When the Dictator Wins: How Assad Is Using Reconstruction to Strengthen His Grip on Syria



After nearly eight years and immense human suffering, the Bashar al-Assad regime is nearing victory in Syria. Aleppo City, Homs, and Rif Damascus—once strongholds of the opposition—have fallen to government forces. President Assad, who in the course of the conflict has employed chemical weapons and indiscriminate violence against Syrians, has now turned his sights on Idlib, where rebels and civilians have fled advancing government forces. The United States announced in December plans to pull out troops[1] after declaring victory against the Islamic State, which it has called the primary reason for American involvement in Syria.[2] Assad appears to be in the final stretch of his bid to reclaim the country he has destroyed.

In the absence of a negotiated settlement, there is unlikely to be a clear stopping point to the conflict. But while more violence undoubtedly lies ahead, there is increasing focus domestically and internationally on how to pick up the pieces. Rebuilding could make daily life more livable and enable refugees to return. The challenge is that reconstruction is not just about roads and bridges. It is a deeply political process through which the Assad government can retrench its power. And that leaves few options for the United States and other Western governments, which had hoped to see Assad leave the presidency, to contribute.


Aspirations and Limitations of Post-conflict Reconstruction

Post-conflict reconstruction has its origins in the Marshall Plan after World War II, but the international community has been increasingly focused on it since the Cold War. Reconstruction is not just about physical rebuilding. When conceived as a broad process of political and social transformation, reconstruction can lay a foundation for more stable and legitimate governance.[3],[4] In the short term, reconstruction efforts can improve quality of life for civilians and make it possible for refugees to return. In the long term, reconstruction can keep conflict from restarting or terrorism from taking root.[5] Reconstruction is never an easy or straightforward process. At its best, it looks like Japan, where American occupiers oversaw the creation of a constitutional order combined with economic revitalization.[6] At its worst, reconstruction looks like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States has hemorrhaged billions of dollars trying to reshape institutions and restore security amid ongoing conflict.[7]

When the dictator wins and continues to wield power, reconstruction is an even riskier process. After emerging victorious from a decade-long civil war, Algeria’s authoritarian government has used the specter of resumed violence to clamp down on demands for greater democracy.[8] Even in the absence of a dictator, reconstruction can harden the societal cleavages that led to war, making the recurrence of conflict more likely. In Lebanon, reconstruction in the 1990s enriched the country’s prime minister and his allies, laying the foundation for the country’s current dysfunctional public-service provision.[9],[10]


How Assad Is Winning the Peace

Eight years after government repression transformed nonviolent demonstrations into civil war, Syria’s physical infrastructure has been devastated. Costs of reconstruction are estimated between $200 and $350 billion.[11] Of the country’s housing stock, 27 percent has been fully or partially destroyed.[12] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 11 million people have fled Syria or been internally displaced.[13]

Syria seems unlikely to enter a post-conflict phase anytime soon. But Assad has already gotten started on reconstruction, symbolically launching the process in August 2017 with the reopening of the Damascus International Fair.[14] But Assad’s version of reconstruction is a far cry from supporting a broader process of post-conflict transformation. Instead, it is entrenching power dynamics and enabling the victors to consolidate their gains.[15]

The war has been fought and won on the local level, and the so-called peace is being built locality by locality as well. In the absence of an overarching settlement, the regime has recaptured one city at a time, cutting surrender deals with local rebel groups. These deals have paved the way for the government to launch reconstruction in these recaptured areas.[16] Fighters and civilians can “reconcile” their status with the government—confessing their support for the rebellion and registering for military conscription—or evacuate to opposition-held territory.[17] Local councils that were established by the rebels to provide basic services, such as electricity and trash collection, have been disbanded rather than reintegrated into a new political bargain.[18]

On a national level, the Assad government is well underway in its effort to strengthen its grip on post-war Syria. The legislature approved a bill that will impose a 10 percent tax on civilians to contribute to reconstruction.[19] It is attempting to rein in loyalist militias and incorporate rebels from recaptured territories into its forces.[20] The regime has strengthened the authority of the Ministry of Awqaf to crack down on religious expression, circumscribing space for future political mobilization.[21]

Assad is also creating a legal architecture to literally reconstruct the country according to his own vision, benefiting his allies and displacing his adversaries.[22] Decree 66, passed in 2012, allows the government to redesign informal housing areas by selling them to developers, who can evict owners or residents without recourse after a 30-day notice period. This and accompanying laws could permanently dispossess many refugees and internally displaced people, just 9 percent of whom have adequate property title deeds with them.[23]

The Syrian government is selectively applying Decree 66 to destroy and resettle former opposition strongholds, often to implement urban plans that predated the civil war.[24] The flagship Decree 66 project in Damascus is in Basateen al-Razi, a site of anti-government protest that the government is transforming into a gleaming new development.[25] The vision to redevelop the area dates back to 2007. Homs and Aleppo similarly have proposals to use Decree 66 as a blueprint to destroy and redevelop opposition-held parts of their cities, often with the guidance of pre-2011 plans as well.[26],[27],[28]

If Syrians from opposition areas are losing in the reconstruction process thus far, friends of the regime are winning. The government, for example, prioritized clearing rubble and providing new infrastructure to Christian villages rather than Sunni areas, “as if to punish all Sunnis for the anti-government stance of the many,” wrote Marwa al-Sabouni in her book The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria.[29] In addition to punishing the opposition, the reconstruction process may thus exacerbate divisions along class and sectarian lines.

The government has devolved authority on reconstruction to the local level, granting every state administrative unit the right to form investment companies. At the same time, it has maintained a firm hold on the process,[30] with the minister of Local Administration exercising oversight of local authorities.[31] These holding companies enable investors to make a profit and the state to gain access to reconstruction funds while side-stepping local communities.[32] A web of connections ties these firms back to the regime, which is rewarding its allies with reconstruction tenders.[33] Rami Makhlouf—Assad’s notorious cousin—owns a 70 percent share in al-Madina Real Estate, which was awarded a license to rebuild war-torn areas of Damascus and Homs.[34]

International actors are only allowed to work with Syrian organizations that have been pre-approved by the government.[35] The first lady’s organization, Syria Trust, for example, is spearheading legal aid to displaced people within government-controlled areas.[36] The UN has already begun taking the bad deal that Assad is offering. Throughout the conflict, the government has exerted substantial influence on when and where the UN delivers humanitarian aid.[37] The UN mission, for instance, signed contracts with businessmen sanctioned by the United States and the European Union (EU), including Makhlouf.[38] The UN Development Programme and other UN agencies are already cooperating with the Syrian government on reconstruction projects. Through the “shelter cluster,” UNHCR is working with the government to rehabilitate Aleppo—but only in government priority areas.[39]


Is there a Constructive Role for the United States?

Reconstruction poses a difficult dilemma for the United States: a country in shambles may be more likely to lapse back into conflict, but to rebuild Syria is to prop up the government responsible for much of the destruction. For now, Western governments are unwilling to give aid to the Syrian government while Assad maintains power. The acting US assistant secretary of state stated in January 2018 that the United States will withhold assistance until “there is a credible political process that can lead to a government chosen by the Syrian people—without Assad at its helm.”[40] Assad has made it clear he doesn’t want Western money, instead attempting to raise funds from allies Iran and Russia, which are less likely to attach strings to their aid.[41] Extensive US sanctions on doing business in Syria—unlikely to be lifted anytime soon—also prevent foreign countries from investing in reconstruction.[42] Some policy makers hope that reconstruction funds could serve as a bargaining chip in negotiations, inducing Assad to accept a political transition, but a regime that has fought for seven years to secure its survival is unlikely to step down.[43]

Failing a transition, there is consensus in Washington that any funding should be firewalled off from the Syrian government, precluding support for rebuilding large-scale infrastructure.[44] Instead, some Syria watchers have argued that the West needs to “tinker around the edges,”[45] prioritizing the rights and well-being of Syrians through decentralized projects, such as supplying households with solar panels or providing local farmers with subsidies and training.[46] This approach would represent continuity with US assistance strategy over the course of the conflict.[47] The United States has spent $875 million on short-term stabilization activities, including clearing explosives and supporting local councils to restore basic services, in areas controlled by Kurdish and opposition forces.[48]

While it is promising in theory to continue channeling funds to the local level, this approach would provide a drop in the bucket of the funds needed to restore the Syrian economy. As Sam Heller argued in Foreign Affairs, real, strategic reconstruction “will happen not on Syria’s periphery but in the most populous and economically vital sections of the country, which Assad controls,” including Aleppo and Homs.[49] International organizations are only able to work with the blessing of the Assad government in areas it controls—and the space Assad doesn’t control is shrinking. With its cessation of stabilization assistance in 2018 and plans to withdraw troops,[50] the United States is relinquishing future opportunities to support rebuilding in the few areas outside Assad’s grasp.

As has been the case throughout the conflict in Syria, there are few good options for the United States. It is unlikely the Trump administration will continue to explore alternate ways to provide assistance. But as Syria’s allies reach the limits of what they can provide, pressures for Western assistance may mount. Russia has begun petitioning for reconstruction funds from the EU,[51] which, desperate to stem the flow of refugees across its borders, may eventually be persuaded. With this in mind, it is worth elucidating the circumstances under which the United States and its allies could consider changing their current policy.

First, the United States could consider releasing reconstruction assistance in the event of decentralization—the devolution of power to local and provincial governments operating independently from the center—rather than tying it exclusively to Assad’s removal. During the ongoing Geneva talks, there has been broad support for some form of decentralization based on Decree 107, which devolved power to local councils early in the conflict.[52] Formalizing some local control over decision-making could contribute to a stable peace[53]—and could enable donors to continue to local reconstruction without empowering Assad’s cronies.

But this is a long shot. Local councils in Syria historically have enabled the regime to extend its power to the periphery, rather than channeling citizens’ interests upwards.[54] Even if power is devolved on paper, the Assad government may still be able to assert control over local actors. With or without a broader decentralization process, the United States could also recommit to fostering local stability and supporting inclusive governance in the Kurdish-controlled northeast. This would require a sustained military presence and substantial resources—but could also forestall the resurgence of conflict in a way that just removing ISIS cannot. US efforts in Iraqi Kurdistan after 1991, where a no-fly zone created conditions for political and economic development, offers one template for a successful rebuilding effort outside the purview of the central state.[55]

Second, any future efforts should focus on making Syria a safe home for all Syrians. After years of exile in countries where they feel unwelcome, Syrians say they want to return home, but many are reluctant to return out of fear of mandatory military conscription, strict vetting procedures by security agencies, a high risk of detention, and uncertainty over whether they will be able to return to where they previously lived.[56] Some who have been involved with the opposition, even if indirectly, doubt they have a future in the country. One activist told the nonprofit International Crisis Group that the Assad regime imprisoned Syrians who were uninvolved in the uprising. “Imagine,” she added, “what would happen to an activist like me.”[57] In light of refugees’ concerns, the United States should advocate in the UN for housing, land, and property rights[58] and should only consider providing assistance if the Syrian government upholds the rights of refugees through, for example, repealing laws that permanently dispossess them.[59]

The Trump administration—loathe to commit further resources to Syria—may end up getting it right in refusing to fund Assad’s reconstruction effort. Where President Trump is off the mark, argued former US Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford in Foreign Affairs, is that the United States should significantly step up its support of Syrian refugees, easing their suffering and the burden taken on by the country’s neighbors.[60] The United States and other UN member states consistently fall short of their pledges to assist Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon—and the financial burden is inducing host countries to pressure refugees to return, whether or not it is safe for them to do so.[61]

The United States has walked a tricky and often incoherent line in its approach to Syria, hoping for the removal of Assad while increasingly focusing its efforts in the fight against the Islamic State. In the long term, there may come a day when cooperation with Assad—such as on anti-terrorism measures—starts to look more attractive. The United States has certainly supported brutal dictators in the Middle East. But without guarantees that reconstruction will serve the goal of a safe and stable Syria for all Syrians, there can be little role for the United States and its allies. Real stability is not just about playing terrorist whack-a-mole, but supporting inclusive and effective governance for all Syrians.



Anna Mysliwiec is a master in public policy student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She previously worked at the National Democratic Institute, where she managed programs that supported civic activists and local councils in opposition-controlled areas of Syria.


Edited by Margaret Kadifa

Photo by Freedom House, Flikr

[1] Megan Specia, “The Planned U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Syria: Here’s the Latest,” The New York Times, 16 January 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/16/world/middleeast/syria-us-troops-timeline.html.

[2] David M. Satterfield and Brett McGurk, “Briefing on the Status of Syria Stabilization Assistance and Ongoing Efforts To Achieve an Enduring Defeat of ISIS” (press release, Coalition To Counter ISIS, US Department of State, 17 August 2018), https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/08/285202.htm.

[3] Benedetta Berti, “Is Reconstruction Syria’s Next Battleground?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 5 September 2017, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/72998.

[4] Faysal Itani and Tobias Schneider, “It’s Time to Plan for Rebuilding Syria,” Atlantic Council, 1 March 2017, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/it-s-time-to-plan-for-rebuilding-syria.

[5] Steven Heydemann, “Rules for reconstruction in Syria,” 24 August 2017, Brookings Institute (blog), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/08/24/rules-for-reconstruction-in-syria/.

[6] Robert C. Orr, ed., Winning the Peace: An American Strategy for Post-Conflict Reconstruction (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2004), 169–86.

[7] John Richard Berg, “Building on Reconstruction: What We Have Learned and Where to Go Next,” Small Wars Journal, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/building-on-reconstruction-what-we-have-learned-and-where-to-go-next.

[8] Eleanor Beardsley, “Algeria’s Violent Past Helps Keep Lid On Dissent,” Morning Edition , NPR, 15 March 2011, https://www.npr.org/2011/03/15/134556532/Algeria-Tensions.

[9] Julia Tierney, “Beirut’s lessons for how not to rebuild a war-torn city,” The Washington Post, 12 October 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/12/beiruts-lessons-for-how-not-to-rebuild-a-war-torn-city/?utm_term=.89920df88c03.

[10] Deen Sharp, “Lebanon and the Fog of Reconstruction,” in The Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction, ed. Marc Lynch (Project on Middle East Political Science, 7 September 2018), https://pomeps.org/2018/09/07/pomeps-studies-30-the-politics-of-post-conflict-reconstruction/.

[11] Berti, “Is Reconstruction Syria’s Next Battleground?”

[12] “The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria,” World Bank Group, 10 July 2017, https://www-worldbank-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/en/country/syria/publication/the-toll-of-war-the-economic-and-social-consequences-of-the-conflict-in-syria.

[13] “Syria emergency,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) n.d., https://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html.

[14] Hosam al-Jablawi, “Assad’s Political Investments in Reconstruction: Rewarding Regime Loyalists and Allies through Suspicious Deals,” Atlantic Council, 20 December 2017, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/assad-s-political-investments-in-reconstruction-rewarding-regime-loyalists-and-allies-through-suspicious-deals.

[15] Berti, “Is Reconstruction Syria’s Next Battleground?”

[16] “Voices of Idlib,” International Crisis Group, 11 July 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/voices-idlib.

[17] Marika Sosnowski, “Besiege, Bombard, Retake: Reconciliation Agreements in Syria,” Syria Deeply, 28 March 2018, https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2018/03/28/besiege-bombard-retake-reconciliation-agreements-in-syria.

[18] Sam Heller, “Don’t Fund Syria’s Reconstruction,” Foreign Affairs, 4 October 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2017-10-04/dont-fund-syrias-reconstruction.

[19] al-Jablawi, “Assad’s Political Investments in Reconstruction.”

[20] Haid Haid, “Reintegrating Syrian Militias: Mechanisms, Actors, and Shortfalls,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 12 December 2018, https://carnegie-mec.org/2018/12/12/reintegrating-syrian-militias-mechanisms-actors-and-shortfalls-pub-77932.

[21] Azzam al-Kassir, “Formalizing Regime Control over Syrian Religious Affairs,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 14 November 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/77712.

[22] Emma Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace. Neither Should Ours,” The Century Foundation, 25 April 2018, https://tcf.org/content/report/assads-reconstruction-agenda-isnt-waiting-peace-neither/.

[23] Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace.”

[24] Tom Rollins, “Decree 66: The blueprint for al-Assad’s reconstruction of Syria?” IRIN News, 20 April 2017, https://www.irinnews.org/investigations/2017/04/20/decree-66-blueprint-al-assad%E2%80%99s-reconstruction-syria.

[25] Rollins, “Decree 66.”

[26] Joseph Daher, “Decree 66 and the Impact of its National Expansion,” Atlantic Council, 7 March 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/decree-66-and-the-impact-of-its-national-expansion.

[27] Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace.”

[28] Marwa al-Sabouni, The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), 49.

[29] al-Sabouni, The Battle for Home, 109.

[30] Kheder Khaddour, “I, the Supreme,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 22 March 2017, https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/68348?lang=en.

[31] Reem Ahmad, “Syria’s first local elections since 2011 seen as government bid to ‘consolidate power,’” Middle East Eye, 21 September 2018, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrias-first-local-elections-2011-seen-government-bid-consolidate-power; Khaddour, “I, the Supreme.”

[32] Khaddour, “I, the Supreme.”

[33] Steven Heydemann, “Syria Reconstruction and the Illusion of Leverage,” Atlantic Council, 18 May 2017, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/syria-reconstruction-and-the-illusion-of-leverage.

[34] al-Jablawi, “Assad’s Political Investments in Reconstruction.”

[35] Khaddour, “I, the Supreme.”

[36] Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace.”

[37] David Kenner, “Syria Is Threatening to Break the Aid World,” Foreign Policy, 27 March 2018, https://foreignpolicy-com/2018/03/27/syria-is-threatening-to-break-the-aid-world/.

[38] Nick Hopkins and Emma Beals, “UN pays tens of millions to Assad regime under Syria aid programme,” The Guardian, 29 August 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/un-pays-tens-of-millions-to-assad-regime-syria-aid-programme-contracts.

[39] Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace.”

[40] Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace.”

[41] Berti, “Is Reconstruction Syria’s Next Battleground?”

[42] Angus McDowall, “Long reach of U.S. sanctions hits Syria reconstruction,” Reuters, 2 September 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-sanctions/long-reach-of-u-s-sanctions-hits-syria-reconstruction-idUSKCN1LI06Z.

[43] Thanassis Cambanis and Sam Heller, “Managing Syrian Conflict May Be Possible. Resolving it Isn’t.” The Century Foundation (blog), 28 February 2018, https://tcf.org/content/report/managing-syrian-conflict-may-possible-resolving-isnt/.

[44] Nate Rosenblatt, “Rebuild Syria by Supporting Syrians—Not Their State,” Atlantic Council, 10 May 2017, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/rebuild-syria-by-supporting-syrians-not-their-state/.

[45] Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace.”

[46] Rosenblatt, “Rebuild Syria by Supporting Syrians.”

[47] Frances Z. Brown, “Seeing Like a State-builder: Replication of Donor Reconstruction Dilemmas in Syria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1 September 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/09/01/seeing-like-state-builder-replication-of-donor-reconstruction-dilemmas-in-syria-pub-77218.

[48] “Fact Sheet: U.S. Assistance for the People of Syria,” USAID, 26 January 2018, https://www.usaid.gov/news-information/press-releases/jan-26-2018-fact-sheet-us-assistance-people-syria.

[49] Heller, “Don’t Fund Syria’s Reconstruction.”

[50] “US ends Syria stabilisation plan worth more than $200m,” Al Jazeera, 18 August 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/ends-syria-stabilisation-plan-worth-200m-180818074142903.html.

[51] Edith M. Lederer, “Russia and West spar over reconstruction of Syria,” Associated Press, 27 July 2018, https://www.apnews.com/6fa0762530274c48937817d77a10c7e8.

[52] Samer Araabi, “Syria’s Decentralization Roadmap,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 March 2017, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/68372.

[53] Kheder Khaddour, “Local Wars and the Chance for Decentralized Peace in Syria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 March 2017, https://carnegie-mec.org/2017/03/28/local-wars-and-chance-for-decentralized-peace-in-syria-pub-68369.

[54] Ahmad, “Syria’s first local elections since 2011 seen as government bid to ‘consolidate power.’”

[55] Joost Hiltermann, “To Protect or to Project? Iraqi Kurds and Their Future,” International Crisis Group, 4 June 2008, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/protect-or-project-iraqi-kurds-and-their-future.

[56] Maha Yahya, “What Will It Take for Syrian Refugees to Return Home?” Foreign Affairs, 28 May 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2018-05-28/what-will-it-take-syrian-refugees-return-home; Martin Chulov, “‘We can’t go back’: Syria’s refugees fear for their future after war,” The Guardian, 30 August 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/30/we-cant-go-back-syrias-refugees-fear-for-their-future-after-war.

[57] “Voices of Idlib.”

[58] Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace.”

[59] Yahya, “What Will It Take for Syrian Refugees to Return Home?”

[60] Robert S. Ford, “Keeping Out of Syria: The Least Bad Option,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2017-10-16/keeping-out-syria.

[61] Jesse Marks, “Pushing Syrian Refugees to Return,” Atlantic Council, 1 March 2018,  https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/75684.