Source: [PDF] Reconstructing Syria: Risks and Side Effects, pp.25-27.
Reconstuction as a Foreign Policy Tool
By Dr. Salam Said
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.4 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. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMNAREGTOPGENDER/Resourc-es/Post_conflict.pdf. (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: http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=48418, (accessed 10.10.2018).
3 Carnegie Middle East, Working Group on Economic recovery and Development: 1st conference, (2012b) URL: http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=50231, (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: https://arabic.sputniknews.com/arab_world/201804151031627519-15 ,/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, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/salvage-syria-econo-my-160317092133422.html, (accessed 14.09.2018) and Julian Pecquet, “US risks irrelevance in Syria with reconstruction taboos”, Al-Monitor, 14.03.2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/orig-inals/2018/03/us-risks-irrelevancy-syria-reconstruction-taboos.html (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, http://www.souriatnapress.net/ -†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, https://www.baladi-news.com/ar/news/details/34263/خارجیةالنظامترهنإعادةالإعماربعودةاللاجئین_السوریین, (accessed 10 September 2018).
11 Geoffrey Aronson,“Assad regime will reconstruct Syria with or without US aid” in: The Middle East Institute, 11.06.2018, http://www.mei.edu/content/article/assad-regime-will-reconstruct-syr-ia-or-without-us-aid?print=, (accessed 10.09.2018).
12 Steven Heydemann, “Syria Reconstruction and the Illusion of Leverage”, in: Atlantic Council, 18.05.2017, URL: http://www.atlan-ticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/syria-reconstruction-and-the-il-lusion-of-leverage, (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, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/FP_20180626_beyond_fragility.pdf. (accessed 05.10.2018).