How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has successfully defeated or neutralized much of the insurgency in his country, domestic and international attention has begun to turn toward stabilization and reconstruction. It is now possible to envision a postwar Syria, at least in parts of the country.
Yet large sections of the international community—including, critically, key donor countries—continue to reject the legitimacy of Assad and his regime. The United States and its allies have given up on their proxy war in Syria, with which they had pushed for Assad’s negotiated removal from power. But now reconstruction seems like the next battle to shape Syria’s political order. For backers of the Syrian opposition, reconstruction funds are one of their last remaining tools to pressure the Assad regime. Experts are now proposing convoluted schemes for how the West can rebuild Syria in spite of Assad or how it can condition its reconstruction money on political concessions from the regime.
There is a less complicated solution: Do not fund the reconstruction of Assad’s Syria.
In a high-profile speech in August, Assad warned his adversaries that they would not negotiate their way to victory. “We won’t let enemies, adversaries, and terrorists, through any means, accomplish through politics what they failed to accomplish on the battlefield and through terrorism,” he said.
The West should take Assad at his word. Syria’s reconstruction cannot be dictated or meaningfully shaped by Western donors—at least not to any satisfactory political ends. There are limited humanitarian arguments for investing in reconstruction. But in political terms, the West does not have a role to play.
Syria’s reconstruction cannot be dictated or meaningfully shaped by Western donors—at least not to any satisfactory political ends.
The cost of Syria’s reconstruction will be immense—between $200 billion and $350 billion, depending on the estimate. These sums are far beyond the capacity of Syria, or the willingness of its Iranian and Russian allies, to pay. The burden of reconstruction, then, is expected to fall on the United States, members of the EU, and Japan, as well as on multilateral institutions that are likely to take cues from their major Western donors, such as the World Bank.
Perhaps as a way to justify the enormous sums, opposition backers have suggested that reconstruction money might buy political concessions. On September 21, a meeting of “like-minded” actors (including Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the EU) announced that “recovery and reconstruction support for Syria hinges on a credible political process leading to a genuine political transition that can be supported by a majority of the Syrian people.” Reconstruction funding is “the biggest lever” the United States and its allies have to push for a credible political process, said David Satterfield, a U.S. State Department official, after the meeting. And according to British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, “We have one big card left to play in a pretty poor hand and that is the cash we can provide for the reconstruction of Syria.”
To that end, a number of experts have argued for funding small-scale, local projects in areas outside the regime’s control and without the regime’s participation or consent. But such projects would not be reconstruction in any meaningful sense. Western donors already provide this sort of “stabilization” assistance, including support for local governance and for the restoration of basic services, to areas controlled by the Kurds or the opposition. This assistance is meaningful—it helps keep these areas livable—but there is a limit to what it can accomplish, especially in mostly rural areas where the state does not exist and, in many cases, the war is not over.
Real strategic reconstruction will happen not on Syria’s periphery but in the most populous and economically vital sections of the country, which Assad controls. These areas include destroyed cities such as Aleppo and Homs, which need large-scale reconstruction, thanks in no small part to Assad’s use of indiscriminate, brute-force tactics to recapture them. The country, in other words, cannot be put back together by working around the regime that tore it apart.
There are arguments for donor countries, and particularly for those in Europe, to invest in Syria’s reconstruction. First, there is a purely humanitarian rationale: reconstruction could marginally improve Syrians’ lives after years of war. For Europeans, there is the added possibility that reconstruction (including the partial recovery of Syria’s economy) could help keep Syrians at home, stemming the migration that has destabilized Europe’s own politics. Even if the reconstruction money primarily benefited regime-connected elites, at least some would trickle down to the average Syrian. Funding might also give donors some voice in Damascus, alongside Assad’s Iranian and Russian allies.
As for squeamishness about joining hands with Assad, some more forward-leaning diplomats and commentators claim that this is mostly the sunk-cost fallacy at work: Donor countries invested in the Syrian opposition, but the opposition’s war is mostly over. It is time to look forward and help people in need.
Such arguments—in particular, the humanitarian case—carry some weight, at least on their own narrow, logical terms. What are wholly unconvincing, however, are claims that reconstruction money would give Western donors the leverage to substantively reshape Syrian politics. For instance, the idea that Western money can somehow induce Assad to abdicate is an obvious fantasy. Having fought for years to preserve itself, the regime will not consent to the “genuine political transition” that those “like-minded” players are demanding.
For Western donors, Syria’s reconstruction is a losing game. The way to win is not to play.
Some analysts believe that the West can use funding to win concessions short of regime change, including administrative decentralization, the release of detainees, or the creation of a space for civil society. Diplomats and others who have dealt with Damascus, however, seem unconvinced that Assad will give up much of real substance. The regime will end up trading away “things that don’t matter,” said one European diplomat. “But it will hold out for so long, they’ll seem like concessions when you get them. If there’s something that Damascus has that most others don’t, it’s time.”
Donors will not be permitted to do an end run around Assad. The regime has already structured Syria’s economic and regulatory environment to absorb and distribute reconstruction largess on its own terms. Damascus channels humanitarian funds to approved partners and suppliers, and there is every reason to expect that it will do the same with reconstruction money. Assad has also dismantled anything that could have served as an alternative, independent local partner. In opposition areas it has retaken, for example, the regime has dissolved the local administrative councils that had been sponsored by Western donors. The regime does tolerate some civil society organizations in areas under its control, including ones that conduct humanitarian or development projects with Western donor support. But these organizations are limited to “social engagement, not political,” said another European diplomat. “As soon as you start to get political, you have problems.”
Westerners who want to drive a hard bargain will find that they have less leverage than they thought. To begin with, the international community—and the universe of possible donors and investors—is not limited to the West. Syrian officials are keen to advertise the country’s nascent economic recovery and attract investment, but they have also said that they will give priority to investors from countries that stood by Damascus. Assad said in his August speech that “politically, economically, and culturally, we need to look east.” He praised how “eastern” countries—unnamed, but presumably including China and Iran—have dealt with Syria as a peer, and he mocked the West’s inflated sense of its own centrality. “The West is suffering from megalomania,” Assad said. “If it talks about the ‘international community,’ that international community is the West. For them, the rest of the world is herds of cattle. There is no ‘community.’ If they cut off relations, they think they’ve cut off our oxygen.”
Assad also has leverage of his own. His regime thinks that Western states offering diplomatic normalization or reconstruction funding are operating from a position of weakness. Damascus understands that the West has failed in its project of regime change in Syria and that European countries in particular have been wounded by the migration crisis. The regime has weathered deprivation and hardship. It can afford to wait as the Europeans’ bargaining position weakens further. Until then, it can court other countries that offer money on less generous terms, such as China, India, and Iran, while maintaining the sort of skeletal wartime economy that Syrians are now accustomed to.
As soon as Western donors began negotiations with Assad on reconstruction, moreover, they would enter a maze. Westerners would not be able to control a regime whose opaque workings they do not understand, and once they were involved in reconstruction, they would be under pressure to keep moving forward even as Assad unilaterally revised and rewrote the terms of any deal. For Western donors, in other words, Syria’s reconstruction is a losing game. The way to win is not to play.
Western donors should not finance the regime-led reconstruction effort. In particular, they should not let the political impetus to do something, anything, push them to invest substantially in a political order in Syria that is neither desirable nor stabilizing.
Donors should consider lifting sanctions on specific sectors of the Syrian economy if an attractive trade is on offer, and they should continue spending on local stabilization and reconciliation projects across the country, which have limited but positive impacts. Mainly, they should invest in supporting and accommodating Syrian refugees in place, either in Europe or in Syria’s neighbors. Maybe later, if there is a shift in the regime’s attitude or the political context, it will make sense to revisit reconstruction and infrastructure spending. But not now or anytime soon.
The regime has survived and won. Assad’s inability to access generous, no-strings-attached reconstruction money will be his price for the victory, and for the brutal means with which he secured it. The opposition and its Western backers, meanwhile, have lost. They have to recognize that postwar development and reconstruction will not be some sort of rematch, or the next round in a contest to remake Syria. The West does not get unlimited tries to remove Assad or to dictate Syria’s politics. Thinking otherwise will be an expensive delusion.