The battle to rebuild Syria

The battle to rebuild Syria
Comment: Despite recent violence reminding us that the Syrian conflict is by no means over, debate is raging around how the country will be rebuilt, writes James Denselow.
5 min read
21 Mar, 2017
The scale of devastation gives would-be rebuilders a lot of politcal leverage [AFP]

As we marked the sixth anniversary of Syria's bloody conflict with a cacophony of violence, including a suicide bombing that ripped through the main courthouse in Damascus, it may seem a strange time to think about reconstruction of the country.

Yet this is a very-much live debate following the fall of eastern Aleppo to government-allied forces at the end of last year, and the election of Donald Trump in the US appearing to kill off the notion that the opposition could succeed militarily.

With Moscow and Tehran ascendant and the US barely present at the peace talks in Astana, suddenly the relevance of traditional international actors seems at stake.

The EU, so often a "payer, not a player", has spied this opportunity to move into a more proactive stance on Syria. EU President Jean-Claude Juncker called for a stronger EU role in Syria in his State of the Union speech in September 2016.

The EU considers reconstruction one of its main tools of leverage towards Syria and is now thinking how best to deploy it

This month, the somewhat beleaguered Union released a new Syria strategy that explained it would look to support "post-agreement reconstruction once a credible political transition is underway". The EU considers reconstruction one of its main tools of leverage towards Syria and is now thinking how best to deploy it.

Such support would be vitally needed from Damascus' point of view. Estimates of the cost of the conflict to date vary widely but have been put at well over $350bn. This would require Syria's economy to grow at an average of five percent annually for the next 30 years just to recover what it lost in the past six years. 

Some would expect Moscow, such a critical friend to Assad in operations against opposition forces, to be a key player in reconstruction. However, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov is reported to have told EU diplomats earlier this year that Russia will pay "nothing".

Interestingly, China appears to be taking a different tack. Speaking to Chinese media in March, President Assad explained that China was "building many projects, mainly industrial projects, in Syria, and we have many Chinese experts now working in Syria in different projects in order to set up those projects".

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The Chinese are unlikely, however, to bankroll their own version of a Marshall Plan for Syria - and considering the complex and multilayered sanctions that remain in place if they were interested in pouring money into Syria, they would need the US and Europe to acquiesce to any plans they did have. 

Again, many of the roads lead back to Brussels - where in early April a major conference - "Supporting the future of Syria and the region" - will showcase what European leadership might look like. As ever, the devil will be in the detail and the political savvy that EU politicians can show in delivering on strategy.

Reconstruction with conditionality around a form of "transition" seems simple enough, but with low levels of trust and every reason for the regime in Damascus to bank the carrots and avoid the sticks, what is to stop the EU simply being played?

It's worth remembering that President Assad has not only outsourced much of his sovereignty to his foreign allies, but also that he still controls only around 50 percent of the pre-war population and 35 percent of Syrian territory.

The EU has the expertise and resources to offer a host of ideas around governance, security sector reform, job creation and the return of refugees and IDPs to their homes

Damascus has a weak hand, but is in now apparent danger of being forced to compromise and accept the kind of "comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition" that the EU has been talking about.

The inability of power to work either to topple Assad or to engage with him would suggest that the most effective tactic would be to work around him. The EU has the expertise and resources to offer a host of ideas around governance, security sector reform, job creation and the return of refugees and IDPs to their homes.

This attractive package can only be deployed once agreements are made within the Geneva process that is bought into beyond the paper upon which it is written. In essence, the EU's offer provides more political capital to UN mediator De Mistura as he continues his extremely difficult job.

While this track would be a medium term strategy, the most immediate priority should remain the commitment to the London Conference principles of 2016, and ensuring that the nearly five million Syrian refugees are cared for and offered a future of hope rather than of exclusion.

The EU can continue to show its values in action by ensuring that Syrian refugee children remain in school and that refugees are able to access the labour market with dignity - rather than Brussels engaging in a premature debate about early returns to a fractured and dangerous country.

The prospect of reconstruction gives the EU a place at the table in a game of no holds barred, no rules poker with incredibly high stakes for both them and the Syrian people - they must play their cards wisely if they are to succeed.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.