While almost 85% of Syrian territory has now been liberated from ISIS and other terrorist groups, according to Russian Ministry of Defense, and dialogue on political settlement and reconciliation is going on at a steady pace, the question of economic reconstruction is such that is going to leave a paramount impact on the ultimate outcome of the Syrian end-game; for, in the absence of meaningful resources of reconstruction, political settlement will remain fragile, likely to suffer fragmentation. The US and its allies, both in Europe and the Arab world, are not yet willing to invest economic resources in Syria to help it rebuild, estimated cost of which is US$ 226 billion. The reason for this tacit refusal to provide resource is the same old claim on Assad’s supposed ‘illegitimacy.’ According to this proposition, if Syria is to receive aid and assistance for reconstruction, Assad must leave his office; although this proposition doesn’t take into account the fact that next presidential elections in Syria would take place in 2021, and as democratic practices go, Assad can be sent home only then through popular vote.
For the West, therefore, the hope of aid from them to Syria is also possibly the last leverage they have at their disposal to influence the Syrian end-game. In fact, the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has clearly stated this and further said that Western nations must make clear (to Syria, Russia, Iran) that their participation (in economic reconstruction of Syria) “will start only when the political transition will be agreed on in Geneva” (and their terms agreed upon with regard to Assad’s exit from power). Besides it, some reports have indicated that global institutions like World Bank do not intend to pull out their chequebook for Syria because Western governments have signaled that they will not aid reconstruction while Assad is in power.
However, this is not something that the conveners, organizers and participants of Syrian national dialogue at Sochi have in mind and are trying to achieve. Clearly enough, the path that is being crafted at Sochi leads to Assad’s stay in power at least until next presidential elections, which means that the West will not be sending money to re-build Syria and that Syria will have to rely on non-Western sources to start re-building.
Enters China is Syria
Qin Yong, vice-president of the China-Arab Exchange Association, is going to make his fourth visit to Syria in this year (2017) and the agenda he is working on is promotion of Chinese companies in Syria, companies that, according to Qin himself, “see huge business potential there, because the entire country needs to be rebuilt.”
While Qin estimates a total investment of US$ 2 billion from the companies he has been escorting to Syria, it cannot be gainsaid that Chinese involvement in Syria will be much more than that in the coming years. For one thing, Syria remains a key country in China’s Silk Roads, just as it was a key region in the old Silk Roads. Syria thus fits into Chinese strategy, which aims to weave a Chinese web of trade and transportation links across Eurasia and Africa.
What will the end-game look like then?
If the West as such stays out of reconstruction and political settlement, the Syrian end-game will most certainly become lost cause for all those who had waged the war almost 6 and a half years ago. While politically and militarily the West has already lost in Syria, Mogherini’s hope that reconstruction aid could be used as the last leverage will, given Russia’s, China’s and Iran’s willingness to expand their economic footprint in Syria, will turn out to the last nail in the West’s coffin in Syria. And then there are other avenues of sources as well. According to Abd al-Kader Azouz, a consultant to Assad’s government, money could be found from wealthy Syrians, the BRICS group of emerging economies, and multilateral lenders not controlled by the West.
An important aspect that is likely to fetch a lot of money from these sources/countries is that they understand that with money will come geo-political influence. While the West can’t hope to use money to this end because of its anti-Assad stance, for countries like Iran and Russia, for instance, the return on investment is not going to be just in capital terms but in strategic terms mainly, enabling them to strengthen their regional positions.
As it stands, Iran wants to keep Saudi Arabia out of Syria. As the situation stands now and likely to develop in future, the Saudis will not be able to play back into Syria both militarily and economically for years. That is worth every billion Iran will drop, and has dropped, in Syria.
And while countries from GCC may provide funds and private investment to counter the influence of Tehran in Syria, this they will have to do at the expense of changing their previous stance on Assad’s future—something again unlikely to happen. And unless there are major policy changes in the US, EU and GCC, Syria cannot expect to receive the required US$226 billion.
What the Syrian end-game is, therefore, looking like is clear here: it is Russia alongside Iran and Turkey designing a settlement formula and it is again these countries that will spearhead Syrian economic reconstruction. Will then the West start a new war in the Middle East to carve out the space it has lost in the Syrian war? We’re already getting its glimpses.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.