Will Qatar Lead Syrian Reconstruction Efforts?
In the desert areas of eastern Syria, the fighting has intensified as a number of groups work to expel ISIS from areas it controls – cities and sand alike. In western Syria, however, where the majority of the war has been waged, fighting is beginning to wind down in many places, reflecting the fact that, strategically, the war between the government and the opposition is all but over.
Many of those areas have entered the post-war phase and are looking to begin reconstruction efforts, estimated to cost $200 billion. But where will the money come from? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s closest allies such as Russia and Iran will certainly be involved in the country’s reconstruction. Both countries have been awarded contracts ranging from the development of Syria’s phosphate mines to the construction of schools and hospitals in Aleppo and the rehabilitation of the national power grid.
Russian and Iranian investment and reconstruction is, however, only a fraction of what it will take to rebuild Syria. A number of other countries will need to contribute to its reconstruction, and their contributions will range from minimal to generous depending on their wealth, international influence, and geopolitical interests in Syria.
China, for example, may be willing to invest, but to what extent? Beijing has a $3 trillion foreign currency reserve, down from $4 trillion due to external investments in its ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative.
China will also want to avoid stepping on Russia and Iran’s toes by investing too heavily in Syria’s reconstruction. Is Syria significant to China? Yes and no. As long as Assad remains in power and the threat of extremism is contained, Beijing is content. It has done its part by defending Assad at the UN Security Council and providing moral support for the past six years.
What about Western countries? The Syrian government is pragmatic and will be willing to put past grudges with anti-Assad nations behind it if those countries begin writing cheques, particularly since the country is desperate for foreign capital and investment. There is only one condition: Those states will be forced to accept that the Syrian president will not be leaving his post.
As such, only a handful of Western countries will willingly contribute generous amounts to post-war reconstruction and investment, but it is unlikely those states will drop their anti-Assad stance and begin funneling money directly to the central government. Their condition has always been a “political solution” – another term for a transitional period where Assad would be forced to leave. Due to global fatigue regarding the Syrian conflict, as well as Assad’s strategic victory, a “political solution” will see the victor’s terms imposed on the defeated.
How about closer to home, where the Syrian crisis has been one of the most polarizing issues in recent Arab history. The wealthiest country that has stood at the vanguard of regional anti-Assad states is Qatar. Since 2011, Doha has supported some of the most extreme rebel groups fighting Assad, including the Al Qaeda-aligned Al-Nusra Front, which has since changed names twice and evolved into a supersized alliance consisting of other like-minded, albeit smaller, groups. Qatar may take a pragmatic approach to investment and reconstruction in Syria, and potentially accept Assad as long as it controls a large portion of post-war investment and reconstruction.
It is likely Qatar wants to hedge its bets in Syria, since its objective of ousting Assad has failed. Securing its stake in a post-war Syria would likely require pumping money through Damascus, thereby strengthening the government and providing it legitimacy. It can, however, continue to maintain relations with the multitude of rebel groups under its patronage; even acting as a guarantor between those groups and the government for a permanent peace. Qatar reportedly already maintains backchannel contacts with some elements in the Syrian government. Although these claims are hard to prove, it has a history of previously brokering hostage releases and other deals across Syria, most recently the four-town deal that involved the release of its own royals captured in Iraq.
Qatar may move towards accepting Assad covertly by circumventing the government and providing funds through an intermediary, such as Iran. With recent tensions in the Gulf, Doha is forced to look for new friends even if that means changing its policies. Yet, it cannot afford to alienate its Gulf neighbors while insisting on the polar opposite policy in Syria.
Iran will therefore force Qatar to play by its rules in Syria. It will make it clear that Doha can invest and contribute to Syria’s reconstruction, but only on its terms. Since Qatar has little leeway to push back against its new friend, it may accept those terms. And, in consolidating its new friendship with Iran, Qatar may have to finally give up on its dream of seeing Assad step down.