They Broke It, They Should Fix It: Let Russia and Iran Pay to Rebuild Syria

The West could and should help rebuild Syria but there's no point: Any effort will fail because of the Assad regime’s corruption.

People and a civil defense personnel carry children at a damaged site after an air strike on rebel-held Idlib city, Syria, March 19, 2017.
Ammar Abdullah, Reuters

Anyone hoping to cheer on the white hats in Syria’s six-year civil war could only have been frustrated.

Any early hopes of the Arab Spring quickly deteriorated into a fight between Bashar Assad’s oppressive and violent regime and an oppressive and violent opposition dominated by Islamist militants. A humanitarian gesture like hosting Syrian refugees meant giving a boost to Assad by helping him get rid of people he wanted out of his country.

Even a no-brainer like defeating Islamic State, as it spread in Syria as well, would involve partnering with Iran, and giving Tehran a helping hand in its bid for regional dominance.

With its half-million dead, 10.5 million refugees, its beheadings and barrel bombs, it was the kind of war anyone with any sense of decency would want to see over and done with as soon as possible – but without any of the loathsome parties to the conflict emerging as the victor.

The war is hardly over – on Monday there were fierce clashes in Damascus as rebels penetrated government-held parts of the city – but talk of reconstruction is underway, and the dilemmas that frustrated the U.S. and Europe during the fighting are coming back to haunt them in the rebuilding.

A patchwork of enclaves

Syria is certainly in need of reconstruction. The war left much of the country in ruins. Half the population is displaced, either inside the country or outside, the business class has fled and the country has become  a patchwork of government and rebel enclaves with local warlords and political fixers running things. Seventy percent of the population is living in extreme poverty.

The bill for reconstruction is estimated at $200 billion, and some say it could even reach five times that figure. Never exactly an economic tiger, Syrian GDP would have to grow at a 5% annual rate for the next 30 years to get back to where it was in 2010. Who’s going to pay the bill?

Naturally, it should be the Russians and Iranians. Assad is their man and Syria their ally.

Needless to say, Moscow and Tehran don’t see it that way. Yes, they broke it, so they should pay for it, but as they see it, the U.S., Europe, Turkey and the Gulf powers helped break Syria, too.

Last month Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister for Middle East issues, told European Union diplomats that Moscow would contribute nothing to a reconstruction effort he estimated would cost tens of billions of dollars.

That is chutzpah of the first order, but to be fair, the Russians don’t have the kind of money, and neither do the Iranians. If the money is going to be delivered, it will be from the West.

The Western dilemma

Now comes the Western dilemma. The humanitarian imperative says we can’t let ordinary Syrian people suffer in ruined cities without homes, schools, employment, healthcare and housing. Also, as long as Syria remains a basket case, the Syrian refugees in Europe will remain there and probably be joined by others.

Big refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon are undermining those countries’ stability. Without reconstruction aid, many contend, the fighting in Syria won’t end anytime soon and neither will the problems it’s created for others.

Welcome to Syria: As hateful as it is to help rebuild a country ruled by Assad and his cronies, the alternatives are worse.

But, let’s put humanitarian considerations aside. That doesn’t sound nice, but realistically there’s no policy that will yield the kind of results that would truly benefit the Syrian people. That’s because the Assad regime is not just an oppressive dictatorship, it’s also an economic incompetent, wedded to doctrine of state control mixed in with a strong element of cronyism. 

The regime hasn’t given the slightest sign that it is prepared to rethink that policy, which would means ceding some power to a class of businesspeople and investors. Meanwhile, the cronyism that flourished in the pre-civil war days has grown only stronger now that large regime-controlled swathes of the country are in the hands of local chieftains.

The Assad regime would be happy if the EU and the U.S. signed over regular checks, which would be a colossal waste. It is unlikely to welcome technical assistance and is even less likely to welcome Western companies and investors.  In any case, its writ doesn’t cover much of the country to begin with.

In other words, any thoughts that massive aid would save Syria are hopeless.

Lebanon serves as a precedent: Its post-civil war reconstruction rebuilt much of Beirut, but nearly 30 years later, the vast majority of the country has failed to benefit because of poor government.

Europe would be pouring money into a sinkhole. Short of regime change, Syria is destined to remain poor, oppressed and underdeveloped with or without aid. The refugees will stay put in Europe and maybe more will arrive.

Like the war, like the peace, there are no white hats to don. Humanitarian concerns are not part of the equation, and realpolitik says Russia and Iran won the war (sort of) and their man is in power. Let them pay for his upkeep and good luck with that.