Where Will the Money to Rebuild Syria Come From?
Russia, which intervened in the conflict in 2015 and is keen to preserve its newfound regional influence, can’t take on the cost of reconstruction. Its economy is in tatters, made worse by sanctions imposed following its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and its interference in the 2016 U.S. elections; the threat of further punitive measures over its seizure in November of Ukrainian vessels near the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, which both countries share under a 2003 treaty; and low oil prices. But Moscow has tried, with no success, to get the international community to pay.
The U.S. and Europe have made reforms, including a political transition, a precondition for any role in reconstruction. They are also banking on the fact that Assad’s main backers, both internal and external, will realize that ongoing support for him will keep the purse strings closed.
“Assad is a principal obstacle to rehabilitation of Syria, and eventually the Alawite business class and those who support the regime externally will find that he’s a liability and an albatross that will grow,” a Western diplomat recently told The Atlantic. The diplomat added, “I’m told that before the war, the capital budget was $60 billion, and last year the capital budget was $300 million, of which only 20 percent was actually spent. Not only does it not have the money, but they don’t have administrative [or] political capacity to build the country.”
For years, the West has pressed Russia to compel Assad to make concessions.
“The issue really is, how much power do [the Russians] have to force real reforms, actual reforms that devolve power away from Damascus, that decentralize power somewhat?” Mona Yacoubian, who studies Syria at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me in a recent interview. “And here, it’s not at all clear that Russia has that kind of leverage.”
The irony is, the very focus on reconstruction is tacit acknowledgment that Assad isn’t going anywhere. Russia’s and Iran’s continued support, the U.S. withdrawal of the majority of American forces, and the beginning of some rehabilitation among Arab countries give Assad few incentives to make political concessions. But even from this seemingly comfortable perch, Assad is in a bind. His supporters can’t afford to pay for reconstruction; his adversaries in the West can, but won’t. Iran, Assad’s other principal supporter, is suffering from reimposed U.S. sanctions and doesn’t have that much to spare.
Yet much needs to be rebuilt. About 11 million people have been displaced and lost their home. The fighting has devastated water, sanitation, and electrical systems in former rebel-held areas. Schools and hospitals have been razed. Large cities like Raqqa have been flattened. In rural areas, irrigation channels are no longer functioning; grain silos have been destroyed.