Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meet in Ankara, Turkey, on April 4, 2018. (Image source: kremlin.ru)
Twice during 2018, the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met to discuss their various interests in Syria. On both occasions, their concluding joint statement called upon the rest of the world to assist in repairing the damage caused by the ongoing Syrian civil war, in which they had intervened on behalf of one faction or another. In their Joint Statement of April 4, the presidents:
"... Called upon the international community, particularly the UN and its humanitarian agencies, to increase its assistance to Syria by sending additional humanitarian aid, facilitating humanitarian mine action, restoring basic infrastructure assets, including social and economic facilities, and preserving historical heritage;"
Identical wording was included in their Final Statement of July 31.
One is amazed by the audacity wherewith those foreign interveners, who have caused the most destruction in Syria, call upon the rest of the world to foot the bill for rebuilding what they themselves have demolished. All the more so, given that after both meetings Russia resumed its bombing and Iran its land attacks in parts of Syria that had been declared "de-escalation zones" in earlier agreements that also included the United States. The Russian defense ministry indeed reported this August that its air force has killed "over 86,000 militants," a figure that -- whether or not it includes innocent civilians -- forms a substantial proportion of the total deaths in the civil war.
For the moment, the determination of Turkey to prevent this happening in Idlib, the last major area defying the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has postponed a further wave of ruthless bombings, targeting of hospitals and slaughter of hapless civilians. Turkey itself, however, is responsible for its needless military assault upon the Afrin area, leading to destruction of buildings and a mass flight of civilians.
Afrin was previously largely spared from the afflictions of the rest of Syria and provided a refuge for hundreds of thousands from elsewhere, thanks to the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia that Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hates for domestic political reasons. After driving out the Kurds of Afrin, Turkey installed there an Islamist militia that rules by Sharia law and forces religious minorities such as Yazidis to convert to Islam .
Before making any appeals to the rest of the world, those foreign countries that intervened in Syria to pursue their own political aims -- primarily Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey -- should pay up to rebuild everything that they destroyed. This we call the First Clause of the Responsibility Principle.
On August 26, 2018, Iran's Defense Minister arrived in Damascus and proclaimed that the aim of his visit was "the expansion of bilateral cooperation in the new conditions of Syria's arrival at the stage of reconstruction" and that "we are hopeful that we can have active participation in the reconstruction of Syria." The next day, however, it transpired that he had come to sign an agreement to rebuild the Syrian army and Syria's military industry. In short, yes, Iran is committed to rebuilding Syria, but understood as rebuilding the Assad regime's ability to suppress the country's Sunni Muslim majority as in the good old days before the civil war.
What, then, of the involvement of the United States and its coalition allies? This, too, included destruction of buildings and the death of civilians, especially during the recapture of the "capital" of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the 2017 Battle of Raqqa. There are two big differences.
First, Iran, Russia and Turkey intervened to impose their will upon the local Syrian population, which was rightly unwilling to tolerate further the decades-long tyranny of the Assad family; they also drove out much of that population from their homes. The American-led coalition, on the contrary, intervened to restore the local population to their homes and free it from the foreign rule of ISIS. Its role was to back up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed of local Kurds and Arabs, which themselves did almost all of the fighting on land.
Second, the Obama administration already promised the SDF that there would be American funds to help in the reconstruction of their homes and lives after the expulsion of ISIS. This is a case in which the Trump administration would be well advised to keep the promises of its predecessor. Moreover, the United States can make a case for pressing its Arab allies to supply the bulk of the necessary finance, while the American role would be to guarantee a security umbrella under which that finance is duly spent.
The biggest question, however, is the conditions under which the world at large, including countries that played no role whatsoever in the Syrian tragedy, can be expected to finance reconstruction. These conditions must be drastic.
To begin with, there can be no question of using international finance to reconstruct the prewar Syrian regime. The Assads have run a police state even more brutal and deadly than Stalinist Russia. In the latter, at least, the identity of prisoners sent to the Gulag was known. In Syria, people simply vanished from one day to another, never to return except occasionally as bodies that had "died from natural causes." Also during the civil war, the Assad regime has probably killed far more people in its prisons than ISIS did in the areas under its control. According to July 26 report in the Washington Post:
"The Syrian government has begun issuing death notices for political detainees at an unprecedented rate, according to groups that monitor the prisons, in an effort to resolve the fate of thousands of missing Syrians as the regime prevails in its civil war. Since the spring, government registry offices have released hundreds of these notifications. Many of the notices report that prisoners have been dead since the early years of the conflict."
Thus the first condition for international finance must be the replacement of the Syrian regime. A meeting in August 2018 held under United Nations auspices reported:
"Discussions focused on estimations related to the volume of destruction in physical capital and its sectoral distribution, which according to ESCWA experts reached over $388 billion US dollars, while the actual physical cost of destruction was close to 120 billion dollars. These figures do not include human losses resulting from deaths or the loss of human competences and skilled labor due to displacement, which were considered the most important enablers of the Syrian economy." (Bold type in the original.)
It is unthinkable that sums of that magnitude could be spent on restoring Bashar al-Assad to his former ignominy. If that were not enough reason, one can read here how Assad has wickedly misused such relief money as has reached Syria.
If free elections cannot soon be organized, there may be a need for temporary international mandate to govern Syria. Compare Iraq. Despite the opprobrium showered upon President George W. Bush and his allies, it must be conceded that Iraq is today the only major Arab country where the mass of the population has accepted that its government must be subject to an elected parliament. What is needed is the current result of international intervention in Iraq while avoiding the mistakes that were made along the way.
The second condition is to bring the chief criminals of the Assad regime to trial. The means for doing this already exist. An April 2016 article in the New Yorker describes an organization that, taking the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis as a model, has gathered all the evidence required. Says the article:
In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group's headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.
Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night...
The commission's work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty.
The third condition is that all the Syrians displaced by the war, whether within the country, in neighboring countries or further afield, must be enabled to return to their homes. It has been rumored that Assad wants to obstruct the return of as many Sunnis Muslims as possible in order to make it easier for his Alawite minority to regain and even strengthen its domination of the country. This must not happen.
Those three conditions, put together, constitute the Second Clause of the Responsibility Principle: Any other country or international factor should condition any further financial assistance upon the replacement of the current Syrian regime with a plausible alternative, be it through free elections or the installation of a temporary international regime, followed by Nuremberg-type trials of the chief criminals of the current regime and the repatriation and resettlement of all refugees without any form of discrimination.
During a recent visit to Germany, Russian President Vladimir Russia "called on Europe to contribute financially to the reconstruction of Syria to allow millions of refugees to return home." The same report claims that Russia had suggested "that the United States and Russia form a joint group to finance infrastructure renovation in Syria," a suggestion that "was met with an icy reception" in Washington. Rightly so. Cooperation between the two superpowers is theoretically the most effective way of establishing order and a decent form of life in Syria, but it must be conditioned on the elimination of the Assad regime and bringing its major criminals to justice. If Putin could concede so much and President Trump could respond with a turnabout like the one with North Korea, the way would be open.
Let us put the matter more plainly. The Russian Federation has the military power to keep Assad the titular president of Syria forever, but it cannot expect the rest of the world to pay for such a Syria. So the Russian government has to ask itself whether it also has the economic power to pay the immense bill for rebuilding Syria alone. Nothing can be expected from its partner Iran because the Iranian regime's involvement in Syria has already sent it hurtling toward bankruptcy, thanks to Trump's reinstatement of sanctions. Is Russia economically strong enough to avoid following Iran along that path?
The most that Russia can plausibly demand in return for the world's money is that the regime that replaces Assad must honor Russia's lease on its bases in Syria. Why Russia even needs such bases, apart from spurious prestige, is another question, which Russians can ponder for themselves at leisure once Assad has gone.
Malcolm Lowe is a Welsh scholar specialized in Greek Philosophy, the New Testament and Christian-Jewish Relations.