With the war in Syria winding down in many parts, international donors are increasingly viewing reconstruction as leverage.
Though the military conflict continues in parts of Syria, talk about post-conflict reconstruction is emerging now that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the backing of allies Russia and Iran, has recaptured much of the country.
Reconstruction appears to be the next battle for shaping Syria’s political order. The different actors are likely to use the process to push their political agendas, said Middle East policy experts hosted by Carnegie’s Middle East Centre in Beirut.
“What we often think of as a sequential process in which conflict ends and reconstruction begins is not the way post-conflict reconstruction is unfolding in Syria,” Steven Heydemann, senior fellow in the Brooking Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy, said on February 1. “In fact, a number of very difficult challenges have arisen around the question of how to structure reconstruction in Syria, notably which actors will play what kind of roles, etc.”
Heydemann argued that, from the regime’s perspective, “it is very clear” that reconstruction is viewed as a dual-purpose-project. “It is about rebuilding the country, particularly rebuilding the economy but it is also about reasserting (the) Assad regime’s sovereignty and its authority over the entire territory of pre-war Syria,” he said.
“The regime faces significant constraints in trying to implement its reconstruction agenda, especially the lack of resources and poor capacity of state institutions which have been weakened during the conflict,” he said.
While reconstruction costs are widely assumed to be at least $300 billion, the Syrian government is under severe financial pressure and the economy is struggling with inflation. This means that foreign powers will likely have to foot most of the reconstruction bill.
Russia is facing the challenge of normalising the Assad regime, Heydemann said, adding: “It is using reconstruction to enhance the sovereignty and legitimacy of the regime. This has defined the strategy that the Russians have used in engaging in reconstruction diplomacy with the EU, the UN and, to a certain extent, the US.”
For Western backers of the Syrian opposition, reconstruction funds are viewed as their only remaining tool to exert leverage. “It is seen as an opportunity to impose conditions and secure concessions from the Assad regime on what the structure of a post-conflict political order will look like,” Heydemann said. “Also, the West wants to ensure that the resources committed to reconstruction are not used in ways that reinforce the regime in unconditional fashion or contribute to the process of reconstructing its authoritarian (rule).”
With such differences in the political agendas of the various actors, the likelihood of finding a path for an effective strategy of reconstruction is relatively low and the probable result will be an extended deadlock.
If the West believes that it can use funding to win concessions from the regime, it is in for disappointment, Heydemann said. “Assad will not make any concessions to get Western aid and he has explicitly defined terms on which the regime will permit Western donors to support reconstruction… Only the governments that have been loyal to the regime in the course of the war will be awarded contracts.”
Marc Lynch, a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asked who would provide reconstruction assistance for Syria.
“(US President Donald) Trump is not going to give any money. It is ‘America First’ now. No particular EU investment is expected and no UN aid,” Lynch said.
Lynch says Gulf countries are “partisans” in the war. “So, there is zero chance that aid given by those Arab countries will be politically neutral.”
The universe of possible donors and investors is not limited to the West or Arab Gulf countries. However, none of the regime’s key supporters will be able to provide significant levels of funding for reconstruction. The regime has structured Syria’s economic and regulatory environment to absorb and distribute reconstruction contracts on its terms, giving priority to investors from countries that stood by Damascus.
“The likelihood is that we will see a regime-led, poorly funded, politically motivated strategy of reconstruction, which will probably benefit those who demonstrated their loyalty to the regime and penalise those that the regime identifies as opponents,” Heydemann said.
“The process of reconstruction will be partial, unequal, not transparent and not accountable. It will be driven heavily by small-scale local initiatives, rather than by large-scale externally designed reconstruction efforts and that is more likely to lead us down a path in which Syria will experience neither stability nor economic or social recovery,” he added.
Heydemann stressed that it was “critical” for Western actors to define the criteria that the Syrian regime will need to meet for receiving reconstruction funds.
“Governments and (monetary) agencies should be prepared to walk away if those conditions are not met,” he added.