On the morning of April 4, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government carried out a chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held province of Idlib. At least 70 residents were killed and hundreds more were injured as the chemical, almost certainly sarin, left its victims writhing in agony and gasping for air.
Also on April 4, world leaders gathered in Brussels for the second day of the fifth annual conference on Syria, convened by the European Union, where scores of countries pledge billions in relief for victims of the conflict.
Previously, the pledges made at the donor conference were earmarked almost exclusively for humanitarian aid. This year, however, for the first time, the topic of reconstruction was on the agenda. Reconstruction assistance is distinct from humanitarian aid in that it would be funneled toward efforts to stabilize Syria — toward rebuilding infrastructure and economic development, for instance. It is also distinct in that it would mean dealing directly with Assad.
Although discussions at the donor conference are loose — each country is free to spend its funds as it chooses, and nothing agreed to at the meeting is binding — the shift in debate toward reconstruction, seemingly subtle, has profound implications.
The official position held thus far by most of the EU donor countries is that no reconstruction assistance should be offered until a genuine political transition is under way. The prospect of reconstruction assistance now, before any meaningful progress has been made, signals that the international community is preparing a new strategy in a bid to resolve the conflict in Syria: the so-called money card.
Put simply, the strategy is to use reconstruction funds as an incentive to push Assad toward transition. The West has been largely impotent in its efforts to bring a halt to the conflict in Syria. Cease-fires have been routinely broken, and peace talks have reached their sixth round without the Assad regime and the opposition ever even entering the same room. Neither a United Nations Security Council resolution nor a referral to the international court are forthcoming. And, in Russia, Assad enjoys the support of a powerful ally.
The offer of reconstruction now, the argument goes, could act as a point of leverage over Assad: If you stop the atrocities, maintain cease-fires, give access to humanitarian agencies and commit to transition, then we will pay.
But the logic is flawed. Although the money card is framed as an altruistic means of relieving the suffering of the Syrian people, it glosses over the fact that Assad’s hold on power is the primary reason Syrians are suffering in the first place. Offering assistance to Assad while cutting the opposition out of the picture would only legitimize the regime and entrench Assad’s position.
Proponents also champion the money card as a pragmatic strategy — distasteful perhaps, but necessary for the greater good. But even by this measure, the logic is still flawed. Financial assistance will only create a perverse incentive structure and exacerbate problems.
If reconstruction aid is given to the regime in exchange for humanitarian access or a cease-fire, what happens if — or, rather, when — Assad senses an opportunity to strike at the opposition and decides to renege on the deal? Funding may be withheld until a cease-fire is renegotiated, but the cycle could continue ad infinitum. By offering reconstruction assistance to the regime, the international community would be giving leverage to Assad as much as gaining it.
Consider a second scenario, in which the regime maintains a cease-fire but obstructs humanitarian access. While the international community could threaten to withhold assistance if access is not granted, Assad could threaten to break the cease-fire if the aid is not granted.
As this month’s chemical attacks demonstrate, such scenarios are not farfetched. After all, the regime claimed to have dismantled its chemical arsenal after killing hundreds in a similar attack back in 2013. If promises are broken when reconstruction aid is flowing, the international community would find itself complicit, however tangentially, in what would have otherwise been the independent actions of a dictator.
The ultimate goal of the money card would be to coax Assad into good faith and perhaps into eventual political transition. For it to work, however, the promise of reconstruction must hold real value to him. Assad’s actions demonstrate that this isn’t the case.
How much value can reconstruction have to a person who has demonstrated such a willingness to savagely deconstruct?
A person who has gone to such extremes to hold on to power — a person who has unleashed chemical attacks, called airstrikes on schools and dropped barrel bombs on hospitals — will not relinquish power gently.
Economic assistance to the Assad regime would also have disastrous repercussions beyond Syria. By linking adherence to international law with a financial reward, the international community would be sending a clear signal to other states around the world that human rights violations can become a bargaining chip.
There can be no reconstruction in Syria without a stable transition, and there can be no transition without justice. The money card is a losing hand.
Steven Joe Dixon is the Syria program officer and Rami Nakhla is the Syria project coordinator at No Peace Without Justice. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.