Syria’s government was showcasing its ambitions for economic recovery and engagement with foreign business at a trade fair that ended last Saturday, but glimpses of devastated districts nearby showed just how far off full-scale reconstruction remains.
While companies from Syria’s allies Russia and Iran were present in numbers, others were sparse, deterred by Western sanctions and continued ostracism of Syria as it prepared to attack the last rebel bastion in a seven-year-old civil war.
“Today the Syrian army forces have gained a lot of momentum. ... We think this year [the trade fair] will be very successful. A lot of companies that were not in Syria last year came,” said Samer al-Debs, head of the Damascus Chamber of Industry, at the opening of the 60th Damascus International Fair on September 6.
Although South Korean cars are now trundling off assembly lines in Syria, and there is electricity in Damascus for 20 hours a day, whole towns lie in ruins and millions are sheltering abroad as refugees.
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While global attention focused on northwest Syria, where the army was preparing to attack the last active stronghold of armed rebellion — at the risk of triggering a humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations — Damascus was experiencing its first peaceful summer in years.
President Bashar Assad retook the last insurgent enclaves around the capital this spring through heavy bombardment after years of siege, ending frequent rebel mortar fire on the city center.
Last year, one such mortar round struck the entrance to the Damascus International Trade Fair as it opened for the first time in five years, killing six people during an event the government had heralded as a move toward economic revival.
The shrapnel marks are still visible, but the only sound of an explosion on opening day came from distant demining operations in an area recaptured months ago.
On each side of the road to the fair — the main highway from Damascus to its international airport — lie districts that were recently on the front lines, and where most buildings seem little more than concrete husks, their roofs caved in.
Inside the trade fair, companies displayed goods imported from dozens of countries, including Japanese electronics and South Korean KIA cars assembled in Syria under license.
Still, in a sign of the fraught international realities surrounding the war, the countries with most companies present were Russia and Iran — Assad’s closest military allies, themselves also subject to Western sanctions.
In the Iranian pavilion, stalls displaying delicate silk carpets stood next to others advertising industrial and agricultural equipment.
“There is technical, scientific and industrial capability in Iran and it is in line with the demands present in the Syrian market,” said Iranian Ambassador Javad Turk Abadi.
Across the aisle in the Russian pavilion, one company was selling armored bulldozers for clearing unexploded bombs in city rubble, and another was seeking contracts for electricity cables in a country where the power network has been ruined.
The geopolitics were also clear in the flags along the highway — which included not only those of Russia and Iran but also those of Venezuela and North Korea, two countries at odds with the United States and much of the West.
Attending the opening ceremony along with Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis was the leader of Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian republic recognized by few countries apart from Russia and Syria. Its flag, and that of another Russian-backed Georgian breakaway republic, South Ossetia, flew near the entrance.
Western countries have said they will not aid reconstruction without a political solution to the conflict, but as Assad reclaims more rebel territory with Russian and Iranian backing, the prospect of any deal with opposition groups is receding.
They have also said they will not ease sanctions; the difficulty of trading with Syria was a constant refrain among companies at the trade fair. Money transfers are very difficult, complicating payments for import or export, and foreign companies fear inadvertently doing business with sanctioned individuals or entities.
Despite that, Syrian businesses appear to be finding ways around the sanctions and growing, as the past few years of army advances have brought Syria’s most populous areas back into a large contiguous zone of government control.
“Sanctions are always a problem. We’re finding ways around it ... we adapted ourselves to the situation,” said Fares Shehabi, head of the Aleppo chamber of commerce and industry, who is himself on a European Union sanctions list for his support for Assad.