On the Road to Damascus

Anchal Vohra writes on the Middle East and Europe
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The war may not be over yet but Syria begins to rebuild from the ruins. What’s there for India as China monopolises the reconstruction contracts? Anchal Vohra reports from Damascus

ON THE 9TH OF August, after waiting for months in Lebanon and years in India, I finally had a visa to travel to Syria, a country at war since March 2011, an outbreak of violence that has left 330,000 people dead, flattened entire neighbourhoods in many cities, and crippled the economy for decades to come.

In Damascus, from every check point and almost every building, Bashar al-Assad watches you. Dressed either in a Western suit and bearing a mild smile or in army fatigues with a beret on his head and aviators on his face, the president’s posters portray him both as a ‘soft doctor’ and a ‘protector of the realm’. In such depictions, he is often supported by his paternal lineage, lest anyone forgets he is the son of Hafez al-Assad, the former pilot who took control of Syria in a coup in 1970. The president’s younger brother Maher al-Assad also makes appearances, equipped with an appropriately stern look for the commander of the Fourth Armored Division—which, together with Syria’s powerful secret police, forms the core of the regime’s security apparatus.

Despite its strength in Damascus, the government doesn’t control all of it. Just a few kilometres from a safe zone in the capital, a fierce battle between the Syrian army and anti-regime forces is being fought in Jobar, an eastern part of the city. At Armitage Hotel, located in a relatively safe area, at 2 am I heard the thudding of explosions and from the window of my room saw fire light up the sky as planes whistled and dropped bombs on a rebel stronghold. During the day, the streets had had the usual traffic jams as people went about their daily business.

I had spent my evening with three young Syrians on Pub Street in the old city. Sitting by the side of a dark lane, they were sipping vodka in plastic glasses and agreed to speak to me only on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s a fucking mess,” is the assessment of a twenty-something in jeans and a T-shirt, his hair in a knot. “The rockets, the barrel, the AK, we hear it all,” he says, “and then we come and drink, because what else is there to do?” He wants to be a filmmaker once the war ends, but for now he and his friends come to Bab Sharqi, the Christian quarter of the old city, for their booze every evening. It helps them forget the horrors of war. These, though, are never too far away. The pubs where they hang out are barely 3-4 km from Jobar. “The rebels are fighting the government, the rebels are also Islamist, and the Islamists are also fighting Islamists,” he says, “do you know?”

Jobar is held by an assortment of rebel groups with varying foreign patrons. The Faylaq al-Rahman brigade, which was formed by a Syrian army defector and claimed to be a part of the Free Syrian Army, took support from an Al Qaeda affiliate now known as Tahrir al-Sham. The Tahrir was earlier known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and is reportedly backed by Qatar, as is the Ahrar al-Sham, which has shown gratitude to Qatar and Turkey in public statements. There is also the Jaish al-Islam, said to be funded by the Saudis. Over the years, these groups have fought one another for dominance of East Damascus. Subject to equations among warlords but mainly dependent on the agendas of patrons, alliances on the ground have been in constant flux.

The aspiring filmmaker and his friends are bewildered about who to blame and who to support. As if resigned to fate, he says, “Daesh, fucking ISIS, first we need to finish them. There will be another day to fight for political reforms.” What began six years ago as a popular agitation for a shift to democratic rule was hijacked soon after by jihadists and sundry Islamists. Today, political freedom is not in sight and Syrians like the young men at Bab Sharqi are asking if they weren’t better off before the uprising.

Besides the Assads, the city streets also have hoardings welcoming visitors to the ‘Damascus International Trade Fair’, an annual event that is returning to the capital after a hiatus of six years. At the venue, just off the airport road, preparations are in full swing amidst the heavy presence of security personnel, though the rest of the arrangements seem a bit haphazard. Dancers in embroidered traditional costumes are to be seen practising their performance of Dabke, a folk dance of the Levant. The stage for it has been set with instruments suggestive of an opera, and it makes me wonder if it’s enough to drown out the sound of bombs. Overall, the atmosphere seems hopeful, exuding a youthful energy and the promise that ‘Syria will survive’.

Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, the country’s minister of economy and foreign trade, is moving around the venue with a retinue of a dozen odd people, making last minute checks. He may not have a clear idea of what Syria specifically needs, but is vocal about what it doesn’t want. “We will not accept investors from any country which imposes conditions,” he says. By this, he means that anyone who demands the ouster of Assad will stay out of the reconstruction money game. According to the World Bank, Syria needs $200 billion to rebuild its destroyed cities, but some of the biggest donors, like the US, UK, Japan and France, are unlikely to come forth until the question of leadership is settled. So where will the regime get the money from? “We are relying on the BRICS nations, Russia, China, and of course, Indian companies are very efficient. Iran will also play a major role,” he replies.

“The finishing of one steel plant in Hama gives confidence to us to do more in Syria and to the Government of India to extend a bigger line of credit” - Prem Prakash, manager, Apollo International

Before the opening ceremony, I steal some time to visit the pavilion of international companies. By the minister’s claim, more than a thousand firms are to attend the fair. By my count, of the 35-40 foreign companies that have marked their presence, about half are from Iran— with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei put up at stalls offering products that range from buses and tyres to banking solutions and packaged juices.

Tehran has been a firm backer of the Assad regime, both militarily and diplomatically. Not only has the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fought alongside the Syrian army, the Hizbollah—its proxy militia in Lebanon—has sent hordes of men to fight in Syria. Assad’s near victory is the final push for Iran’s ambitious ‘arc of influence’ stretching from its eastern border through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean coast in Lebanon. The ‘arc’ is expected to bring prestige and economic dividends to Iran, which was seen until recently as a pariah state by the West and has only just begun to profit from the lifting of US-imposed sanctions.

For financial support, Damascus is looking to China. Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, aimed at setting up infrastructure to boost international trade, includes Syria as part of an envisioned revival of the old Silk Route that once passed through Palmyra and Damascus before turning towards Beirut and Istanbul. By Chinese calculations, the project will eventually generate enough money for the reconstruction of Syrian cities.

At the fair, the Chinese bay has pamphlets of companies in the businesses of oil, air conditioners, modular homes, cement, marble and granite production and a few others. He Weiping, a manager of Sino-Syrian Kawkab Oil Company, a Syrian-Chinese joint venture to develop an old oil field in northeast Syria some 600 km away from Damascus, has been in the country since 2015. “My daughter is in Spain and family in China,” he says, “I visit them sometimes.” He is looking forward to retirement by the end of this year, but that doesn’t stop him from selling technology to digitise oil fields even to me. “We are creating the future,” he enthuses, drawing out a phone to explain not just how an app can control machines at home and in industry, but how a click is all it would take to block the extraction of oil from a well taken over by a terrorist group. The ISIS had infamously funded its expansion by selling Syrian oil; before coalition strikes stopped it, the group was earning an estimated $1.5 million a day through illegal sales. Weiping is concerned about Kurdish rebels who control the Al-Hasakah province where the joint venture’s oil field lies. “First, there was a fear of ISIS, now there are [Kurdish groups], but with our super technology, the oil will be secure,” he says, “no one would be able to steal it.”

The Chinese are eyeing many more oil contracts, apart from construction projects in places that the war has left in rubble. A Syrian presence also lets Beijing monitor activities of the East Turkistan Movement in the Middle East, a group that poses a terror threat in China’s Xinjiang region and reportedly sent thousands of fighters to join jihadists in Syria.

Is the Indian Government concerned about China’s plans in Syria? Not quite, according to diplomats. For one, India’s capacity to take on projects here is much lower than China’s, and there is much to be done in the war-ravaged nation. For another, to the extent the two countries have a common cause against terror, India is more worried about jihadists from Pakistan who fought in Syria and may use the experience against India.

The Indian alcove at the trade fair in Damascus is decorated with ‘Incredible India’ merchandise. There are also two big photographs of President Assad at the stall. Six Indian companies are represented, offering textiles, cement, systems for thermal power plants, and security solutions. At one spot, Prem Prakash is exchanging congratulations with Syrian officials over the completion of the modernisation of the Hama Iron and Steel Plant, a $25 million exercise that Prakash has overseen for Apollo International, an Indian company. “The finishing of one plant in Hama gives us confidence to do more in Syria,” he says, “and the Government of India [confidence] to extend a bigger line of credit.”

India’s BHEL had signed a contract through a $100-million line of credit to work on Syria’s Tishreen power plant, but it was abandoned because of the conflict and the work has not yet resumed. The plant was the site of a confrontation between the Syrian army and ISIS in April last year. Another Indian project that has not taken off involves the exploration of oil and natural gas in Deir Ezzor, a block won by ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL). A month ago, when an OVL team visited Syria to assess the security situation, Syrian officials had assured it that the eastern zone where the field lies would soon be under the regime’s control and peace would prevail, but the fighting is still on and might take longer than anticipated.

In addition, India has also pledged Syria aid worth $4 million which is yet to be sent. In short, India has wrapped up one project, is waiting for the situation to improve before moving onto others, and is waiting to sign up for more. Prakash, who has lived here for a year-and-a-half, thinks the benefits of doing business outweigh the risks. “I have a daughter and a wife and they live in Gurgaon,” he says, “they are always concerned because there is war in Syria but it is not so unsafe anymore.” Apollo International, his company, has hired its own security staff and it gets alerts from Indian intelligence sources as well. Recently, he was helped by the Syrian authorities to visit the erstwhile financial centre of Aleppo for a look at defunct steel plants. “Only three-four steel factories are running in Syria and the Syrians are happy with us doing more. The opportunities are more than the risks,” says Prakash.

The areas retaken by the regime are safer than others for business, but the conflict still engulfs a large part of the country. According to the World Bank, Syria has suffered estimated losses of $226 billion dollars—four times the size of its economy in 2010—so far. But far from the darkness of east Aleppo, here in Damascus, the trade fair glitters with fancy lights and resounds with upbeat words. It’s not only about investment, it’s also a show choreographed to instill Syrian nationalism.

Visuals of soldiers on the frontline form the background of the stage as the national anthem is sung for a gathering of notables. “Beautiful,” says a young Syrian sitting next to me. What about those caught in the war, I ask. “First we need peace, but President Assad will have to make changes,” is the reply, “I think he will. He is a doctor, you know.”