One group’s work to stabilise Syria with international help
Due to ongoing conflict and instability, few major actors are currently working in Syria to develop and execute projects to rebuild the country’s destroyed infrastructure — from roads, buildings, the health-care system, agriculture and irrigation systems to the electrical grid. The lack of infrastructure itself is a major barrier to entry for many whose aid deliveries depend on secure roads and bridges.
There is one major player, however, that has been on the ground implementing projects across non-government-controlled parts of Syria throughout the conflict despite the uncertainty and chaos: the Syria Recovery Trust Fund (SRTF).
The SRTF — a multilateral fund seeded by Germany, the UAE, the United States, Japan, Kuwait, Turkey and Jordan, along with several European partners — focuses on recovery and rehabilitation projects in opposition-controlled territories. With the conflict’s changing landscape, it has had to adapt and redirect its efforts. Due to its nimble and flexible operational method, the SRTF has done so more effectively than the World Bank and UN in similar situations. The SRTF manages projects worth more than $148 million inside Syria, but it remains to be seen how it will adapt to a scenario under which the regime takes full control of opposition territories.
The SRTF, which was created in 2013, has a relatively light footprint inside Syria. Director-General Hani Khabbaz prefers to support and strengthen the capacity of eligible organisations in Syria — local councils, municipalities, public service providers and utilities — to meet the varying and often conflicting demands of Syrians affected by the conflict.
The SRTF’s projects vary greatly between regions, focusing on the south-west and north-west and, more recently, north-east. After the opposition in the south-west ceded control to the regime in July 2018, the SRTF suspended projects in Quneitra and Daraa and is redirecting attention to other regions. Some institutions supported by the SRTF in the south-west continue their work, however, and some local officials and civil society organisations remain in place despite the area nominally reverting to regime control.
The north-west comes with its own complications: Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation facilitated eased access to Turkish-held areas but the SRTF suspended all projects in Idlib and western Aleppo over the last 18 months due to the presence of designated terrorist organisations in Idlib and the threat of a large-scale regime offensive. Because of the Russian-Turkish agreement that staved off an immediate attack and created a demilitarised zone, the SRTF may consider reactivating some projects if the circumstances allow.
The agreement, however, is contingent on the area being cleared of heavy weapons and extremist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The deadlines for these actions have passed and though Russia and Turkey have agreed to allow more time for the agreement’s implementation, the Damascus regime is more difficult to manage. In the case of all-out escalation in Idlib, stabilisation projects would be delayed even further.
SRTF’s recent shift to north-eastern Syria is in large part due to the US commitment to a more semi-permanent presence in the region — for the next year at least — thanks to the recent delivery of $100 million from Saudi Arabia and $50 million from the UAE to maintain US stabilisation operations. Because these funds were a direct transfer to the US Treasury, established US implementation mechanisms will remain in place. By working with the US Agency for International Development and the US State Department, SRTF projects are more likely to endure. These projects include direct support to households, support to the health sector and revitalisation of agricultural livelihoods, especially in Raqqa province. Projects benefiting from the expertise of both local and international NGOs are more likely to succeed and be renewed, as local Syrian partners often lack expertise in large-scale infrastructure projects, as such activities were previously run out of Damascus.
One factor that allows the SRTF to be responsible and flexible is the short time frame of its projects, usually around six months. This allows it to reassess the dynamics of the ongoing conflict and to monitor how changing conditions affect project implementation.
SRTF staff are spread throughout Turkey and Jordan with dozens of local staff based inside Syria. Turkey and Jordan have a vested interest in seeing a revitalised and peaceful Syria to ease the burden of Syrian refugees on their economy and resources.
The SRTF’s small team is making gains towards a big goal: stabilisation in Syria. By facilitating a return to normal life in war-torn areas through livelihood assistance, local economic development and small-scale reconstruction, SRTF’s programmes might encourage the return of refugees and reduce the risk of radicalisation. As the conflict enters a new phase, relief and recovery programmes must adapt, but they must also remain a vital component of the international community’s strategy in Syria.
(This article was reprinted with permission from the Atlantic Council’s SyriaSource blog.)