LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Russia lacks the motive and the money to repair the damage in Syria. The imminent collapse of rebel forces in Aleppo, the Middle Eastern state’s largest city, has been hastened by the involvement on the government side of Russia and Iran. It would be a surprise if they stayed around to rebuild shattered infrastructure.
After the Iraq war in 2003, sharp-elbowed U.S. investment poured in. A bloody victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in contrast, seems unlikely to be followed by a sudden influx of roubles. Russian finances are shaky. The economy contracted by 3.7 percent in 2015 due to low oil prices and the withering effect of European and U.S. trade sanctions, and will still only grow by 1 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Even if it wanted to, Russia might not judge alleviating the plight of ordinary Syrians to be in its wider interest. Failure to restore basic infrastructure or provide financial aid, while ignoring possible government reprisals on the population, could trigger another exodus of Syrians from their homeland. At least 6.5 million people have been displaced from their homes since the civil war started in 2011, while a further 4.8 million have fled entirely, according to the United Nations.
Many refugees risked seeking asylum in Europe, where they accounted for a third of all applications in 2015. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to abandon the Dublin procedures - which allowed refugees to only apply for asylum where they first entered - led to a surge in new arrivals. Total asylum applications tripled to 1.7 million last year, according to a report by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI). In the UK, fears of an influx of Syrians crossing the channel from camps in Calais became muddled with the decision to leave the European Union. If repeated in 2017, this could heavily influence both German and French elections - and raise the electoral chances of populist Russophiles like Marine Le Pen.
The Kremlin knows that Europe’s processes for handling refugees are brittle. A fragile deal with Turkey to restrict clandestine arrivals, and the closure of routes into Europe through the Balkans, are unlikely to hold if tested. That implies Russian inaction - and prolonged Syrian agony.
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