Western powers are reluctant to help rebuild Syria after its civil war, because they think the wrong side won. Russia and Iran played a major part in that outcome — but they can’t afford a bill estimated at a quarter-trillion dollars. China is on the scene.
Qin Yong is about to make his fourth trip to Syria this year. As vice president of the China-Arab Exchange Association, he sees burgeoning interest among Chinese companies. “We get phone queries every day,” he said. “They see huge business potential there, because the entire country needs to be rebuilt.” The enthusiasm is reciprocated on the Syrian side, Qin says. “They’re like, don’t come tomorrow, come tonight!”
As the 6½-year war winds down, with Bashar Assad still in power, the battle for influence in Syria has shifted to the diplomatic arena. Reconstruction, which the United Nations says could cost $250 billion, is a key part of it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared victory in his two-year military operation to shore up Assad, and is now appealing for international funds. At his annual news conference Dec. 14, Putin showed signs of frustration. He said Syria, where the conflict sparked the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, will remain a breeding ground for extremist groups such as the Islamic State without improved living standards. “All people of goodwill around the world should understand that if we do not resolve this together, it will be their problem as well,” he said.
The United States and its European and Gulf Arab allies, which backed the Syrian rebels, say that problem is largely of Putin and Assad’s making. They’ve eased up on calls for the Syrian leader’s immediate departure, but continue to insist that he can’t stabilize the country and has no long-term future. Withholding money for reconstruction is one of the few cards they have left.
Unlike Iraq, which was pumping out about 2 million barrels of oil a day even in the traumatic years right after the 2003 U.S. invasion, Syria has little ability to generate cash internally to pay for its own rebuilding.
Diplomats in Moscow say Russia has repeatedly pressed European Union governments to help foot the bill. At the same time, Russia has rebuffed calls for Assad to step down eventually, and his government has shown few signs of willingness to share power.
The EU, Arab nations and the United States put aside $9.7 billion in April for humanitarian aid and rebuilding Syria. But in September U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the anti-Assad coalition won’t support reconstruction without a political transition.
In the United States, lawmakers from both parties this week introduced legislation they dubbed the “No Assistance for Assad Act,” seeking to channel any American aid to the parts of Syria still outside government control. U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters hold much of the country’s northeast.
“Things have hit a dead end,” said Alexander Shumilin, head of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts in Moscow. “Russia’s military victory in Syria hasn’t brought a political settlement any closer.”
That’s keeping European companies away. German business, for example, has “the know-how, the products and the motivation to reconstruct Syrian infrastructure and industry,” said Philipp Andree, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry. It can’t happen without “an internationally recognized peace agreement,” he said. Steel-maker Thyssenkrupp will only “re-enter the market” once Syria stabilizes, spokesman Tim Proll-Gerwe said.
Turkey, whose construction industry is active throughout the region, has been angling for business.