America used to be the nation to re-build a country after a war. Now Syria invites ‘friendly’ nations to re-build its towns, cities and infrastructure, with Russia and Iran poised to be the countries to invest in the reconstruction programme – with the United States nowhere to be seen.
In a sign of President Assad’s growing confidence that he has snatched back control of Syria, the first international trade fair in five years opens today in the capital, Damascus.
There has been little to draw visitors to the huge purpose-built fairground on the airport highway since the civil war broke out in 2011. The strategic road, running southeast of the city, has often been the focus of fierce battles, with the rebels coming close to capturing the airport itself in 2012.
More recently Israeli airstrikes have hit targets close to it, while last month it was struck by a double car bombing. Dignitaries from 42 “friendly countries” will arrive today, however, to pitch for investment and reconstruction contracts worth billions.
For the first time since the fair began in 1954, foreign companies will be allowed to sell the products they are exhibiting, bypassing Syria’s strict import rules.
Last week Imad Khamis, Syria’s prime minister, signalled that priority would be given to “friendly and brotherly countries that stood by Syria in its war against terrorism”.
Iran and Russia, Assad’s two staunchest allies, are already cashing in on their policies in Syria. This year Russia has won a series of oil and construction contracts in the war-ravaged country, while a free trade agreement signed last November opens the way for Syria to export its agricultural products.
Iran, which is hosting a photo exhibition at the fair documenting the years of warm relations between Tehran and Damascus, has also swelled its economic interests there. It has been granted a licence to operate a mobile phone network, as well as pumping credit into the country to keep its economy afloat.
Iranian individuals and companies have been buying huge tracts of land as well as businesses and residential properties across regime-held areas of the country.
Other countries have quietly continued their relations with Assad and are now winning contracts to help to rebuild the country. In 2014 India secured a $1 billion contract to rebuild and re-equip Syrian hospitals, while this year the regime discussed investment deals in the energy, pharmaceutical, telecommunications and construction sectors with China.
Japan suspended its grants to the country in 2011, but resumed them in 2013 with aid projects focusing on rebuilding infrastructure. Belarus, a country with close ties to Russia, is in talks to set up a carmaking factory inside Syria.
A number of European Union member states are also still trading with Syria, despite the bloc’s condemnation of Assad’s violent crackdown and sanctions on various regime figures.
The Czech Republic has maintained diplomatic relations with Damascus and has proposed a number of reconstruction projects.
Cyprus, which has historically hosted a high number of Syrian migrant workers, also maintains a warm relationship with Assad’s government although trade between the two has been halted.