Ideas

Why The War In Syria Is Far From Over

After the fall of Aleppo, various alliances of convenience will be put to the test, as the scenario suddenly gets more complicated for both Damascus and Moscow.

A pro-government Syrian soldier prepares ammunition in Aleppo.
Isabelle Lasserre

-Analysis-

It had long been anticipated, but the fall of Aleppo still marks a decisive turning point in the Syrian war. It basically eliminates the opposition's ability to pose a military challenge or position itself as a political alternative. And it puts Bashar al-Assad solidly back on track. Supported by Russia and Iran, he has a new lease on political life, at least in the medium term.

But what the fall of Aleppo clearly is not, is the end of the war. It just marks the beginning of a new phase. The Syrian government will now, without a doubt, focus on securing its territorial gains but also on retaking, by force, the regions of the so-called "useful Syria" that still escape its control.

In the meantime, the Geneva peace process could well be swept away. David Petraeus told the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Manama Dialogue in Bahrein, last weekend that it was "very late in the day indeed," to find a political solution. The American general, who was in charge of pacifying northern Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, did not exclude a partitioning of Syria as a possible solution.

But the country's fragmentation won't necessarily bring peace and stability. The recapture of Palmyra by ISIS on Sunday is a timely reminder of that. It's a setback for the regime and for Russia, which had driven ISIS out of the ancient city in March, and it proves that the jihadists are resourceful. It's one of the laws of war: it is often more difficult to hold a city than to capture it.

The fall of Aleppo, coming after a long agony to which the international community — and especially Muslim countries — have turned a blind eye, could lead the rebels, sickened by this abandonment, to radicalize and join the ranks of the jihadist forces: either ISIS or the former al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch.

Raqqa remains

While the international coalition is hopeful it can recapture Mosul, ISIS" "capital city" in Iraq, it hasn't yet really attacked Raqqa, the terrorist group's Syrian stronghold, which remains both a retreat and a stepping stone — confirmation that the jihadists largely still have free rein in Syria.

Assad and Putin last year — Photo: Kremlin

Assad's ability to retake control of Syria is far from established, even with the help of his Russian and Iranian godfathers. In all wars, abuses and violent acts committed by the enemy provoke a radicalization. "Even if the regime captures the whole territory, the opposition's violence against the government and its desire for revenge will only grow," a Syrian opposition member said during the same Bahrein conference where Patraeus spoke. "Even if it wins the war, this authority will have no legitimacy to govern the people. The international community waited for Aleppo to fall, thinking they'd be rid of the problem. That won't be the case."

The coming new stage of the Syrian war will also test the fragile Russia-Turkey alliance. Having materialized in Syria with eased tensions between Damascus and Ankara, the time will eventually come to deal with the Kurdish question. "The Syrian war is made of three circles: international, regional and Syrian," a diplomat warns. "One can't solve the third circle without solving the other two first, especially the disagreements between Russia and the United States, as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia."

So far, Russia has been dictating the military scenario in the Syrian conflict. But the complexity of the crisis, the entanglement of regional interests and the multiplication of those global players involved in the conflict make finding a unilateral "solution" — like Moscow did in ending the war in Chechnya — much less likely.

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Economy

Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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