Samer Abboud, Associate Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University and a fellow at the Center for Syrian Studies, University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Follow him on Twitter @samer_abboud.
As the Syrian conflict shifts decisively in favor of the regime and its allies, discussion of reconstruction has assumed greater prominence. However, a large-scale, national reconstruction program with buy-in from major local and regional actors is virtually impossible. Western states are unwilling to fund reconstruction as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and the regime is incapable of marshaling the financial resources needed to fund a national program. The uneven nature of violence in Syria means that some areas are virtually inaccessible. And in Damascus most discussion of reconstruction is focused on urban areas, rendering the rural and peripheral areas invisible as well. Syrian reconstruction is certain to be geographically uneven, piecemeal, haphazard, and de-linked from a larger national program. Since the central government lacks the financial resources, long-term strategic planning, and institutional capacity to affect reconstruction throughout the country, local authorities will plan and implement projects and are unlikely to have central government support.
These are just some of the obstacles facing the administration led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that has taken control of Raqqa after the withdrawal of the Islamic State’s forces. In Raqqa, as in other Syrian cities, the feasibility of reconstruction will depend on the local authorities’ ability to marshal national and regional resources. This will entail, among other things, ensuring access for aid groups, incentivizing a return of Syrian capital, and securing financial resources for essential social services, such as health care and schooling.
This is all easier said than done under normal circumstances, and those facing the Raqqa authorities today are extraordinary. The SDF has proven itself adept on the battlefield and has been successful in absorbing local Arab tribes into its power structure, but it remains a Kurdish-dominated force and acts as such. The tripartite powers—Turkey, Russia, and Iran—that have assumed suzerainty over Syria are united in their distrust of Syrian Kurdish political expansion and are unlikely to easily facilitate resources into the city. Moreover, the looming conflict between the regime and Kurdish-led forces makes the situation in Raqqa even more precarious and likely to discourage outside organizations or businesspeople from rushing into the city. The local authorities will have much more to contend with than the already daunting task of reconstructing a city so devastated by violence.
Raqqa’s reconstruction is thus intimately bound up with the future of Syrian Kurdish aspirations, and as a major population center it will pose the most serious test of Kurdish attempts to stretch their autonomy over larger areas of northeastern Syria. This raises the political stakes around the city’s reconstruction and ensures that even though the Islamic State may have been defeated and expelled from the city, residents’ suffering may nevertheless continue.