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.