Syria – The Struggle for Reconstruction
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | April 16-30, 2019
|Photo: via wikimedia commons|
The fall of its last stronghold in Eastern Syria near the town of Baghouz ended ISIS as a territorial entity, but not as a terror threat. This milestone also underscored the end of the civil war and insurgency in Syria in Assad's regime favor and that his rule is firm and there to stay.
The external power brokers meddling in Syria have been addressing for some time now the evolving long-term reality in the torn country and its regional implications. One of the main issues in this respect is the reconstruction of Syria and the regional and international "race" that might ensue. The unfolding of Syria's reconstruction will affect Israel's immediate interests – top among them preventing the development of a failed state along its northern border and increasing Iranian influence in Syria.
The Arab countries are seeking to renew their relations with the Assad regime and to be part of the country's reconstruction to restore their lost influence having been shunted out. The international community is also increasing its attention to Syria's reconstruction. In mid-March, the EU and the UN convened an international donors' gathering, the Brussels III Conference on "Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region". Some fifty countries represented at Brussels III pledged together USD 7 billion to rehabilitate and repatriate refugees. Considering the extent of destruction, reconstructing Syria would require some USD 250-400 billion, the recent pledges are no more than a drop in the bucket.
Against this backdrop, renewing Syria's membership in the Arab League has been discussed. However, U.S. objection and Damascus' ties with Iran have delayed Syria's return to the Arab League. The U.S. administration further warned its Arab allies that any participation in Syrian reconstruction programs might lead to American sanctions.
Understanding that reconstruction is the next leverage for shaping Syria, the U.S. requires concrete measures towards political transition that will lead to Assad's departure and to the withdrawal of Iranian forces (for instance, by a Syrian request from Teheran with Russian pressure) in exchange for "opening the door" to reconstruction of Syria.
From an Israeli perspective, the main risk related to reconstruction is increasing Iranian (and Turkish?) influence. Small-scale, and inexpensive projects that could yield quick impact on the ground (reconstruction of roads, bridges, housing, food aid, etc.) could reinforce Iran's position among the Syrian civilian population. Iran has already started pursuing this course of action. During his visit to Syria in January, Iranian Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri signed a MoU with the Syrian government to build 200K home units in Damascus. This is a recurrent pattern of Iranian conduct – following the 2006 Second Lebanese War, Iran effectively worked to assist in the reconstruction of Shiite villages in Southern Lebanon.
In the short-run, the damages of the recent flooding in Iran will focus the attention of the regime on domestic reconstruction. However, as the regime's dealing with previous incidents of natural disasters, it has always known to separate the management of domestic crises and its regional involvement.
The American expectation that the biting sanctions on Iran - recently tightened with the announcement of revoking the waivers on importing Iranian oil and the designation of the Revolutionary Guards as foreign terror organization - will inhibit Iran's capability to allocate resources for Syria's reconstruction, may not materialize. Several expenditures on the Revolutionary Guards' budget have been reduced – the dramatic cut in Hezbollah's deployment in Syria and the financing of Shiite militias in Iraq that have been integrated into the Iraqi defense establishment and now financed by the Iraqi government – free-up resources for other purposes, including reconstruction projects in Syria.
Furthermore, in face of resilience of the Assad regime, the American insistence on concrete measures towards Assad's own departure is not likely to materialize. However, it might be possible to leverage Russia deep interest in having Arab countries channel resources into Syrian reconstruction programs to contain Iran's influence. This would entail exploiting the broadening competition between Moscow and Teheran over economic opportunities in Syria with both parties attempting to increase their own returns on their respective investments through franchises and exclusive licenses in the energy and communication sectors. It is estimated that Iran's overall "investments" in Syria are five-to-ten times higher than Russia, which has expended USD 2.5-4.5 billion since its deployment in September 2015.
Under these circumstances, Israel has an interest in American involvement in Syria's reconstruction and focusing America's conditions on decreasing Iran's presence in Syria. Practically, there are possible mechanisms for creating a "firewall" between reconstruction funds and the Assad regime. For instance, Israel and the international community have been providing funds and resources for aid and humanitarian projects in Gaza although the territory is governed by a terror organization.
In the framework of a future "roadmap" between Russia and the U.S. regarding Syria's reconstruction, the first phase ought to be preventing the proliferation of Iranian arms (transferring advanced Iranian weapons to Syria and from there to Lebanon). Subsequent phases ought to prevent Iranian military entrenchment and presence across Syria, initially in the south of Syria.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental
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