The war in Syria is not over, but discussions about postwar reconstruction, which have been ongoing for several years, have recently gained momentum. With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russia and Iran, in control of 10 of Syria’s 13 provincial capitals, and US-backed Kurdish forces in control of two more, the war between Syrian government forces and the opposition is all but decided in favor of the former.
The Russian and Syrian governments are now eager to translate those facts on the ground into a new narrative on the international stage: The war is over, Assad has won, and the time has come for refugees to start returning home, if only the West will drop its sanctions and provide the reconstruction funds necessary to rebuild those homes and cities. As the Russian and Syrian governments accelerate unilateral efforts to repatriate refugees and redevelop residential areas, the questions around US and European policy are becoming increasingly urgent.
The destruction in Syria since 2011 has been immense. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed (the UN stopped counting casualties in 2016) and nearly half the prewar population has been displaced from their homes, including 5.6 million UNHCR-registered refugees sheltering outside Syria, mostly in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Economically, the country has collapsed. The World Bank estimates that about 60 percent of Syrians inside the country now live in “extreme poverty,” compared with just 12.3 percent in 2007.
Reconstruction will involve rehabilitating damaged infrastructure, reestablishing supply chains and commercial networks, and rebuilding hundreds of thousands of homes, hospitals, and schools. About a third of the country’s housing stock has been damaged or destroyed, according to an early 2017 study of eight governorates by the World Bank, as well as about two-thirds of its medical and educational facilities. Last November UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announced his lower estimate for Syria reconstruction to be $250 billion. Other estimates place the figure much higher. Assad has claimed Syria can rebuild on its own, but almost no one agrees. With Russia, Iran, and China apparently unwilling to pay for rehabilitating Syria, Russia is looking west for someone to foot the bill.
The Russian foreign ministry has been hard at work this summer trying to advance that process. In July Moscow circulated proposals for Syria reconstruction and refugee repatriation to the United States, Germany, Lebanon, Jordan, and others. Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin also discussed Syria in Helsinki on July 16, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Then, at a late July meeting of the UN Security Council, deputy Russian ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy publicly called for “all international partners to join assistance in the Syrian recovery effort,” in order to promote regional stability and to “reduce the burden on Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and some European countries.” The French ambassador, among others present, flatly refused.
The United States and its European allies have long maintained that the only acceptable solution to the conflict is a political process leading to an election carried out under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted unanimously in December 2015. They expect this political process would remove Assad from power, under whom they say there can be no stable peace in Syria. They are further concerned that the close alliance between Assad, Iran, and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah threatens Israeli military interests. Until there is an irreversible political transition in progress, the Syrian government, and all of government-held Syria by extension, are under strict sanctions from the West. Both US companies and citizens are prohibited from investing in Syria or exporting goods there. Western governments are the largest donors to Syria in terms of humanitarian aid such as food, water, and medicine, but have they steadfastly refused to fund reconstruction of the country.
Some analysts consider the sanctions policy a continuation of the West’s efforts to remove Assad from power, only this time using money instead of weapons. Western reconstruction monies channeled through the regime or its proxies would allow the Syrian government to consolidate its control over the country and its resources, which the United States and Europeans want to avoid. They also bristle at the notion of financially rewarding regime elites who have been responsible for the immiseration of their country. In a best-case scenario, absent a political process, enforced economic stagnation might undermine the regime’s grasp on power. But critics of US and European foreign policy have decried what they claim is either the collective punishment of Syrian civilians or a pipe-dream attempt to refight a war that the West has already conclusively lost.
Russia’s July proposal to engage in reconstruction and refugee repatriation met with a cold response from top US military officials, according to Reuters. But the Trump administration has been characteristically without a comprehensive vision for US policy toward the country. Trump’s acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Satterfield, told reporters last month that withholding reconstruction assistance is “the door” to bringing Russia and Syria back to the moribund UN-sponsored political process. That strategy, which has been operative for years, has not worked so far.
In April the House of Representatives passed a bill that, if enacted, would cement the US sanctions policy. The No Assistance for Assad Act, currently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would ensure that US taxpayer money isn’t spent on reconstruction in government-controlled Syrian territory, either directly or through the UN, IMF, or other international bodies. Its effect, Syria analyst Aron Lund has reasoned, would be to halt any drift within international bodies that could see humanitarian aid sliding into stabilization and reconstruction.
Reconstruction Without Western Money
Without Western money, reconstruction in Syria is likely to be slow and incomplete. In July, China pledged $23 billion in loans and aid to Arab states, adding to the $2 billion investment in Syrian industry that it pledged last year. It is not clear how much of the new package will go to Syria as opposed to other Arab states, but, regardless, it will be a drop in the bucket for Syria’s reconstruction needs. Russia and Iran seem unwilling or unable to pay for reconstruction, according to numerous media reports. Both countries are also under US sanctions.
An indicator of what reconstruction might look like without Western funding is the status of existing reconstruction projects. Articles about Syria’s rehabilitated industrial centers, oil wells, and international business expos are regular features on Syrian state media, which is trying to project a return to normalcy. Syrian television viewers can watch housing being built in the Damascus suburb of Dimas and hear how industrial production has returned to al-Qaterji industrial zone in Aleppo. Away from the cameras and such flagship initiatives, however, are large pockets of stagnation. The old city of Homs, retaken by the government in May 2014, still lies in mostly uninhabitable ruins, according to a January report by the Associated Press.
Simultaneously, regime-affiliated financiers are launching expansive and lucrative development schemes on top of the ruins of the heavily damaged slums that surround Syria’s major cities, which housed many of Syria’s poorest urban residents before the war. Human-rights groups have voiced concern that these developments will be used to permanently displace former residents, who typically lacked formal proof of ownership of their homes.
But while the United States and Europe continue to steer clear of involvement in reconstruction, Syria’s neighbors appear more open to Russia’s proposals. Many in Lebanon and Jordan, the two largest refugee hosts per capita in the world, have grown impatient after years of economic strain imposed by the war and its spillover, and they seem to be moving ahead with Russia without waiting for US and European support. In late July Lebanon joined a joint committee with Russia to coordinate Syrian-refugee returns, bypassing the UNHCR and Western governments. The UN refugee agency has sparred with the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, throughout the summer over the issue of whether or not Syria is safe for returns. The UNHCR maintains it is not, and a recent study by the Carnegie Middle East Center indicates that most refugees agree. On August 20 Bassil traveled to Moscow, where he reiterated his position at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, arguing, “Currently we see more and more areas where stability and safety have been established. So we do not see any reasons why Syrian refugees should stay in Lebanon.”
The Jordanian foreign minister has also been in contact with his Russian counterpart about refugee repatriation this summer. Relations between Syria and Jordan were never fully severed and are reported to be improving, with the opening of the economically important Nasib border crossing between the two countries expected to come soon. Its closure, and the impact of the Syrian war, have caused significant economic strain in Jordan in recent years.
Even Turkey, once a major supporter of the Syrian opposition, is reported to be negotiating with the Assad regime via Russia, in an attempt to gain valuable reconstruction contracts, according to Al-Monitor.
Turkey’s role in Syria is likely to undergo drastic changes in the coming weeks, as Assad and Russia prepare for an assault on Idlib, the last province held by the anti-government opposition, for which Turkey has acted as a guarantor of sorts, with military observation posts enforcing a “de-escalation” agreement. Turkey is meeting with Russia and Iran on Friday to negotiate over the province’s future, while the rest of the international community braces for a humanitarian catastrophe.
The province’s ultimate fate is all but sealed—Turkey has given no indication it will defend it against attacks—but analysts say neither Turkey nor Russia has any interest in a refugee-producing humanitarian catastrophe and will look for ways to manage the bloodshed. Turkey is currently working to convince as many non-jihadist armed groups as possible to surrender to Assad.
No Change in Western Policy
The Russian and Syrian governments, alongside allies, have tried to present the limited refugee returns that have occurred—77,000 in 2017—as evidence that Syrians want to put the war behind them and move on under Assad’s leadership. So far, this argument appears to have made few inroads in Western foreign-policy circles.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in July a September 7 summit between his government and those of France, Germany, and Russia to discuss Syria, Germany and France have not acknowledged his statement. In August the Russian foreign ministry said that it and Turkey were making preparations, but a European UN official with knowledge of the matter told The Nation that no such meeting is expected. He also voiced skepticism that Germany and France are as open to Russian diplomatic efforts as the news of the alleged meeting implied. Late last month Turkey announced a different meeting for September 7, the summit with Russia and Iran to discuss Idlib.
A staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking to The Nation on condition of anonymity, was dismissive of Russia’s efforts to make it seem as if momentum is building for reconstruction: “Despite Russian attempts to foment a narrative that Europeans and Americans are falling over themselves to contribute to Russia’s plan for reconstruction in Syria, it is clearly premature to discuss any US contributions to reconstruction.”
The United States and its European allies have not indicated any plans to deviate from their longstanding refusal to participate in Syria reconstruction. Jan Techau, a Berlin-based foreign-policy expert with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told The Nation that Assad has become so toxic that he doubts European leaders could convince domestic voters and parliaments that involvement in reconstruction is worthwhile. He reasoned that Russia’s attempts to create facts on the ground in Syria will not force Europeans to reckon with the failure of the UN-supervised peace process. European governments don’t have much power to control the outcomes in Syria, he says, “so what you have is an idealistic approach that never has to really prove itself because everybody knows full well that it doesn’t count very much.” The United States, meanwhile, has the capacity to confront Russia over its plans in Syria, but has chosen not to, leading to much the same result.
The author of the No Assistance for Assad bill, New York Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, told The Nation he has no plans to reconsider his bill in light of Lebanon and Jordan’s partial rapprochement with Russia. “Providing assistance to Assad will do nothing to ease the burden on Syria’s neighbors,” he said, “as Assad has placed restrictions on the return of refugees, many of whom will not come back to live under his brutal rule ever again.” In and outside of the region, some are planning to put that claim to the test. What seems certain is that ordinary Syrian civilians will continue to be relegated to the sidelines of decision-making about their country.