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A Syria Marshall Plan: Too Soon or Too Late?

Friction between the European Union and Turkey has reached a point that top bureaucrats in Brussels have launched a war of leaks against Turkish President Recip Erdogan.  On Feb. 8, 2016, the European Commission leaked secret minutes of a meeting from October 2015 between Turkish President Erdogan, European Council President Donald Tusk, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. At that meeting, Erdogan demanded a payment of three billion euros a year to help fund Turkish refugee camps for those fleeing the war in Syria. Erdogan, according to widespread news accounts of the leaked secret minutes, produced an earlier EU document, which suggested that the three billion euro per year payments were acceptable. When the EU officials clarified that they were only prepared to give 3 billion euros total, over two years, Erdogan told them they could keep their money: “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time and we can put refugees on buses,” Erdogan was quoted as telling the European officials.

The leak of the meeting minutes set off a back-and-forth diplomatic battle between Ankara and Brussels, which eventually resulted in the announcement by Tusk on Feb. 19 that there would be an emergency EU-Turkey refugee summit in Brussels on March 5.

At the recent Davos World Economic Forum and Munich Security Conference, European officials were candid about the grave threat to European stability and security posed by a new flood of refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout North Africa, most particularly in Libya. The head of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab candidly told attendees in late January that Europe could face a refugee influx of a billion people in the coming years, which would overwhelm the continent, change the fundamental character of European culture, and bring about social chaos of an unprecedented scale.

It was against that backdrop of threatened chaos that Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble delivered an unexpected call at Davos for Europe to commit 50 billion euros to a Marshall Fund to rebuild Syria. Schaeuble, who is otherwise Germany’s leading austerity proponent and the architect of Germany’s refusal to grant debt relief to Greece, shocked attendees with his call for humanitarian aid to post-war Syria, as the only way to save Europe from the refugee flood. Germany’s Development Minister Gerd Mueller seconded the Schaeuble call, and rapidly, a number of other European officials jumped on the Marshall Plan bandwagon. While the motives differed from case to case, the overwhelming consensus was that the only way to “preserve European identity” was to create a genuine incentive for Syrian refugees to go back and rebuild their country, which has been decimated by the five year war.

The sudden European collective response to the reality of the crisis poses new questions. First, is it too soon or too late for the Marshall Plan solution to be initiated?  Second, given Europe’s shaky economic foundations, can Europe afford to take the lead in such an ambitious rebuilding project?  And third, can Europe afford not to undertake such a Marshall Plan?

Any kind of large-scale reconstruction project for Syria and surrounding states impacted by the five years of war can only be launched after a genuine cessation of fighting and the creation of some kind of transitional government. While this has been spelled out in the recent United Nations Security Council resolution as an 18 month process, preparations can begin now, even as the fragile cease-fire announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 22, just gets underway, amid great skepticism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to launch a job training program for the 100,000-plus refugees now in Germany. By providing the training now—in construction and other vital skills needed for the monumental reconstruction effort required for Syria and surrounding areas—a head-start can be achieved. Merkel clearly recognized that if the Syria peace effort fails and the war continues for the indefinite future, those same skills will be required to integrate the refugees into the German economy, without which chaos and social backlash is assured.

Following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visits to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, China has made clear that they are prepared to integrate the Middle East region into their New Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road infrastructure plans. China sits on nearly $5 trillion in reserves, and has made clear that they are prepared to invest heavily in the Middle East region—if and only if stability is achieved and secured. China’s ambitious infrastructure projects are already underway. Freight rail links have already been opened from points of departure in China to Germany and, most recently, to Iran (a freight train arrived in Tehran in mid-February, which originated in eastern China). 

While the situation, even with Chinese input, remains highly uncertain, it is clear that any future regional stability must be built upon strong economic foundations, and the Eurasian integration programs, now being touted in Beijing, and the Marshall Plan idea now being surfaced in an ever-more-desperate Europe, are convergent.

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