'The destruction of Syria, which began six years ago this month, shows limited signs of abating, even though Bashar-al Assad’s Russia and Iran-backed regime recaptured the rebels’ last urban stronghold of eastern Aleppo in December.
A partial ceasefire is very patchy. A bewildering assortment of forces — including Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish as well as Kurdish militia and Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries — crowd the battlefield and episodically combine against Isis. Al-Qaeda can still strike at the heart of the regime, as it showed with a deadly attack on military intelligence in Homs last month. Mainstream rebels are regrouping to protect themselves. Talks about a transition out of war are going nowhere. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, whose air force was decisive in salvaging the Assads and which helped pound Aleppo into rubble, has decided this is the time to tell Europe to finance the reconstruction of Syria.
No doubt the Kremlin sees signs the US under President Donald Trump has ditched any idea of toppling President Assad. In Europe, moreover, political panic about any further surge of migrants and refugees from the region seems paramount. Yet the confidence of Moscow — and Tehran — should not hide the fact that they have a real and costly dilemma on their hands in Syria. First, the extent to which the Assad government controls the roughly 35 per cent of Syrian territory it holds is moot. The manpower shortages of a minority regime have made it dependent on Russia, Iran and powerful paramilitaries such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah. Damascus has had to subcontract local control to a mosaic of warlords and militias, private armies and racketeers — all invested in the lucrative distortions of a war economy characterised by penury for the mass of Syrians, roughly half of whom have been uprooted. There is nothing stable about that.
Second, to what extent are Russia and Iran willing to assist the Assads in breaking out of their mini-state and reconquering the rest of Syria? The Syrian state almost certainly does not have the numbers to retake and garrison eastern Syria. Look at how Palmyra in central Syria keeps changing hands — the regime has only just recaptured this Graeco-Roman jewel after it fell to Isis for a second time in December while the focus was on Aleppo. Palmyra, moreover, was taken back after US air strikes on Isis there. The Syrian conflict is protean and shape-changing, but President Assad would be unwise to bet the palace on the recurrence of such a weird coalition.
Third, ostensible control of “useful Syria” is false comfort. Aside from the security fact that much of the rest is jihadi-infested, this implies the east is almost all “useless” desert. It is not. The resilience of the almost 50-year-old Assad regime required the energy resources and crops of the east. Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces produced 60 per cent of the country’s cereals, 75 per cent of its cotton, and all its oil and gas in 2010, before the rebellion. Far from useless, the east is essential to a regime recovering minimal self-sufficiency. Syria’s power-generating capacity, dependent on gasfields in the east, is about a quarter of what it was before the war.
Russia and Iran would have to fight to retake all of Syria. That would be costly, in blood and cash. It would greatly increase the autonomy of Mr Assad, now a ward of two states. Yet their Syrian rump protectorate is already very costly. Arab securocrats say Iran alone had to spend $8bn a year in 2013-14. Russia and Iran are dependent on oil and gas at a time of depressed prices and both subject to international sanctions.
True, Moscow has taken out long leases on Mediterranean port facilities at Tartus that it intends to expand, and an air base near Latakia. Tehran’s revolutionary guard — a business empire as well as expeditionary force — has secured potentially valuable mobile telecoms, phosphate mining, port and power-generation contracts.
But the sort of money needed to reconstruct Syria is likely to be at least $250bn and maybe eventually double that. There will be no international queues to do it without basic stability and agreement on power-sharing. The “realism” taking hold in Brussels and Washington needs more input from reality. Europeans, in particular, desperate for anything that turns the tide of refugees back into Syria, should be clear that some of the demographic changes there are intended by the regime to be permanent. The regime’s patrons, too, will have time to reflect on the mess they own.'