The winners and losers in the reconstruction of Syria

There is a growing debate within Western and regional political circles about the reconstruction of Syria. The European Union has been studying reconstruction options closely, while some Western and non-western governments are preparing themselves to play a role in the process. Regional states are also strengthening their activities in this regard, as no one wants to miss the boat when the time comes for Syria to step beyond the current conflict.

However, this debate seems to be based on the assumption that post-war reconstruction plans will target Syria equally as a whole and that all Syrians will be treated equitably in this process. The reality suggests that this assumption is erroneous.

Reconstruction is already being discussed even though Syria, according to a recent report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, is witnessing the highest level of violence since the fall of eastern Aleppo. Discussions are also taking place while plans for the de-escalation zones are announced and Russia continues to bomb the areas of which it is supposed to be the guardian. At the same time, civilians continue to be “collateral damage” in the air campaign of the international coalition against Daesh in Al-Raqqa.

The military strategy of the campaign is similar to that used to liberate Iraqi cities from Daesh control, which led to the extensive destruction of the infrastructure therein. Continued violence on this scale will inevitably raise the cost of post-war reconstruction beyond the current estimate of $200-350 billion.

There is a consensus in international policy circles that Russia and Iran cannot afford this financial burden alone, and that international donors must be involved. Their motives are not entirely humanitarian. Politics plays a role; providing reconstruction finance is one way to have some influence in post-war Syria.

With Russia playing the role of key mediator in the reconstruction of Syria, some regional states have taken steps to maintain lines of communication with Moscow despite political differences over the conflict. Individuals of special interest from across the political spectrum in Syria’s neighbouring countries are also knocking on Russia’s doors. Recent visits to Moscow by Lebanese politicians even included persons from the March 8 and March 14 alliances.

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These political manoeuvres will have a direct impact on how to implement reconstruction plans inside Syria. Russia will inevitably seek to make the Syrian government the main distributor of reconstruction funds. Although the areas controlled by the regime were less affected than the areas controlled by the opposition in terms of physical destruction, it is likely that the Syrian government will channel most of the funding to areas considered to be loyal to the Assad regime.

Those with special interests are likely to turn a blind eye to any unequal distribution of funds and reconstruction projects to protect their business interests. Regional actors will follow a similar course in order to maintain political interest in this process. Syrian businessmen, already part of the political elite, have begun to form new companies so that they can put themselves in the front row in the process of implementing reconstruction projects. All this means that the whole process stands to be unfair.

The Syrian government wants to reward its loyalists through using reconstruction funds to improve their areas, and it also wants to punish areas whose population rebelled against the regime. The continued shelling of these areas is likely to be followed by preventing residents from obtaining funds to rebuild their towns and cities.

With donors and foreign actors forced to adjust their political positions in an attempt to remain within the circle of Syrian affairs, now primarily managed by Moscow, these neglected areas are likely to be left with no one to defend them.

This is likely to keep the thousands of refugees who fled from these areas in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey; they will have no homes to return to and no realistic prospects for restoring their livelihoods within Syria. In their absence, the smaller population in these areas will make it easier for the Syrian government to control them, providing another incentive for the government to keep such places unfit for sustainable living.

The debate over reconstruction in Syria has been dominated by whether the West will be able to use it as a means of influencing the Syrian regime or not. However, the main issue is that with or without the West, the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian sponsors will focus only on the revival of the loyal areas and not on areas that are not currently controlled by the regime. The demographic structure in Syria will be affected by this process, and so will the situation of refugees in neighbouring countries.

European countries are looking at incentives for Turkey to keep Syrian refugees within its borders to deter them from crossing into Europe. Combined with the efforts of Lebanese stakeholders to provide their country as a reconstruction platform in Syria to benefit from foreign aid sent to Beirut to ease the pressure of Syrian refugees, pro-regime elites in Damascus, as well as non-Syrian actors, will benefit from the unequal implementation of reconstruction plans. The biggest losers, as is so often the case in such scenarios, will be the ordinary Syrian people, regardless of their political and religious inclinations.

Translated from The New Khalij, 12 October 2017

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