The short history of the Syrian civil war is that President Bashar Assad killed hundreds of thousands of his people, sent millions fleeing from their homes and turned entire cities into rubble with the sole purpose of keeping himself in power.
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The short history of the post-war era is that he is now signing away Syria’s sovereignty to Iran, with the same goal in mind.
Israel is justifiably anxious about the military inroads Iran is making in Syria as the six-year conflict gradually draws to a close, or more likely, deteriorates into constant low-intensity strife. But Israel should be just as concerned about Iran's apparent intention of entrenching itself economically in Syria.
The latest evidence of that was a clutch of agreements signed this week for Iran to build and rehabilitate power projects in Syria.. In January, the two countries signed deals that gave Iran a mobile telephony license and right to build a new network, develop an oil terminal and operate phosphate mines.
Iran is also getting grants of land for farms and industrial facilities. Voice of America reports that wealthy Iranians are buying and building homes in Damascus, and that Tehran is encouraging its contractors to build there, using cheap labor from Afghanistan.
And who is at the forefront of all this business? Naturally, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They served as the army that fought the Syrian war and they are the business empire that will profit from the Syrian rebuild, such as it is. The IRGC is also an ideological and political instrument that will secure the Shiite axis Iran aspires to create across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Syria doesn't have to be a growing and flourishing economy to make money. Indivual investors and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards can find quite profitable enterprises in the mess, from natural resources and monopolies, much the same way Assad family and their cronies enriched themselves in the pre-war era. And, while about it, Tehran cements its control over its ally.
Because it can
Iran is taking the lead role in the post-war Syrian economy, not because it is the obvious candidate to do it, but because it can.
Tehran regards the contracts as payback for the money, men and materiel it provided that kept Assad in power when his own army couldn’t. If Assad resents it, he hasn’t said so in public. And there’s no reason to think that he does.
But Iran can also act because no one else is there to compete with it. Russia doesn’t have the resources and China probably has too much sense to risk involving itself in a country that’s economically dead in the water.
Western powers that could, if they wanted to, provide more and better aid aren’t about to help prop up an odious regime like Assad’s.In any case, he has made clear he doesn’t welcome it, since Western assistance would be bundled with political and economic reforms that would diminish or bring an end to his rule. After all, Assad's continued unchallenged rule was what it was all about.
The Syrian economy was decimating by the fighting. The World Bank estimates 27% of the country’s entire housing stock was all or partly destroyed, as was 16% of its medical facilities and 10% of its schools. Two-thirds of its power plants are no longer operational. The economy shrank by more than 60% during the fighting, somewhere around 450,000 people were killed and its pre-war population of 21 million turned into refugees. Clearing up the war debris in Aleppo alone could take six years.
Iran doesn’t have the financial, human or technical resources to manage this kind of disaster recovery. Moreover, there’s little evidence it wants to restore Syria to its pre-war condition, much less improve it.
The refugees that fled the country are mostly Sunni Muslims who will only cause trouble for the new Syrio-Iranian regime; better they stay where they are in Jordan, Turkey and Europe, even if it results in a shrunken Syria and the loss of some its best and brightest people. Given how Syria is developing into a Shiite-dominated, impoverished country, they unlikely to try and come back.
Nor does Tehran show much interest in encouraging a strong and effective government that could oversee economic reconstruction. Just look to Lebanon, where Iran has entrenched itself over the last 30 years via bottom-up strategy that doesn’t require regime change but a weak and ineffective government. All you do is arm and finance a militia or militias, and let them gradually extend their role into politics and social welfare and gradually exercise control over the country.
That’s the playbook in Syria as well, it seems. The Iranian-backed militias that have already carved out fiefdoms and mini-economies won’t pack up their RPGs and go home. Indeed, Iran is doing business with them because it sees them as a long-term investment just like Hezbollah.
All this means that Syria will be more impoverished, dysfunctional, corrupt and oppressive than it was even by the low standard of its pre-war days. The five million Syrians living abroad as refugees will not be coming back and their numbers may well grow. It will be left to Europe and Syria’s neighbors to pay the economic, political and social costs of absorbing them.