MESOPOTAMIA NEWS EXCLUSIV : FULL TEXT OF JOOST HILTERMANN’S (MENA) & PUTIN’S NEW SYRIA WITH ANDREY KORTUNOV (RIAC – Moscow)
Andrey Kortunov Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
Joost Hiltermann MENA Program Director, International Crisis Group (ICG) – Tatyana Shmeleva Expert at the Middle East Institute, RIAC Expert – Ruslan Mamedov MSc in International Relations, Program Coordinator (MENA) at the Russian International Affairs Councill
Report No. 48/2019
This report addresses the divergent and convergent positions of Russia and the EU regarding the reconstruction of Syria. The aim of the publication is to identify areas of common ground between the two sides in an effort to propose possible actions that could benefit Syria and its people.
Forward by Dr Andrey Kortunov and Dr Joost Hiltermann
The publication of these two papers by the Russian International Affairs Council derives from a discussion last autumn between the co-authors of this foreword, RIAC’s Director-General Dr Andrey Kortunov, and the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director Dr Joost Hiltermann. We agreed that the Syrian war had reached a turning point, and that time had come therefore to take a serious look at the question of post-war reconstruction. We realized, of course, that Russia and Western countries (the European Union, EU member states, and the United States) are taking quite divergent positions on reconstruction funding. And so we thought it would be useful to compare and contrast these positions with the overall aim to identify areas of common ground and proposing possible actions that would most benefit the Syrian people, the war’s primary victims. This publication is the result. It may not fully achieve our objective to bridge differences between the two narratives, but we hope that our ideas (presented in the case of Russia by RIAC researchers Ruslan Mamedov and Tatyana Shmeleva) will provide fertile ground for further debate and help point to a constructive way forward.
Post-conflict reconstruction remains a critically important component in all the plans aimed at turning Syria into a stable, safe and peaceful place. There can be no stability, not to mention prosperity, in the country unless and until this goal is met. Nobody in Russia or in the West would question the apparent interconnection between development and security in Syria as well as in the MENA region at large. However, the devil is always in the details. What exactly does the term ‘reconstruction’ mean in the case of Syria? To what extent can one pursue serious economic and social objectives in Syria without touching upon the fundamentals of the current political regime in Damascus? Who is going to fund Syrian reconstruction and who is going to manage it? What key indicators should one use to assess the success or failure of reconstruction efforts? There is a broad consensus that Syria is in desperate need of social and economic reforms; the country also needs an effective government that could at least provide basic services to the population. Reform attempts that Damascus is undertaking now are neither efficient nor sufficient. Without visible changes in the social and economic situation, people will continue to leave Syria even if the military conflict is ended or suppressed.
No meaningful rebuilding of Syria can begin if the existing political system, the BAATH party, the intelligence services, and the army remain unchanged and unreformed, and political competition is not permitted. Therefore, political and administrative change are indispensable preconditions for any meaningful social and economic transformation of the country, including post-war reconstruction.
The conflict in Syria is not yet over. Continuous military clashes and the existing threat of a sudden escalation create major obstacles on the path to reconstruction efforts; they also breed groups and institutions in Syria that are interested in maintaining the status quo rather than engaging in reconstruction efforts. Another outburst of military activities (in Idlib, in the North-East or elsewhere) would further delay any practical discussions on post-conflict reconstruction. Any reconstruction program should involve concerted efforts to allow Syrian refugees to return home. These refugees should be regarded not as a problem to be solved, but also as an important resource needed in Syria for a successful transformation of the country. Russia wants refugees to return to Syria more than does the government of Bashar Al-Assad itself, which does not see the pros of welcoming them back.
Both Moscow and Western capitals agree that Syria needs major injections of funds from foreign investors and large-scale external help to rebuild itself. External assistance cannot substitute for local commitment, energy and will, but it might become a powerful catalyst to unleash and sustain domestic sources of growth and development.
The authors agree that the Istanbul process could be an effective mechanism for Europe and Russia to jointly explore common ground on reconstruction-related matters. The challenge is to complement political discussions at the top level with specific joint pilot initiatives and demonstration reconstruction projects in Syria, if both sides can agree. To this end, Russia and the West should consider supporting a robust Track-II expert dialogue to generate fresh ideas and feed these into the official Istanbul process.
Beyond these converging views on post-conflict reconstruction in Syria, there also are significant disagreements between Western states and Russia about how to proceed with reconstruction. Let us summarize some of the most important of these disagreements.
First. Western states appear to believe that without active European participation and funding, Russia will not be able to rebuild much in Syria because it cannot provide the capital and technologies desperately needed for Syrian projects. Russia doubts that the European Union is willing to allocate significant funding for Syria, given multiple competing needs and priorities in Europe. Moreover, though European funding is highly desirable, Europe is not the only potential funding source for reconstruction. Moscow considers the best Syrian rebuilding scenario to be the one where the most capable players in the Middle East itself, such as the UAE, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are involved in the post-war reconstruction process. Other potential donors might include China and also Russia itself, which is already economically quite visible in Syria. This divergence of views might reflect different understandings of what reconstruction really means and what price tag is attached to it – something that deserves further discussion and clarification.
Second. Western states also believe that without significant changes in the current political regime, Syria will remain an unstable country and the war will never end, because the government itself is the original and primary cause of the conflict. This means that the impact of any reconstruction efforts will be limited, as long as there is no substantive change in how Syria is governed. This is why Europeans have little appetite for negotiating reconstruction programs with Damascus that would help consolidate the rule of Bashar Al-Assad. The only thing that might make the regime behave better toward its own population would be Russian involvement in a political transition and reconciliation. However, the degree of Russian leverage with Damascus in not clear for many Europeans. By contrast, Russia thinks that Europe should reconsider its approach towards the Syrian government and reach out to Damascus directly if it wants to see political change in Syria. The basis of the Russian narrative is the principle of non-interference in others nations’ internal affairs. The apparent assumption on the Russian side is that by involving Damascus in a more substantive way, the international community might gain more influence over Syria’s political evolution, which appears inevitable. A possible topic for discussions between European and Russian experts might be opportunities for and limitations of the political evolution of the current regime in Damascus, the role of Bashar Al-Assad vs the role of political elites, etc.
Third. In Europe, many believe that refugees will not return to Syria in the near future, and Europe itself cannot and will not force them to leave. European states do not believe that the Syrian government can provide basic human rights and protections to its citizens – refugees included – from itself or from the actions and repressions of an ongoing war. On the contrary, Europe might suffer from an even more massive influx of refugees in the future. This pessimism creates powerful disincentives on the European side for getting more deeply involved in Syria as a way to resolve the migration challenges at home. On the Russian side, the overall perception of the refugee situation is more optimistic. Russia holds that the return of refugees is possible and that this would speed up the reconstruction process in Syria. Russia also believes that the Syrian diaspora could and should be involved in the reconstruction process. Furthermore, Moscow believes that together with its partners it can offer guarantees that returnees will not be prosecuted or jailed by the Al-Assad regime. The difference between the European and Russian visions calls for a more focused discussion on what is needed on the ground to protect returning refugees from potential abuse and prosecution; the existing positive and negative experiences in the South-West and in other parts of Syria might provide valuable empirical data for such a discussion. Fourth. Europe appears to have faith in the power of economic sanctions to change the Damascus regime’s behavior – that more pressure on Bashar Al-Assad might result in concessions from his side on matters important to Europe (refugees, human rights, use of chemical weapons, and so on). On the other hand, due to sanctions, European businesses cannot engage with the Syrian government or Syrian businesses, and this is depriving Europe of potential leverage. Russia advocates the lifting of sanctions on Syria because, in its view, it is the ordinary people, not the Syrian ruling elite, who are carrying the burden of Western sanctions. Moreover, as seen from Moscow, sanctions de-facto help consolidate domestic support for Bashar Al-Assad – at least at the level of the Syrian business community. Moscow also believes that Al-Assad will not cooperate with Europe until at least some sanctions are lifted. Russians and Europeans have to engage in a more specific discussion about the impact of international sanctions on various sectors of the Syrian economy, the political dynamics in Damascus, and what the notion of “smart sanctions” might mean in the case of Syria.
Fifth. Europe does not want to extend international recognition or legitimation to the Al-Assad regime. For many in Europe, Syria remains a repressive state (or a repressive semi-failed state) and will remain in this position until a truly legitimate leadership comes to power in Damascus. Europe prefers the continued diplomatic isolation of Bashar Al-Assad, as it would contribute to the stability in the region in the long term. Russia disagrees with this assessment of the need for Al-Assad’s continued diplomatic isolation. Russia is also more upbeat about the international standing of Damascus, arguing that Syria could rejoin the League of Arab States and might gradually regain international recognition on a broader scale. For Russians, the key aspect of the international recognition of the Syrian regime is its ability to cooperate in a constructive way with its neighbors, especially those directly involved in the Astana and Istanbul processes – Turkey and Iran. The resumption of relations between Syria and major Gulf states will, in the Russian view, be enough to claim that the diplomatic blockade of Damascus has failed. This difference in European and Russian positions calls for a broader conversation between the two sides about the likely and desirable security arrangements for the MENA region at large.
Sixth. Europeans harbor suspicions about the Astana process, which they consider a Russian attempt to devise an substitute for the UN-backed Geneva format. Russia believes, however, that the Astana process it engineered supplements all the negotiating platforms and does not attempt to replace them. Some in Europe argue that the time has come to merge the Astana process with the Small Group on Syria; others propose bringing the United States into the Istanbul process. The common Russian position is that any negotiating format should be considered, but that no major player (including Iran) should be left out. The Iranian dimension might also be an important topic for Track-II consultations between Russian and European experts.
In sum, European and Russian views on Syrian reconstruction diverge more than they converge. It is important to note that the dynamics of Russian-Western relations on issues not related to Syria influence the two parties’ different positions. To bridge the difference and find common ground regarding Syria’s reconstruction, more detailed and focused conversations are in order. Given the sensitivities of many practical issues related to reconstruction, a Track-II exercise (perhaps fortified with government technocrats from both sides) would be the right format to pursue these conversations further.