Rebuilding Syria. Where to Begin?

It is still premature to call Syria a “post-conflict state.” However, the restoration of the country cannot be postponed and it is necessary to start with targeted measures aimed at achieving a real improvement in people’s living conditions, Vladimir Bartenev, director of the Center for Security and Development Studies at the World Politics Faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University, said in an interview with on the sidelines of the Valdai Club Middle East conference, which took place on February 19–20 in Moscow. 

Small steps

Syria is not a “post-conflict state” – to call it so is premature. The process of reconsolidating Syrian society will take more than a year and, possibly, more than a decade. But it is necessary to rebuild the country that has just suffered through a brutal civil war that lasted years, and priority must be given to the humanitarian component of this process.

In no case can one link the country’s restoration with the achievement of unrealizable political tasks, such as restructuring the government and pursuing democratization in a Western manner, as happened, for example, in Iraq after 2003. We must begin with implementable, targeted measures designed to improve the living conditions of ordinary people.

It is important to concentrate on those sectors that will be crucial for the Syrians, not only in the short term but also in the long term: infrastructure, energy, water, transport, as well as agriculture, education, and health care. Investing in these sectors will be important for those people who did not leave their homes, and for those who were forced to flee – either to safer parts of the country or abroad.

Of course, this will not allow for the quick resolution of problems associated with the return of all internally displaced persons and refugees, who amount to almost half of the country's population. Nevertheless, there are already hundreds of thousands who have already returned or are willing to do so in the near future. Their return and reintegration will also mean a certain political choice, which, given normal living conditions and the support of the international community, can be a sustainable, long-term contribution to the consolidation of society and the establishment of stability, not only in Syria, but also throughout the region. 

Dividends for everyone?

The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the resulting rupture of socio-economic ties inflicted on the nation’s economy was no less significant than the destruction of its infrastructure. They reversed or significantly slowed down not only the development of Syria itself, but also of its neighbors, first of all Lebanon and Jordan, as well as Turkey, exacerbating the situation in these states and creating new risks.

The humanitarian disaster in Syria had a trans-regional dimension. Its consequences were felt even in geographically distant countries, primarily in Europe.

The world media undoubtedly exaggerated the influence of the Syrian crisis on the European continent. The EU countries with a population of more than half a billion people received a total of about 1 million refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic: less than the number taken in by Lebanon, which itself is only home to slightly more than 4 million people. Politically, this problem in Europe remains very acute, and some political forces, for example, in Germany, have successfully played the migration card to gain advantageous positions.

However, the early return of refugees is objectively the key to preventing their radicalization within the host countries; in other words, it is a matter of national security. Therefore, this decision requires a pragmatic, non-ideological approach.

In no case there should be a task to remove the migration burden simultaneously. Hasty decisions can only aggravate the situation. But the restoration of Syria is beneficial to all European (and not only) players. It is necessary to expand the space for dialogue between all interested parties, think ahead – and not so much about the return of those who are now in the EU, but how to prevent new “migration shocks” in the future.

In other words, measures to create conditions for the return of refugees and the restoration of life-support systems can bring not only humanitarian or economic dividends, but also political and strategic ones. They will be felt both in Syria, the whole of Western Asia, and in the entire world community. But this is possible only in absence of systemic miscalculations in their planning and implementation. 

What are the main risks?

There are many risks. Some of them involve the actions of the Syrian government itself. We can recall Law No. 10 of 2018, which established “renovation zones”; residents were evicted and compensation payments were only made if they obtained confirmation that they owned the housing, which was very negatively perceived by the public. Those who would like to return from abroad, and internally displaced persons alike consider it a threat. And even the fact that the law was later relaxed did not make people more certain that they are guaranteed against the loss of real estate and other property.

Elimination of the causes of concern and a safeguards system’s creation for those returning to their homes is extremely important for Syrian society’s consolidation, and the Syrian government should take a number of steps in this direction. We are talking not only about legislative initiatives, but also about measures regarding information support for the conducted policy, which will allow us to understand better the essence of government decisions and minimize the negative perception of reconstruction, both domestically and abroad.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.