been a critical part of the developments in Syria; we look at their prior understanding with Assad, their work with the US, and what will happen to them once the US withdraws.


Part 2: The Hospital Pass (29:34)

  • Bandow analyses the options in front of the US today. With many ugly choices, which best suit the US' various goals, and in which ways?

  • in Bandow's view the Gulf States could play a significant role in changing Syria, by forming a large coalition likely led by Gulf State funding, which could move Syria more toward the idealised democratic form of government. How Assad could be convinced or forced to allow this is a harder question.

  • We look at the evolution of the US Foreign Policy response over the three administrations that have been involved in it, and how their responses have impacted events on the ground.


Part 3: Empty Threats and Bad Bets (40:51)

  • With Ford we trace the role of Turkey in the conflict, where involvement was all but guaranteed because of their proximity and long-standing issues with the Kurdish population in its Eastern provinces. Stopping the creation of an independent Kurdish state on their border is a key Turkish foreign policy goal. This in turn made the involvement of certain Gulf States very likely if not certain, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

  • We look at the territorial status of Syria; including the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights which in his estimation stand no chance of being returned to Damascus, the Turkish occupied parts of north-eastern Syria, where Ankara is much more likely seeking to extract concessions regarding the Kurds than to annex land.

  • This in turn leads us to examine what Syria would look like following a US withdrawal of support from Kurdish territories. With Ankara, Moscow, and Damascus all largely sharing the goal of Syria regaining control over its north-eastern provinces, a new security arrangement could be negotiated fairly quickly. The real question is whether such control could be effectively established, or if the Kurdish forces would continue to resist sufficiently to permit their functional autonomy.

  • We trace the broad themes of the three US administration's approaches to Syria, look at why Obama did not enforce the Chemical Weapons Red Line, and get Ford's view on what the future of US policy should be in Syria, and what options give it the highest likelihood of achieving its respective aims.


Part 4: Picking Up the Cheque (1:04:43)

  • Lister helps us understand the various goals and ambitions of the forces at play.

  • This includes the attempt in 2019 by the Syrian Government to retake north-western Syria, which led to a rapid massive response from Turkey, leading to Moscow and Damascus changing their policy entirely from requiring a military solution to being open to demanding ceasefire talks.

  • Lister also analyses why Syria is so important to Russia, as a resurgence of its role in the Middle East, to establish greater military presence in both the Middle East and North Africa (via Hmeimim Air Base), to experiment with military capacities, and to disrupt the foreign policy goals of the US. We analyse their responses to the United States and Israel, their brutal and, Lister argues, criminal conduct against the Syrian opposition and Syrian civilians, and their likely endgame in the country.

  • We turn to Iran's role; where Syria is of existential value to them, and has led to a significant amount of military, economic, and political involvement from Tehran. Their role in supporting Assad has gone unnoticed compared to the Russian role, and should not be underestimated.

  • We look at what it would take to rebuild Syria, and who might have the interests and funds for it. While China has been engaged in infrastructure projects around the world, the task ahead for Syria is far beyond their appetite, even without considering issues of stability and security. We look beyond the rhetoric and examine the reality of Russia, Iran, China and the UAE's interest in rebuilding, as well as the utter incapacity of the country to even facilitate a rebuilding, and the lack of practical interest or involvement from those aforementioned countries.

  • So where does Syria go from here? Much of the Middle East has started to slightly warm up to the regime, realising that Bashar al-Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon. But the crippled economy, remaining foreign presences, and ongoing threat of ISIS means that there is no likely immediate change to be seen in Syria.


The Red Line's Syrian Civil War Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War.


The Battle for Syria

Christopher Phillips

Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria

Sam Dagher

Destroying a Nation

Nikolaos Van Dam



For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Allison Tranchina and Bilbo Swaggins

Message @MiketheSpelingExpert .


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