Iran and Russia May Have Won the War in Syria, but the U.S. Can Still Prevent Them from Winning the Peace

March 1, 2019 | Jomana Qaddour
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The U.S. and its allies have defeated Islamic State in Syria, and the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran axis has recaptured much of the country from rebel forces. But the Syrian economy has been devastated, and much of the infrastructure has been physically destroyed. Bashar al-Assad’s need for financial assistance in rebuilding gives Washington important leverage, argues Jomana Qaddour:

Despite the allure of lucrative new projects in a financially stagnant region, investors are not biting—not even Assad’s closest allies. Iran has signed several memorandums of understanding with Damascus on issues such as combating money-laundering and encouraging joint investment, but these agreements are more symbolic than financially significant. The uptick in sanctions since Washington withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year have limited the Islamic Republic’s spending power in Syria. . . .

Another ally, Moscow, has publicly insisted on being the primary broker of reconstruction after spending around $1.2 billion per year on military operations in Syria, according to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti. Yet the Kremlin faces its own financial challenges and cannot afford to subsidize such large-scale redevelopment. Instead, Russian firms have signed numerous contracts focused on extracting Syria’s resources. . . .

By contrast, EU member states have insisted that they will not commit reconstruction funds to Syria without tangible political progress. Indeed, they have gone further than the United States in sanctioning many of the corrupt Syrian businessmen on whom the regime is counting to secure foreign funding. . . . The prospect of securing funds from international financial institutions is currently unrealistic as well. . . .

To make progress, then, Washington should not only leverage reconstruction dollars, but also increase Assad’s budgetary costs—for example, keeping oil and gas beyond his reach, which would create an acute necessity to make concessions. By bringing regional allies on board and further pressuring the regime, the United States may yet be able to achieve some of its objectives in Syria.

Qaddour urges the U.S. to demand, inter alia, the release of political prisoners and American hostages, as well as national elections.

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