China’s Bid To Assist Assad In Syrian Reconstruction Is About Security and Profit

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By Sara Hsu. Originally published at Triple Crisis

Even as the West favors airstrikes against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and steers clear of supporting the president in rebuilding Syria, China has stated that it is interested in reconstructing the war-torn nation, and Chinese firms are lining up to become part of the process. The reconstruction cost is expected to amount to $250 billion, according to the United Nations. China’s motivations are apolitical, and are not aimed at opposing the policies of Western nations. Rather, China is propelled by economic and security reasons to take part in rebuilding Syria.

Chinese firms interested in reconstruction include infrastructure construction companies such as China Energy Engineering Corporation and China Construction Fifth Engineering Division. In addition, a Syria Day Expo held in Beijing was attended last year by hundreds of Chinese infrastructure investment firms. At the First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects held last summer, officials pledged $2 billionfor the reconstruction process. Chinese energy firms might have benefited as well, since before the Syrian war began, Syria’s main energy contracts were held with Western energy companiessuch as Shell and Total. However, Russia has been given exclusive rightsto produce oil and gas in Syria.

Reasons for China’s Support of Syria

China has previously provided funds to the Assad regime during the crisis, and does not appear to have any qualms about Assad’s brutal governance tactics. China has proven that it is often unwilling to involve itself in foreign conflicts unless it will benefit from intervention, even when worst practices are being carried out. A case in point was China’s support for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who likened himself to Hitler in the massacre of his own people. In recent years, China has attempted to engage to some extent in humanitarian crisis, with negative results. China initially supported a UN-backed and NATO-led intervention in Libya designed to prevent the killing of civilians under the Qaddafi regime, but when this turned out to involve the use of force, China strongly opposed the actions. This buttressed China’s refusal to take action in Syria.

Another major reason for this may be that Chinese officials are much in favor of Assad’s secular socialist politics, and are opposed to the spread of radical Islam, which they believe is igniting Uighur attacks against the mainstream Han Chinese in Western China. Some Uighurs have been said to go to Syria in order to learn how to fight, in order to bring violence back to China, although to some extent, China’s reporting on Uighur “terrorists” has been misstated. In any case, due to China’s perceived importance of the secular Assad regime, China has vetoed a number of resolutions in the U.N. to impose sanctions on or condemn Syria in any way since 2011.

China’s choice to fund Syrian reconstruction also appears to be economically motivated, in large part because Syria provides an important pathway along China’s Silk Road. On the ancient Silk Road, the city of Aleppo acted as a key market for buying and selling international goods, and the west coast of the country continues to provide access to the Mediterranean Sea. At present, Syria has the potential to be an important logistics hub. Not only that, but the construction of infrastructure itself will generate income for Chinese firms that have shown interest in taking part. This will aid Chinese firms, especially since the Asian nation is going through a period of slowing economic growth that has led to lower rates of infrastructure investment.

In addition, serious security will help ensure that Chinese investments in the region will remain intact. Some of these are located in Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The region is essential to Chinese investment in energy and infrastructure, and is viewed as an important crossroads between Asia and Europe. The security of this region can help to stabilize Xinjiang, home to Uighur separatists that China views as a threat to security and an important node on China’s new belt and road.

China and the West

The U.S., Europe, and Gulf Arab allies are steering clear of funding reconstruction in Syria, as they believe that the wrong side won the Civil War. These nations have called for Assad’s departure as a precondition for receiving reconstruction aid, as they believe Assad is responsible for myriad atrocities carried out on his own people. The U.S. took the side of moderate Syrian rebels. For his part, Assad has stated he will reject aid from nations that supported the opposition during the war. Syria has received aid from Iran, Russia, and China, and will likely continue to do so.

Despite the opposition of the West against Assad, China’s decision to support the current Syrian government does not appear to be motivated by anti-Western sentiment or the desire to compete for influence with the United States. There are those who rally around the Chinese flag due to opposition to the United States, for sure, but these include less powerful nations, like Syria or Iran, that are politically and/or ideologically opposed to U.S. hegemony in the region and in the world.

In conclusion, China’s position of support for Assad’s Syria underscores its security and economic interests in the region. While any measure of support for a particular regime may be viewed as political, China is attempting to refrain from engaging in directly political activities in the country and in the Middle Eastern region. China’s aim is to make economic gains through One Belt One Road, employing its own firms in the construction of much-needed infrastructure, and attempting to ensure security in order to do so. While the West may dislike China’s support of the Assad regime, China’s involvement in the reconstruction process is likely to bolster its role in the Middle East and strengthen its global soft power going forward.

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  1. Third Time Lucky

    If this is the Wellsley College graduate, with Taiwan phonetic spelling of her name, then it’s not much of a surprise to guess who’s sponsoring the content. and I’d guess Chase (Manhattan) helped her through her entire career.

    1. Oso

      yep, ‘Assad’s brutal governance tactics’ the first clue. As if China should be motivated by altruism and only the US has the right to act selfishly on geopolitical issues.

  2. johnnygl

    This kind of thing will burn the US elite deep down inside. All the more so if there is a level of success achieved. China really seems to be getting its feet wet at this neo-colonialism thing.

    1. johnnygl

      Also, if it goes well…don’t be surprised if egypt starts really warming up to this odd-ball coalition of convenience of russia-china-iran that western incompetence has created.

      1. RenoDino

        You are on to something here. Call it the Coalition of the Competent Axis. The Russian military, Chinese infrastructure, and Iranian cultural understanding could overturn the Middle East.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Some have suggested calling it the Coalition Of Lawful Authority, since it was supporting the Lawful Authority in Syria. COLA . . . Coalition Of Lawful Authority. Things go better with COLA.

          Whereas the DC FedRegime has been supporting the Global Axis of Jihad ( GAJ) as the GAJ supports and sponsors the Cannibal Liver Eating Jihadis ( CLEJ) within Syria itself. Referring to some jihadis as “moderate opposition” was always a bit of information operation deceit. “We’re the MODerate cannibal liver eating jihadis. You can do bussiness with us.”

  3. Louis Fyne

    it always amuses me how academics talk about ‘soft power’ like the world is some junior high popularity contest. who cares! The “Deplorables” don’t. Only Beltway Establishment-types who send other people’s kids to the front lines.

    PRC Chinese are 1 in 7 of the world’s population. China is literally one of the oldest continuous civilizations on the planet. Literally every consumer electronic good has something made in China.

    Let the mainland Chinese have their day. They can’t do worse than colonial UK, colonial France, colonial Belgians, colonial Italians, neo-colonial US.

    1. visitor

      Amongst the major colonialists (and the pioneers of colonialism, to boot), you forgot the Portuguese, the Spaniards and the Dutch, as well as the more recent Japanese.

      1. Scott

        The Chinese have engaged in colonialism for centuries, maybe even millennia. Only their colonialism was largely confined to places near their population centers. Their actions in Tibet and Taiwan are examples that I can think of off the top of my head.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Their actions in Tibet are more like America’s Indian Wars, I should think. Taiwan is about pride and power. Tibet is about loot, pillage and sack. And lebensraum.

          1. Jack Parsons

            Civilizations have been a conflict between farmers and herders. Most stable societies incorporate both and resolve the tensions between them. China (Han) civilization never really had a herder component- that was the Mongols.

            China has no idea how to colonize Tibet. They send people to live up their and they die of bad hearts 10-15 years later. They send cows up there and they don’t coexist with native grasses like yaks do.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              They die off in 10-15 years? So what if they do? The ChinaGov has more to send. And when those die off, the ChinaGov has more to send after that. And more after that.

              Then too, much of historic Tibet lies beyond the present-day shrunken borders of today’s Tibet Autonomous Region. And a lot of that lies-beyond land is lower in elevation and was much bio-resource richer. It even still has some Tibetans living in it, from what I have read. And that is where China’s most ferocious ecocidal and terracidal development effort is taking place. Though of course China is scorching the earth as much as it can within the present day Tibetan Autonomous Region as well.

              Here is a site called Meltdown In Tibet by the guy who wrote a book of the same title. He has decided to become a sort of information-activist about the issue and this is his information-activism site.

  4. Donald

    “The U.S. took the side of moderate Syrian rebels. ”

    Um, no. The U.S. took the side of “moderate” Syrian rebels.

    1. The Rev Kev

      I’m sure that you mean that the U.S. took the side of “moderate” foreign head-choppers.

  5. Damson

    “The U.S., Europe, and Gulf Arab allies are steering clear of funding reconstruction in Syria, as they believe that the wrong side won the Civil War. These nations have called for Assad’s departure as a precondition for receiving reconstruction aid, as they believe Assad is responsible for myriad atrocities carried out on his own people. ”

    Reads exactly like a NATO-sponsored stink tank piece.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Come on folks, declaring ‘our’ side wicked or feckless, however true, does not automatically make the other side good. Regime troops really did shoot peaceful protestors in 2011. The regime really did carry out Katyn Forest style murders of Sunni officers and noncoms of suspect loyalty. Regime heavy divisions led by Bashir’s brother Maher Assad really did lay waste cities like Homs with heavy artillery for months. The sectarian Shabiha militias are real. There’s an uncommon amount of good sense in the NC community, but also a certain amount of myopia. The proper corrective for seeing the world in black and white is not to flip to white and black.

      2. As to China’s subtle and enlightened Marshall Plan, evidence from my neck of the woods (Asean) counsels skepticism. China Inc. is aggressively selling anything to anybody at any price, just to keep their grotesquely overinflated economy at work. But as soon as the locals, Sunni or Shia, realize that all the real jobs are going to itinerant Chinese welders and fitters, and all that’s left to them is piecework and digging ditches, the Kalashnikovs will come out again….

      3.The tapstone of the Syrian conflict is not religion, but demographics: poor young Sunni migrants seeking steady work, which their stagnating Levantine rulers can’t provide. The Chinese won’t solve this existential problem any more than we can. They will install some infra which will then be expropriated, or else blown up again.
      One man’s view; I truly hope I prove to be wrong.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Your points about the nastiness of the Syrian Arab Republic side are correct, as far as I can tell. But as General Giap once said to Colonel Larry Summers in a totally different context: ” that may well be correct. But it is also irrelevant.”

        I believe the drought-propelled migration of a million Sunni peasants from the countryside to town was a detonator for the war, but not the touchstone. I also wonder how many initial demonstrators were shot by soldiers and how many were shot by hidden third party snipers . . . as at Kiev Maidan.
        And once the war took off, the Cannibal Liver Eating Jihadis and their DC/UK/Saudi/Lesser Petro-Gulfie sponsors took over and made it a purely and strictly jihadi war. Pounding Homs with artillery for months was perfectly reasonable in light of the goal, which was to defeat the Cannibal Liver Eating Jihadi rebellion.

        Let every last fleck of Jihadi filth be utterly exterminated from the earth.

    1. begob

      Cheers, TTL. That article also referred to Russian control and vulnerability through Arctic sea lanes, which could also form part of OBOR.

      On the China side, I’ve read that OBOR will have to depend on financing from Europe’s banks. So far, Europe says Nein, and DB is drawing in its tentacles.

  6. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thinking back to the success of the Marshall Plan, US “soft power” used to play a role in the nation’s foreign policy. For decades, however, it is clear from history that military action has been the default option in DC. Setting aside for a moment the enormous human losses and economic damage that have occurred as a result of such military actions, it is unrealistic to expect that in those formerly sovereign states where such policies have created social fragmentation, chaos, power vacuums, and deeply unpopular and corrupt local governments, regional and international nation-states will not try to fill that vacuum when it is in their strategic interest to do so. Unfortunately, there is a not insignificant risk that those inside the Beltway who have touted this unrealistic and morally bankrupt policy for decades will be granted expanded authority to again double down on more war as “the solution” rather than being removed from power for the failure of their strategic vision.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      As an example of what you are saying, Hillary Clinton may well try running yet again; this time on “Who Lost Syria?”

  7. Tobin Paz

    I’m not sure what is the point of this article.

    The U.S., Europe, and Gulf Arab allies are steering clear of funding reconstruction in Syria, as they believe that the wrong side won the Civil War.

    It was never a civil war and the West and it’s allies have funded and armed terrorists in gross violation of international law:

    WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath

    A December 13, 2006 cable, “Influencing the SARG [Syrian government] in the End of 2006,”1 indicates that, as far back as 2006 – five years before “Arab Spring” protests in Syria – destabilizing the Syrian government was a central motivation of US policy. The author of the cable was William Roebuck, at the time chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. The cable outlines strategies for destabilizing the Syrian government.

    NATO Using Al Qaeda Rat Lines to Flood Syria With Foreign Terrorists

    A similar scenario is now playing out in Syria, where the West, despite acknowledging the existence of Al Qaeda in Benghazi, Libya, is using these militants, and the exact same networks used to send fighters to Iraq, to flood into and overrun Syria. This, after these very same Libyan militants were implicated in an attack that left a US ambassador dead on September 11, 2012.

    We finally know what Hillary Clinton knew all along – US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding Isis

    At the time, the US government was not admitting that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies were supporting Isis and al-Qaeda-type movements. But in the leaked memo, which says that it draws on “western intelligence, US intelligence and sources in the region” there is no ambivalence about who is backing Isis, which at the time of writing was butchering and raping Yazidi villagers and slaughtering captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers.

    UN Designates “Free Syrian Army” Affiliates as Al Qaeda

    The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) currently arming, funding, and commanding entire brigades of the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), is designated an Al Qaeda affiliate by the United Nations pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011), in addition to being listed by both the US State Department and the UK Home Office (page 5, .pdf) as a foreign terrorist organization and a proscribed terrorist organization respectively.

    (Dec. 9, 2012) REPORT: The US Is Openly Sending Heavy Weapons From Libya To Syrian Rebels

    The Obama administration has decided to launch a covert operation to send heavy weapons to Syrian rebels, Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times of London reports.

    (JUNE 21, 2012) C.I.A. Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition

    The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.

    This information is well documented and readily available.

    The U.S. took the side of moderate Syrian rebels.

    The rebels were never moderate and they were violent from the very beginning:

    Al Jazeera Journalist Explains Resignation over Syria and Bahrain Coverage

    But what happened is that you know, I’m not sourcing or quoting; I just saw with my eyes, and it was in the beginning of the revolution, it was just, like, one month and a half from the revolution. And things were you know, I was seeing a lot of weapons, people with RPGs, people with Kalashnikovs, you know, just crossing from the borders. And they were not one or two; they were a big number; they were just dominating the whole village that we were on the borders with.

    (March 21, 2011) Syria: Seven Police Killed, Buildings Torched in Protests

    Seven police officers and at least four demonstrators in Syria have been killed in continuing violent clashes that erupted in the southern town of Daraa last Thursday.

    They were also not popular:

    (March November 13, 2011) Syrians march in support of Assad

    The cries and protests of hundreds of thousands of Syrians joined with those of millions across the country as angry demonstrators marched through the streets of Damascus on Sunday to denounce the Arab League’s suspension of this Mediterranean state, and to display their full support to their incumbent President Bashar Al-Assad.

    (January 12, 2012) Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media

    Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favour of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news? Especially as the finding would go against the dominant narrative about the Syrian crisis, and the media considers the unexpected more newsworthy than the obvious.

    Where are the sanctions on the United States and its allies?

    1. Adrian Kent.

      @Tobin Paz – that’s an excellent summary of the situation in syria and it’s frankly worthy a full posting here.

      You might also have added that the reports that James Foley produced before he was captured and executed by ISIS showed that from a very early stage the portions of the local population who initially supported the demonstrations were bemoaning the fact that they had been over-run by extremists.

      Also that in 2013, then then British PM David Cameron refused to identify ANY of the alleged 70,000 moderate rebels that he was hoping to aid with (more) bombing. As you say – there are no moderate rebels here at all.

      1. Damson

        Thierry Meyssan at Voltairenet has the full lowdown on the whole Syrian debacle.

        His brilliant articles include the (at the time) breaking news that the Gulf satellites began beaming ‘atrocities’ (staged psyops) into Syrian livingrooms after NATO had scuppered the Syrian broadcasting system.

        Meanwhile, ‘documentaries’ like the Mi5 – controlled Beebs ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ were already in the can, and ready to roll on Western tvs.

        Then there were the revelations by Roland Dúmas, ex – French foreign minister, of being approached by ‘British parties’ to participate in the ‘starting of a war in Syria’ ( planned more than a decade previously).

        Thus was a mild -mannered ophthalmologist transformed into the Middle East’s latest ‘brutal dictator.’

        Only a new Nurnberg will clean up the amoral filth passing for elites – a real one this time.

  8. EoinW

    My main objection would be to the use of the word “regime”. It is the Assad government. I’m tired of this MSM rule that pro-US countries have governments while less pro(non-puppets?) have regimes.

    Also interesting that the most important external power – Israel – is not mentioned. if Israel did not have a “failed state” foreign policy for its neighbours would the Syrian “civil war” have even occurred? While the Chinese and Russians are pushing for peace in the region it’s clear that the one country most opposed to this is Israel – with their ISIS air force. The House of Saud running a close second. As for Washington, well it’s been a captured entity for years now. Which, consequently, makes the American people also hostages.

    Getting back to Assad, I cannot blindly accept that he is a brutal dictator. From what I could tell, he was an eye doctor who was required to return home to run the country. His first action seems to have been serious peace talks over the Golan Heights, which eventually fell through. The fact we never heard why they broke down makes it a safe assumption it was Israel’s fault. Had the Syrians been at fault we would certainly have heard about it. After that, the only basis for the brutal dictator label comes from western media. Hardly an objective source. So forgive me if I have seen Assad as the good guy all along.

    1. James

      My impression is that Assad was once a quite decent guy, but that power corrupts. I spent six weeks in Syria two years before the revolution, and I was so surprised by what I heard from Syrians about Assad that I read the biography written by the British journalist – which paints him as a surprisingly decent guy. Sorry, I am having trouble locating the title and author using either Google or Amazon search.

      What is interesting is that there was a US TV show about him which is actually quite sympathetic. It was called Tyrant, and was clearly modelled on Assad.

      All this said, I also remember how my Syrian friend suddenly fell silent and looked frightened when we drove by a big prison outside Damascus (and this was a *very* tough guy). The truth is complicated.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, he was apparently the ‘good brother’ from the Assad family, it seems quite genuine that he wanted a quiet life until circumstances put him in power. I cycled across Syria 15 years ago – I met quite a few people there, and while the Assads were definitely feared (I was warned many times about things I should never say in public), they didn’t seem to be actively disliked. His father was extremely ruthless, but kept Syria (and Lebanon) stable and kept a reasonable balance between the religious groups. Bashir’s brother, Bashar, was the anointed successor, and I think he was feared, he seems to have been just as, if not more, ruthless than their father, but he died in a car crash.

        Bashir’s one big fault though is that I think that unlike his father, who came from humble origins, he had very little idea of what was happening out in the rural areas and provinces. The government had become very corrupt and self serving and the old authoritarians motto of the need to keep a chicken in every families pot had been forgotten. I suspect that had he been left to his own devices the government would have continued running on a fairly paternalistic authoritarian pattern with gradual neoliberalisation.

        The only good thing about his victory is that he seems aware that he can’t survive indefinitely with just an iron fist. There will have to be some sort of reconciliation and development. It would be nice to think they could do a deal with the Kurds and maybe the Kurds could be a positive influence on how the country is run.

        1. Katsue

          Minor nitpick: Bashar is the President of Syria. Bassel was his deceased older brother.

        2. EoinW

          Thank you both for the insights. I have to view things from afar so it’s never clear what actually goes on. it’s challenging enough to think for oneself, while everyone you know is brainwashed. Or intellectually lazy and indifferent, therefore they just don’t care enough to ever challenge the official narrative.

  9. RBHoughton

    “China’s choice to fund Syrian reconstruction also appears to be economically motivated” – agreed. I suspect everything that China does these days is economically motivated.

    That is what she has to offer the world – an update on Tang Siu Ping’s “to get rich is glorious” and I suspect that a large part of the world will choose trade over war every time.

    China might wish to move commerce back to the days before the rise of British hegemony when anyone could make a few dollars and did not have to involve bank credit, bill terms, insurance payments, taxation but just the man with his goods, sitting on his carpet with his cashbox at the ready, waiting for the caravan to arrive.

  10. The Rev Kev

    There was a conference a few days ago by the west to raise $9 billion but only about half that was raised as the US, Saudi and Gulf counties hung back. That wouldn’t be enough to rebuild Aleppo. They still demanded that Assad go so probably they had their own government-in-a-box all lined up and ready to take over. Have also heard talk how Assad has to go to the Hague to face war crime charges. Yeah, that’s going to happen.
    I would love to know how many tens of billions of dollars has been spent by the US, UK, France, NATO, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and all the other assorted countries (including mine) to destroy Syria. And now? The war is still going on as the west tries to control the outcome and is in fact encouraging the war to keep on going. The Syrians have spent far too much blood to just lay down and to accept the dictates of the west so will keep on going so it is a matter of who has the greater will to keep on going.
    But getting back to the main point of Chinese reconstruction in Syria, I wonder if Sara Hsu has really thought it all the way through. All that Chinese construction and workers are going to need protection from die-hard Jihadists. That would suggest a military force and to house it, you would need a Chinese military base. Perhaps several of them because of the size of the country. Congratulations. The west has just enabled the Chinese to get a foothold on the Mediterranean.
    Finally I think that Hsu is dismissing the Uighurs in Syria too easily. I mean it is not like that the CIA or anybody is going to give them advanced military training as well as training in insurrection techniques so that they could be sent back to China to inflame that part of China. If you believe that then you will believe that ISIS fighters are being saved from the fighting in Syria and being sent to places like Afghanistan and the Philippines to justify western presences there or something. Oh, wait. Never mind.

    1. Katsue

      Not sure about Syria allowing a Chinese military base in Syria – there are already a number of Russian and Iranian military personnel in the country, and Syria is hardly overburdened with ports it can give away.

      China certainly does have an interest in seeing rid of the Uighur enclave in Idlib, though.

  11. James

    Liar’s Poker is a How To manual for aspiring wall street financiers, and Confessions of an Economic Hitman is a How To manual for China.

  12. George Lane

    “The U.S. took the side of moderate Syrian rebels.”

    What moderate rebels are these? Jayesh al-Islam, Jabat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, or ISIS? Or how about the FSA or SDF, who have been part of a revolving door with the aforementioned groups? Who precisely are the moderate rebels?

    Is Assad really such a monster? There’s no evidence linking him to any of the three major gas attacks blamed on him: Ghouta 2013, Khan Skeikhoun 2017, Douma 2018. Do we still believe the Guardian, the NYT, the Washington Post, and the BBC are on a higher level of quality and authority and trustworthiness than all other media outlets, whether independent, private, or state-funded? Do we believe the White Helmets and the Syrian American Medical Society?

    Mother, should I trust the government?

    Mother, do you think, they’ll try to break my balls?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I agree this article makes what one might regard as obligatory anti-Assad noises. But the point of the piece is that China is going to do an end run which not only has the potential to be lucrative, but would be fantastic branding, since China would become a bona fide nation (re)builder in the wake of American nation-breaking exercises.

  13. Roland

    Really, this should be a slam dunk for everybody:

    1. Syria needs rebuilding, and has large cohorts of underemployed youth.

    2. China has big surpluses of stuff to export.

    3. All the other developed countries have gazillions of capital chasing any sort of return.

    Before the war, Bashar was trying to follow the Asian Tiger model: political authoritarianism combined with economic liberalization. Under this model, the governing oligarchy transitions itself to crony capitalism.

    A lot of reforms were undertaken 2005-11: free trade agreement with Turkey, loosening of foreign investment rules, establishment of special economic zones, opening of a stock market, ending of state monopolies in banking and telecoms, increased promotion of tourism, and a plan to make the currency fully convertible.

    The consequences were predictable. Luxury cars, luxury hotels, nouveaux riches behaving badly. Economic liberalization is always followed by widening inequality.

    You don’t have to like the policies to understand why they were doing them. There was nothing all that special about the reform program. Everything was well-precedented and had worked, more or less, in other countries.

    But talk about “headwinds” ! The peak of the war in Iraq 2006-07 drove nearly a million refugees into Syria. Loose monetary policy in the developed world caused double-digit inflation throughout the MENA (rising prices of essentials was a driver of political unrest in all of the “Arab Spring” countries–Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya). Then came a prolonged drought which accelerated the movement of rural population to the underhoused cities, and raised food prices in already inflationary times.

    At the same time, the government was removing subsidies on food and fuel, because the balance of payments needed to be improved, to protect the currency in the move to convertibility.

    Perfect storm: a tired authoritarian government in power for a long time, controversial reforms which caused mounting social inequality and loss of economic security, a major war going on next door with a big refugee crisis, and then a natural disaster.

    So it wasn’t surprising that demonstrations and riots erupted in 2011. What did surprise me was that the pro-government counter-demonstrations were of similar magnitude (by contrast, the pro-gov’t demos in Tunisia and Egypt had been pathetic). Right there, one could see early evidence that political strife in Syria would result not in a revolution, but in a civil war, a war in which both rebel factions and the government could receive considerable genuine public support.

    It didn’t help that foreign powers, both in the region and elsewhere, were quick to encourage and support armed revolt. Here, I think, is the critical difference between the fate of a tiger-style reform programme in Syria as compared to place in which it succeeded. The Asian Tigers had better power-political security and more homogenous societies. In winding down the quasi-socialist Ba’ath policies in pursuit of economic reform, Bashar unglued the country. And because Syria did not have a powerful protecting foreign power, outsiders were quick to foster the opposition factions. The Russian alliance had become a dead letter by 2011–it was the Syrian War that revitalized Russian interest in ME affairs, and it was Assad’s fortitude that finally put some backbone into Putin.

    To add to the tragedies and ironies, one is reminded that before the war, Bashar had been trying to conciliate the West and to the globalists. From 2001-03 Syria had participated in the GWOT. In 2004-05, Syria had offered to coordinate with the USA in managing the Iraq/Syria border–the USA refused. In 2005, Syrian troops evacuated Lebanon without a murmur.

    In 2008, the Syrians even held mid-level talks with the Israelis, hosted in Turkey. In exchange for a nominal return of the Golan territory as a DMZ with UN monitors, the Syrians would turn it into a national park, pay full compensation to Israeli settlers, and guarantee Israel water rights from the region. There would also be recognition and a gradual move to full normalization of relations, including a commercial treaty. The talks failed, because Bashar refused to end Syria’s alliance with Iran, and the Israelis refused to return the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon.

    Therefore, on the whole, I can sympathize with the government side in the Syrian War, while still understanding why many people in Syria were willing to risk armed revolt against it. It has been foreign resources which have enabled the fighting to go on for so long. If all the warring factions had been limited to resources available in Syria, the war would have burnt itself out in three years or less. The government probably would have put down the risings by the end of 2013.

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