War of words over who rebuilds Syria, how and how much

Even if the European Union is not pledging reconstruction, it is paying for aid and remains one of the biggest donors.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Syrian men work on reconstructing a damaged building in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, on January 16. (AFP)
Who’s going to pay? Syrian men work on reconstructing a damaged building in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, on January 16. (AFP)

The bombs have not yet fallen silent in Syria but the international community is already squabbling about how to rebuild the shattered country.

The United Nations has said reconstruction would cost at least $250 billion; other organisations saying it could cost three times as much.

Since the conflict began nearly seven years ago, half of Syria’s people have fled their homes and some 13 million need humanitarian aid, including 3 million trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, the United Nations said.

India, Oman and Kuwait have signed commercial investment deals in Syria and businesses from China, along with countries in the region such as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, are eyeing opportunities. They are focusing on parts of the country that were either not as badly affected by war or have returned to some semblance of normality.

Large-scale reconstruction efforts are likely to remain stalled amid big power bickering and the lack of a durable political settlement, analysts said.

“The war is winding down if you take out the Kurdish and some other areas,” said Kamal Alam, a visiting fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.

“The war is over in the big cities and reconstruction has already started there but nothing on a large scale. It’s mostly small- to medium-sized companies doing projects such as basic housing and hotels. There isn’t anything on a big scale yet and it’s more likely to be China than the European Union or Russia which will do that.”

This has not stopped Moscow from pressing the European Union to begin reconstruction efforts within the next few months. Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s representative to the European Union, told the Financial Times that European countries would “bear the responsibility” if they failed to start reconstruction work. It’s “high time,” he said, to back a programme likely to cost “dozens of billions” of dollars.

The Europeans are being urged by countries that host millions of Syrian refugees to help relieve their burden but the European Union has made clear that reconstruction funds will flow only after a peace agreement with a political transition is in place.

However, Syrian President Bashar Assad appears firmly in place while a peace conference in Russia ended with no more than an agreement to rewrite the constitution. Western countries that support a separate UN-led peace process did not participate.

Turkey began an air and ground offensive in January to target the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Afrin, displacing about 15,000 people. Near Damascus in Eastern Ghouta, about 400,000 people are under siege by government forces. In Raqqa, 112 people died because residents were allowed back to their homes before the town was cleared of bombs after recapture from the Islamic State in October, the United Nations said.

Beijing promised reconstruction efforts, while also urging a political settlement, and it hosted the first trade fair for reconstruction projects last July. “China is ready to take part in the post-war reconstruction of Syria. We will continue our assistance in keeping with our potential,” said Xie Xiaoyan, Chinese special envoy for Syria, Tass reported.

Russia, whose military support has greatly helped Assad, was likely to play only a limited role in reconstruction, Alam said.

“Russia is not likely to get involved beyond the oil and gas sector while Iran doesn’t have a lot of spare cash,” he said. “European companies were never that big in Syria before the war and America was never a player and won’t be now.”

He also said Riyadh and Qatar would not engage on a government-to-government level with Assad. However, “you never know for sure with Saudi policy because it’s always changing. As for ordinary businessmen, they will engage,” he said. “There were regular Saudi-Syria flights until only a few months ago. They only stopped because of problems with aircraft, and they will likely resume.”

Even if the European Union is not pledging reconstruction, it is paying for aid and remains one of the biggest donors. Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said the group was “helping with vital infrastructure such as electricity and water supplies.”

However, she added: “People are returning to their homes in places such as Aleppo and Homs but it doesn’t mean they have a job or even a home. While some areas of the country are more stable, the humanitarian needs are growing.”