The official envoys of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States assigned to Syria recently released a joint statement on their respective governments’ policies on the next stage for the war-torn country, namely the reconstruction of Syria.
As Syrian government forces —with substantial aid from the Russian military— have for long been winning important battles against anti-regime groups, the eight-year civil war has all but ended. The next challenge for members of the international community with any interest in Middle East stability will be rebuilding the country from the devastation.
As far as the West is concerned, however, reconstruction cannot happen until substantial change is brought about in Syria’s leadership. According to the joint statement, the four countries have made support or assistance for the reconstruction of Syria conditional on a “credible, comprehensive and genuine political process” for the Arab country. In other words, a change in the current leadership structure.
The unwillingness of the U.S. and its European allies to help out in Syria isn’t for lack of assets. Far from it. Christos Stylianides, the European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management recently announced that billions of dollars have already been raised for rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure and providing interim humanitarian aid. The opposition of the West to support revitalizing Syria goes back to the fundamental conundrum they’ve faced since the conflict broke out in 2011.
From the start, the Syrian Civil War has been, simply put, bad guys facing off more bad guys. On one side was the dictatorial Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, essentially the “Shiite Axis” of militancy in the Middle East. On the other side was the loose coalition of Sunni militias, loyal to the likes of al-Qaeda and (later) ISIS. Caught in the middle were the Syrian people. While the free world naturally sought to stop the suffering and slaughter of innocents and return stability to the country, the situation in Syria made helping any side complicated. For instance, take the fact that the comprehensive effort on the part of the West to obliterate ISIS was indirectly helping the Assad government.
For eight years, it has been a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. For a while, the hope of America and its coalition partners was that along the way, Assad would be forced to step down due to pressure from the rebel factions. Russia’s involvement in the conflict essentially put an end to that possibility. Now with large scale violence in the country reaching an end, the West is looking at the same old Syrian leadership, as ruthless as ever, now emboldened by Russian patronage and Iranian military infrastructure. The last bit of leverage possessed by the West is its offer of assistance in the reconstruction of Syria—and its willingness to withhold it. While it may be a tough call to deny help to the millions of Syrians just seeking to return to normalcy after years of war, the U.S. and its partners cannot actively contribute to rebuilding the Assad regime.