Ways out of Europe's Syria reconstruction conundrum

Ways out of Europe's Syria reconstruction conundrum
Comment: A new report by International Crisis Group suggests there are ways Europe can support needy Syrians, without compromising on its political goals.
7 min read
'Europe could consider moving beyond humanitarian aid and start providing funds for rehabilitation projects' [AFP]
During eight years of war, more than a third of Syria's infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged. But while the conflict has started to wind down, reconstruction funds are unlikely to flow anytime soon.

The EU and its member states have declared they will not bankroll reconstruction unless they see a political transition "firmly underway". They consider providing unconditional funds as unconstructive and possibly harmful to their strategic interest in long-term stability. This position, along with US and EU sanctions on Syria, prevents major western investments in Syria's recovery.

For their part, Damascus and Moscow show no willingness to accommodate Europe's political expectations. In this stalemate, Europe should explore ways to alleviate Syrians' plight within its political limits, for example by funding small scale rehabilitation projects on condition of regime non-interference with aid delivery.

It could also test an incentives-based approach that provides incrementally more economic support if the regime takes steps toward political reforms and checks repressive and discriminatory practices. 

After more than eight years of fighting, the Syrian regime appears to be emerging victorious. Yet it lacks the capacity to address the damage the war has caused to the country's physical infrastructure, human capital and economy.

Nevertheless, Damascus shows no willingness to make concessions or pay a political price in exchange for international reconstruction support, whose conditions, if fulfilled, it believes would weaken its hold on power - in other words, it sees no reason to grant in a period of calm what it did not concede when facing severe military pressure.

The regime's priority in securing reconstruction support is to create conditions that would allow it to reassert its authority and act like the sovereign power it used to be. For this, it would need the US and EU to lift, or at a minimum relax, sanctions on Syria.

The EU and its member states have declared they will not bankroll reconstruction unless they see a political transition 'firmly underway'

Moscow, the regime's main protector and enabler, has tried to solicit international help to rebuild Syria - partly to re-legitimise the regime and partly to stabilise the country and lay the ground for its own military exit.

It appears prepared at most to press the regime into agreeing to a limited political process, including drafting a new constitution, but shows neither willingness nor ability to push the regime to make any significant concession that risks weakening it.

It has told European leaders to stop clutching onto the fantasy that playing the sanctions and reconstruction card can still achieve the regime change that eight years of war failed to deliver.

That said, Russia has an interest in persuading Europe to contribute to Syria's reconstruction in order to reduce the cost of its intervention and secure international recognition for its political-military solution for ending the war. This is why Moscow led an intensive campaign in mid-2018 to convince EU member states to support reconstruction, not in exchange for a political transition, but based on the argument that it would help address the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and Syria's neighbours.

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Russia has warned Europeans not to misinterpret its motivations: it may be seeking reconstruction funds to achieve certain goals in Syria, but it has no overriding need for them, because it views its fundamental interests already secured through the regime's survival.

It argues therefore that it does not need the Europeans as much as the Europeans need Russia, and that it might take steps toward certain unspecified reforms in Syria, but only if the EU lifts sanctions and starts providing reconstruction funds first.

For the US, EU and many EU member states, this is a non-starter. Neither the US nor the EU is now inclined to lift sanctions. As for reconstruction in regime controlled areas, since 2016 the EU has conditioned funding on genuine progress toward a political transition, as defined by UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

It has framed its assistance policy accordingly, focusing on humanitarian aid and blocking funding for almost anything else. This political stance, led by the UK, France and Germany (the 'E3'), assumes that supporting reconstruction without a genuine transition would be a wasted, if not harmful, investment, legitimising a regime they consider criminal.

Moreover, they also view the regime's reconstruction policy as failing to serve the majority of the population and thus aggravating one of the conflict's main drivers.

Above all, Europeans want to use the promise of reconstruction funding to push the regime toward a genuine political transition, which they view as the only way to achieve long-term stability in Syria and thus protect their strategic interests.

Still, Europe's position has been marked by increasingly visible internal divisions on how to play the reconstruction card and, more broadly, on what political stance to adopt toward Damascus. Some European officials oppose an approach exclusively based on negative incentives; they also underline the potentially harmful impact of an EU aid strategy limited to humanitarian assistance, as this might not suffice to prevent the collapse of public services, triggering greater humanitarian hardship, instability and attendant ripple effects.

Damascus shows no willingness to make concessions or pay a political price in exchange for international reconstruction support

Others, including the E3, argue that the lack of guarantees that aid will achieve its intended purpose and not reinforce the regime, and no real political opening, prevents them from revising their stance and aid strategy.

Divisions aside, for now Europe's reconstruction policy remains largely stable due to three factors: the relatively limited amount of funding some EU member states allocate to small-scale rehabilitation projects that others, who apply a less flexible definition of "humanitarian" aid, may find controversial; the consensus-based mechanism for renewing EU sanctions, which militates against a single or even only a few member states opposing the majority; and the narrow financial means at the disposal of member states that might be willing to depart from the reconstruction line.

This mismatch of expectations among principal actors has contributed to the current stalemate. What Europe hopes to gain from withholding reconstruction funding collides with both Damascus' priorities and Russia's willingness or ability to affect them. This puts any prospect of stabilising regime-controlled areas into question.

For Europe, investing fully in reconstruction may not help place the country on a better footing, but withholding reconstruction funds could hamper economic recovery and leave Syrians in enduring need.

Europeans could test a phased and incremental approach toward reconstruction based on positive incentive

To escape this conundrum, Europe could consider moving beyond humanitarian aid and start providing funds for rehabilitation projects in regime-held areas that could help prevent the collapse of essential public services.

Initially this could be done on a small scale, such as repairing not just the broken windows of a hospital or school as some EU member states are already doing, but also rebuilding collapsed walls and roofs.

It could do this on the condition it can deliver funds independently, without regime interference.

Of course, such a strategy is unlikely to improve prospects for long-term stability. Europe should continue its push for political change, however modest its progress.

Europeans could test a phased and incremental approach toward reconstruction based on positive incentives - small-scale rehabilitation projects, a progressive lifting of sanctions, a gradual normalisation of relations and a staggered disbursement of reconstruction funds - in exchange for the regime, with Russian support, beginning to implement Resolution 2254 or taking concrete steps on other important issues relating to ongoing, systematic abuses of the security services (including arbitrary arrest and torture), the internally displaced, property rights, military conscription, detainees and the disappeared.

Such steps would not bring the horrendous Syrian conflict to a close, let alone a satisfactory one. But they might bring a modicum of positive change for the Syrian people. 

International Crisis Group is a transnational non-profit, non-governmental organisation that carries out field research on violent conflict and advances policies to prevent, mitigate or resolve conflict.

The full report that accompanies this executive summary can be read here:

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.