Last week, the Middle East faced the abyss as tensions between the United States and its enduring nemesis Iran, threatened to spiral into a war with global connotations.
The heat from the potential conflict may fade, but the standoff between regional adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran is not going away anytime soon. So after eight years of a horrifying civil war, when Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad says the country needs US$400 billion to rebuild the war-ravaged country, he knows Syria will remain the stomping ground of regional rivalries for some time to come.
The scale of Syria’s reconstruction is sensational enough to make potential donors sit-up, but the reality of dealing with a corrupt and predatory regime makes it an almost certain poisoned chalice. Or does it?
Eight years in, Assad has not only demonstrated he is a consummate survivor, but the person who will preside over the country’s enormous reconstruction efforts. No wonder former arch enemies are jostling to re-embrace Assad, in what may be one of the greatest political comebacks in recent memory.
Still, it is not just about the man. Syria is geopolitically important to Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the broader battle for regional supremacy the political struggle over Syria is probably just beginning. But the price of rebuilding the country pales in comparison with the humanitarian cost.
By the end of 2018, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated up to 560,000 people had been killed in the conflict since March 2011. Rebuilding Syria should offer hope to returning Syrian citizens, but Assad’s contemptible treatment of his population and a total breakdown in law and order suggests a bleak future.
This year’s Syria’s budget is a paltry $9 billion with just over $1 billion earmarked for reconstruction. Crucially, Western governments, including the UK and US, have ruled out participating in Syria’s reconstruction with Assad still in power.
The threat of US and EU sanctions narrows potential countries who possess the financial resources to underwrite colossal reconstruction costs, but the beauty parade has already begun.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates actively supported Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Assad during the conflict, but gradually are seeking reengagement. Earlier this year, Abu Dhabi hosted a high-level UAE-Syrian private sector forum, something unimaginable a year ago. The UAE has also reopened its embassy in Damascus. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE want to contain Iran’s regional ambitions, and Syria is at front and centre of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.
Their change of heart over Assad is also a ploy to rein-in Turkey’s regional ambitions. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has increasingly positioned itself as the leader of the Muslim world. No wonder. The killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul has polarised opinion about Saudi Arabia’s role in the Middle East.
Still, cushioned by rising oil prices, Riyadh could use cheque-book diplomacy to limit Ankara’s role in Syria’s reconstruction. That goes for Qatar too, accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and subject to a pedantic blockade by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Even so, Assad has already said he will prioritise working with Russia and Iran whose militaries bolstered Syrian forces during the civil war. He has also basked in China’s neutrality during the conflict and Beijing seems pivotal if Syria’s reconstruction efforts are to get-off-the-ground.
Arguably, China has the deepest pockets. But its usual model of aid through loans includes an obligation that Chinese firms carry out construction work.
Yet with vast sums involved, it is questionable China would risk the reputational damage of being associated with Assad. The answer to that question might emerge from the outcome of current US-China trade negotiations.
When Washington hardened its position, Beijing leaned towards Iran, probably to undermine President Trump’s hardline approach on sanctions. Despite US sanctions, Iran has been shipping increasingly larger quantities of crude oil to Syria.
The ebbs and flows of Middle East politics will make Syria’s reconstruction an erratic journey that will probably benefit the opportunists but deprives the majority of ordinary Syrians in what may become another race to the bottom.
Back in Damascus, Assad looks more secure than ever, comforted by the fact that restoring the country he has decimated will be a lucrative affair for himself and his tightly-knit cabal of supporters.
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