After Saudi Arabia pledges to take over funding the reconstruction of Syria from the US, the Assad regime invites Riyad’s archrival Iran to rebuild the war-torn country.
The Assad regime’s Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, has invited Iranian companies to take part in the Syrian reconstruction process at the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (ICCIMA).
Al-Khalil underlined accelerating bilateral economic relations in which Iranian private sector products can be re-exported from Syria.
“We hope that trade and business ties between Iran and Syria will be strengthened more than before,” he said.
Amid the ongoing civil war in Syria, parties have already started to ask who’s going to shoulder the financial burden of rebuilding years of destruction.
On December 24, US President Donald Trump said it won’t be Washington footing the bill, but instead Saudi Arabia, which has “now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria…”
Trump tweeted: “Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbours rather than a Great Country, the US, that is 5,000 miles away.”
Saudi Arabia pledged a $100 million contribution to a US-backed campaign in August to “stabilise” north-eastern Syria, while the Trump administration endedits $230 million civilian-aid programme to the country the same month.
There is no immediate information available on the amount of the latest pledge from US ally Saudi Arabia, or how the money would make it to Syria, and through whom.
Huseyin Alptekin, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Sehir University spoke to TRT World about the Assad regime’s invitation to Iranian companies.
Alptekin said: “Saudi Arabia wants to be the main power in the Arabian Peninsula but it is not an active actor in Syria.”
Saudis consider Iran and Turkey as regional rivals and both have active policies in Syria.
“However, Saudi wants to be a part of the current process in Syria and it will use its financial muscle because it does not possess the military power to send to Syria,” Alptekin said.
Following the Jamal Khashoggi killing, Trump is increasing his pressure on Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to spend huge amounts of money in the US interest.
Arab countries’ efforts to normalise relations with Assad
Bahrain announced early on Friday that it is reopening its embassy in Syria’s capital Damascus.
The move follows a seven-year hiatus, the country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said the reopening of the embassy affirms the importance of continued relations with Syria. In a statement issued on Friday, the ministry urged ‘the Arabs’ to play a positive role in preserving Syria’s independence.
The move by Bahrain to reopen its embassy came hours after the United Arab Emirates’ decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus.
“I don’t see Bahrain’s decision on embassy reopening in Syria as an independent action. Countries like Bahrain are satellites of Saudi Arabia and that is why it took this step,” Alptekin said.
This is just the first move before a full rapprochement from the rest of the Arab world.
According to Alptekin, slowly but surely the Arab world is starting to believe that Assad isn’t going anywhere. For this reason, their current train of thought is that since they can’t get rid of him,they might as well build bridges.
“But if Assad has to make a choice he will choose Iran because it exerted the most effort to keep Assad in power,” Alptekin said.
Though Iran has long been an ally of Assad, Alptekin said taking small steps with Saudis to gain recognition will not harm relations between the two.
“Saudis do not have this type of trust established with Assad. Because for the longest time they wanted him gone.”
As the leader of an Arab nation, Assad will want to re-enter the Arab League and re-establish diplomatic ties with Arab countries, this will bring him recognition and credibility, according to Alptekin.
Will Saudi money end up in Iranian hands?
Following the announcement of a US withdrawal process from northeastern Syria, Saudi Arabia may take over financing the reconstruction of the PYD-controlled areas from the US.
Alptekin believes that Iranian companies will not work with Saudi financing, because in this region the two countries are still competing for influence.
“Israel and Saudi Arabia were the ones who most wanted US sanctions on Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to weaken Iran economically. This is why I don’t see Saudis sending money which could end up in Iranian hands,” Alptekin added.
Need for political resettlement
The UN says the cost of the economic and social destruction in the country is $388 billion. Assad predicted in December that Syria’s reconstruction will cost between $250 billion and $400 billion, just months after he called for refugees to come back to the country. International human rights and charity organisations criticised his move, saying that he was using refugees to help raise funds for the reconstruction of the country.
In Syria, reconstruction is highly politicised, as European Union countries have insisted on the necessity of political resettlement and stability before rebuilding. The countries that want to participate in humanitarian efforts have reservations that it could mean endorsing Assad regime policies.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the UN Special Envoy de Mistura have also previously agreed that “all parties needed to move ahead on the political track,” and that “any discussion of reconstruction was premature”.
Asaad Haana, a member of the Political Bureau of the Free Syrian Army, said that now is the wrong time for reconstruction because the war is still going on. The reconstruction should start after changing the regime.