Can Washington Count on Saudi Arabia to Rebuild Syria?

The regime of Bashar al-Assad has “won” the Syrian conflict, but the Syrian people are far from living in a peaceful or stable country. The United Nations (UN) estimates that Syria’s reconstruction will cost at least $250 billion. A plethora of open-ended issues must be addressed before any reconstruction process can begin in earnest, such as, where will reconstruction funding come from, who will distribute the funds, who should rightly be awarded contracts to do the work, and which parts of the decimated social infrastructure should be given priority?
Can Washington Count on Saudi Arabia to Rebuild Syria

President Trump’s vision for Syrian reconstruction rests in large part on Saudi Arabia paying for the extremely costly process, and he tweeted in December that the kingdom had agreed to spend the money necessary to help rebuild the country. In his characteristically transactional approach to international relations, Trump appears to be telling the leadership in Riyadh that, in exchange for his strong defense of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) throughout the Jamal Khashoggi murder case, the White House would like the kingdom to invest heavily in Syria’s reconstruction.

In typical “Trumpian” style, his tweet raised many questions. For example, in August the Saudis pledged Washington $100 million for Syria reconstruction efforts and it was, at least at first, unclear whether Trump was referring to that payment or the anticipation of a much larger sum to be remitted in the future. Yet Saudi diplomats in Washington clarified that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had not reached any agreement for reconstruction in Syria following the pledge made in August despite Trump having strongly suggested otherwise.

It is legitimate to ask why Saudi Arabia would commit to financing Syria’s reconstruction by itself. After all, the raging war in Yemen, not the crisis in Syria, is Saudi Arabia’s top priority at this juncture. At the same time, Riyadh has made major financial commitments to other Arab countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, which face significant economic challenges and depend heavily on Saudi petrodollars for assistance.

Thus, although the funds that Riyadh may deliver for Syria could be helpful and extremely welcome, they will not, realistically, come close to being enough for the entire reconstruction of Syria. Especially given the low price of oil and the expensive quagmire in Yemen, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to commit even a fraction of the amount estimated by the UN. Undoubtedly, such funding will need to come from a variety of countries and multinational organizations across the world.

Then there is the issue of the Saudi leadership needing to work with the Assad regime in any reconstruction effort. It appears that the United Arab Emirate’s decision, announced on December 27, to reopen its embassy in Damascus might be an effort on Abu Dhabi’s part to help pave the way for a rapprochement between Assad’s regime and Riyadh. The same could also be said about Bahrain, which announced its plans to reopen Manama’s diplomatic mission in Damascus only hours after Abu Dhabi’s declaration, and which had previously signaled support for Russian foreign policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis.

Given the extent to which the Saudi leadership actively and openly supported the rebellion, such a diplomatic move would mark a watershed in the Syrian regime’s reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold. Ultimately, it may be Saudi Arabia’s interest in maintaining influence in Syria, via reconstruction, that could prompt Riyadh to accept the legitimacy of Assad’s government and renormalize its relations with Damascus.

If Saudi Arabia’s main source of influence in post-conflict Syria is its ability to finance large-scale reconstruction projects, perhaps Riyadh will use this leverage in a grander effort aimed at bringing Assad’s regime closer to the oil wealthy Sunni monarchies of the Gulf (plus Jordan and Egypt) in exchange for the Syrian government agreeing to reduce Iranian influence in the country. But a wholehearted effort to eject Tehran from Syria would be too much for Riyadh to hope for given the extent to which Iranian influence has been consolidated in Syria. Assad simply owes Iran too much for his regime’s survival since the crisis erupted in 2011, and with Tehran’s proxies and the Iranian military so embedded in Syria’s security architecture, it is difficult to imagine the Syrian president being in any position to push the Iranians out of his country.

Also to Tehran’s advantage is that Iran has never complied with international sanctions against the Syrian regime, so it would be logical to expect Iran’s public and private companies to capitalize on opportunities for lucrative contracts in the reconstruction process early on. The exploitation of natural resource wealth in northeastern Syria, where a power vacuum could result from the U.S. military’s exit, also fits into Iran’s long-term Syria agenda. The major sacrifices that Tehran has endured, and the heavy investment of resources it has put into Syria since 2011, will provide a further incentive to Iran to continue prioritizing Syria in the post-conflict era, with an eye on the potential geostrategic prizes to be secured for the Islamic Republic.

To that point, on December 30, Syria’s Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, met with Iranian officials in Tehran and signed a bilateral agreement which calls for “comprehensive cooperation at the financial and banking levels” that “contributes to facilitating [Syrian-Iranian] trade” and investment, and “improving cooperation in the economic field.” Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development, Mohammad Eslani, stated that this agreement marks merely the beginning of “broad” and long-term bilateral cooperation.

Looking ahead, Trump sees Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iran accepting the burden of fighting the remnants of ISIS and other extremist groups that remain active in Syria or could easily be rekindled in the future. However, given the unresolved geopolitical questions and dilemmas surrounding Syria’s future, ongoing Iranian influence in the country, and Saudi Arabia’s own financial constraints, Trump’s presumption regarding Riyadh financing Syria’s reconstruction is entirely misplaced.

What would be most useful for U.S. interests, as well as those of all countries impacted by the Syrian crisis, would be for the American president to work with a plethora of Washington’s allies—such as Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council states—as well as foes and rivals such as Iran and Russia, to move forward with a realistic plan for financing Syria’s badly needed reconstruction.

This burden cannot be placed entirely on Saudi Arabia’s shoulders. Trump should stop pretending otherwise. Clearly, given the task at hand, a plethora of donors, including the multilateral development banks, will need to be a part of the reconstruction process. Since violence continues to plague Syria, it would behoove all these countries and multinational institutions to commence a fruitful dialogue on how best to approach the challenge. Once the conflict ends, Syria will not have the luxury of waiting the inevitable years it will take to arrange financing. The Syrian people deserve better than that, and they deserve it now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.