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Rebuilding Syria: Who should foot the bill?

September 8, 2018

Though the war in Syria continues, President Bashar Assad and his allies are already planning reconstruction efforts. Russia is demanding money from the rest of Europe. Should Germany contribute?

Ruins of Aleppo market
Image: Imago/Xinhua/A. Safarjalani

Tarek M. speaks with his family in the worn-torn city Aleppo as often as possible. He fled the country in 2015, when he was just 23, traveling on his own through the Balkans to Germany. Because his family remains in Syria, Tarek does not wish to reveal his identity.

Tarek also fled military conscription — he wanted no part in the atrocities carried out by the regime that ruled over the west of the city where he lived with his family.

In eastern Aleppo, the insurgents were able to defy Syrian regime forces for four years until Russia joined the fight for the opposition stronghold. By December 2016, Syria's government had recaptured the entire city.

Tarek M., a Syrian refugee, in NRW
Tarek fled Syria on his own in 2015Image: privat

Today President Bashar Assad's forces, with the help of allies Russia and Iran, control an estimated two-thirds of the country.

"The war in Syria is not over yet," however, cautions Tarek.

A bloody battle is expected for the last insurgent and extremist stronghold, Idlib. If it falls, Assad will emerge victorious.

Many cities around the country now lie in ruins. Since the battle for Aleppo, those who remain in the city continue to live in terrible conditions. Tarek, who now lives and works in the Ruhr region of western Germany, passes on his family's reports: The infrastructure in Aleppo is devastated; its water and electricity supply perilous.

In the east of the city, the situation is more desperate, he said. The reports from his parents and the photos and videos circulating online paint a picture of a landscape in ruins.

"Talk of reconstructing the east of the city is pointless," said Tarek. "And even if attempts to rebuild were made, who would receive the funds for it?"

Syria’s last rebel stronghold

How to rebuild?

The question of reconstruction is both a crucial and complex one. Above all, who should finance it? Neither the Syrian regime nor Iran or Russia want to bear the costs alone.

The United Nations special envoy for the Syria crisis, Staffan de Mistura, estimates that roughly $250 billion (€215 billion) would be required to rebuild Syria's infrastructure. The Syrian government puts the sum as high as $400 billion.

Russia has called on Europe to provide financial aid for reconstruction efforts. Ahead of her meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed Germany's and Russia's joint responsibility for a solution to the Syrian crisis. However, the idea of Germany contributing to rebuilding a Syria ruled by Assad does not sit well with many German politicians.

Read more: What is Iran's role in Syria if Assad wins the war?

Nevertheless, the prospect of contributing has not been entirely ruled out in Berlin. In April of this year, for example, at a donor conference for Syria in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stressed that a political solution was a prerequisite for German reconstruction aid. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert also said that Germany intended help in an international effort to rebuild life for regular Syrians.

Berlin Rolf Mützenich (SPD)
Mützenich says rebuilding Syria requires international coordinationImage: Imago/M. Popow

Speaking to DW, German foreign policy expert Rolf Mützenich of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), reiterated Berlin's stance that reconstruction must be centered around an international agreement. "One condition [of German contribution] is that there must be a peaceful solution that has been legitimized by the UN," he said. "A solution that also enables all people who want to return to Syria to be able to do so."   

A 'more homogeneous' Syria

Assad himself has left no doubt as to who exactly will be welcome in his future Syria. The human cost of the war has been immense, but the country has gained a "healthier" and "more homogeneous" society, he claimed at a conference in Damascus in 2017.

"My impression is that the Syrian leadership systematically depopulated the areas in which the insurgents were strong," Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW.

Read more: Idlib's civilians in survival mode for Syrian assault

This strategic motivation is substantiated by the new Law No. 10, which allows the Syrian government to confiscate the property of citizens who have fled abroad if they do not lodge their claims inside the country within a year. The situation leaves open the possibility for a biased distribution of rebuilding resources — favoring areas with Assad regime sympathizers while ignoring areas for the refugees who want to return.

But what can returning refugees really expect from Assad? If they have fled from rebel strongholds, or are known to be opponents of the regime, then "they can expect to be arrested, tortured and killed," said Steinberg.

Putin and Assad in Sochi
Putin helped Assad turn the tide of the war in Syria, and is calling on Europe for help in rebuilding the countryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/M. Klimentyev

The refugee angle

Putin often mentions the prospect of repatriating Syrian refugees currently in Europe as part of his push for a joint reconstruction effort in the country. The Russian leader knows well how divisive the issue has been in Germany and the European Union.

That approach has drawn criticism, in particular from Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, deputy parliamentary party leader of Germany's pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). Russia is already financially depleted from its military engagement in Syria, he told Die Welt newspaper, and would thus not be a main player in the reconstruction. "This must not lead to us repairing the roads bombed by Russia and then deporting the refugees via Assad's henchmen to torture chambers," Graf Lambsdorff said. Germany must make concrete demands of Russia, he added, but convincing leaders in Moscow of the need for a UN-led political solution is likely to be difficult at this stage.

Steinberg believes that Germany may well eventually participate in the reconstruction of Syria, but doing so is only certain "if there is the possibility, or even just the prospect, of sending refugees back."

For the time being, returning refugees to the country they were driven from is not an option, said the SPD's Mützenich.

Even if the political will were there, carrying out those repatriations would be practically impossible, according to Bernd Mesovic of the refugee aid group Pro Asyl. In an attempt to speed up the asylum process, many of the refugees who arrived in Germany in 2014 and 2015 did not sufficiently specify their reasons for leaving their homeland, he explained, making it often impossible to know from which warring faction people fled.

Reservations and difficult questions

Mützenich believes the focus should be on figuring out how international organizations and UN member states can best participate in reconstruction and under what terms.

Roughly half-a-million Syrians have been killed by regime forces and their allies over the past seven years. Such staggering destruction has critics asking: Is giving Assad financial support for reconstruction in Syria tantamount to complicity?

Read more: Syrian detainee No. 72's tales of torture

"The money would not benefit the normal citizens who are the most in need, but only Assad's friends," argued Tarek, who because he fled military service would face imprisonment if he were to return to post-war Syria.

Mützenich understands the hesitation over entering into a reconstruction effort with the Syrian government, but believes it could ultimately be in the best interests of regular Syrians. "If you approach it from this position alone, which is morally justified, little will be achieved in a practical sense," he said. "In the end, maintaining this stance is not fair on the people who want to try to live in their homeland."

Steinberg considers German participation in the reconstruction of Syria — under all circumstances — to be wrong. Neither Damascus, nor Tehran, nor Moscow would ever again take Germany seriously as a foreign or security policy power, he said. It was always the motivation of Iran and Russia to stabilize the Assad regime and garner new prestige, Steinberg added, "and we would thus be promoting the war aims of criminals."