The Great Geopolitical Game of Syria’s Reconstruction
Luca Steinmann 14 April 2021

Ten years after the outbreak of the war, Syria is a chessboard that reflects the ongoing tensions of the Middle East. The country is divided into areas controlled by different armies, each of them responding to the interests and the ideology of its own international sponsors. The government of Bashar al Assad – backed by Russia and Iran – was able to reconquer two thirds of national territory. The armed opposition militias, including several groups listed as terrorists by the United Nations, are locked in the province of Idlib in the north-west, where they receive military, logistic, and economic support by neighboring Turkey. The north-east is controlled by the Kurdish militias backed by the United States.


Sanctions, oligarchies and economic crisis

In this context, Syrians are facing a humanitarian catastrophe. According to the International Red Cross, civilians’ daily suffering is worse now than it has been at nearly any point throughout the conflict. Around 12.4 million people – 60 per cent of the Syrian population – do not have regular access to enough nutritious food, and more than 90 per cent of the population is estimated to live under the poverty line. 6 million are internally displaced and the youth is leaving the country en masse. This emergency is the product of a mixture of factors.

Firstly, Syria is suffering from the financial and economic crisis of bordering Lebanon. The Lebanese market is strongly connected to the areas controlled by the Syrian government, especially for import and export and bank deposits. The explosion at the port of Beirut and the default of the Lebanese economy generated a price surge in the goods and services coming from Lebanon, thus entrenching poverty and food insecurity in Syria.

The second reason is the strong impact on civilians of Western economic sanctions. Since 2003, the Syrian government has been targeted by several economic and financial sanctions by the United States and the European Union. Their aim is to reduce the government’s power and more recently to limit Russian and Iranian influence. The most recent package of sanctions is called the Caesar Act. Introduced in June 2020, it hits everyone willing to do business in Syria, thus responding to a precise geopolitical goal of the USA. “The Caesar Act is an uncompromising American step to avoid any normalization process with the Syrian government”, explains Mauro Primavera, PhD candidate in Syrian studies at the Università Cattolica of Milan. “In the last few years many Arab and European countries were tempted by the reconstruction business and by the untouched quality of the Syrian market, thus pushing them to open to Damascus. Syria could become a trade platform with the Assad sponsors, such as Russia and Iran. The Caesar Act puts an end to these ambitions, pushes the Western and Arab countries to consider Assad as an illegitimate leader and underlines the importance of the United States in Syria and in all the Middle East”. After the implementation of these sanctions almost all Arab and European countries abandoned every step towards the recognition of Damascus as a legitimate interlocutor. This stopped investments and generated a strong devaluation of the Syrian currency, thus massively reducing Syrian purchasing power.

A third reason for Syria’s suffering is the strong influence of warlords and smugglers. During the war, goods never stopped circulating through the different areas despite the territorial divisions and the closure of commercial crossing points. This made a fortune for smugglers. They are generally connected to armed groups and have agreements with the authorities of their areas, whether these be the Assad government, the Russians, the Iranians, the Islamist opposition militias, the Turks, the Kurds, or the Americans. They formed an armed oligopoly benefiting from the war and the territorial division and have no interest in finding a stable solution for the country.


Struggling for influence

As a political solution to the Syrian conflict seems evermore distant, so does the development of any shared plans to overcome the humanitarian crisis. Some economic, infrastructural and humanitarian projects are implemented by individual international players, thus responding to their specific geopolitical goals. Investments and humanitarian help became the main geopolitical tools of these players to compete for influence in the country. Russia is pushing to reopen the official commercial crossing points between the government-held areas and those controlled by other forces and recently announced an agreement with Turkey to reopen three commercial crossing points connecting government areas with the Idlib province. The Kremlin fears that the deterioration of humanitarian conditions could lead to new internal instabilities, thus weakening the Syrian government and therefore Russian interests.

The reopening of the commercial crossing points aims to increase goods in circulation and help with price stabilization, thus facilitating wealth redistribution and reducing the smugglers’ power. At the same time, in the UN Security Council, Russia is vetoing the reopening of most border crossing points with neighboring countries and the areas not controlled by the Syrian government. This aims to recognize Assad as the sole interlocutor for humanitarian aid, thus increasing the Kremlin’s bargaining power. This position is supported by China that wants to use the Russian corridors to participate in future housing reconstruction. Chinese healthcare companies are already operating in government-controlled areas.

The reconstruction of damaged or destroyed housing and infrastructure is a very important step towards the improvement of the humanitarian conditions of civilians. Its cost is estimated to range from 14 billion to 31.5 billion dollars if reconstruction takes place over five years. The United States will not allow any investments if Assad is in power. The Gulf and European countries have fallen in line with this position, except for the United Arab Emirates that reopened the embassy in Damascus and are interested in providing humanitarian assistance in Syria through Russian channels. However, they have not announced any reconstruction plan as of now.

Russia has already implemented limited reconstruction. The Russians are investing mainly in infrastructure on the Mediterranean coast where they have established their military bases to ensure a maritime outlet. They have been recently active in central Syria and in Damascus where they announced ambitious reconstructions plans.

The Turks are investing in the region of Idlib. Since 2018 they have created 70 military posts there, hosting 6000 regular soldiers that coordinate with the Syrian opposition militias. Ankara is expanding its cultural and economic presence by “turkifying” the local population as it is doing with the refugees in Turkey. Turkish goods are invading the Idlib market, while new malls and oil refineries are being opened and managed by investors linked to Turkish intelligence.

The most visible presence among external players in Syria is Iran. Tehran is directly controlling entire portions of territory in southern and eastern Syria. In the south, the Shiite Iranian proxies control strategic areas connecting Damascus with the Golan Heights, the international airport, and the Lebanese border. Here there is the sanctuary of Sayyida Zaynab, which is one of the most sacred places for Shiite Muslims. The villages and the countryside around it live under a parallel welfare system provided by Iran that provides civilians with houses, salaries, medical assistance, jobs, religious activities, and education. In eastern Syria, the Iran-affiliated militias – composed by Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Afghan fighters – control several desert areas between the Iraqi border and the city of Deir Ezor. Since the border with Iraq reopened months ago, these militias have been moving tanks and weapons in large numbers to Syria to increment their influence there and expand towards Homs, thus creating tension and even armed confrontation with the Russian proxies that fear the pro-Iranian competition. Above all, this is pushing Israel to regularly target Iranian positions in this region.


A new visible player

Israel has been targeting Iranian military positions in Syria for many years. Bombings have increased over the last few months due to “concerns for Iranian military settlements near the Golan Heights and for Iranian penetration in eastern Syria, where they are creating corridors to the West to supply Hezbollah with weapons and militias” explains Uzi Rabi, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies of the University of Tel Aviv. “Some of these concerns are shared by Russia that fears the Iranian and Turkish competitors on the ground. The Syrian evolution reflects the balance enshrined by the Abraham Accords which expresses the shared interest between Israel, the Gulf countries – except Qatar – and partially Russia to contain the Iranian and Turkish influence in the Middle East”.

Rumors about ongoing contact between Syria and Israel under the Russian mediation have been circulating in recent weeks. “Russia is in contact with all the parties involved in the Syrian war and has helped to reach some agreements between Israel and Syria,” confirms Andrey Ontikov, Russian political analyst focused on Syria. “There have been exchanges of prisoners, restitutions of the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers and information exchange regarding the body of Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy captured and executed by the Syrians in the 60s”. However, according to Ontikov there is no deal between Syria and Israel to be expected. “We cannot talk of a real Russian mediation because there is no real dialogue and not even prospects of it between the two parties. This will be impossible until the dispute on the Golan Heights will be solved and especially until Israel keeps on conducting airstrikes on the Syrian territories. Even if we imagine a solution between the two parties we should consider that the Syrian-Israeli tensions will continue for years if not for decades”.

However possible limited agreements between Israel and Syria are seen as tools to dab the humanitarian crisis. According to Uzi Rabi “we should not talk of a normalization process as it is happening between Israel and the Gulf States. However the recognition of borders and the achievement of some strategic issues related to the sanitary and economic crisis could help”. This could mean a decrease of the Western sanctions.

According to this perspective Israel is de facto accepting the leadership of Bashar al Assad under the Russian umbrella. “Assad could stay because the Russians want him there” continues Rabi. “He is now accepted even by Turkey and by the Gulf States that understand that he is less evil compared to Isis or Al Qaeda. However he is a passenger and not the driver”. His decision-making power, otherwise said, is bound to the will of his intrusive allies.


Cover Photo: Syrian workers take part in the reconstruction of the Hatab Square in the Jdaideh neighbourhood in Aleppo’s Old City – October 17, 2020 (AFP).

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