When the Syrian conflict began, in March 2011, Bashar al-Assad seemed likely to be ousted, like other strongmen swept away by the Arab Spring. Eight years later, Assad is still president, but of a fractured, demolished country. Now one big question is: Who will pay to rebuild Syria?
The bill is large. The United Nations estimates the cost of reconstruction at $250 billion (about four times Syria’s prewar GDP, or roughly the size of Egypt’s economy). Russia wants the West to pay up; its military support is essential to the Assad regime’s survival, but it has its own economic constraints. However, the United States and its Western allies have adamantly refused, absent meaningful political changes. There would be “no reconstruction without [a] political transition,” a French embassy spokeswoman recently told me. Last fall, Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed as “absurd” Russia’s push for Western support. That leaves 18 million people, about a third of whom are refugees, facing an uncertain future in a country that’s far worse off now than it was when the conflict began. Reconstruction remains essential despite Donald Trump’s withdrawal of most U.S. troops, signaling Washington’s little appetite for further engagement in Syria.
Theoretically, a successful reconstruction effort could see millions of displaced Syrians returning home. (Of course, the problem of security inside Syria would remain.) But as long as parts of the country remain unlivable, the refugee crisis that has gripped Europe for the past few years risks exacerbation, potentially subjecting many more generations of Syrians to living in refugee camps at the mercy of often unfriendly host countries.