No one yet is venturing a prediction on when the war in Syria will end, but after the recent campaign in the south in which the Syrian army retook the border crossings with Jordan and advanced toward the Golan Heights, the first cautious signs of normalization are surfacing.
Consider the international flower festival taking place this month in Damascus. Thousands of Syrians are taking advantage of the quiet in the Syrian capital to venture out onto the streets, enjoy a cold drink, meet with friends and check out the many flower stalls that have been set up under sunshades in Tishreen Park.
The flower festival was held regularly before the war and once attracted hundreds of flower growers from dozens of Arab and Western countries. It was halted when the civil war broke out in 2011 before resuming this year. Only two foreign countries – Iraq and Bulgaria – are represented at this year’s event, but even that’s something.
An additional sign of normalization can be found at the admissions offices at Damascus University, where for the first time in several years, students are coming to campus from areas that were under the control of rebel militias. Under Syrian law, university students who are absent from their studies for more than a year can’t continue, but a new regulation lets students pick up where they left off even if they were away longer.
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In devastated areas such as Eastern Ghouta, which is near Damascus and which was until recently racked by heavy fighting and daily bombing, people are trying to rebuild their homes. But they’re running up against a ponderous bureaucracy.
Applicants have to provide confirmation that they own their properties, not to mention approval from the police. Otherwise they can’t return and receive financial assistance from the government, which has opened assistance bureaus where Syrians can get help filling out forms and determining which benefits they’re entitled to.
But the meager staff can offer limited help. Most of the employees lack training and are unfamiliar with the regulations; in fact, not a single claim has been paid out in Ghouta.
At the same time, land registry offices are encountering many cases in which people are coming with real estate sale documents from relatives now dead, but the registrars can’t verify the sellers’ signatures. Thousands of lawsuits are pending before judges who have to rule on the properties, but even when they’re ready make a ruling, there are cases where they’ve been paid off by someone to rule the “right” way.
Beyond Syria’s borders, there are refugees getting ready to return home, even if they no longer have homes to return to. In Lebanon, where there are more than a million Syria refugees, the Foreign Ministry has set up a panel to craft procedures for returning home. The committee’s first task will be to conduct a survey and draw up a registry of the refugees in the country, most of whom aren’t registered with government ministries or relief agencies.
Jordan, currently home to more than 800,000 Syrian refugees near the border, has announced that, because the Syrian army has now retaken the area along the Jordanian border, the refugees will have to return to Syria very soon. Preparations are already underway to repatriate the people right on the border – at the least.
On a national level, the political and economic battle between Syria, Iran and Russia over Syria’s resources is beginning, notably at oil and phosphate sites that have been recaptured from the Islamic State and Kurdish forces. Iran and Syria are parties to cooperation agreements designed to ensure that Iran receives compensation of some kind for the huge funding that it has provided Syria during the war. Syrian economists estimate that their country owes Iran more than $35 billion, which doesn’t include costs for pro-Iranian militias or the Revolutionary Guards.
Syria has granted Iran a phosphate mining concession as well as a license to set up a third Syrian cellular service network. It has also been letting Iranian businessmen buy land, develop neighborhoods and build factories. Iranian goods are duty-free in Syria, and it seems Syria will have to sell a lot more real estate to the Iranian government to begin to repay its debt.
Before the war, Iran was a minor trading partner for Syria, with trade reaching $360 million in 2010. That jumped to $870 million in 2014, and now Iran is a significant trading partner. Before the civil war, Turkey was the country’s most important trading partner, but Ankara cut its ties with the Assad regime and became a supplier in rebel areas of the country.
But Russia too has its commercial demands, and based on agreements that it has signed with Syria, it is to receive a quarter of oil revenue from areas that the rebels controlled. Russian companies will receive preference on reconstruction projects in Syria, and Russia is being given the opportunity to build another port in addition to its facilities at Tartus in northern Syria.
According to rebel media outlets, and contrary to the public declarations by Syrian officials, it appears Damascus prefers Russia’s economic involvement to Iran’s. Syria has limited imports from Iran and delayed Iranian requests to take part in projects in Syria, while Russian businessmen have received speedy assistance from the Syrian bureaucracy.
Syria, which needs hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild and return life to normal, realizes that when it comes to choosing between Iran and Russia, Iran is the less desirable option. But the fact that it’s even choosing is a clear sign that Syria is going full speed ahead in planning for the postwar period.