Source: [PDF] Reconstructing Syria: Risks and Side Effects, pp.25-27.

Reconstuction as a Foreign Policy Tool

By Dr. Salam Said

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Dr. Salam Said studied economics in Damascus and completed a Doctorate at the University of Bremen. Since 2009 she has been teaching at German universities. She is currently responsible for the scientific activities of the Tunis-based project “For Socially Just Development – Economic Policies for Social Justice in the MENA Region” run by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.


All  sides  to  the  conflict  in  Syria  have been    discussing    post-war    reconstruction  for  years  now.  In  fact,  re-construction has been used a foreign policy tool by all sides to try and achieve a range of widely  differing  objectives.  But  in  reality,  it  hasn’t really worked for anyone.

Post-war reconstruction officially begins when a war comes to an end or when armed conflict  has  stopped  and  the  parties  to  the conflict  have  signed  a  peace  agreement.1 In Syria’s case, armed conflict is yet to end and  there  has  been  no  notable  progress  in  the  peace  process.  Regardless  of  this,  both  the  Syrian  regime  and  the  international  donor community that supports the opposition have been using the notion of reconstruction as a foreign policy tool since 2012. Countries belonging to the Group of Friends of the Syrian  People 2  founded  the  Working  Group  on  Economic  Recovery  and  Development,  in  cooperation with the opposition, as early as 2012  in  order  to  start  planning  and  coordinating reconstruction efforts in a post-al-As-sad Syria.

Their first meeting took place in Abu Dhabi on May 24, 2012, and more than 60 countries  –  including  representatives  from  the Arab  League,  the  European  Union,  the  Gulf  Cooperation Council and the United Nations Development Program – took part.3    At  the  time,  it  was  assumed  that  the  al-Assad  regime would soon fall given that it was quickly losing control of large swathes of territory in Syria. However, intensive military and financial support from Iran, the emergence of the  Islamic  State  (IS)  as  a  terrorist  threat  in  the region and subsequent Russian military intervention  kept  Syrian  president  Bashar  al-Assad in power and made the promise of reconstruction-related  assistance  a  less  effective tool for Western allies to pressure the regime with. After military victories by the regime  starting  September  2015,  European  countries, the US and regional partners such as  Turkey  and  the  Gulf  states,  have  continued  to  try  to  use  reconstruction  as  a  way  to  exert pressure on the al-Assad regime and its allies. For instance, they have made a political transition period or a peace agreement a precondition  for  any  contribution  to  reconstruction  funding.  Their  aim  is  not  only  to  stop the war in Syria and to find a political solution, but also to avoid a new refugee crisis and further destabilisation in the region.

The  allies  have  counted  on  the  fact  that  the  regime  needs  them  to  participate  in  reconstruction  as  the  regime’s  allies  are  not  able  to  finance  the  costly  reconstruction process   themselves,   for   many   reasons.On  the  one  hand,  the  regime’s  major  allies  — Russia and Iran — are also dealing with economic  challenges,  as  well  as  international  sanctions, to differing degrees. On the other hand,  investment  in  Syrian  reconstruction  remains  highly  risky,  as  a  peace  agreement  is not yet in place and no international consensus on a political solution is in sight. This means, conflict could still break out at any time  and  new  sanctions  against  the  Syrian  regime could be imposed.5

At the same time, the al-Assad regime has repeatedly  rewarded  its  foreign  “friends”6 and local loyalists with promises of lucrative reconstruction  contracts  and  economic  co-operation in trade and investment. This also pushes  the  regime’s  “enemies”  to  change  sides,  with  a  carrot-and-stick  approach:  Incentives to participate in Syrian reconstruction  alternating  with  warnings  about  the  consequences of non-cooperation.7  According  to  the  Syrian  Foreign  Ministry:  “Syria will  accept  participation  in  reconstruction  only from countries that did not join the attack on Syria”.8

In  August  2018,  Syrian  foreign  minister  Walid  Muallem  directed  a  message  at  the  European  Union  and,  in  particular,  those  countries  that  host  a  large  number  of  Syrian refugees: “Reconstruction and a successful  political  process  depend  on  the  return  of  refugees,”  he  said.9  Muallem  also  added  that, “removing economic sanctions against the  regime  is  a  necessity  for  the  return  of  refugees”.10  The regime is using this “bait” – Syria welcoming back refugees –  to convince the  European  Union  to  give  up  economic  sanctions, knowing full well that the refugee question  has  caused  major  impact  on  the political  discourse  of  refugee-hosting  countries, both in Europe and in the Middle East.

The  military  victories  of  the  al-Assad  regime  during  2018  have  changed  the  rules  of  the  game  and  strengthened  the  regime’s  position  internationally.  In  an  article  titled  “Assad regime will reconstruct Syria with or without US Aid”, published June 11, 2018 by the  Washington-based  think  tank,  the  Middle East Institute, the author shows how Assad’s  reconstruction  strategy  is  directed  at  allies  and  neighbours,  who  should  benefit from economic recovery and reconstruction in  Syria.11  Writing  for  the  Atlantic  Council  website,  professor  of  Middle  Eastern  studies and a Syria expert, Steven Heydemann, warns  against  counting  on  reconstruction  as  a  way  to  push  for  political  change  or  transition  in  Syria.12 He argues that the dictatorship  would  only  strengthen  itself  and  regime-loyal forces using the funds and that those  funds  would  also  eventually  cement  the political and social grievances that drove people to protest in the first place, in 2011. Heydemann says that the West needs to set up mechanisms that enable an independent, needs-based and transparent reconstruction process,  one  which  is  beyond  the  regime’s  control  and  that  allows  the  country  to  be  built  back  up  in  cooperation  with  Syrian  partners who have been selected using independent reviews.13

Reconstruction  as  “bait”  or  as  a  form  of  pressure   from   Western   countries   on   the   al-Assad  regime  has  not  succeeded  in  moving toward a much-desired political solution in Syria, nor has it had much influence on developments  in  post-war  Syria  so  far.  Similarly, the al-Assad regime has not been successful  in  using  reconstruction  as  “bait”  to  involve  more  donors  in  reconstruction,  nor  has it worked as a tool for the regime to try and  legitimatize itself internationally. There is  no  path  toward  genuine  reconstruction  that does not involve a real and workable political solution for Syria and its people.



1 Sanam Naraghi Anderlini and Judy El-Bushara(2004), “Post-Con-flict Reconstruction,” In: Inclusive Security, Sustainable Peace: A Toolkit for Advocacy and Action. Washington and London. (accessed 09.10.2018).


2 In response to the to the Veto of Russia and China and failed UN-resolution on 4 February 2012 to stop violence in Syria, more than 60 countries and representatives of EU, UN, Arab League and other bodies founded the Group “Friends of Syrian People”, which serves as a collective body outside UN security council. For more information about this Group see: Carnegie Middle East (2012a), Group of Friends of the Syrian People: 1st Conference, URL:, (accessed 10.10.2018).


3 Carnegie Middle East, Working Group on Economic recovery and Development: 1st conference, (2012b) URL:, (accessed 10.10.2018).


4 According to Assad on 15 April 2018, reconstruction of Syria will cost about US$ 400 billion and Syrian economy might need 10 to 15 years to recover, see in Arabic: ,/الأسد-سوریا-الاقتصاد April 2018, (accessed 12.10.2018).


5 See David Butter, “How to salvage Syria’s economy: Through economic aid, the West has the opportunity to exert pressure for changes in governance”, Aljazeera, 18.03.2016,, (accessed 14.09.2018) and Julian Pecquet, “US risks irrelevance in Syria with reconstruction taboos”, Al-Monitor, 14.03.2018, (accessed 15.09.2018).


6 To see how the regime rewarded his external allies, please refer to Jihad Yazigi’s contribution in this publication.


7 The al-Assad regime classifies all countries as enemies that support the opposition and put pressure to sign an agreement for a “political transition” or a “power sharing” agreement with the opposition. European countries, Turkey, USA and some Gulf Sates are considered by the regime as belonging to the „enemy” group.


8 Souriatna Press, Reconstruction: A reality or superstition (Trans-lated from Arabic), on 11.09.2017, -†إعادة-إعمار-سوریا-حقیقة-واقعیة-أ1† خراف†/, (accessed 10.10.2018).


9 Baladi news, Foreign ministry linked reconstruction with the return of refugees (translated from Arabic), 2018,خارجیةالنظامترهنإعادةالإعماربعودةاللاجئین_السوریین, (accessed 10 September 2018).


10 Ibid.


11 Geoffrey Aronson,“Assad regime will reconstruct Syria with or without US aid” in: The Middle East Institute, 11.06.2018,, (accessed 10.09.2018).


12 Steven Heydemann, “Syria Reconstruction and the Illusion of Leverage”, in: Atlantic Council, 18.05.2017, URL:, (accessed 10.10.2018), and Steven Heydemann, “Beyond Fragility: Syria And The Challenges Of Reconstruction In Fierce States”, in: Foreign Policy at Brookings, June 2018, (accessed 05.10.2018).


13 Ibid.