What to do about aid to Syria

My colleague and friend Geoff Aronson argues that

  1. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies are not only winning the war in Syria but will gain from participating in the country’s reconstruction;
  2. The U.S. and Europe should not refuse reconstruction assistance in an effort to encourage regime change but should instead pitch in.

This perspective is mistaken on factual, political, and moral grounds.

The facts:

Both Russia and Iran, while welcome in Syria, lack the at least $200 billion Syria requires for reconstruction and have told Damascus so. They will no doubt ante up something in an effort to ensure Assad stays in power and is beholden to them, but their contributions will fall far short of even the minimum needs.

Assad has made it clear that only friendly states will be welcome. For the moment, that seems to mean China as well as Russia and Iran. But is China willing to pay the bills Russia and Iran cannot? The gains to Beijing from doing so are not at all clear, since Syria has limited oil and gas resources, much of which remain for now outside the government’s control.

Let’s assume that the U.S. had a few billion for Syria, beyond the $6.5 billion or so it has already spent on humanitarian relief there. How precisely would we force Assad to take the money, when he has made it clear we are not welcome?

Bottom line: Assad is going to fall far short of what he needs without U.S. and European contributions, which he does not want.

The politics in Europe and the United States: 

What would the U.S. and Europeans gain from providing the massive assistance Syria needs, either bilaterally or more likely through the World Bank and IMF? Assad has made it clear not only that we are not welcome in Syria but that he will not be interested in realigning Syria with the West. He intends to remain tightly tied to Iran, which is the big regional winner from the Syrian war.

The politics in the U.S. are inhospitable to foreign aid in general and even more negative with respect to Assad, whose accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity is apparent. It can of course be argued that Assad is a reality we need to accept, but that is quite different from putting cash in his pocket, especially as ever dime would be a dime less Assad needs to get from Iran, Russia, or China.

In Europe, things are a bit different, because some Europeans will want to be able to send refugees back to Syria. Assad will tell them he can only accept them back if  Europe pays to reconstruct their houses. But we know that reconstruction in Syria so far has been done on a strictly political basis: the only things that get rebuilt are things that enhance Assad’s political control. Even humanitarian assistance has been channeled to Assad supporters, not to civilians in opposition-controlled areas. Let the donors beware.

Bottom line: It isn’t going to be possible to follow Geoff’s advice, and if we did we would be enhancing Assad’s hold on power.

The politics in Syria

Geoff is confident that withholding aid will not bring down Assad. My experience in post-war situations is that it is difficult to predict what might happen. Ask Winston Churchill whether the fruits of victory include staying in power.

Of course Assad will not make the mistake of holding free and fair elections. But he shows every sign of making the mistake of trying to restore the dictatorship to the status quo ante, after having killed several hundred thousand of the country’s citizens. Will Syrians related to those killed, deprived of the resources needed for reconstruction, and used to governing themselves for the last few years tolerate the restoration of the dictatorship? I don’t know, but I don’t know how Geoff knows either.

Bottom line: Assad is far from secure and no one should assume he will remain in power.

What should we do? 

We should not be ungenerous. We should continue humanitarian aid to the refugees in neighboring countries but end it for those who live in Syria in areas controlled by Assad. Humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to areas that remain outside Assad’s control and are governed in inclusive ways is the right course of action. If Syrians start seeing some successful governance outside the control of the dictatorship, there is no telling how clever they might be in getting some for themselves. Even if they don’t, the money won’t be wasted supporting a brutal, anti-American dictatorship.

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