Who Will Reconstruct Syria?

by Hugh Fitzgerald

Now that the Islamic State has been driven out of the last town it controlled in Syria, the question must be asked: who will reconstruct the country? Estimates for the reconstruction of Syria range from $250 billion to one trillion dollars. Where will that money come from? Nothing will come from the deep-pocketed Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, or Qataris, all of them Sunni countries, and all but Qatar openly hostile to Iran-allied Syria. What about Russia? The Russians see themselves as contributing, but only if Europe, and especially the United States, agree to participate as well in financing the reconstruction. The Russians have already spent billions in helping to prop up Assad during his seven-year civil war; they are unwilling, and likely unable, to spend much more. Certainly nothing in the neighborhood of tens of billions.

Now comes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has  announced that not a penny will come from the American government to help in the reconstruction of Syria as long as Iranian forces remain in Syria. The Iranians, of course, have spent directly, and through their aid to Hezbollah, huge sums on supporting Assad. There are several estimates as to the total Iranian aid to Syria. According to Staffan di Mistura, the U.N’s envoy to Syria, the Iranian government spends at least $6 billion annually on maintaining Assad’s government. That aid began in 2012, less than a year after the civil war began, and if Di Mistura is correct, Iran has spent $42 billion on Syria to date. But other figures are far higher. Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, said that his research puts the actual number at $15 billion annually. That would mean Iran has spent $105 billion on Syria. And the civil war is not over yet.

In Iran, protesters in the streets this past summer shouted “Leave Syria alone and deal with Iran” as well as “Death to Palestine” and “Death to Gaza.” By this, they meant “stop spending money abroad on military adventures, we Iranians are suffering economically.” And Iran is suffering. The rial has sunk to historic lows. Of Iran’s 2.5 million barrels of oil production, Iran now manages to sell only about 1.5 million barrels, thanks to the re-imposition of American sanctions. Iran has just suffered its worst drought in more than a half-century, significantly damaging Iranian agriculture and the raising of livestock. This is another body blow to the economy.

Meanwhile, along with the sums — between $42 billion and $105 billion — that it has been spending on Syria annually, Iran also supports Hezbollah with about $1 billion a year. It is also involved in supporting the Houthis in Yemen. It is believed to supply them with several billion dollars in money, and especially weaponry, including ballistic missiles, each year. Iran is also the largest contributor to Hamas, giving it and Islamic Jihad $100 million annually. And in Iraq, Iranian militias are helping out the Iraqi Shi’a with training and weaponry.

At the very moment when crippling economic sanctions are being re-imposed on Iran, when Iranian oil is difficult to sell and must be offered at a discount, when a catastrophic drought has dealt a severe setback to Iranian agriculture, Iran — still expensively committed in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria — is in no position to pay for any part of Syria’s reconstruction. Iran, in fact, having helped to rescue Assad, was looking forward to finally reaping the benefits of all that help, by being granted permanent bases from which to threaten Israel.

But the Israelis have been bombing Iranian bases in Syria with impunity. When Russia told Israel that it would prevent Iran from establishing any bases within 60 miles of the Golan, the Israelis made clear that was insufficient, and that they were going to hit Iranian bases wherever they were in Syria.

And Pompeo says there will be no American money for Syrian reconstruction unless the Iranians pull completely out of Syria. The Israelis were glad to hear that promise, though a few were apparently hoping he might make a threat of taking military action against Iranian bases. That would have been too dangerous, given the possibility of accidentally hitting Russians and forcing Putin to retaliate. Besides, the Israelis are systematically hitting  those bases, and don’t look like they need any help.

What can Assad now do? If the Americans are not going to participate in the reconstruction, with their usual generosity, the Europeans will not, and the Russians have made clear that they are not going to participate without the involvement of Europe, and especially of America. Long before Pompeo’s remark, last April the House passed a bill that forbade any aid to reconstruct any part of the territory held by Assad, and it did not matter whether Iran remained in Syria or not. This No Assistance for Assad bill (H.R. 4681) was meant  “to keep taxpayer dollars out of the hands of the murderous Assad regime and its proxies.” Speaking in support of the legislation, the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations Ed Royce observed that “it would be unconscionable for U.S. government funds to be used for stabilization or reconstruction in areas under control of the illegitimate Assad regime and its proxies. We are not going to support the building of infrastructure that will benefit Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, or foreign militias.” That bill hasn’t passed the Senate, and with Pompeo’s remark, it has been superseded.

The Iranians, I suspect, are not about to pull completely out of Syria. The top regime figures have invested far too much in Syria to allow themselves to be shown the door by a seemingly ungrateful Assad. They need to keep a presence in Syria to show their own people that it was all worthwhile. And they don’t want America helping to reconstruct Syria, and perhaps taking Alawite-ruled Syria out of the “Shi’a axis” altogether. Assad is a slippery fellow; he’s likely to go with whomever offers him the most aid at the time. Now that he’s secured his country, he no longer needs Iran, but he does need a few hundred billion dollars to pay for reconstruction.

There is one country that, to date, hasn’t spent a cent on either side in the Syrian civil war, has a lot of money, has more experience in giant construction projects than anyone else, and has been showing a deep interest in expanding its presence in the eastern Mediterranean, by acquiring a controlling share in the port of Piraeus, the largest port in Greece and the largest port for containers in the whole Mediterranean. That country would be delighted to take “a leadership role” in the reconstruction in Syria — especially if the money is spent largely on its own nationals, who would be doing most of the work and receiving most of the pay. That country could, in rebuilding Syria, gain a foothold in the Middle East, and another outpost, along with that in Piraeus, on the Mediterranean. That country, waiting in the wings for its Syrian closeup, is China.

First published in Jihad Watch