When the Syrian conflict began, in March 2011, Bashar al-Assad seemed likely to be ousted, like other strongmen swept away by the Arab Spring. Eight years later, Assad is still president, but of a fractured, demolished country. Now one big question is: Who will pay to rebuild Syria?
The bill is large. The United Nations estimates the cost of reconstruction at $250 billion (about four times Syria’s prewar GDP, or roughly the size of Egypt’s economy). Russia wants the West to pay up; its military support is essential to the Assad regime’s survival, but it has its own economic constraints. However, the United States and its Western allies have adamantly refused, absent meaningful political changes. There would be “no reconstruction without [a] political transition,” a French embassy spokeswoman recently told me. Last fall, Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed as “absurd” Russia’s push for Western support. That leaves 18 million people, about a third of whom are refugees, facing an uncertain future in a country that’s far worse off now than it was when the conflict began. Reconstruction remains essential despite Donald Trump’s withdrawal of most U.S. troops, signaling Washington’s little appetite for further engagement in Syria.
Theoretically, a successful reconstruction effort could see millions of displaced Syrians returning home. (Of course, the problem of security inside Syria would remain.) But as long as parts of the country remain unlivable, the refugee crisis that has gripped Europe for the past few years risks exacerbation, potentially subjecting many more generations of Syrians to living in refugee camps at the mercy of often unfriendly host countries.
Russia, which intervened in the conflict in 2015 and is keen to preserve its newfound regional influence, can’t take on the cost of reconstruction. Its economy is in tatters, made worse by sanctions imposed following its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and its interference in the 2016 U.S. elections; the threat of further punitive measures over its seizure in November of Ukrainian vessels near the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, which both countries share under a 2003 treaty; and low oil prices. But Moscow has tried, with no success, to get the international community to pay.
The U.S. and Europe have made reforms, including a political transition, a precondition for any role in reconstruction. They are also banking on the fact that Assad’s main backers, both internal and external, will realize that ongoing support for him will keep the purse strings closed.
“Assad is a principal obstacle to rehabilitation of Syria, and eventually the Alawite business class and those who support the regime externally will find that he’s a liability and an albatross that will grow,” a Western diplomat recently told The Atlantic. The diplomat added, “I’m told that before the war, the capital budget was $60 billion, and last year the capital budget was $300 million, of which only 20 percent was actually spent. Not only does it not have the money, but they don’t have administrative [or] political capacity to build the country.”
For years, the West has pressed Russia to compel Assad to make concessions.
“The issue really is, how much power do [the Russians] have to force real reforms, actual reforms that devolve power away from Damascus, that decentralize power somewhat?” Mona Yacoubian, who studies Syria at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me in a recent interview. “And here, it’s not at all clear that Russia has that kind of leverage.”
The irony is, the very focus on reconstruction is tacit acknowledgment that Assad isn’t going anywhere. Russia’s and Iran’s continued support, the U.S. withdrawal of the majority of American forces, and the beginning of some rehabilitation among Arab countries give Assad few incentives to make political concessions. But even from this seemingly comfortable perch, Assad is in a bind. His supporters can’t afford to pay for reconstruction; his adversaries in the West can, but won’t. Iran, Assad’s other principal supporter, is suffering from reimposed U.S. sanctions and doesn’t have that much to spare.
Yet much needs to be rebuilt. About 11 million people have been displaced and lost their home. The fighting has devastated water, sanitation, and electrical systems in former rebel-held areas. Schools and hospitals have been razed. Large cities like Raqqa have been flattened. In rural areas, irrigation channels are no longer functioning; grain silos have been destroyed.
“The infrastructure needs in northeast Syria are a mess,” Made Ferguson, the deputy director for Syria at Mercy Corps, the humanitarian-aid agency, and who is based in northeast Syria, told me last month. “Basically, everything is needed.”
This puts the West in a quandary. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to reward Assad by rebuilding Syria and cementing his hold on power. On the other, it doesn’t want to ignore a humanitarian situation that will likely get worse without a massive infusion of funds. (On Thursday, international donors pledged almost $7 billion, including $397 million from the United States, for civilians affected by the conflict. The overall figure fell far short of what the EU said was needed.)
Syrian government officials say they welcome investment only from those “friendly countries” that supported the regime during the conflict. There aren’t many candidates: Some of Syria’s Arab neighbors, who broke with Assad over the conflict, are slowly warming to the regime, but they are also reluctant to pour billions into an effort that ultimately could strengthen Iran. Turkey, a regional economic power, is engaged in reconstruction in the parts of Syria that it controls, and has ambitions outside these areas as well. The Syrian regime wants China, a major actor in infrastructure projects worldwide, to get involved. But for any of these countries to participate, Syria first needs to be stable. That’s far from assured.
Syria’s civil war has metastasized into a conflict with Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the Kurds. The planned U.S. withdrawal compounds the uncertainty. Economic malaise has worsened since the conflict began, as have human indicators like life expectancy.
Political freedoms, the lack of which first sparked the protests against the regime, still do not exist. The Islamic State remains a threat, even if it’s about to lose all its territory. The impasse over reconstruction will only serve to widen these fissures.
“Either the international community has to accept that Assad won the war and begin to approach reconstruction from that framework,” Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C., told me recently, “or they will have to live with the risk of endemic instability and governance gaps in large areas of the core Middle East.”