EU Should Play Major Role in Syria Reconstruction

The EU should use its economic leverage in order to shape the post-conflict environment and mitigate the suffering of civilians.

13 April 2017

Annalisa Perteghella

Annalisa Perteghella is a Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). She holds a PhD in Iranian Studies. Her research focuses on Middle East security, non-state armed groups and Iran's domestic and foreign policy.

Eugenio Dacrema

Eugenio Dacrema is an Arabic-speaking PhD candidate at the University of Trento, Italy, and a research associate at the Italian Institute for International Studies (ISPI). He lived in Syria from 2009 to 2010 where he worked for the Italian embassy. In 2016 he was visiting scholar at the American University of Beirut. Dacrema is a regular contributor to several Italian newspapers and writes advisory reports for the Italian Parliament.

After six years of merciless civil war, Syria is a country in ruins. Estimates of the damages vary according to the sources. Medical infrastructures have become a primary target of bombing campaigns along with schools, of which at least one quarter were destroyed, while the total economic output decreased by 60% if compared to 2010.

The physical destruction overlaps with the deep deterioration of the social fabric: The displacement and the migration of millions of people have radically changed the social map of the country while episodes of ethnic and religious intolerance and violence have become frequent. There are 6.5 million people currently displaced within the country, and more than 5 million have fled to other countries as refugees.

Such a dramatic situation presents huge challenges for the post-conflict phase. Hundreds of billions – as much as 200 according to the International Monetary Fund – are needed to rebuild the country. To this purpose, it is necessary to identify donors that are politically willing and practically capable to put on the table significant amounts of financial resources.

But finding money is not the only issue. Even more pressuring is the need to reach a political compromise for ending the conflict in such a way that will guarantee a satisfactory level of political stability in the long run. In fact, stability is a precondition for any reconstruction plan.

In this article, we first analyze the options that are currently on the table for ending the armed conflict. Second, we evaluate their correlation to reconstruction. Third, we examine the potential role of international donors for the post-conflict phase. We find that Europe – the EU as a whole and the single member states – is currently the only major international donor with the interest and the resources needed to support the reconstruction of Syria. However, a significant role of China and/or the US is also possible. Finally, we provide some conclusive remarks and policy recommendations.

The Post-Conflict Reconstruction Dilemmas: Towards Decentralization?

According to the data and the reports published in recent years on the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria -- in particular, those provided by the ESCWA project ‛A National Agenda for the Future of Syria’ -- two general considerations emerge. First, the reconstruction of Syria will be enormously expensive: recent studies estimate that more than $200 billion will be needed only to rebuild damaged infrastructure.

Second, the success of any reconstruction plan depends primarily on the political dynamics that will lead to the end of the armed conflict. In fact, if on the one hand recent developments on the field – especially after the battle for Aleppo – made the ousting of Bashar al-Asad extremely unlikely, on the other hand some kind of political compromise will be necessary in order to end the conflict and present the potential donors with a credible solution granting the stability needed for the allocation of aid.

However, given the current impossibility to remove Asad, as well as its numerous and powerful security agencies, from the main centers of power in Damascus, a second possible formula of political compromise has emerged over the last year as a credible alternative to a power-sharing settlement at the central government level: decentralization.

In such a scenario, national government would remain firmly in the hands of the Asad-Makhlouf clan while local power brokers -- at the district (mintaqah) and/or governorate (muhafazah) levels -- would be rewarded with some degree of political and financial independence. These local power brokers would integrate at least part of the opposition forces[i].

This solution presents two important strengths and two potential weaknesses. The first strength is the fact that in several areas controlled by the opposition or by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) local councils already exist. Some of them have been operative for years exerting authority on villages, small towns, or neighborhoods inside bigger urban centers.

In many cases the councils are elected at the local level and in particularly difficult contexts -- for example in villages of the Idlib governorate like Maarat Nouman and Kafranbel -- these new political entities have emerged as legitimate and robust barriers counterbalancing the power of religiously extremist militias.

The second strength of the decentralization solution is that, at least on paper, it is legitimated by the Legislative Decree 107/2011, a decentralization law passed by the Asad government in 2011 along with other measures aimed at appeasing the popular protests[ii]. Therefore, at least ideally, the regime has in some way endorsed the principle of decentralization.

However, in the following years, the only real decentralized institutions were formed in the opposition and PYD-held areas, while in the territories still under the control of the regime almost none of the measures contained in Decree 107/2011 was applied.

The Decree outlines a form of decentralization that gives more powers to already existing local administrative units -- districts and governorates. Thus, it opposes other forms of decentralization that have been proposed during the conflict such as the federal model, which is strongly supported by the Kurdish PYD, but that seems now off the negotiation table due to the combined aversion of both the Assad regime and the opposition.

The decentralization solution -- with characteristics similar to those envisaged by the Decree 107 -- has also been included into the constitutional draft presented by Russia during the Astana negotiations . The Russian draft is the only one that has been debated during any negotiation session and, so far, no party has declared its opposition to the principle of decentralization.

Having said that, the decentralization option presents at least two significant weaknesses. First, the regime and the opposition tend to interpret the concept of decentralization in different ways. In its current wording, Decree 107 claims that elected local councils can use part of the budget reallocated from the central government to governorates, districts and municipalities for the development of local infrastructures and economic projects. However, their activities should occur under the direct supervision and control of the local governor and of state officers directly appointed by the central government.

Such measures would therefore fundamentally limit the independence of these elected authorities. This would in turn curb the ability of the councils to function as a credible surrogate of a power-sharing agreement at the central level. Indeed, in order to emerge as a valid compromise they should retain at least a minimum degree of real political and financial independence. This would be a precondition for asking opposition and PYD militias to drop their arms and join a political process under the authority of Damascus.

The second weakness concerns the way in which future relations between the central authorities in Damascus and these new local administrative units will evolve. On one side, historically, the Asad regime has constantly been centralizing power, highly intolerant of any opposition including those few political formations authorized to exist alongside the Baath party. Thus, it is extremely likely that a conflict of attribution will emerge between the central government and the newly empowered local authorities.

These conflicts may lead to imbalances in the allocation of budget funds, thus undermining any homogeneous and balanced effort for the reconstruction of the country. Damascus will likely insist on being the recipient of all the incoming reconstruction funds, to the purpose of making formally autonomous local authorities de facto dependent on the central government.

Without adequate accountability mechanisms, the funds are likely to be allocated unevenly, according to the degree of political allegiance of the local authorities toward the central government. The latter may use the reconstruction funds as a powerful mean to empower loyalists -- whose election would guarantee the allocation of significant funds to the area -- to the detriment of members of the opposition, who would be once again excluded from power, thus reopening the social rifts that led to the current uprising.

On the other side, also granting too much independence to local authorities may present significant risks. For example, allowing international donors to directly finance reconstruction projects in specific areas may lead different international powers to favor those areas which are geographically strategic for their interests or which are controlled by more ideologically-politically affine local authorities.

This would lead to more imbalances and heterogeneity in the implementation of any reconstruction plan and to centripetal dynamics that may culminate in the creation of areas under the direct influence of different regional or international powers and a de-facto balkanization of the country.

Which Donors?

As we have seen, the political solution that will end the conflict will have a direct and deep influence on any reconstruction plan, especially on the identification of the international donors. At the moment, the most likely political settlement sees Asad staying in power during the transitional period and perhaps even longer, thus reducing considerably the number of possible donors.

For instance, any significant participation of the Gulf monarchies -- the most important regional donors -- seems highly unlikely at the moment. For the last six years most GCC countries -- especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- have been calling for Asad’s departure from power and, with Turkey, have been actively supporting the opposition. In addition to these political reasons, it is noteworthy reminding that Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing a period of economic hardship due to low oil prices, a difficult process of internal reform, and the protracted and expensive war effort in Yemen.

It is equally possible to exclude a strong economic role for the two main international backers of the Asad regime: Iran and Russia. Both these states are going through a period of economic hardship due once again to low oil prices, international sanctions, and internal imbalances.

Actually, Iran has recently adopted a ‛creditor approach’ toward the Syrian regime, succeeding in being awarded several contracts for companies affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards[iii]. This equals to a demand for compensation for the heavy investment in men and resources that the Iranian government undertook in order to keep Bashar al-Asad in power. An approach that hardly fits with that of a potential generous contributor to Syria’s reconstruction.

Russia too seems to have adopted a similar approach, as emerged during the bilateral talks on the topic held between the Russian authorities and the European countries. In fact, Moscow appears reluctant to participate financially in the reconstruction of Syria and has been encouraging the West, especially Europe, to take a leading role.

Outside the regional and Western camps, the only other possible donor endowed with significant resources is China. However, the history of Chinese engagement in international aid and cooperation shows that Beijing only engages when the situation on the field guarantees concrete economic and political returns for the future[iv]. Therefore, the Chinese authorities are not likely to grant significant funds if the political compromise does not guarantee stability in the long term, something that looks extremely difficult under the current circumstances.

Nevertheless, it is still possible that Beijing decides to use post-conflict Syria to inaugurate a new policy of international projection, engaging in a vast aid program for reconstruction. Yet, at the moment, Chinese authorities have not showed any will to proceed in this direction.

Finally, a serious financial engagement by the Donald Trump administration seems unlikely. Such an engagement would contradict the doctrine exposed by president Trump during his electoral campaign and in the first months of his presidency, which entails a reduction of other countries’ dependency on American funding to redirect money towards domestic spending[v].

However, the unpredictable temperament demonstrated by the new administration during the last crisis caused by the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons in the Idlib region may contradict such forecast leading to a bigger US role in the reconstruction phase.

This leaves Europe alone as the only likely international donor endowed with significant resources. The EU member states have two intertwined interests in supporting the Syrian reconstruction: first, the necessity to limit the influx of refugees that is taking its toll on the political stability of several European countries, increasingly playing in the hands of populist movements; second, the need to re-establish political stability in the Eastern-Mediterranean area in order to curb the ‛terrorist’ threat that has been steadily increasing along with the worsening of the Syrian conflict.

By means of its potential role as the only major international supporter of the reconstruction, the EU may also find itself in the position of exerting significant influence on the post-conflict political development of the country. Such an influence would be unprecedented for Europe, which so far has only played a weak role due to its inability to actively persuade the parties on the ground.

The European Potential Role in the Reconstruction of Syria

As outlined above, the role of external actors strictly depends on their ability to shape the balance of power in the field. Russia, Turkey and Iran’s involvement in Astana clearly demonstrates that the US no longer has the possibility of shifting the diplomatic landscape, since it is not militarily involved on the field to the same extent (at least for the moment). Even less so the European Union.

In fact, Brussels’ ambition to play a key role in solving the conflict is highly unrealistic. The EU as a whole, as well as its member countries, do not retain any ability to shape the outcome of the conflict on the field; at the moment they can only play a secondary and indirect role.

This could change with the beginning of a serious discussion about the reconstruction of the country. On the one hand, the EU has a direct interest in guaranteeing that Syria’s reconstruction gives serious results, on the other hand, it could use its role as a leading donor to shape the policies of Syrian actors in the long term.

In particular, the safe return of Syrian refugees is one of the main EU objectives  in the country’s post-conflict reconstruction. In this context, it should be reminded that high-level economic and security conditions will need to be achieved in order to permit the return of refugees from Europe as well as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

To this purpose, the EU should apply the notion of “principled pragmatism” as defined in the EU Global Strategy. This means that Brussels participation in the reconstruction process should be made conditional upon the implementation of certain measures aimed to ensure the voluntary and safe return of refugees and internal displaced people. For example:

  1. The regime’s commitment to respect human rights standards is needed to ensure European support in the reconstruction of highly disrupted sectors – such as the education or healthcare systems.
  2. To assess the commitment of the regime in this context, monitoring mechanisms and commissions of inquiry should be set up by international organizations.
  3. The EU should promote the professional development of new generations by investing additional resources for their training in the key fields of education, healthcare, and engineering.
  4. The reconstruction of Syria is linked to the creation of job opportunities at local level in order to boost Syria’s economic growth and facilitate the return of Syrian workforce. In addition to that, any intervention related to the local economy should go hand in hand with reconciliation efforts aimed at reconstructing the societal tissue and reconnecting provinces divided by the conflict.
  5. The EU should guarantee medium-long term actions. It is estimated that at least ten years will be necessary to go back to a pre-conflict situation. Any donor’s short-term intervention risks creating a vacuum ready to be filled by non-state actors such as warlords and local militias.

These recommendations represent some of the key areas for the intervention of the European Union in the post-conflict Syrian reconstruction: the EU should use its economic leverage in order to shape the post-conflict environment and mitigate the suffering of civilians. It will not be enough to compensate for its previous lack of action at the political level, but it will be key to ensure that the reconstruction will happen at the benefit of all Syrians.

[Main photo: Delegates open the jobs and economic development pledging session at the Supporting Syria conference - London - 4-2-2016 (DFID - UK/CC BY 2.0)].


[i] Samer Araabi, “Syria’s Decentralization Roadmap”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 March 2017. Available at

[ii] Kheder Khaddour, “Local Wars and the Chance for Decentralized Peace in Syria”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 March 2017. Available at

[iii] Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Raffaello Pantucci (Edited by), ‘Understanding Iran’s Role in the Syrian Conflict’, Royal United Services Institute, Occasional Paper, August 2016. Available at

[iv] ‛Understanding China’s Approaches to International Development’, Institute of Development Studies, Policy Briefing, Issue 75, October 2014. Available at pdf?sequence=1.

[v] ‛Can Trump End the War in Syria?’, Foreign Policy, 29 March 2017. Available at

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