Restoring Syria: More Problems than Solutions
List of speakers

The second session of the Valdai Club Middle East Conference “Middle East: New Stage, Old Problems?” was devoted to the post-war reconstruction of Syria and the return of refugees. According to experts, the problems connected with the restoration of Syria are much greater than in case of other Middle Eastern states recently affected by civil wars or foreign military interventions.

During its eight years of civil war, Syria has suffered heavy losses: hundreds of thousands have died, millions became refugees or were displaced internally, and key components of the nation’s infrastructure were destroyed. Following the defeat of the main extremist forces, the problem of the country rebuilding itself has made its way to the agenda. However, this task is hampered by the scale of the required efforts (according to UN estimates, this will require $388 billion over 15 years, and cost about $268 billion more in compensations for non-produced GDP), and by differences in the approaches of the main external players. The participants of the second session, titled    “The Reconstruction of Syria: Constitutional Arrangement, Political Structure, Return of Refugees,” were extremely cautious in assessing the effectiveness of possible programs for the post-war reconstruction of Syria. They pointed to numerous difficulties associated with their implementation.

The future fate of the country depends largely on whether the external forces involved in the conflict can find a common language. While Russia has called for steps to be taken immediately to reconstruct Syria in order to resolve the country’s humanitarian problems as soon as possible and create conditions for the return of refugees, the United States and its Western allies have insisted on the need to reach a political agreement and, in effect, regime change. One of the speakers called this situation “mutually guaranteed obstruction” in a nod to the Cold War concept of “mutually-assured destruction”. Obviously, this is due to a US reluctance to allow Russia and Iran, allies of the Syrian government which are considered geopolitical opponents of Washington, to strengthen their positions in the region.

According to one of the speakers, there are two main obstacles to the restoration of Syria: the policy of Western sanctions against the country and the incompetence of its own government. According to him, the apparatus of the Syrian state had stalled in the 1970s and is unable to respond to the demands of the population. The speaker insisted that it is unlikely that the government has the right formulas to solve the social problems that had precipitated the civil war.

Another session participant disagreed with that assessment, saying that the state administration of pre-war Syria was quite effective. Syria, the expert said, is a country of small-scale production and its citizens are perfectly capable of self-organization. Therefore, if you save the country from external interference, the recovery will go much faster than one might assume. Iraq and Lebanon were cited as examples of countries which had successfully recovered.

Criticism was also levied at the Office of the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General in Syria. According to one of the experts, the proposals developed there are too West-centric and do not take into account local realities. One of the conditions of the peace process’s effectiveness is the inclusion by the opposition of representatives of armed groups operating in the country, the expert stressed.

Two opposing views were expressed on which financial mechanisms should be used in the restoration of Syria. One speaker said that such a mechanism could be created by states which are interested in the speedy normalization of the situation in Syria: Russia, China, Turkey and Lebanon (the last two countries accepted the largest number of Syrian refugees). The relative success of the Iraqi experience was cited again as an example. The speaker said certain sectors should be prioritized during reconstruction, including the nation’s infrastructure and essential public services.

Another participant expressed doubts about the effectiveness of such measures and said that the effective restoration of Syria will only be possible when foreign companies with specific economic interests enter the country. In his opinion, an economic recovery will allow for the solution of social problems.

Returning to the topic of Russia’s participation in the restoration of Syria, one of the experts pointed to a factor that sets it apart, in a positive way, from Western countries and helps strengthen the position of Moscow in the Middle East: the style of diplomacy that does not imply the need for unquestioning obedience from local allies. However, Russia’s limited financial resources do not allow it to take advantage fully, which again raises the question of the need for multilateral action to ensure the reconstruction and development of the civil war-devastated country.