Katty Alhayek (KA): You published recently an article titled “Will China Get the Lion Share in Syria Reconstruction?,” in which you argue that China is set to play a bigger role in the reconstruction efforts in Syria. Can you elaborate more on that and what are the opportunities that you think might help Beijing’s future involvement in Syria?
Eugenio Dacrema (ED): First of all, it must be said that the Syrian post-conflict reconstruction is emerging as a very difficult undertaking, and unfortunately not only because of the huge destruction caused by the conflict. The problem, right now, is primarily to pinpoint the sources of funds, taking into account that, depending on the estimations, from 100 to 200 billion dollars will be necessary. Furthermore, the conditions of the final settlement that are emerging (with Assad in power and no involvement of the opposition) don’t help.
It is, basically, a question of resource availability and political will. Actors who would have the political will in most cases lack resources, and those who have resources lack the political will to support the reconstruction under Assad’s uncompromising rule. Take, for example, the case of Russia and Iran, the two parties that until now have supported Assad’s military effort the most. For different reasons, both lack the economic resources to invest heavily in Syria’s post-conflict reconstruction. On the contrary, other actors such as the rich Gulf monarchies, who were among the biggest sponsors of the opposition, would hardly give significant amounts of money to the regime to reconstruct the country. The same can be said of the US, which is also reducing significantly its foreign aid programs. This leaves basically two actors endowed with significant resources and who may have the political will to invest heavily in Syria: The European Union (and its member states) and China. The EU needs stabilization in its Mediterranean neighborhood and needs the flow of refugees to stop and possibly to reverse. To achieve this, the right conditions in Syria must be created to allow refugees from the EU and Syria’s neighboring countries to come back. This may lead the EU to set some sort of conditionality on the provision of its aid in order to force the regime to create such conditions. However, I think there are many signs showing that this last outcome, the return of most of the refugees, is not welcome by the regime. Many of the refugees left especially because of Assad’s political and military actions, and the regime knows that, although a few were materially part of the armed uprising, many of them sympathize for the opposition. Several polls conducted among refugees in Lebanon or Germany (these are the ones I know of) demonstrate it. In sum, the regime needs funds to reconstruct, the EU may provide a good part of them, but at conditions that the regime may strongly dislike.
On the contrary, China may emerge as a provider of funds with no political constrains. China has been quietly on the side of the regime since the beginning. Although this news did not often reach the main outlets, China has sent military advisors to the Syrian army, nominated a special envoy for the Syrian crisis (the second in China’s history after the one for Sudan), and, more recently, participated in the first economic fair in Damascus after 2011 with a big delegation. This year Chinese representatives have discretely taken contacts with organizations and NGOs operating in Syria to establish partnerships and collaborations. Finally, the Chinese authorities publicly promised the first 2 billion dollars for the reconstruction, and many signs suggest that this may represent just the beginning. The rumor is that the Chinese leadership may decide to include Syria in its One Belt One Road plan to connect China to Europe and the Mediterranean through infrastructures and new maritime and land ways. Syria may become a hub for Chinese products and trades on the Mediterranean, and the Syrian government seems to be interested. The Syrian embassy in Beijing has been very active in the last months.
KA: In this article you also discuss a set of obstacles that could limit the Chinese role in Syria-related investments and reconstruction. What are these obstacles and to what degree they can affect Beijing’s plans in Syria?
ED: Sure, there are also several obstacles. First of all, it would not be the first time that China supports a bloody dictatorship. It has been the case, for example, in Sudan in 2007, when, to protect its investments in the local oil industry, China devoted a lot of political and diplomatic capital to protect internationally the Omar al-Bashir regime. However, this policy backfired, creating huge problems to China’s international image and not resulting in a stabilization of the country, which split a few years later.
China has perfected its “dictatorship policy” in the last years. Beijing won’t provide any significant investment without guarantees that can be summarized in one word: stability. The Chinese would be reluctant to put on the table significant financial and diplomatic assistance for a regime that cannot prove itself able to guarantee long-term stability. And, in my opinion, the Assad regime can hardly comply with this condition. Although it is retaking control of most of the country, its grip is loose and its military and political power still too weak in comparison with the number of enemies and complications on the ground and abroad it has still to face. Although the main military confrontations may come to an end relatively soon, Syria under Assad risks a few more years of instability, which may impair significant Chinese economic interventions.
Finally, it is also worth saying that a big Chinese presence in Syrian affairs may also be opposed by Russia and Iran. They know that once the main military operations are over money may become much more influential than guns, and this may jeopardize their control on the Syrian regime in favor of China.
KA: You co-authored a piece with Annalisa Perteghella titled “EU Should Play Major Role in Syria Reconstruction.” Here, you discuss how different scenarios for ending the Syrian war might result in different reconstruction plans with various influences of international donors. Why do you think the European Union is the major international donor that can contribute significantly to the reconstruction of Syria? More importantly, why you dismiss the role of international powers such as Russia and regional power such as Iran and the Gulf monarchies?
ED: As I said before, there are two main requirements for the participation in the Syrian reconstruction: resources and political will. Russia and Iran are both going through a difficult economic phase. Low oil prices damaged heavily both their economies. Russia is also facing the effects of the European sanctions and years of economic mismanagement, while Iran is trying slowly to reorganize its economy after the end of the heaviest sanctions. Not only do these two countries not show any willingness to invest significantly in the reconstruction, but they are also starting to collect repayment for their support from the regime. They both obtained big shares of the Syrian natural resources, de facto jeopardizing the future reconstruction efforts. In fact, such resources are key for financing future reconstruction projects and now big shares of the profits deriving from them will go in Moscow and Teheran’s coffers.
I don’t rule out that other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, would invest in the reconstruction. But, like the European Union, they would do that under certain conditions. They aim to obtain some settlement in favor of the opposition (or at least their protegees among the opposition), which is something that the regime and its allies (in particular Iran) would hardly concede. A role apart may be played by Qatar which, although having been a big sponsor of the opposition, is currently re-aligning its regional stance away from the other Gulf monarchies and closer to Iran.
The key in this matter can be also summarized in one world: decentralization. If some sort of real decentralization is realized, especially in the areas that have been governed by the opposition for years, and the external aid can flow directly to these local entities without passing through Damascus, then it is possible that other regional powers such as the Gulf monarchies or Turkey participate significantly in the reconstruction effort. The same can be said of the European Union. Decentralization is one of the few solutions that provide some guarantees to the returning refugees and may be one of the main conditions imposed by the EU for its aid.
KA: Can you share with us what are your future Syria-related projects?
ED: I think that it is important to keep in mind that everything that is discussed in these days regarding the Syrian reconstruction will matter only in its initial phase. The reconstruction of Syria will be a long endeavor, even bigger and more complicated than the Lebanese one, and will probably be measured in decades. Along this long period many things can change and the final outcome may be something completely different from anything we can imagine now. It is likely that in the end we will see some sort of involvement from all the actors, including the EU, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey, even without significant concessions from the regime. The reconstruction business is too huge and each country’s national industrial sector will push its government to get a share, although smaller than the one they would have got under the right conditions.
I think that what can be said right now with relative self-confidence is that the first phase of the reconstruction is going to be slow and, for this reason, unfortunately will not provide much relief for the Syrian population that has already endured the pain of six years of conflict. The problem is that the actors on the field, especially the Syrian regime, are once again paying much more attention to their political survival and short-term interests than to long-term plans for a homogeneous and sustainable reconstruction of the country. For example, one key element that may change forever the economic shape of the country is whether the materials for the reconstruction projects, such as cement and steel, will be produced in Syria or imported from elsewhere. Obviously, it would be much better for the Syrian economy in the long term if the regime would first channel resources to rebuilding at least part of the national industry to make it part of the reconstruction effort. The point is that we see now few signs of this kind of long-term thinking. Even the possible sources of funds are scrutinized primarily according to the danger they may represent for the power of the regime, and only secondarily according to the actual support they can provide. Much more attention is devoted to guarantee compensations for the loyal sectors of the society, for foreign allies, and to keep at bay possible future opponents and their potential supporters who are now refugees abroad.
Eugenio Dacrema is an Arabic-speaking PhD candidate at the University of Trento, Italy, and a research associate at the Italian Institute for International Studies (ISPI). He lived in Syria from 2009 to 2010 where he worked for the Italian embassy. In 2016 and 2017 he was visiting scholar at the American University of Beirut and at the George Washington University. Dacrema is a regular contributor to several Italian and international newspapers and writes advisory reports for the Italian Parliament.