Almost eight years have passed since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria that has drawn into its orbit an unprecedented number of regional and extra-regional actors and launched a process of reformatting the structures of formal and informal, hierarchical and network interrelations and coalitions in Western Asia. A fundamental change took place in the Syrian confrontation at a certain point, primarily owing to the actions of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Bartenev, director of the Center for Security and Development Studies at the World Politics Faculty of the Lomonosov Moscow State University and speaker at the second session of the Valdai Club’s Middle East Conference that is currently taking place in Moscow, discusses the new balance of power in Syria.
Almost eight years have passed since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria that has drawn into its orbit an unprecedented number of regional and extra-regional actors and launched a process of reformatting the structures of formal and informal, hierarchical and network interrelations and coalitions in Western Asia. A fundamental change took place in the Syrian confrontation at a certain point, primarily owing to the actions of the Russian Federation. The balance of power seemingly shifted fundamentally in favor of the Bashar al-Assad government and this change appears to be irreversible. The recovery of the country destroyed by years of war and the return of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons has moved to the top of the international agenda.
However, whenever these issues are discussed, outside forces perpetuate what can be described as “mutually assured obstruction.” Russia wants to help Damascus without wasting time. It is promoting the investment of national companies in strategically important sectors such as oil and gas production, power engineering and transport infrastructure and actively working to mobilize resources of third countries for Syria’s reconstruction. In the meantime, Western countries and Persian Gulf states have a different approach. They claim Damascus should not be helped and funding for reconstruction on Damascus-controlled territories should be linked with the start of a political process. In so doing they are demonstrating that they are in fact prepared to fund efforts to achieve stabilization, speedy recovery and a bottom-up model of state development on the territories to the east of the Euphrates River, which the Assad government and its allies absolutely reject.
However, all parties to this process should summon the strength to move beyond obstruction to constructive dialogue that is as pragmatic as possible.
Importantly, it should be based on acknowledging that the apprehensions of all actors inside and outside Syrian that there is a political element inherent in the restoration process are justified.
The Assad government is entitled to regard reconstruction as not just an objective humanitarian and economic necessity but also as an opportunity to peacefully consolidate the positions won on the battlefield. In this respect, its approach is little different from that of European politicians in the 1940s. In their opinion, the speedy recovery of the war-ravaged economies, both based on self-reliance and the support of foreign powers, was a kind of antidote against left-wing forces that had become much stronger and could wipe them out. The United States understood this perfectly well when it devised the Marshall Plan.
Russia and Iran are entitled to seek opportunities in Syria’s recovery to recoup the billions of dollars spent fighting the Islamic State forces during what was a far from favorable economic time for Russia. But the United States has also regularly considered it justified to provide money to states that suffered from armed conflicts as both politically conditional and financially tied assistance, resulting in not only strategic but also tangible economic dividends - be it as part of the Marshall Plan or the multi-billion recovery programs for Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. Humanitarian motives, “grand strategy” and the imperative to support domestic business have been mixed together in the post-war programs of many other “traditional” donors in different parts of the world.
At the same time, representatives of the Friends of Syria Group are entitled to assume that in the absence of concessions from Damascus any money given to Bashar al-Assad for recovery will perpetuate those features of the Syrian political system that are bound to trigger another escalation of tensions sooner or later in a state that will be much weaker than in 2011. They are entitled to doubt the reasons motivating the return home of hundreds of thousands, and even millions of refugees in the current conditions, or to worry about the risks of improper spending of allocated funds. Their experience in Afghanistan and Iraq shows that such risks are extremely high in temporarily unstable states, and Syria can hardly be considered an exception in this respect.
However, all parties should realize that it is in their vital, long-term strategic interests to break free of the fetters of “mutually assured obstruction” as regards Syria’s recovery, and the perpetuation of this completely counterproductive condition in Syria's post-war development threatens to devaluate all dividends from the victory over Islamic State militants. This condition is creating tremendous risks not only for Syrian statehood but also for the stability and security of the region, which consists of a host of deeply divided societies that are now vulnerable to much less powerful external shocks. It is possible to avoid these risks.
The sides may secure their strategic interests – even if they lose trust in each other – in the form of some "package" solution that will make it to possible to minimize existing risks and concerns if not to remove them altogether. No matter how unique the dilemmas of Syria’s recovery may be (the government does not control its entire territory, the country is under tough sanctions), the history of the region has examples of such “package” solutions in situations that would not seem to lend themselves to compromise.
Take for instance, the mobilization of funds for the restoration of Iraq after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime carried out in 2003 by the US-led “coalition of the willing” over the objections of Russia, France and Germany, to name a few, which for understandable reasons initially took what the US and its coalition allies considered an obstructionist position. These countries refused to invest in building the new Iraq on US terms through the Coalition Provisional Authority under Ambassador Paul Bremer. Although unlike today’s Russia or Iran, the US could afford to fund the bulk of the reconstruction, it believed it was necessary to enter into dialogue with its opponents. The obstruction of these countries opposed to the Iraq war was overcome, although not instantly, once the dates for the transfer of power to the Iraqis were fixed and agreement was reached on a transparent International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq, consisting of two trust funds administered by the World Bank and the UN Development Group. The donors were allowed to choose between them. The change in the situation was reflected, in part, by the unprecedented writing off of Iraq’s debt, in which Russia, France and Germany took part.
It also seems possible to offer a solution for Syria that would be financial in form and political in content. It could be a multi-donor fund for the reconstruction of Syria either under the aegis of the UN or an individual mechanism that would be open for membership. The fund could be established by the countries that are primarily and mostly interested in starting recovery efforts in Syria as soon as possible – Russia, Iran and China. The advisory board could include the countries that are the most interested in refugees returning home, notably, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The fund’s money could be allocated to finance specific projects that will be coordinated by the government and local councils. It would make sense to give priority to rebuilding infrastructure and critical systems in the areas where refugees and internally displaced persons are ready to return to. The willingness of refugees to return would have to be confirmed by the host countries – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Goods and services for such projects during the first stage could be purchased as “partially tied aid” whereby the number of participants in the relevant tenders will be limited (for instance, a portion of the tenders will be conducted for the fund’s donors alone and a portion will be carried out with the participation of Syrian companies). Should this model prove practicable, during the second stage it would be possible to open tenders to companies from third countries by encouraging their governments to donate money to the fund.
It seems like such a technocratic solution would make it possible to move beyond “mutually assured obstruction” to “mutually assured reconstruction”, up to and including the elaboration of a new political structure. The restoration of infrastructure and return of refugees will take place in Syria simultaneously with the formation of more stable mechanisms for the distribution of powers in determining priorities of socio-economic development between the central government and local authorities, thereby consolidating the country’s statehood.
The enormous burden shouldered by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to accommodate millions of Syrian refugees on their territory will be alleviated and their resilience to stress will become higher. Russia, Iran and China will benefit from a mechanism that will allow their companies to take part in Syria’s reconstruction with fewer political risks than now.
If countries-representatives of the Friends of Syria Group – whether extra-regional actors (the US, Canada, Japan and EU countries) or regional players (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and possibly Egypt) – will take part over time in the proposed system of mutual guarantees by becoming donors to the fund, it will pave the way to transforming Syria from a laboratory of conflict aggravated by external interference into a laboratory of recovery facilitated by foreign aid. In turn, this could help restore trust between the leading regional and extra-regional actors and create a climate conducive to the resolution of other key international problems in the region and beyond. Needless to say, this chance must not be missed.