After seven years of bombing, shelling, gunfire and killing, there is little of Syria today that remains untouched by this terrible conflict, which has killed roughly half a million people and displaced half of the country’s prewar population.
In some areas, street after street lies in ruins, while whole communities have disappeared.
In many areas, too, there is no electricity or running water, few functioning phone lines — or even functioning roads, schools or hospitals.
“Half of Aleppo has been razed to the ground, the same with Homs and Deraa,” Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Dubai- and Beirut-based INEGMA consultancy, told The Washington Diplomat. “Ghouta, east of Damascus, is mostly destroyed. Major cities and towns are in ruins, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people and millions of refugees. The war in Syria has been totally devastating.”
This crater-strewn landscape is now the subject of another fierce international debate, too, as the U.S., Russia, Iran, the European Union and the Gulf states – as well as the Assad regime and the remaining opposition – argue over the thorny question of potential reconstruction.
In this debate, it is not just the daunting size of the task that is the major stumbling block, either. There is also the complex international and national political landscape.
Backed by Russian airpower and Iranian manpower, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has largely beat back the uprising that erupted in the wake of the Arab Spring. After years of supporting a constellation of rebel groups, the U.S., Gulf monarchies and Turkey have all but given up on the demand that Assad step down ahead of any political transition (also see “Proxies Maneuver to Resolve Syria’s War, But Assad Isn’t Going Anywhere for Now” in the February 2018 issue).
As of press time, the Syrian government had tentatively begun an offensive to recapture the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province, home to nearly 3 million people, at least half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country. The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe for civilians if the government launches a full-on assault on the thousands of opposition fighters hunkered down in Idlib, many of them hard-core jihadists.
Even if a bloodbath is averted in Idlib, any eventual peace talks will be marked by fierce battles at the bargaining table among the different players in Syria’s civil war who now want a say in how that war winds down.
Although greatly diminished, U.S.-backed rebels will want to retain some sort of influence in negotiations. Washington, however, is more preoccupied with preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State and containing Iran — objectives shared by Israel and Jordan. Turkey is primarily focused on preventing American-backed Syrian Kurdish forces from amassing territory along its border. Meanwhile, extremists such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have lost significant ground but still pose a threat.
And although Russia and Iran are ostensibly aligned in protecting Assad, their interests diverge. Iran, which has expended significant blood and treasure to keep Assad in power, will fight to maintain a long-term presence in Syria, regardless of any Russian attempts to constrain its ambitions. Russia, having secured its naval base in Syria, its sole foothold in the Mediterranean, will want to play a key role in the peace process and exert its influence in the region but avoid becoming entangled in a massive nation-building effort.
On Aug. 3, Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart of Reuters reported that Russia had reached out to America’s top general and proposed that the two countries cooperate to rebuild Syria. According to the article, the plan “received an icy reception in Washington” — not surprising given President Trump’s repeated vows to extricate the U.S. from foreign conflicts.
Russia’s idea to repatriate millions of refugees back to the war-torn country — many of them Sunnis who opposed Assad’s rule —was also met with widespread skepticism.
But the fact that these debates are even taking place is a sign of how the devastating conflict has fundamentally shifted to a new diplomatic endgame. And experts say reconstruction may be the only leverage the international community has left to help broker a resolution to the war.
Indeed, reconstruction is now very much a card in play, as national and international powers jostle for position in what may be the final act of this long-running tragedy.
Estimates of the cost of rebuilding Syria vary wildly — partly because the war is still far from over. In terms of the cost of the conflict so far, however, a U.N. estimate of $388 billion has wide currency, while in July 2017, the World Bank put the cost of the war to the Syrian economy at $226 billion.
These numbers are different from the likely cost of reconstruction, however, which the Assad regime estimates at $195 billion. That figure is likely on the low end, with other estimates pegging reconstruction costs at anywhere from $350 billion up to $1 trillion — staggering sums considering that Syria’s entire GDP just before the war was $60 billion.
In any case, the final figure is likely to be far in excess of anything the regime itself — or its Russian and Iranian allies — can afford.
“National revenues in Syria are quasi-nonexistent,” Joseph Daher, a Syrian-Swiss economist at the University of Lausanne, told The Washington Diplomat. “The Syrian government’s entire budget was a bit more than $5 billion last year, so it would take the regime a very long time to reconstruct. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran don’t have the financial capacity to do this, as both have deep-seated economic problems of their own.”
As an example of the regime’s financial straits, homeowners in the largely pro-regime Damascus suburb of Adra Al-Omalia were recently asked to pay up to 40 percent of the reconstruction costs of their properties themselves, according to local media.
Few are likely to be able to afford this, given high inflation, unpaid salaries and shortages of everything from materials to labor.
In all likelihood, then, what funds the regime and its allies can provide will go toward restoring key strategic infrastructure, rather than to major urban reconstruction — particularly in areas that were once rebel-held.
“There are main arteries that I think the government will likely give attention to,” Nader Kabbani, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Washington Diplomat. “The corridor from Damascus to Aleppo and the roads to the coast, principally. The parts to worry about, though, are the minor arteries, the areas of resistance and those where the population has fled.”
In those areas still outside the regime’s control, some reconstruction funds have been raised already by the U.S. and its coalition allies, although so far on a relatively small scale. In August, the U.S. pulled back from committing some $230 million it had earlier allocated for projects such as fixing water systems and digging up unexploded ordnance, saying it had, however, raised $300 million for the same purpose from its partners.
This money is for reconstruction work in the area of Syria currently held by the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – roughly a third of Syria’s territory, mostly in the northeast.
In August, Saudi Arabia made a $100 million contribution to the “stabilization efforts” in this region, earmarking areas that had previously been occupied by the Islamic State.
Turkey has also funded some infrastructure work in the areas of northwestern Syria that it controls, as well as in Idlib, where Ankara fears the pending government assault on the last rebel enclave will spark a refugee crisis on its southern border.
All this is clearly a drop in the ocean, however, with a large-scale mobilization of international funds necessary if Syria is to ever fully rebuild.
Schools of Thought
Russia has been pushing for such a mobilization for some time, targeting several potential sources.
Firstly, there is the United States. Washington has, however, imposed sanctions against Syria since before the Arab Spring and has since strengthened them. This a major block to any investment in the country’s reconstruction from businesses worldwide, anxious to stay out of court and in business with the U.S.
Another deterrent is that Syria lacks the energy resources that helped oil-rich Iraq attract investment to help with its post-war reconstruction. Even with that oil wealth, Iraq is still struggling to rebuild. International donors have consistently been unwilling to offer the country significant funding. Meanwhile, the U.S., which did pump tens of billions of dollars into Iraq’s reconstruction — only to see much of it go to waste — won’t be doing the same thing in Syria for a war it did not start.
At the same time, Washington has maintained a clear position that reconstruction in Syria cannot begin until a satisfactory, internationally sanctioned political deal has been struck on the country’s future.
“There is not going to be, by international agreement, reconstruction assistance to Syria unless the U.N. — not Moscow, not Washington, not any other capital — the U.N. certifies, validates that a credible and irreversible political process is underway,” David M. Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said in an Aug. 17 briefing. “That’s the door to getting what we believe the regime [and] Russians very much want, which is international money flowing into the wreckage that is presently Syria.”
More recently, the Trump administration’s representative for Syrian engagement, James Jeffrey, told reporters that the U.S. was staying in Syria beyond year’s end and “not in a hurry” to achieve Washington’s objectives of defeating the Islamic State and ensuring an Iranian departure.
To do that, the U.S. will embark on a major diplomatic push at the U.N. and use economic tools such as possible sanctions and withholding reconstruction aid to prod Russia to rein in Iran’s proxy forces in Syria.
“The U.S. position is to say to the Russians, ‘You broke it, you own it’,” said Kahwaji. “Moscow has to deal with it — and is now realizing how hard that is.”
Then there is the European Union, which also has had a regime of sanctions in place against Syria for some time, albeit less robust than Washington’s.
EU leaders are, however, under domestic pressure over the numbers of Syrian refugees in their countries. A settlement in Syria would certainly quell public worries about more refugees streaming into Europe.
Yet, “while the EU has a lot to gain from a settlement,” said Daher, “they are also clear that they shouldn’t participate if the current regime remains.”
Then there is China. Assad has played off the good relations that Damascus has enjoyed with Beijing throughout the conflict, with $2 billion in Chinese investment in Syrian industry pledged back in 2017. It remains unclear, however, how much of this has actually been delivered.
Indeed, “the Chinese are pretty hard-headed,” said Khawaji, “and they do not enter areas of political dispute. If there was a U.N.-sponsored resolution for Syria, yes, they would come in, but without this and with continuing conflict, I very much doubt they’d make any major moves.”
Finally – and perhaps more promisingly – there are the oil and gas-rich Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have all recently made visits to Moscow, while the Saudis have also signaled that their main concern now is not kicking Assad out, but containing Iran. Reconstruction aid might be traded for an effort to sideline Tehran.
Yet there is currently no clear mechanism for removing Iran’s presence in Syria, even if Gulf aid in reconstruction was a potential reward.
“Russia doesn’t have the capacity – or even willingness, currently – to force Iran to leave,” said Daher, “and Iran is now very integrated into the Syrian power structure itself.”
Looking for a Settlement
Without a far-reaching political settlement, then, the chances of reconstruction as part of any major countrywide campaign do not look good.
This also potentially gives those countries currently tying delivery of reconstruction aid to a settlement some leverage over what that settlement might look like.
Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has angrily decried the blocking of reconstruction aid, alleging that Western countries and U.N. agencies have been obstructing efforts to restore the Syrian economy to gain political advantage.
That leverage might also be crucially used to determine the way in which future reconstruction assistance is administered and targeted.
Some have argued that this should be done via non-regime actors, such as NGOs and private sector companies, bypassing the regime itself. Yet others see flaws in this approach.
“After years of war, NGOs in Syria have very limited capacity,” said Daher, “while most of the remaining private sector businessmen are strongly linked to the regime.”
As for reaching a political settlement, with the military dynamics clearly in the regime’s favor, there is little immediate pressure from the battlefield for it to compromise. This may change, but in the meantime, pressure for a settlement – and thus, the opening of reconstruction coffers — will likely come largely from the two diplomatic processes currently underway. The first of these is under the U.N. auspices in Geneva, and the second is the so-called “Astana Process” between Russia, Iran and Turkey.
The Astana trio met with U.N. Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura in Geneva on Sept. 10 and 11. That was followed by consultation talks between the U.N. envoy and the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. None of the meetings produced concrete outcomes. But Russia and Turkey did strike a tentative deal in mid-September to establish a demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib to separate rebels from government troops. The move temporarily put a stop to Assad’s offensive in the province, where an earlier barrage of punishing airstrikes showed that the war is still far from over.
“Sooner or later, countries will have to think what they really want, here,” said Kabbani. “There is a shared interest in Syria remaining stable, but what does that mean? We have to be clear. With reconstruction funds, too, it has to be clear what we want those funds to do. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, funds didn’t flow in and now it’s still a disaster. No one wants that to happen again.”
About the Author
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.