Abstract

In 2011, protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad marked the beginning of what would become a destructive internationalized civil conflict. The tide of war turned in September 2015, when Russia intervened to salvage its tumbling long-term ally Assad. Largely thanks to Russian support, Assad has now re-established control over most of Syria’s territory and the war seems to be drawing to a close.

Syria, however, lies in ruins. Seven years of conflict have plunged millions of Syrians into poverty and displaced more than half of Syria’s pre-war population [1, 2]. According to a World Bank report, the Syrian economy has experienced a cumulative GDP loss of 226 billion USD from 2011 to 2016 only [1]. The reconstruction of the country, in turn, will cost at least 200 billion USD – according to conservative estimates [2].

Given the sheer scale of destruction, the scramble over Syria’s reconstruction has begun in earnest. Already in 2016 Assad had assured his allies, notably Russia and Iran, that they would be first in line for lucrative reconstruction contracts [3, 4]. Two years later, as Western governments are pondering over their position vis-à-vis a regime they used to condemn, Russian aid and reconstruction efforts are gaining speed.

Russian humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts

Russia seeks to advance Syria’s reconstruction both by providing immediate humanitarian aid and by securing long-term contracts for the reconstruction of Syria’s infrastructure and economy. Having consolidated the Syrian regime, Russia has recently stepped back its military efforts and become more active in the provision of humanitarian aid [5]. Key actors are Russian aid groups, such as the Russian Humanitarian Mission (RHM) or the Akhmat Kadyrov Public Foundation, which is supported by the Chechen government [6]. To assess humanitarian needs and reach populations, these groups rely on the support of the Russian military and the Syrian Red Crescent – an organization with close ties to the Assad government [6]. Ever since the Syrian government recaptured rebel-held Eastern Ghouta in April 2017, however, Russian and Western aid groups have increasingly cooperated as well. For example, RHM now coordinates aid efforts through a working group including organizations such as Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières, Syrian diplomats as well as Russian aid groups and government officials [6]. Furthermore, according to a statement of the Russian Defense Ministry, a “Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees” as well as 336,500 local centers have been set up recently to coordinate the return of refugees to different parts of the country [7].

As for the reconstruction of Syria’s economy, Russian companies have secured what the Financial Times termed “juicy contracts” [3]. In spring 2016, barely seven months after Russia’s direct intervention in the war, Syria and Russia had already signed contracts in the value of 1 billion USD, notably for the reconstruction of Syria’s infrastructure and energy sector, and more deals have been struck since [3, 8, 9]. A contract from September 2017 provides for the sale of 3 million tons of Russian wheat to Syria over a three-year period  [10]. Since 2017, the Damascus International Fair, an annual trade fair, is taking place again in the Syrian capital, facilitating the conclusion of lucrative reconstruction contracts, mainly at the hands of Russian and Iranian companies [11, 12]. Underscoring the Syrian government’s privileged treatment for Russian companies, Syrian officials presented 26 investment projects to high-ranking representatives of Russian companies at a Syrian-Russian business forum in the Russian chamber of Commerce in March 2018 [13].

The challenges of reconstructing a fragile country

Russian aid and reconstruction efforts in Syria face a number of challenges, harking back to the core issue that the tensions underlying the war’s various frontlines have not been resolved.

1. It remains unclear who will pay for Syria’s reconstruction. Analysts agree that Russia and its allies are unable to fund this immense task without some sort of Western cooperation [5, 13, 14]. This is so especially since Western economic sanctions imposed on the Assad government render it almost impossible to revive key industries, such as the oil and gas sector [13, 14]. The importance of Western cooperation has been confirmed by Russia’s recent diplomatic efforts to convince EU member states and the US to pay for Syria’s reconstruction. If the West helps rebuild Syria, Putin has argued at meetings with various Western heads of state, Syrian refugees in Europe and elsewhere can return home. This, in turn, will alleviate political tensions triggered by the arrival of millions of refugees in Europe [15, 16].

It is questionable, however, whether Western governments will follow this call. Most Western states have made any participation in reconstruction efforts contingent upon a political transition plan for Syria – something that does not seem to be on the Russian and even less so on the Syrian agenda [17, 18]. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the Syrian government supports allied Russia’s plans. Indeed, repatriating the mostly Sunni refugee population would restore the demographic structure in Syria, which brought Assad’s non-Sunni minority regime close to collapse during the early stages of the war. This might be the reason why in the framework of a first effort to return 3,000 refugees from Lebanon, the Syrian government only let 400 of them enter the country, causing Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to lament the lack of political will to repatriate refugees [15].

2. Even if the necessary funds to rebuild Syria can be raised, it is unclear who will benefit from Russian aid and reconstruction. According to some analysts, rebuilding Syria without a political transition plan will help Assad create what he terms a “healthier and more homogeneous society” [19, 20]. For example a number of presidential decrees and laws governing the reconstruction of residential areas allow the Syrian administration to re-register property rights in strategically important areas and former rebel strongholds should property owners fail to meet onerous requirements to proof their property rights [19]. Reconstruction tenders, in turn, are handed out exclusively to institutions close to the government, while all international actors are required to work with approved local partners [4]. The Assad regime thus seems to be attempting to ensure that Syria is reconstructed in a way that benefits its supporters and marginalizes its critics [4, 20]. This approach might exacerbate the very tensions that sparked the civil war. Indeed, in a joint press release a number of Western aid organizations expressed the concern that without some sort of political transition, reconstruction might do “more harm than good” [21].

3. Just as tensions inside Syria remain unresolved, so do those between international powers involved in the war. The Syrian conflict has seen the confrontation of various regional and international actors. One-sided reconstruction efforts on the part of Assad and his allies are thus likely to be hampered by – and could even escalate – continuing regional and international tensions. The following two examples illustrate but two dimensions of the complex and explosive network of intertwined frontlines in the Syrian war that limit the freedom of action of any individual actor, including Russia.

First, Russian support for the Assad government has brought Russia into indirect confrontation with the US, who have imposed sanctions on the Assad government and supported rebel groups fighting the Russian-backed regime. While Russia and the US have cooperated throughout the war to avoid direct confrontation, their contrary visions for Syria’s future are bound to clash should Russia proceed to reconstruct an Assad-led Syria without seeking some sort of agreement with the US. Recent events illustrate the explosiveness of these to-date unresolved differences. In February 2018, for example, US troops and allied rebel forces were attacked by Russian mercenaries who had allegedly been in close contact with the Kremlin [22]. Although tensions abated as the Kremlin denied any involvement with the attack, Russia and its ally Assad do consider the US presence in Syria illegal, raising doubts as to the exact circumstances of the incident [22]. In recent months, in turn, Russia has repeatedly threatened to attack the area surrounding the US base At-Tanft, which they consider protects militant groups [22, 23].

Second, various Sunni states, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, have competed for regional influence with Shiite Iran on the Syrian battlefield, supporting different armed groups. Israel, too, has carefully watched the growing Syrian presence of its longtime foe, Iran, and has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria. As the scramble for Syria’s reconstruction gains speed, Iran, Assad’s second major ally, is solidifying its role in the country, settling significant business deals with the Syrian government [3]. According to Iranian news outlets, major projects include a railway line linking Iran to Syria through Iraq [24]. Such a direct transport link connecting Shiite populations across the Middle East looks like a concrete step towards the creation of a continuous Shiite corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon – one of Iran’s long-term strategic objectives [25]. This is bound to upset Sunni states and, perhaps more dangerously, Israel.

Conclusion

Russia seems to be eager to prove itself as the better “global policeman” in Syria – one who can intervene in a Middle Eastern country without plunging it into chaos by strengthening state structures [5, 6]. Having won the war militarily, Russia is thus now trying to “win the peace”, committing significant political and economic resources to aid and reconstruction projects in Syria. Without efforts to reconcile and resolve the internal and external tensions fueling the war, however, Russia might sooner or later learn what the US did in Iraq: that peace cannot be constructed by force alone.

Anna Clara Arndt

References

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[1] The World Bank. (2017). The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria. World Bank Group. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/syria/publication/the-toll-of-war-the-economic-and-social-consequences-of-the-conflict-in-syria

[3] Allen-Ebrahimian, B. (2017). Syrian Reconstruction Spells Juicy Contracts for Russian, Iranian Firms. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/20/syrian-reconstruction-spells-juicy-contracts-for-russian-iranian-firms-china-civil-war/

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[7] Barrington, L., & Ostroukh, A. (2018). Russian and Syrian authorities set up center for refugees returning to Syria. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-refugees/russian-and-syrian-authorities-set-up-center-for-refugees-returning-to-syria-idUSKBN1K81Z2

[8] Damascus gives Moscow priority in reconstruction contracts, with favorable terms – Syrian govt. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.rt.com/business/367888-syria-reconstruction-russia-priority/

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[10] Makieh, K. (2017). Exclusive: Syria signs 3 million ton wheat contract with Russia. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-russia-wheat-exclusive/exclusive-syria-signs-3-million-ton-wheat-contract-with-russia-idUSKCN1C420B

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[25] Chulov, M. (2018). From Tehran to Beirut: Shia militias aim to firm up Iran’s arc of influence. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/16/from-tehran-to-beirut-shia-militias-aim-to-firm-up-irans-arc-of-influence

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