Western view of reconstruction in Syria ignores reality

The Western perspective of reconstruction ignores the essence of the Syrian regime.
Sunday 21/10/2018
Participants sit next to a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad (C) during the opening of Syria’s reconstruction exhibition in Damascus, on October 2. (AP)
At the heart of the problem. Participants sit next to a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad (C) during the opening of Syria’s reconstruction exhibition in Damascus, on October 2. (AP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime “will not get a single dollar” for reconstruction operations in Syria from the United States if it does not guarantee full withdrawal of Iranian troops and Iran-backed militias from Syria.

Pompeo had previously conditioned the US contributions to financing reconstruction projects on the start of a credible political process in Geneva leading to participation by the opposition and presidential elections.

Thus, the United States is using reconstruction, along with the question of its military withdrawal from north-eastern Syria, as one more pressure card to bring about changes in political and military realities in Syria without resorting to fighting.

Pompeo’s speech was a direct response to Russia’s call for the international community to put forward a quick and effective plan to finance Syrian reconstruction, after declaring the end of the war in Syria in a victory for Moscow and its allies.

So far, however, the international community seems to be adhering to standards regarding reconstruction policies around the world, including the requirement for a complete end of hostilities before funds are released, which in Syria has not yet happened.

The goal of reconstruction is broader than just rebuilding what was destroyed by war. It is linked to building social, economic and political stability that prevents a renewed outbreak of the conflict. Reconstruction, therefore, is usually conditioned by having the regime emerging from the war accept extensive changes to pre-war political and economic structures or those that emerged because of the war.

Russia does not view the Assad government, its institutions and its exclusionary political and economic mechanisms as responsible for the widespread popular protests of 2011, protests that turned into a war. Moscow considers it was the West’s support for the popular movement against the Syrian regime and the regional support for armed groups that fought the regime that had led to Syria’s descent into war and the destruction of governance mechanisms that were essential guarantors of stability in Syria.

In the Russian vision for Syria therefore, it is the renewal of those same governance mechanisms, with the assistance of the international community through reconstruction, that restore political stability.

The Syrian regime looks at the internationally funded reconstruction process as an opportunity to renew and expand its governing coalition to regain power and ensure stability for the foreseeable future. The flow of funds would help build an alliance of major forces in society and the economy but this coalition will not be involved in governance and in making major decisions concerning the future of the state and its economic and political orientations. It would, however, reap the fruits and economic opportunities that flow through the network of corruption and clientele that usually accompany dictatorial regimes in general and the Syrian regime in particular.

The Syrian regime hopes the reconstruction process will revive the economy and expand the Syrian market by rehabilitating hundreds of destroyed cities and towns and the subsequent return of their displaced inhabitants. This would lead to an increase in resources generated by the state and a rise in revenues reaped by the network of corruption and clientele.

There are two opposing visions for reconstruction in Syria, even though the concept is the same. The Western vision considers reconstruction as an introduction and requirement to rebuild, not only the economy and urban areas, but also the political system to make it more participatory and stable.

On the opposite side, there is the vision of the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, which sees in reconstruction the opportunity to reproduce the exclusionary political and economic system and expand its network of corruption and clientele. In other words, reproduce the conditions that led to the revolution and the subsequent death, destruction and displacement.

Given the distance between the two concepts, it is easy to see that the Western vision is naive. Thinking of using reconstruction funds to pressure the Syrian regime into a more democratic and participatory system belies a poor understanding of the nature of that regime.

The Western perspective may be applicable in the context of civil wars and conflicts that end with the weakening of all parties involved, especially the ruling regime or the stronger party in the equation of the conflict. When the ruling regime finds itself exhausted and threatened by forces from inside and outside, it would be possible to push for the conditions of reconstruction.

The situation of the Syrian regime is quite different, considering Russian and Iranian support for it. This regime remains centralised, coherent and, most important, with the defeat of the opposition and the disruption of its support network, its very existence is no longer in jeopardy.

The Western perspective of reconstruction ignores the essence of the Syrian regime, which is based on repressing and excluding most Syrians while mobilising and fattening a social, security and economic elite that supports it and ensures internal stability.

The truth is that the Syrian regime is governed by that relationship to such a degree that that relationship can be broken only by changing the regime itself.