With the conflict in Syria having taken what appears to be a major turn at the end of 2016, following the fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime and its allies, greater attention is being given to possible postwar arrangements in the country. It’s to discuss the conditions of postwar economic assistance that Carnegie Senior Fellow Yezid Sayigh and Michel Duclos, France’s ambassador to Syria between 2006 and 2009, took part in the following exchange of views. This came in the run-up to the United Nations-sponsored conference, Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, held in Brussels on April 4-5, and Carnegie’s conference, Syria’s Trajectory and Challenges for the United States, which will be held in Washington D.C. on April 6.
Michel Duclos: When we talk about European Union economic assistance to alleviate the Syrian crisis, the question arises as to whether this can be used as a lever to help reach a political solution in Syria. The answer might be yes, but on one condition that seems obvious: Stabilization and especially reconstruction programs should only be triggered when Bashar al-Assad and his regime have ceded power to inclusive transitional authorities. Failing that, the funds would go into the pockets of the Assad family and would essentially serve to perpetuate the power of a regime that has been responsible for the destruction of the country.
Some would ask: Isn’t that the price to pay for a modicum of stabilization? It is difficult to support such a stance from a French perspective, however, because it is clear that the regime will not change its methods of governing. Repression will continue to incite rebellion and feed terrorism. There can be no stabilization with Assad still in office—at least not after six years of a particularly deadly conflict.
The problem stems from the fact that we are likely to find ourselves in an ambiguous situation, with an imperfect agreement in Syria that paves the way for a bogus, illusory transition. There will certainly be a temptation, especially for the Europeans, to give the regime in Damascus and its supporters the benefit of the doubt.
If the French authorities are particularly suspicious, it is because they have learned their lesson. Twice, under president Jacques Chirac in the early 2000s and under president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008–2011, they held out their hand to Bashar al-Assad, who deceived them both times. The Syrian regime cannot in any way be viewed as a reliable partner. Without a genuine transition, no funding for the reconstruction of the country is possible, because, in fact, no real reconstruction is possible.
Yezid Sayigh: The Syrian conflict is unlikely to end in a formal negotiated settlement leading to a meaningful power-sharing or credible transition. As a consequence of this, decisions about whether or not to provide assistance for economic reconstruction will remain politically contentious for a long time. Distinctions should moreover be drawn between sanctions against Syrian officials and agencies accused of war crimes, trade and market dealings with Syria that do not come under sanctions, and reconstruction assistance. The first should be maintained and the second facilitated. The real challenge arises in relation to the third.
We need to question what objectives and assumptions should shape a European decision on Syria. For example, when official sanctions and other measures, such as banking restrictions, were originally imposed, there was a belief that this would push Syria’s business class to openly oppose the Assad regime. But the much-vaunted “tipping point” never came. The EU resorted to sanctions because these are almost always an easier, and generally “cheaper,” foreign policy instrument, while avoiding the tougher and certainly more costly interventions that would have actually had an impact. The EU has been perversely stuck for decades doing exactly the same thing in the Palestinian-Israeli context, but in reverse: subsidizing a moribund “peace process” financially instead of doing the political heavy lifting needed to achieve a solution, which would require diverging from U.S. and Israeli policies. And as in Palestine, the moment when decisive action could have made a major difference in Syria has long passed (namely in 2012 and 2013), but the financial policy instrument remains in effect, substituting for actual policy.
As the debate over reconstruction assistance heats up, those taking part should assess how social and political dynamics might unfold in Syria in the foreseeable future, and how they might be affected (positively or negatively) by external financial flows. In economies defined by shortage—such as Iraq under sanctions in 1990–2003 or those countries that once implemented Soviet-style economic policies—the incumbent regime benefits by making society even more dependent on it for access to scarce resources and captive markets. But the converse may not be true: Allowing unfettered aid and market flows to Syria will not necessarily make local social actors less dependent on the regime and empower them politically. Indeed, Egypt’s aborted democratic transition after 2011 shows how even in a largely free-market economy, dependent middle classes and a parasitical business class failed to represent a viable political opposition to autocratic power.
Finally, the EU’s potential financial contribution is never going to be enough to counterbalance all the other factors that will also influence the way in which Syria’s post-conflict economy and politics evolve, even if a genuine transition is to take place. But with its own emerging existential crisis and the woes of the Eurozone, the EU will have minimal leverage to extract meaningful legal, administrative, or market reforms from the Syrian government in return for reconstruction assistance. What lies ahead is an inconclusive end to the war and an extremely murky economy. If the EU is going to get involved, it should at least be much clearer about its real objectives and underlying assumptions.
Michel Duclos: The Europeans indeed do not have many cards to play—although one should not exaggerate the weakness of the European Union and especially the Eurozone. It is important for the Europeans to play their cards in good time and wisely. In order to clarify the debate over possible economic leverage, the Europeans could first think in terms of red lines, such as not subsidizing the perpetuation of the Assad regime, as I mentioned earlier. Also, more generally, the EU could consider not sending funds or aid to any power that would not provide satisfactory guarantees of being corruption-free. But the EU also does not want to find itself in the same situation as it has with regard to Palestine—that is, having to periodically finance the rebuilding of infrastructure that others are periodically striving to demolish. Reconstruction aid is said to be an incentive for stabilization, but in fact the opposite is even truer: Relative stability should be perceived as a prerequisite to assistance for reconstruction.
In this context, the issue is not so much trying to get something from the regime, since it cannot be a reliable partner. Rather, it is to engage in discussions with supporters of the regime. The approach of this group, and in particular that of the Russians, seems to be one that the journalist David Gardner aptly captured in the phrase: “We break it, you pay for it, but we and our friends own it.”
The day will perhaps come when the Russians, even the Iranians, will have to address the question in a different way. In the meantime, two things could be done. First, there should be more serious, concerted engagement with external actors and regional powers regarding what would constitute a satisfactory political settlement in Syria. This is not inconsistent with pursuing inter-Syrian negotiations. The possibility of European reconstruction aid should be included in an overall package, provided that its implementation take effect only under new, reliable transitional authorities.
Second, the money available on the European side could be used to increase assistance to the Syrian refugees who had to leave their country and who have a wide range of needs. This money should also facilitate the stabilization of areas liberated from the Islamic State, since these regions would not be administered by the regime.
Yezid Sayigh: Amidst the many uncertainties about how the Syrian conflict and political talks to end it will unfold in coming months, one thing is clear: Economic reconstruction has emerged as a new and highly fluid arena of contestation.
As Carnegie scholar Kheder Khaddour recently pointed out on this blog, the Assad regime will respond to the inability of cash-strapped state institutions to provide social services and economic needs, not by seeking to contain and control all nongovernmental organizations that have filled the gap, but rather by incorporating them into its own networks. External actors hoping to avoid replenishing the regime by directing their assistance towards humanitarian and development purposes must be far firmer than the United Nations ever was in refusing to deal with “governmental nongovernmental organizations” created by the regime to capture that assistance.
Another likely spanner in the works is that the Jordanian and Lebanese governments will seek to repatriate Syrian refugees (and enter into what they hope will be a lucrative reconstruction process in Syria) as soon as possible. This makes it harder for the EU and the rest of the international donor community to invest their reconstruction assistance to achieve the inclusive approaches they have pursued in those two countries with respect to formalizing Syrian refugee labor and business registration, which have already been under-achieving.
If possible, it definitely makes sense to develop common ground with Russia (if not also Iran, somehow) so as to make economic reconstruction more effective and contain regime efforts to hijack all incoming assistance flows. After all, without significant input from the EU, the United States, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Russia and Iran face the unappealing prospect of propping up an ailing regime indefinitely. The challenge, then, is to identify areas or issues where Russia might engage constructively—for example, directing humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Idlib province, where the opposition still holds out, and which is an idea that Russia has previously supported.
Internationally-assisted reconstruction is a slippery eel at best. Without ironclad controls and guarantees, external aid flows will only intensify economic cronyism, corruption, and the hollowing out of state institutions. Nor can the promise of international assistance be leveraged to obtain a meaningful political transition or genuine reforms from the regime, and it should not be “sold” on that basis. Ideally, financial and economic levers could help preserve or create conditions allowing for the revival of peaceful dissent, by enhancing the autonomy of local communities or non-crony businessmen. But the process will be very long, incremental, and reversible.