Lately there has been a lot of rhetoric about the start of the reconstruction process in Syria. Such a statement was made by Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami during his visit to Damascus on 26-27 August. Indeed, ‘selective rebuilding’ is taking place, but it should instead be called ‘patching holes’, without which the Syrian state would simply collapse. It is too early to describe this as the beginning of a large-scale reconstruction. Such a reconstruction would require large financial injections and the work of a significant number of foreign specialists. Neither of these is on the horizon.
For any observer, it is obvious that the consequences of the seven-year conflict in Syria are catastrophic. Between 2011 and 2016 the damage amounted to $226 billion USD, according to the World Bank. According to other estimates, recovery will require about a trillion dollars. Today, a large anti-extremist operation in Idlib is impending, which will increase this amount even more.
Stabilisation in Syria over the past three years has been greatly facilitated by Russia, which demonstrates the ability (and, no less important, the readiness) to help maintain Syria’s military and political stability in the future. But it has no capacity for a large-scale investment, especially now that the West has placed sanctions on Russia. The same can be said about Iran experiencing serious economic difficulties, which led to civil unrest at the turn of 2017-2018 with the rapid inflation of the Iranian rial.
Russia is at least trying to make the economic factor a part of the Syrian settlement agenda and to find investors, while other participants in the crisis are making sarcastic comments about these moves. The United States, the most powerful economic participant in the conflict, has taken a different strategy, refusing to invest in the reconstruction of the Syrian Arab Republic. The US continues to finance the anti-ISIS coalition activities. The victory over ISIS is indeed a noble goal, but it is necessary to take into account the economic disruption resulting from the fighting. This refers, in particular, to the conditions in Raqqa, which after the coalition bombing has become a place practically unsuitable for life. In this context, it is worth recalling that if Iraqi statehood not been destroyed in 2003, we most likely would not have witnessed the emergence of ISIS.
The United States stipulates that any assistance to Syria must be in accordance with the Geneva peace talks. But this process will obviously last for a long time. For now, it is not even possible to determine exactly for how long. Today, Donald Trump proclaims that the restoration should be paid by the US allies, in particular, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is hard to imagine though that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would invest in Syria as long as its government is headed by Bashar Assad – a man whose overthrow they sought, yet hardly invested in early in the conflict. Selective humanitarian aid is the likely maximum of what could be expected from the US allies in the region for the time being.
China is another option for large scale investment, but so far the Chinese have not shown a great desire to do so. Additionally, such a source of investment is unlikely to cause much enthusiasm among other external actors involved in Syria. The emergence of China among the key stakeholders in the Middle East would very likely exacerbate the already extremely complicated picture.
Europe could become another source of major investment. Motivated not so much by the prospect of profit (this can hardly be expected at the moment), as by the desire to stabilise territories that are so close to European borders and to create conditions for the return of the Syrian refugees. This would not only reduce the migration pressure on the EU, but also ease the economic and social pressure that the refugees exert on Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon (the latter two are under the risk of socio-political destabilisation because of the inflow of refugees). However, Europe seems to be making assistance to Syria contingent on finding a ‘genuine political solution’ – a phrase that can be interpreted very differently. To help the civilian population only under the condition of fulfilling one’s own political demands is an example of rather dubious political ethics.
On the part of the international community, it is necessary to ensure, at minimum, a decent life for the population of a country experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis, regardless of who is currently in power there. With other countries this is usually the case. Why is it so different in Syria?