The paralysis on Syria

  • Hana Martínková
  • 23.4.2019 08:11

Eighty-three per cent of the population, twelve million people. Those are the 2019 estimates of people living below the poverty line and people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria respectively. In another attempt to alleviate the plight of the Syrian people, the March 2019 Brussels III Conference on 'Supporting the future of Syria and the region' once again demonstrated the will of the Western world to help the war-torn country and its neighbours that share the burden of the 8-year-long conflict.

At the EU and UN organised event 78 delegation pledged a combined sum of nearly €8.3 billion for the years 2019 and 2020, a further €18.5 billion were promised in loans in the coming years. To put that into a rather discouraging perspective - the total costs of reconstruction are estimated between €200 and 400 billion, and the funds supplied usually after similar donor conferences usually fall short by roughly 30 to 40 per cent in comparison to the funds pledged. 

The focus of the current European activities is on humanitarian relief and without any influence on the political process, they may well turn into a conscience-relieving exercise without genuinely affecting reconstruction. In fact, the official statement reads that “reconstruction and international support for its implementation will only be possible once a credible political solution, consistent with Security Council Resolution 2254 [demanding political transition] and the Geneva Communiqué, is firmly underway”, and even admits that none of the necessary conditions to achieve this have been fulfilled. Given that the longer-term visions for reconstruction are very different in Brussels and Damascus, it is not clear how they could be in the near future.  

 

The Syrian regime has produced a variety of laws that created a messy legal environment, and it is not clear if, when and how displaced Syrians will be able to return and start rebuilding their homes.

 

High Representative Federica Mogherini said, in front of many Syrian civil society representatives, that the goal remains “[a] Syrian led, Syrian owned political process facilitated by the UN to establish inclusive, non-sectarian governance for a united Syria”. It could be argued that the goal is to minimize the influence of Russia and Iran who are the winners of the conflict. But, the goal is also to minimize the influence of Bashar al-Assad, another winner of the conflict, who despite being Syrian does not really fulfil the other criteria. In order to make that clear, the conference declaration states that it will not be allowed for funds to “benefit or assist parties who have allegedly committed war crimes or crimes against humanity and shall not condone, or indirectly entrench, social and demographic engineering.” Unfortunately, it is Assad who leads and owns the political process for now. Reconstruction in his regime’s eyes is essentially a reward scheme for loyalists, and the “traitors” in Homs or Ghouta are likely to be left without support. For example, a report for the Atlantic Council by Faysal Itani and Tobias Schneider found that the regime has essentially highjacked foreign development aid and forced its distribution through government-affiliated entities, such as the Al-Bustan Foundation run by Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf. Another area where Assad’s misuse of power plays out is housing, land and property rights. Since 2011, the regime has produced a variety of laws that created a messy legal environment, and it is not clear if, when and how displaced Syrians will be able to return and start rebuilding their homes. According to UNHCR, about 135 000 refugees have returned from abroad by December 2018, and they all potentially face laws that have been enacted since 2011. Among those are a law that prevents the ownership of property near the Turkish border affecting the Kurdish minority, a Ministry of Justice circulation hindering verification of ownership or a 2016 law that suspends all property records transactions in areas deemed a security risk.   

 

Russia and Iran, who have helped to keep Assad in power, have shown little interest in the genuine reconstruction and seek to invest primarily on the oil and gas or energy industries. 

 

The fact that Assad won the war and is back in power, would mean that the western money will either have to find alternative channels, likely resulting in non-systematic spending or be withheld as the last bargaining chip. Russia and Iran, who have helped to keep Assad in power, have shown little interest in the genuine reconstruction and seek to invest primarily on the oil and gas or energy industries. Infrastructure and manufacturing are largely beyond the means of either (although Teheran has funnelled some investment into places loyal to Iran, such as Aleppo), and lack the quick returns that their sanction-burdened economies need.           

The result seems to be a paralysis of a potential reconstruction of Syria. Europe binds its aid to unrealistic conditions, albeit some, especially southern and eastern European countries display a willingness to officially accept Assad’s victory. Russia and Iran are looking for quick gains from their investments and do not have the means to assist Assad to rebuild his country. Assad himself sees reconstruction as a reward scheme and shows no sign of willingness to bring his torn-apart nation back together. As the old saying goes, hope dies last, but in Syria, it is on life-support.

 


"This article was written based on a course "PSSI Journalistic Academy" organized by the Prague Security Studies Institute and supported by the UK Embassy in Prague"


 

About author: Hana Martínková

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