Russia’s Payback Will Be Syria’s Reconstruction Money

But international donors—and Bashar al-Assad—aren't playing along yet.

By Anchal Vohra, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inspect a military parade during their visit to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on Dec. 11, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inspect a military parade during their visit to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on Dec. 11, 2017. Mikhail Kimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

Russia had several motivations when it intervened in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015. The Kremlin was nervous about losing control of the naval base in Tartus, its most important strategic asset in the Middle East, if the regime were toppled by Western-supported rebels. More broadly, it hoped that by proving itself a reliable ally to Assad, it would earn credentials among other authoritarian leaders in the region.

Almost four years later, with rebels having mostly abandoned calls for regime change and losing large swaths of their enclaves, Russia has achieved most of its short- and medium-term goals in Syria. A growing number of signs suggest Moscow is now shifting focus to another objective: The Kremlin would like Syria to provide it a financial windfall.

According to three Lebanese politicians across the political divide, money is now the leading factor motivating Russia’s policy efforts in Syria. Above all, Russia would like to absorb a large chunk of the estimated $350 billion needed for Syria’s reconstruction, which would allow it to diversify its resource-based economy by securing contracts in a wide range of sectors such as building power plants and other infrastructure. “Russia wants our money to rebuild Syria so Russian companies can get the contracts,” a senior European Union diplomat told Foreign Policy. This effort has yet to succeed because, even as the war has mostly ended, international reconstruction efforts remain far off—largely because of Syria’s own lack of cooperation.

Russia would clearly be in a strong position to win reconstruction contracts from Syria, given its political influence over the Assad regime. The problem is that Syria lacks the money—and other sources are lacking. Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to use Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip, offering to facilitate their return home in exchange for Western financial assistance to Syria. Last June in Helsinki and in August near Berlin, Putin asked the United States and the EU to pay for reconstruction if they wanted the refugees who had already poured across the Middle East and into Europe to return home and also to avoid a second exodus. Putin claimed that at least 1.7 million refugees could go back to Syria in the near future. The Russian government also announced that it would set up joint committees with refugee-hosting nations such as Lebanon to facilitate their return.

Ten months on, the joint committees have reported little progress, and there has hardly been any return migration of refugees. In short, Moscow’s plan to win reconstruction money through refugee repatriation seems likely to fail. Foreign Policy’s conversations with several EU diplomats, politicians in countries sheltering refugees, and Russian analysts suggest that the biggest reason for that failure is the obstinacy of the man Russia intervened to save.

There is a growing consensus among observers, in the West and in the Middle East, that Assad does not want anti-regime refugees to return. Although there is no official data, it’s widely believed that a large percentage of the 6 million Syrians forced to flee their country oppose Assad.

Take the case of Syrians willing to return from Lebanon, a nation hosting 1.5 million Syrians and one that is friendlier to Assad compared with Turkey or Europe. Even from there, the Assad government is actively refusing Syrians re-entry, normally without offering any official explanation. Under the repatriation process, Lebanon’s General Security Directorate prepares a list of Syrians willing to go back and shares it with its counterparts in Syrian intelligence. Only those allowed by the Syrian regime are given the right to go back.

Mouin Merhebi, Lebanon’s state minister for refugee affairs until January this year and a supporter of Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said the fact that such a list is asked for by the Syrian state is an indicator of Assad’s unwillingness to accept the refugees. “How can they explain why they are asking for the list of the returnees? They don’t allow anyone to return without approval from the Mukhabarat [the Syrian intelligence branch],” he said. “Is it logical that Syrians in Lebanon need permission to go back to their own country?”

Merhebi said that during his time in office, the difference in numbers between the those who applied to go and those who finally could was massive. “I have been told by our General Security officials that when a list of 5,000 Syrians was sent, on an average just about 60-70 were cleared,” he said. Alain Aoun, a member of parliament for the Free Patriotic Movement, the party of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and a political ally of Hezbollah—and so generally softer on Assad—sits on the opposite side of the political divide to Merhebi. However, he endorsed his assessment and said the Assad government did not seem overly concerned about the return of its people.

“The Syrian regime is not doing anything to take its refugees back,” he said. Aoun quoted a meeting with Cardinal Paul Gallagher, the foreign minister of the Vatican, which has taken a close interest in the refugee issue, to substantiate his assertion. “Gallagher told a visiting Lebanese delegation that Assad would never take back the millions who fled.”

At least four Western diplomats made the same point to Foreign Policy. Russia has correctly grasped that the high number of Syrian and other refugees who have arrived in EU countries in the last five years has created domestic political pressure, including the rise of populist and far-right parties. Putin appears to think that he can arrange a quid pro quo: soften EU sanctions and even provide reconstruction aid and Syria in return will become a more attractive place to which refugees can return.

If Assad allows only a small number of refugees back, it would be hard for EU governments to justify lifting sanctions, let alone spending taxpayers’ money on reconstruction projects. Moreover, as two of the diplomats said, a large part of that money would presumably end up in Russian pockets. There is a divide in the EU in any case over the ethics of such an arrangement; but all sides agree, at least publicly, that Russia must extract safety guarantees for the refugees, and at least some promise of political reforms. Russia, however, has achieved few concessions from Assad, other than the release of the death certificates of a few hundred detainees from the tens of thousands allegedly killed in state prisons, and nothing with regard to guarantees of returnee safety or real political change.

Russian analysts say Moscow had originally envisaged a sect-based power-sharing arrangement, modeled on Lebanon, between the Syrian government and several opposition groups as the political panacea for the conflict. But Russia could neither convince the regime nor the rebels to compromise and abandoned the plan. Now it has reduced its ambitions and is focused on using its leverage with Assad to agree on a constitutional committee whose members have been appointed by the regime, the opposition, and representatives of Syrian civil society.

Max Suckov, a Russia analyst, said Moscow would achieve little more in terms of a political settlement. “Russia is not very hopeful about a political settlement which satisfies all Syrian actors,” he said. “I think Russia has accepted that Syria will continue to be a centralized state, but that certainly makes it difficult to convince the EU to pay for reconstruction.”

Amal Abou Zeid, officially the Lebanese Foreign Ministry’s representative to the Russia-Lebanon repatriation committee and someone known to be close to Russia, said the West should water down its expectations. Assad, he said, had won the war, not the opposition. “Assad has reclaimed more than 80 percent of the land in Syria, which means that what was being accepted last year may not be acceptable to the government now,” Abou Zeid said. “While others have a say, he has the upper hand in dictating the terms.”

Although he admitted that the Russian initiative had failed to take off, he blamed U.S. recalcitrance; the United States has maintained a hard anti-Assad line. To lure America to play ball, Abou Zeid hinted that Moscow had suggested that Russian and U.S. firms actively cooperate in the hunt for business in Syria. “At the end, Russians are on the ground in Syria, and the Americans understand what that means,” he said. “There can be an agreement between the two. I don’t rule out the possibility that they will have contracts together.” The United States and the EU both insist on a political transition as a precondition for re-engagement, but Abou Zeid was optimistic that if the West was not prepared to inject money, Russia would convince Arab states. He said Russia was intensively lobbying with Gulf nations to revoke Syria’s suspension from the Arab League and pave the path for their petrodollars to rebuild Syria.

Neither the West nor the Arabs have yet bitten on Russia’s lure of joint projects and splitting the spoils of war. On the other side, a diplomatic source who often visits Syria said it was clear that the Assad regime was in no mood to make concessions and any further political changes would be cosmetic. Russia thus remains stuck waiting for a financial windfall that may never arrive.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra