Who’ll pick up the tab in the Middle East?


The caliphate is dead, but Syria and Iraq are still a mess. It is unclear who will come up with the cash and the political will to rebuild.

Before rebuilding something, one must first collect and assess a few very basic facts. What exactly needs rebuilding? How should it be rebuilt? With what resources? And, most importantly, who should do the rebuilding? For territories that up until a few months ago were part of the so-called Islamic State, the answers to these questions are neither obvious nor simple, and each one needs to considered very carefully.

Firstly, under the surreal state entity of the now-collapsedIS caliphate, the briefly united territories that it had commandeered have discovered that they still belong to two different countries, Syria and Iraq.The regionsare now having to rejoin these states, both of which are in very complex and very different situations. The Eastern reaches of Syria, from Raqqa to Deirez-Zor, have once again become a pawn in the Syrian conflict. Raqqa, the former capital of the caliphate, has now taken back by the Democratic Syrian Forces, a formation backed by the United States and primarily composed of YPG Kurdish militias and a few local Arab factions.Meanwhile the governorship of Deiraz-Zoris back in the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The main bone of contention between the two factions and their international patronsis the gas and oil reserves in the area.They may be modest on an international scale, but they are nevertheless very important resources, especially for a country ravaged by years of war. The Raqqa area in particular is in the process of becoming an important bargainingchip between the Kurds of the PYD (of which the YPGis the military arm, often referred to as the Syrian branch of the Turkish PKK faction, and currently exerting control over most of northern Syria) and the Assad regime. Autonomy in exchange for territories seems to be the agreement that the Kurdish leaders have in mind. But the negotiations have only just begun.

On the other side of the border, the former caliphate territories are in an equally tentative situation. The Iraqi state has taken back complete control of Mosul(the country’s second largest city)along with the nearby areas, and is now focusing on the last pockets of jihadi resistance. However, the much vaunted recapture at the end of 2017 has resulted in the flight of thousands of refugees, now huddled together in camps in the south of the region. The migration was to a large extent engineered by the so called Popular Mobilisation Units, Shiite militias that are either directly or indirectly controlled by Iran. These militias seem intent on staying put, both politically and physically(with many of their number intending to settle in the Sunni majority areas over which they have wrested back control). A few of their leaders have stated their intention to enter the next national elections, thus transforming their respective militias into political parties, without, however, laying down their weapons. It is a very perilous development for Iraqi politics, givenits already highly sectarian nature and the influences of foreign powers. The rise of the new Shiite militias is undoubtedly a trump card in the hands of Tehran,allowingthe Iranians to continue exerting influenceon the political developments in Iraq, while exerting (often direct) control over Iraqi border territories to the north and the west.

Up until a few months ago, these Sunni-majority areas were the main routes connecting the various territories of the Islamic State.Now they stand as a cornerstone of a supposed Iranian plan which would allow Tehran to secure a territorial corridor connecting itself to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria.

No one knows exactly who should conceive and implement any reconstruction plans in Syria, whether it should be the government in Damascus or the autonomous authorities controlled by the PYD.Meanwhile in Iraq, the focus is on who will actually repopulate the areas that were once part of the caliphate, and who will exercise actual power over the reconstruction effort. It’s expected that the the projects will be very resource intensive(in the region of tens of billions of dollars). The numbers are very tempting for every political faction, especially the highly sectarian and nepotistic formations found in Iraq. But while many are already jostling to secure strategic political positions that might determine the future allocation of resources, it’s still unclear who will have the will and the capacity to provide these resources. The Iraqi state budget is very much in the red as a result of its war efforts, rampant corruption and most of all the low price of petroleum products, which provide the country with its main economic revenue. To this, one must add the damage caused by the conflict to the rich oil fields and refineries in the north-east of the country, some of which are still at the centre of bitter territorial disputes between the central government in Baghdad and the authorities of the autonomous Kurdish region. The United States, which after the 2003 invasion had poured tens of billions of dollars into rebuilding the country(with very few tangible results) have let it be known that they don’t intend to repeat the experiment. Even though Washington has spent approximately $16 billion (€12.85bn) in the fight against Islamic State since 2014, the Trump administration has clearly indicated that it does not intend to convert this expenditure into reconstructionaid in the coming years. The United States will only be involved in a few humanitarian missions through their cooperation agencies. There are equally scant hopes of obtaining major funding from other countries in the area. The rich Gulf monarchies are unlikely to transfer major resources to a central Iraqi state that is strongly influenced by its Iranian enemy. In the meantime, for their part, the authorities in Tehran don’tappear to have the will or the resources to make a significant contribution to the rebuilding of Iraq.A donor conference for the reconstruction of Iraq was held in February in Kuwait to try and reverse this trend, but few believe that the pledges made at the conference will be backed by any tangible actions.

The issue of securing resources casts a dark cloud to the west of the border as well. At present, the Syrian government appears to be unable to find credible sources for the over $100 billion (€80.34bn) it has been estimated will be needed to rebuild the country. The Saudis had quietly suggested that they may be prepared to manage the reconstruction of Raqqa, provided the territory remained under the control of the FDS. Raqqa is, after all, the city that suffered the most from the shelling that preceded the withdrawal of Islamic State: it is currently estimated that almost four-fifths of homes and infrastructure are condemned. But the rumours surrounding the Saudi aid package died down immediately as soon as there was talk of Raqqa being returned to the regime. The Americans and the Gulf monarchies have already made it very clear that in this case, they are reluctant to grant funds to the Assad regime, one of Iran’s main allies within the Arab world.Meanwhile, European countries seem to be prepared to contribute only if the Syrian regime is prepared to open serious talks on many of the issues at hand,talks that Damascus has thus far ruled out completely. Moreover, rather than offering resources, the regime’s allies have already started to collect compensation for the support provided during the civil conflict. The Russians and Iranians have secured control over part of the country’s national resources in recent months, and are first in line for the allocation of the large reconstruction tenders(though at present no one has any idea who might pay for these).

Thus many fundamental questions remain unanswered regarding the post-IS reconstruction.No final answer is likely to emerge in the short term regarding who, how and when the reconstruction of the territories that were once part of the Al-Baghdadi caliphate will begin. If and when the country’s reconstruction does take place, what should truly concern us most is the issue of how that reconstruction will be carried out. The political configurations that appear to be prevailing in both Syria and Iraq would promise increasingly sectarian and repressive governments. And if there’s one thing that the former IS territories share on both sides of the border, it is the risk of once again being condemned to a future of repression and marginalisation,the same ingredients that led to the sudden rise of the Islamic State four years ago.

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