Why reconstruction assistance is unlikely to benefit Syrians
On Friday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that, at their recent meeting in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump discussed working together to help Syrian refugees return to their country. The ministry said Russia sent proposals to Washington for a joint plan on refugee return and joint infrastructure funding efforts.
The proposal is likely to be controversial in the United States, where the House of Representatives in April passed an act that not would allow any US reconstruction funds to go to areas under Bashar Assad’s control. Yet the Russian statement fits into a broader narrative that Russia, Iran and the Assad regime keep asserting. Their narrative is that the Syrian civil war is over; Assad won; displaced people are starting to return home; and the government is moving quickly to rebuild. Based on this reasoning, the argument is that the international community needs to start working with Assad and his allies to fund physical reconstruction in Syria. For those who are anxious for the war to end and for refugees to return, it is an appealing story.
Yet, it is a story with many flaws, and foreign governments and Syrians who opposed Assad will question it. The war in Syria is not over, though Assad – thanks to Russian and Iranian support – clearly has the upper hand and continues to regain territory. Often, as a civil war begins to reach a conclusion, it is a good time to consider reconstruction plans.
In the Syrian case, though, foreign donors face a significant bind. Any money poured into regime-controlled areas will help Assad consolidate power and line the pockets of regime cronies, as well as benefiting Russian, Iranian and Chinese businesses. It is unlikely that funds going into regime-controlled areas will assist with large-scale refugee returns. Furthermore, it is deeply distasteful to many politicians to provide their own country’s money to benefit the forces that played the biggest role in wrecking Syria’s property and infrastructure. On the other hand, refusing reconstruction funds to regime-controlled areas would leave most of Syria without the funding needed to rebuild – and potentially continuing to drive further displacement, suffering and radicalization.
Any funds and contracts provided for reconstruction in regime areas are very likely to benefit Iranian, Russian and Chinese firms.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The most critical factor driving this dilemma is the clear plan of the Assad regime to use reconstruction to consolidate Assad’s political and economic control. As is already clear on the ground in Syria, Assad loyalists will benefit from business opportunities offered by reconstruction, as well as from the transfer of property previously held by Sunnis or regime opponents. The regime has developed regulatory measures – such as Law No. 10 issued in April – designed to make it difficult for displaced owners to reclaim their properties, especially if they might fear retribution for opposing the regime or simply for belonging to the wrong community. The government is engineering large-scale demographic change designed to limit the numbers of Sunnis in strategic areas, and it already is using reconstruction efforts to bolster those plans. Potential foreign donors must face the reality that funds used in regime-controlled areas would strengthen Assad, rather than the intended purpose of stabilizing the country and empowering Syrians.
Another problem for potential Western and Arab donors is that any funds and contracts provided for reconstruction in regime areas are very likely to benefit Iranian, Russian and Chinese firms. Iran clearly has increased its economic influence within the country, and there are reports of IRGC-linked firms benefiting from the war and rebuilding. Bashar Assad has said publicly that he wants to accept loans from “friends” and reconstruction help from allies and not from the West. It is unlikely that Russia and Iran will offer the level of reconstruction funding that Syria needs and will request funds from the West, as Russia already has, but it is unpalatable for Western countries to see Russian and Iranian firms benefit from their own taxpayers’ money.
Despite all these problems, many Europeans and Americans still would consider providing reconstruction funds to regime-controlled areas if it would help Syrian refugees in Europe, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq return home. However, through violence and regulatory policies, the regime has made it very difficult for refugees it considers disloyal – the majority – to return home. It would use reconstruction funds to help expropriate their property and transfer it to government redevelopment projects or loyalists. Furthermore, studies of Syrian refugees suggest that safety and security are higher priorities for their return than reconstruction and jobs. These realities suggest that reconstruction aid in regime-held areas would do little to encourage most refugees to voluntarily return and actually might make their displacement permanent.
In many post-war environments, reconstruction is a tool to help put a country on a more stable and humane trajectory. In Syria, however, the level of regime control in most of the country would make it very difficult for reconstruction funding to help produce positive political change. On the other hand, withholding funds is unlikely to force Assad to agree to a political transition.
Western countries have made it clear that they will not provide reconstruction funding (different from emergency humanitarian aid) to areas under regime control until there is a political transition, which, for most Western donors, means that Assad leaves power. There are some efforts to provide reconstruction assistance in areas controlled by US-allied groups, but funding is relatively small and has faced hurdles. Beyond increasing reconstruction support to autonomous areas, countries that oppose Assad face few opportunities to help Syrians rebuild their lives without reinforcing Assad’s control over them.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch