When can Syria’s rebuilding begin?

Rebuilding Syria will be a costly and prolonged effort — and it will involve lots of money from lots of partners.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Syrian men work on reconstructing a damaged building in Raqqa. (AFP)
A shifting focus. Syrian men work on reconstructing a damaged building in Raqqa. (AFP)

DUBAI - The coming year is expected to mark further progress in reducing violence as Syria moves towards an endgame and Syrian President Bashar President Assad will remain at the helm for the foreseeable future despite widespread concerns of his credibility and decisions through Syria’s descent into chaos.

However, with Syria seeing increased stabilisation and improved security, international focus has increasingly been shifting to rebuilding the war-torn country.

Damascus has been staging trade fairs, international flights into Syria are restarting and diplomats are returning with directives to re-establish trade and secure opportunities to assist in Syria’s rebuilding.

Since the conflict in Syria began almost eight years ago, more than half its pre-war population of approximately 23 million have fled their homes — nearly 7 million are displaced internally and another 6 million fled abroad.

The United Nations estimates that more than two-thirds of Syria’s remaining population is dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival. Food production and availability are at record lows. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation said the agricultural sector, which accounts for almost one-quarter of Syria’s GDP, needs $16 billion to recover.

Large parts of Syria’s major cities and infrastructure lie in ruins. Gas, electricity and road networks need to be rebuilt. As many as one-in-five houses was damaged during the war and the United Nations estimated that $48 billion was urgently needed for investment in housing stocks alone.

Rebuilding Syria will be a costly and prolonged effort — and it will need considerable international assistance in the form of aid, grants and loans.

In December, Assad suggested that the cost of rebuilding Syria would be at least $400 billion, much higher than the $250 billion estimated by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura last year.

Some observers may view talk about rebuilding Syria as premature, considering that Israel’s efforts to contain Iranian influence in Syria are becoming more intense militarily and that Turkey’s impending moves against Kurdish militias are likely to be iron-fisted. However, most of those confrontations are likely to take place largely away from Syria’s largest urban centres and commercial hubs.

Syria has survived the worst of the conflict that has engrossed it since 2011 and, while considerable political uncertainty remains, tentative efforts at rebuilding are under way.

China — Syria’s largest trading partner — has been a priority focus for Damascus as it courts investors and contractors for megaprojects. Syria has signed approximately $2 billion worth of reconstruction projects in the past year with Chinese partners. With Europeans staying away in terms of trade and investment, China could gain the most from the lucrative contracts available in Syria.

The Friends of Syria group, which includes the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, has declared it will withhold $10 billion in pledged assistance until the process of a political transition “away from Assad” becomes evident.

As such, the United States has effectively ruled out any foreseeable role in rebuilding Syria. Washington’s sanctions list features hundreds of Syrian officials, businessmen and companies that US citizens have been barred from doing business with for years.

Now the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, already passed by the US House of Representatives and sent to the US Senate, may soon mean sanctions for foreign companies or individuals doing business with the Syrian government or its front companies.

The possibility of wider US sanctions will complicate emerging Arab efforts to re-engage Syria.

Arab countries have thrown their support behind proposals to Damascus comprising manpower and equipment from Jordan and Egypt and financial backing from the Gulf.

Regional Arab countries say the rebuilding of Syria offers a timely opportunity to reactivate political ties and economic cooperation that are mutually beneficial and could offer strategic gains to all sides, properly managed.

There is hope that a diplomatic reset with Syria backed with new economic partnerships could help Syria’s reintegration into the Arab fold or at least counterbalance the influence Tehran has over Damascus in the short-term.

The fact that Iran’s struggling economy — apparently facing its most difficult conditions in four decades, as Iranian President Hassan Rohani said in his speech on the Iranian revolution’s anniversary — constrains Tehran’s ability to invest significantly in Syria at this stage and creates advantages for Syria’s Arab neighbours interested in forging new partnerships.

Analysts said the United States would be wise to avoid sanctioning Arab contractors doing business in Syria because that would help counterbalance Iranian influence and profits there.

The next year is pivotal for Syria and its neighbours in setting the tone for how cooperation and collaboration may work and how skilfully competing interests can be balanced by international stakeholders as Syria’s rebuilding takes off.