The issue of economic reconstruction in war-torn Syria raises crucial questions about the possibility of EU-Russia cooperation in the turbulent international and regional context of the Syrian conflict. Are recent changes in and around Syria favorable or not for such cooperation? Is it enough for the EU to change its Syria strategy or should Russia also critically revise its approach to reconstruction?
Assessing the current situation
The armed confrontation in Syria is not yet over. However, after nine years, the Syrian civil war has ended, at least in its classical form. Most notably, the military infrastructure of Daish has been destroyed. The opposition and moderate rebel groups ultimately chose compliance in the hope of preserving as much as possible of their former authority.
As long as its socio-economic root causes remain unaddressed, the conflict itself will remain unresolved. There can be no sustainable solution unless the mentality that triggered the conflict has been eliminated and practical political solutions are on track. Damascus may control the most populous and politically-significant portions of Syrian territory, but the country remains divided de facto into several geographical spheres of political and military influence. The last contested territories in the North-West (Idlib and its adjacent regions) do not pose a military threat to the regime. Russia and the Syrian government consider them to be a frozen local conflict in the fight against the terrorist threat.
In all three major areas outside government control, the engagement lines are getting more and more impermeable. Any movement across these lines could risk uncontrolled clashes with the major powers involved (Turkey, Russia, the USA or Iran) that would likely require some new political trade-offs or a complex series of partial deals. Therefore, in this precarious equilibrium on the ground, any of the acting players, including Damascus itself, could act as a spoiler and destabilize the situation further.
Meanwhile, the political process is deadlocked. The "Geneva-2" conception of power sharing or the devolution of power through the establishment of a "transitional governing body" that "would exercise full executive powers" (Action Group for Syria Final Communique of 30.06.2012) was actually refuted by the regime. Instead, there emerged an international consensus emphasizing the need for constitutional reform followed by "free and fair elections under supervision of the United Nations" in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted on 18 December 2015. But the initial hope turned into frustration when the Geneva process stalled. It took two years and a lot of effort to form the Constitutional Committee which has only led to more procrastination.
Many – though by no means all – policymakers in Europe have come to the conclusion that a political transition that removes President Bashar al-Assad from power is unlikely. Efforts to isolate the Syrian government diplomatically and economically have succeeded in choking Syria's economy and denying Western reconstruction assistance. They have failed, though, to meaningfully alter the Syrian government's behavior. This approach has led to a complete loss of leverage.
This does not mean, however, that the path to peace in Syria is forever blocked. The assessment of the situation on the ground needs to be sober and realistic. There is a number of factors that could stipulate a political, realistic solution, which neither the opposition nor Assad might like.
New challenges and rationales
With these recent developments, Syria has entered a no less critical phase of growing uncertainties and looming threats. The challenges now faced by the country may be even more serious than during the active phase of hostilities. The excessive ambitions of the Syrian leadership are under powerful pressure from both inside and outside the country. At this stage of the conflict, it is the aftershocks of the economy of war, the systemic corruption and highly volatile sociopolitical environment that pose the actual battlefield: the web of old and new problems, amplified by a crippling energy and financial crisis, aggravated by the new US and, to a lesser degree, European sanctions, the still unpredictable effect of the coronavirus pandemic, and increasing tensions among the ruling class, including the Assad family circle.
Muriel Asseburg rightly points out that there is no economic reconstruction process to-date that would correspond to international standards: a country-wide, centrally planned, controlled and internationally financed program. None of Damascus's allies has the capacity to meet the enormous challenge of post-war economic reconstruction in Syria, even if China, India and some European countries chipped in. Even if the reconstruction was politically possible, the most urgent priority today is to satisfy the population's everyday needs in terms of food, medicine, electricity, fuel and sanitary supplies, and to prevent living standards from deteriorating further.
For these purposes, international humanitarian assistance is not enough. There is an acute necessity to provide the financial resources required for this kind of recovery. Investing in Syria should be seen as a global public good given the special status of this conflict on the international agenda. However, economic incentives for Damascus are lacking while the military threat to the regime is eliminated. This approach has led to a complete loss of Western political leverage and made it very complicated to exert a positive influence on the Syrian regime from Russia's side. Putting economic instruments into play instead of maximum pressure could strengthen the position of those in the Syrian government and the army who are in favor of reasonable compromise along the lines of Security Council resolution 2254.
Muriel Asseburg points out that the European strategy in Syria needs to be changed. The same can be said about the Russian approach.
For the past two years, Russia has lobbied governments across the world to invest in post-war economic reconstruction in Syria as if it was more interested in this than Damascus itself. Initially, Russia courted the U.S., surprisingly focusing on the high-level military and bypassing traditional diplomatic channels. After these attempts were refuted, Moscow shifted its focus and made high level appeals to major European and Gulf state leaders, but with the same result.
When Russia made its advances, it was referring mainly to "reconstruction" in terms of rebuilding the physical infrastructure and providing the logistics for the organized return of refugees. However, previous experience of post-conflict reconstruction postulates that to bring a country from war to peace, economic recovery and political reforms should go hand in hand. In Syria, this kind of holistic approach is still lacking.
Russia and the EU: EU shared interests and prospects for cooperation
Policymakers in Russia seem to have started realizing that all these different tracks are connected. In parallel with promoting urgent Russian economic aid, Moscow has increased its efforts to convince the Syrian leadership to support the work of the Constitutional Committee more constructively, create appropriate security conditions and improve the investment climate, as well as start preparatory activities for the forthcoming presidential elections. The appointment of Russia's ambassador to Syria, Alexander Yefimov, as President Putin's special envoy for the development of Russian-Syrian relations can be considered the end of the period of "military diplomacy". The new capacity will raise Yefimov's status and broaden his prerogatives as a coordinator between Russian and Syrian economic operators in Syria, as well as with the presidential palace in Damascus.
However much Russia's role in Syria may have changed over the past years, Moscow cannot, on its own, compel either Assad or Iran to comply fully with Security Council resolution 2254. The Caesar Act Damocles sword makes this task even more problematic. If they want to increase their political leverage, Russia and the EU should take a fresh look at the evolving conflict in Syria. Only jointly can they prevent the new socio-political cataclysms that could reach beyond the regional borders. Moscow needs a certain degree of understanding with the Western partners, notably with the EU, and its major members states, like Germany and France, on three practical issues: sanctions relief, limits to political conditionality and a "more for more" approach. Muriel Asseburg's paper could lay a minimum common ground for launching such a dialogue on Syria.
The initial aim of EU sanctions against Syria was to generate regime change. When the objective of EU policy shifted to reforms, the sanctions were never adjusted. As a result, the sanctions became counterproductive and disconnected from the policy goals for which they were imposed. Paradoxically, they empowered "the party of war" (a handful of Syrian billionaires and hundreds of warlords). Some decision-makers in the West may consider the near economic collapse of Syria as proof that the sanctions worked, but this claim is dubious considering the price that has already been paid by ordinary Syrians and the risk of completely destabilizing the country for years to come.
For humanitarian reasons, it's time for the EU to suspend its sanctions that are broadly affecting the target nation's health sector. This gesture of compassion would assist the civilian population that is under extreme threat, at least for the duration of the health crisis.
EU sanctions on Syria reconstruction are unlikely to be eased or lifted, however, without the government of Syria accepting some remedial measures. Though the EU has not made the departure of Assad a precondition for engaging in rehabilitation efforts, its political conditionality formula remains too ambiguous to become a positive incentive for Syria. It needs some more precision and sequencing in line with the "more for more" approach.
For its part, Russia should first acknowledge (implicitly) that the conflict resolution in Syria encompasses multiple parallel tracks where the economy cannot be separated from politics, whether someone likes it or not.
Second. This kind of political opening could create an appropriate atmosphere conducive to consultations, specifically on Syria, covering a number of practical issues related to the EU's priorities for engaging with the Syrian government.
Third. If there is a senior-level agreement on the scope of collaboration or actions in parallel, Russia would probe an alternative set of concrete steps (refugee return, CBM, tangible progress towards a political settlement, releasing political prisoners, civilian protection, humanitarian assess etc), which Damascus would be asked to take in return for a package of economic incentives from the EU. Unilaterally, Russia is already doing its best in this regard. Nevertheless, an agreement with the EU could give these efforts added value.
First published in the EUREN website.