How Should the West Play a Weak Hand in Syria Reconstruction?

February 1, 2019

Western governments have repeatedly had to downgrade their expectations for Syria. After nearly eight years of war, demands for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s immediate departure slowly whittled down to a reluctant acceptance that no political transition is forthcoming.

Now, Western countries find themselves deliberating whether to participate in Syria’s reconstruction without the political transition they have long demanded. And for European countries most affected by migration, refugee return will be at the center of these debates. Facing harrowing uncertainty and a lack of economic opportunity, refugees will be hard-pressed to return home, and with neighboring countries still resisting their integration, refugees there are more likely to eventually move on to Europe.

Decisions to fund reconstruction should center on three questions: Can donors condition their aid on terms that force the regime to offer protections that returnees would not otherwise receive? Can funding be structured to make Syria more economically inclusive than the narrow state the regime is currently constructing? And finally, if Western donors fail to achieve their goals and need to terminate projects, would the regime be significantly more empowered than it would have been if these donors refrained from the start?

The idea of rebuilding Syria with Assad still in power is unsavory to say the least. But, if the West takes a transactional approach and structures its aid around realistic objectives — and is ready to walk away if it does not accomplish them — then it can meaningfully improve conditions for millions of Syrians both inside and outside the country.

Leveraging Animosity

At the outset, Western countries must acknowledge their weak hand. That Damascus has an array of potential funding sourcesChina, other BRIC countries, and perhaps Gulf states — undercuts any leverage Western countries might otherwise gain by engaging in reconstruction. Moreover, Syria presents an unprecedented challenge. The fraught relationship between Damascus and the West undermines any traditional stabilization and state-building approach that would normally accompany reconstruction. Whereas traditional approaches focus on enhancing the credibility of a central government, the West has over the course of the war actively sought to degrade legitimacy and credibility in Damascus.

Counterintuitively, this animosity between Damascus and Western capitals may create an opportunity. When the United States tried to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, donors found themselves measuring their own success against the performance of the Nouri al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai regimes they were fostering in Baghdad and Kabul. In turn, these regimes could effectively call Washington’s bluff, knowing that even if they resisted critical compromises and reforms necessary to build the state, they would not be allowed to sink into total chaos. Though Western policymakers occasionally threatened to pull support, it was hard to back these threats up without undermining confidence in the fledgling governments. As long as U.S. forces were keeping them afloat, these regimes could construct narrow patronage networks and focus on their proximate interests without taking the steps necessary to become durable states.

In Syria, the state already exists — far more consolidated around Assad than many want to admit — and the past eight years show that his regime is anything but a Western project. While Assad frames his animosity with the West as an act of defiance, Western donors can use this to their advantage. Because Western governments can credibly tell Assad they are not invested in the success of his regime, they may be able to leverage reconstruction assistance in a more transactional manner than they otherwise could, setting objectives and criteria for funds to keep flowing.

That said, objectives should be narrow. Western donors must accept that they cannot use aid to pursue political transition or to critically undermine Assad’s authority. Instead, they should set specific criteria with the goal of improving conditions for returning refugees and, in turn, vulnerable populations that remain in Syria. Further, if they structure their support properly, donors may be able to broaden economic opportunities in the post-conflict state. If the regime resists these limited objectives, then Western donors can and should terminate support.

Incorporating Refugees and Broadening the State

At present, the prospects for systematic refugee return and inclusive economic activities in Syria are bleak. Assad is already taking steps to obstruct returning and displaced Syrians who he perceives as insufficiently loyal or useful to the regime. The April 2018 Law 10, in concert with other measures enacted since the war began, expands the regime’s mechanisms to confiscate property with minimal or no compensation and to repurpose this land for development projects headed by a narrow circle of businessmen loyal to the regime.

Pressured by Russia, the regime enacted Law 42 in November 2018, extending the official period for citizens to seek limited compensation, but it is unlikely that this law will be applied fairly or consistently. Moreover, projects like Marota City, in which pro-regime holding companies are demolishing informal housing and building unaffordable luxury apartments, stoke fears that vulnerable Syrians who lose their housing will not have affordable alternatives. Given these concerns, refugees will be understandably reticent to return.

If Western countries participate in reconstruction, they could address these concerns by including stipulations that force the regime to create better conditions and protections for returnees. Conditions should include earmarking programming for areas that would otherwise be neglected, designating funds for affordable housing, public infrastructure, and other services geared toward vulnerable populations, stipulating that local partner organizations be headed and staffed by a set threshold of registered refugees, and insisting that the regime grant amnesty to pre-approved lists of the refugees who will participate in reconstruction and accept this participation in lieu of military service. More ambitiously, Western donors can condition their programming on the regime cooperating with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to develop and enact a more comprehensive system for refugee return.

A (Careful) Failed Gambit Is Better Than Sitting Out the Game

Even with conditions on the location and nature of projects and on the composition of local partners, Western reconstruction efforts will bolster Assad. Assad would not agree to such arrangements otherwise. This could manifest as projects using procurement channels dominated by pro-regime holding companies or by the additional support giving the regime a freer hand in domains outside the scope of Western-led projects. Moreover, as with any post-conflict environment, aid delivery and reconstruction will be subject to bid-rigging, embezzlement, and bribery by the regime and other actors.

To minimize abuse, Western donors will need to be more closely involved in implementation than they have been in previous humanitarian projects in Syria. Donors should not participate in reconstruction if they are prevented from having a direct presence on the ground. Moreover, if the regime obviates Western efforts by taking other blatant steps to obstruct refugee return, this too should be the basis for the termination of projects.

If Western donors try but fail to stipulate and maintain conditions, and thus need to suspend or terminate programming, they still will not have significantly empowered the regime beyond what it could have attained otherwise. With assistance from China and other opportunistic investors, Assad will have sufficient inflows and will divide the spoils of war among loyal figures within the regime, creating a narrower, more skeletal state. Far fewer Syrians will be able to participate — economically or otherwise — but the regime itself will still survive.

Western countries indeed have a losing hand, but without their participation and pressure, Damascus will not burden itself with systematically re-admitting and protecting refugees. These refugees and other vulnerable populations — not the regime — will feel the consequences. If Western donors participate, pursue realistic objectives, and succeed, millions of Syrians’ lives will be the better for it.


Alexander Decina is a visiting fellow at the West Asia–North Africa Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he focuses on factional conflicts and state-building challenges throughout the region with particular focus on Syria and Libya. Prior to that, he worked with think tanks and nongovernmental organizations in Washington, D.C., Lebanon, and Iraqi Kurdistan. (Decina’s views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the West Asia–North Africa Institute). Follow him on Twitter @alexdecina.

Image: Mohamed Azakir/World Bank

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