Reconstruction in Syria: German ambitions (August 28) – In view of Syria’s reconstruction, German business circles are preparing to establish a German business office in Damascus. According to a participant, German small and medium-sized enterprises are interested in orders from this war-ravaged country. Syria, however, prioritizes enterprises from countries, which had supported President Bashar al Assad during the war, or, at least, were not engaged in efforts to overthrow him.

In recent years, Berlin has pursued a sort of reconstruction in Syria – however, only in insurgent-controlled areas. Today this aid is benefiting jihadis, including the Syrian al-Qaeda offshoot. In the framework of Syria’s reconstruction, Berlin is hoping for the speedy return of Syrian refugees. It is also expecting that the 221 students, who had benefited from the state-financed DAAD scholarship program in Germany for the past few years, will return to Syria and aid in securing German influence as “bridge builders” between the two countries.

Important Orientation

In its efforts to gain influence on Syria’s development after the foreseeable end of the war, Berlin is confronted with the fact that Damascus has already set its orientation for the reconstruction of the country – by favoring those countries, which had provided military and political support during the war, particularly Russia and China. The People’s Republic is considered “number one” for reconstruction – not least of all, due to its huge economic potential. (german-foreign-policy reported.[1]) Iran plays a controversial role. Teheran, also with its allied militias, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, has contributed significantly to the military victory over the insurgents. Already in 2017, it had made lucrative deals, for example, with mobile telephone licenses and access to important phosphate deposits.

It is, however, being thwarted by Moscow – not only because of strong western pressure to push Iran out of Syria, but also because Russia is trying to limit Teheran’s influence in the Middle East. The power struggle continues: During his visit in the Syrian capital last weekend, the Iranian defence minister was assured that his country would play a significant role in Syria’s rebuilding on a “long-term basis.”[2]

Benefiting Jihadis

Germany is in a delicate position. The German government was already supporting certain reconstruction efforts in Syria, during the war, focused on regions under insurgent militias’ control. It was aiming to support the insurgents and gain a privileged position in the country after the aspired overthrow of President Bashar al Assad.

Idlib Province is one of the regions Berlin supported. Using its state-owned GIZ (German Association for International Cooperation), development agency the German government supported measures to strengthen agriculture and provided means for medical activities, such as €450,000 for a hospital in the town of Ariha. This in fact benefited the jihadi. The Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-offshoot Jabhat Fatah al-Sham had been fighting for the control of Ariha. The Salafist-jihadi oriented Ahrar al Sham has been classified a terrorist organization by Germany’s judiciary.[3] The jihadi faction of the insurgents is dominant in Germany-supported Idlib Province. Already in August 2017, Brett McGurk, the US Special Envoy for the Anti-IS coalition, was quoted saying that “Idlib Province is the largest safe haven for al-Qaeda since 9/11.”[4]

German business office in Damascus

In spite of this, last year, German business circles have been seeking to gain a foothold in the government-controlled region, in view of the Syria’s forthcoming reconstruction. During the traditional Damascus International Fair, held in August last year, for the first time since 2011, the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) announced that it is “closely observing” the development in Syria and that there is already “a series of cautious initial inquiries” by interested enterprises.[5] Representatives of some German firms had reportedly participated at the fair.

This year’s fair will be held from September 6 to 15 and, according to official information, enterprises from 48 countries, including Russia, China, Iran and India, had already registered by the beginning of August. Recently, the former Green Party parliamentarian Antje Hermenau from Dresden, and a businessman from Leipzig established contacts in Damascus to provide access to Syria for small and medium-sized German enterprises. She also wants to establish a German Business Office in Damascus. The businessman from Leipzig confirmed that German small and medium-sized enterprises have already expressed their interest in orders from Syria.[6]

Return of refugees

Syria’s reconstruction has also been a topic of the recent talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. They also discussed Russian plans to involve Germany in a group of four countries to “stabilize” Syria. ( reported.[7])

Prior to the meeting, Putin had already declared that it is “very important” to “strengthen humanitarian aid for Syria,” particularly in regions to which “refugees could return from abroad.” This pertains to Syrians, who presently live in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, but also Syrians in Germany. Their return would be in the interests of the German state. As journalists with good contacts to government circles confirm, Berlin would not only like to “prevent the collapse of Syria’s neighbouring states under the weight of refugees, provoking another large wave of refugees heading toward Europe.”[8] The German government would also like “to create conditions so that Syrians, who have been granted asylum in Germany, can return home.”[9] If the refuges have to return home, Germany would rid itself of a significant portion particularly of those refugees, who arrived in the country since 2015.

Elite with German contacts

In addition, Berlin could use politically and economically potential returnees to win influence. An example could be the program “Leadership for Syria” initiated in the fall of 2014 by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) with the aim of preparing “a selected elite of Syria’s future leadership personnel” to “play a major role in helping to form Syria’s social, political, academic, and economic future.”[10]

Last spring, the first group of the 221 Syrian students in the scholarship program had completed their studies. DAAD President Margret Wintermantel declared that they are now prepared to “make a meaningful contribution to shaping the future of their country once the war has ended in Syria.” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas confirmed that the scholarship program is an “investment in the future” – not that of the individual recipients, but of “Syria’s.”[11]

In fact, the German government aims to use the program to create Syrian elite, whose ties to Germany will facilitate having political influence along with business contacts in the future. “We wish you an active role as bridge-builders,” said DAAD General Secretary Dorothea Rüland, addressing the scholarship holders in November 2015.[12]

In Berlin’s eyes, returning refugees could, in principle, also assume such a role in the foreseeable future. If they do assume this role in the future, their having been accepted in Germany will have paid off – politically and economically.


[1]           See also Reconstruction in Syria (II).

[2]           Iran Defense Minister in Damascus, says Will Help Rebuild Syria. 26.08.2018.

[3]           See also Wiederaufbau in Syrien.

[4]           Aron Lund: New order on the border: Can foreign aid get past Syria’s jihadis? 15.08.2017.

[5]           DIHK: Syrien bietet “eigentlich Potenzial”. 23.08.2017.

[6]           Können syrische Flüchtlinge zurück in die Heimat? 08.08.2018.

[7]           See also Reconstruction in Syria (II).

[8]           Putin fordert “humanitäre Hilfe” für Wiederaufbau in Syrien. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 20.08.2018.

[9]           Erdogan spricht von Syrien-Gipfel mit Deutschland und Frankreich. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 30.08.2018.

[10]        See also Leadership for Syria.

[11]         DAAD-Programm “Führungskräfte für Syrien” in der Abschlussphase. 18.04.2018.

[12]         See also Leadership for Syria.

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Germany: A permanent base in the Middle East


Reconstruction in Syria (II)

DAMASCUS/MOSCOW/BERLIN (August 21) – Germany should participate in an exclusive group of four countries to “stabilize” Syria, as Russian government circles confirmed, following last weekend’s meeting of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. By reconciling their interests, Russia, Germany, France, and Turkey want to create a basis for Syria’s reconstruction. For the first time since 1945, the United States is not a participant in a strategically important rebuilding phase in the Middle East. Washington should use its 2,000 soldiers – stationed, devoid of any internationally legal basis, in the Kurdish controlled regions of northeast Syria – as leverage, according to Britain’s former foreign minister. Furthermore, China is expected to play a key role in rebuilding the country. Berlin is threatening to withhold funds for reconstruction, if its political interests are not being taken in to account.

The Quartet

The quartet (Russia, Germany, France and Turkey), which is planning to tackle Syria’s “stabilization,” is bringing together members of two distinct groups, which, hitherto isolated from one another have been engaged in negotiations and struggling for influence in the Syrian war.

On the one hand, the “Small Group,” as a western coalition comprised of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan referred to itself, was seeking to install a pro-western government in Damascus.

On the other, the “Astana Group” (Russia, Turkey and Iran) was also searching for a post-war solution, with Russia and Iran excluding the overthrow of the government.

Last spring, Berlin intensified its longtime efforts to play a stronger role in international negotiations on Syria. Moscow, which is pulling the strings in Damascus, has now set the stage. Putin had already discussed the Syrian war with Merkel on May 18 in Sochi. At the chancellery on July 24, Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of Russia’s military general staff Valery Gerasimov to discuss the Syrian situation. Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has now told reporters that expert discussions would be launched, possibly followed by a summit meeting as previously announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

For the first time without the USA

If the quartet’s undertaking is successful, it would result in a profound change in Middle East history: For the first time since 1945, the United States would not have played a leading role in the region’s restructuring, which will be long-term and have serious repercussions. The German government would simultaneously have at least partially attained a significant objective of its foreign policy. For years, Berlin has been striving to enhance its influence in a circle of countries surrounding Europe – “from North Africa through the Middle East to Central Asia,” as the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) formulated it [1] – tending toward replacing the United States, which is increasingly focusing its concentration on its power struggle with the People’s Republic of China. To strengthen its position in the Middle East at Russia’s side, as it currently appears inevitable in Syria, however, is not what Berlin had planned.

Help in exchange for influence

Since some time, the German government has been seeking to use the reconstruction of this extremely war-torn country, as leverage for insuring its share of influence. Putting Syria back on its feet is estimated to cost between US $250 – 500 billion. In Berlin, it has long been assumed that Russia cannot possibly raise that much, alone. Moscow desperately needs to rely on help from third parties. In principle, Germany has earmarked funds for Syria, but Berlin insists on having its say in how the country will be restructured, in exchange. The new quartet is now supposed to make this possible. In the run-up to her talks with President Putin on Saturday, Chancellor Merkel explained that “a political process must be initiated.” She has “already discussed this in Sochi” with the Russian president.[2] Above all, this pertains particularly to “constitutional reform and possible elections.” Berlin, together with exiled opponents of the government, had already elaborated a post-war scenario for the Syrian state in 2012. ( reported.[3]) The German government will now try to introduce and pursue these concepts, as much as possible within the quartet.

Number one in the reconstruction

Tough clashes lie ahead. It seems clear that Moscow will have a significant impact on Syria’s restructuring, because it was Moscow, who prevented jihadis from overthrowing the government and helped Damascus to emerge as the winner of this seven-year war.

China may also play a significant role. Beijing has long since promised Damascus participation in the reconstruction of the country and, due to its economic potential China will be ranked as the No. 1 state capable of rebuilding the country.[4] Already back in July 2017, the Syrian Embassy in Beijing invited 1,000 representatives of Chinese companies to make lucrative investments in Syria’s reconstruction. Syria’s Ambassador in Beijing is quoted saying that top priority will be given Chinese companies.[5] At the end of last November, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry reiterated that Syria plays an important role in Beijing’s plans for the construction of the massive (“New Silk Road”) transit corridor from the People’s Republic to the west. In fact, even before the Syrian war began, China was seeing Syria as an important trading hub and partner for Chinese interests in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.[6] The plan may now be successful.

Washington’s leverage

However, massive interference can still be expected from western powers. Just a few days ago, the former Foreign Minister of Great Britain, David Miliband pointed out that the West can use not only financial aid for Syria’s reconstruction to exercise political influence on Syria’s restructuring. As is known, 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the northeast of the country, currently under Kurdish control, wrote Miilband in a signed column in the Washington Post. President Trump should now use this as leverage.[7] Miliband is president and chief executive of the New York-based International Rescue Committee, which has sponsored insurgent-controlled areas of Syria.

Saudi Arabia is also developing extensive new activities in the country’s northeast. Just a few days ago, Riyadh announced it was contributing US $100 million to Syria’s reconstruction – only in areas in the northeast not under government control – to help stabilize the region.[8] According to reports, since some time the Saudi government has been seeking to form new militias with Arab elements from the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to permit it to exert more influence.[9] Saudi Arabia’s activities are preventing the restoration of the Syrian nation, and thereby creating a new source of conflict.

It is in this situation that Berlin is seeking to reinforce its political influence, also relying on Syrian refugees, about to be induced to return home. will soon report.


[1]           Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, German Marshall Fund of the United States: Neue Macht – Neue Verantwortung. Elemente einer deutschen Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik für eine Welt im Umbruch. Berlin 2013. See also The Re-Evaluation of German Foreign Policy.

[2]           Pressestatements von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel und dem russischen Präsidenten Putin in Schloss Meseberg. Samstag, 18. August 2018.

[3]           See also The Day After and The Day After (III).

[4]           Mohammad Bassiki: Syria’s not waiting for peace to rebuild, and Iran wants to help. 13.06.2018.

[5]           Charlotte Gao: Why China Wants Syria in its New Belt and Road. 30.11.2017.

[6]           Christina Lin: Syria in China’s New Silk Road Strategy. 16.04.2010.

[7]           David Miliband: The West can still shape the terms for peace in Syria. 09.08.2018.

[8]           Jessica Donati: Saudi Arabia to Contribute $100 Million to U.S.-Backed Efforts in Syria. 19.08.2018.

[9]           Tim O’Connor: Trump’s New Army? Saudi Arabia in Talks to Build Syria Arab Force, Report Says. 30.05.2018.

Background: Leadership for Syria

How Germany planned to use the Syrian refugees it was “welcoming” as “bridge builders”

BERLIN/DAMASCUS (December 12, 2015) – With impressive scholarship programs, the German government seeks to establish firm ties to the future elite of post-war Syria. Already last year the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to bring more than 200 selected Syrian students to Germany, within the “Leadership for Syria” program, to be instructed – alongside their academic studies – in advanced training in “governance,” organizational setup and similar courses. The program run by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) – the largest foreign program the organization has ever undertaken – has the declared objective of preparing “a select elite among Syria’s future leadership” for “active participation in organizing” post-war Syria. This assures Germany a wide range of channels for influence in Damascus over the next few decades. Berlin is also making efforts to sift out students from among the refugees arriving in Germany to be included in its efforts to gain influence. This would crystallize into Germany’s becoming the Syrian elite’s top European point of reference.

A selected elite

The “Leadership for Syria” program was launched by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in the fall of 2014, with the declared objective of preparing “a selected elite of Syria’s future leadership personnel” for “playing a major role in helping to form Syria’s social, political, academic, and economic future.”[1] Therefore, the DAAD has awarded, with the support of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 200 university scholarships to Syrians, who were either still living in Syria or in one of the bordering countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey), or who had fled to Germany. Other scholarships were financed by the German states Baden Wurttemberg (50), and North Rhine Westphalia (21). Alongside an introductory language course, the federal and the North Rhine Westphalian scholarships include a concomitant obligatory program “teaching” the future Syrian elite “fundamental and practical knowledge and skills in political sciences, economics, social sciences, as well as operational competence.”[2] To insure that the scholarship recipients will really use their newly acquired skills, as soon as possible, in Syria, the DAAD requires already on the application, a precise description of how they – “with [their] academic knowledge and skills – can contribute” … “to rebuild their country after the end of conflict.”[3]

Bridge builder

Berlin is obviously hoping that the scholarship awards to young Syrians, who, due to the war, would otherwise remain without prospects, will benefit German interests. “We hope that you will play an active role as bridge builders,” DAAD’s Secretary General, Dorothea Rüland, explained to the Syrian scholarship holders, participating at a conference, the foreign ministry organized for them on its premises November 24. That day, the future “bridge builders” linking post-war Syria to Germany, also discussed, with a selected number of representatives of German policy, reconstruction measures for their, to a large extent destroyed, country.[4] “We are going to need many hands and heads, if that country is ever going to rise again,” noted Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in his address to the conference.[5] Some of the scholarship holders said, they already felt quite “integrated into German society.”[6] Berlin has reason to hope that some of these junior members of the elite will develop strong ties to Germany, become “bridge builders” between the two countries and serve as channels for German influence.

Every Sixth, a Student

This effect is expected to be reinforced by the large number of Syrian refugees, who are still pouring into Germany. “Leadership for Syria” is having a wide resonance inside Syria, as well as among Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. The DAAD reports that there are around 5,000, often desperate applicants, of which only a minimal portion can receive a scholarship, and thereby an opportunity at an attractive future.

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that a relatively high number of students are fleeing Syria, via Turkey to the nearby Greek islands. The majority, then seek to travel on to Germany. In a random sample, the UNHCR found 16 per cent students, while an additional half of the refugees admitted having studied at some point at a university.[7] “Leadership for Syria” scholars have repeatedly reported that they have been intensively involved in supporting their compatriots, arriving in Germany as refugees. Some tell of how they have encountered relatives in refugee camps – or even former classmates, who had not been able to enter Germany on the “Leadership for Syria” program and, therefore, attempted to flee to Germany on their own.

Elite network

In the meantime, the German government is reinforcing its efforts to filter out refugees, with sufficient qualifications for admission to the university – not only – but particularly Syrians. Next year, a new scholarship for Syrians is supposed to be initiated. The German Ministry of Education and Research has announced it will be earmarking 100 million Euros to support refugees capable of studying at the university, of which 27 million Euros in 2016.[8] A DAAD expert is quoted saying that, unlike Iraqi, Afghan or Eritrean high school diplomas, Syrian diplomas are “indeed compatible with German diplomas.” Whoever has graduated from high school in Syria can – of course, with a knowledge of the language – immediately be admitted to the university in Germany.[9]

Regardless of how many refugees eventually will be available to return to undertake the anticipated reconstruction of a pacified Syria, once they have completed their studies, those Syrian academics, who remain in Germany, will, with their ties to their homeland, also constitute a new aspect of the German-Syrian elite network that Berlin can politically rely upon.

Top country of reference

Therefore, the opportunity may present itself for Germany to become the predominating country of orientation for Syria’s future elite. In numerous countries of – not only – the Arab World, the former European colonial and mandate powers have remained the point of orientation in questions of education, which usually is linked closely to cultural-political influence.

An extreme example is Algeria, where, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS), more than 85 per cent of its students attend universities in France. British universities account, for example, for six times more Iraqi students than their German counterparts.

The Federal Republic of Germany has never been the top country of orientation in the Arab World. According to UIS, in 2012, France had a clear lead over Germany with 1,828 Syrian students, as opposed to Germany’s 1,570. In the meantime, the proportions have reversed, with UNESCO registering a drop to 1,446 Syrian students in France, and Germany, 1,577. These new scholarship programs could give Germany – combined with its popularity as country of refuge – a sizable lead, in the eyes of the Syrian elite. This, in Syria’s case, would give Berlin the possibility to achieve what only former colonial and mandate powers have had, become the top country of cultural orientation for the establishment in an Arab World country.


1, 2          DAAD Programmausschreibungen. Oktober 2015.

3              Leadership for Syria. Frequently Asked Questions. 05.12.2014.

4              Johannes Göbel: “Führungskräfte für Syrien”: Empfang im Auswärtigen Amt für beeindruckende Persönlichkeiten. 25.11.2015.

5              Thomas Sebastian Vitzthum: So will Deutschland Syriens künftige Elite ausbilden. 26.11.2015.

6              Johannes Göbel: “Führungskräfte für Syrien”: Empfang im Auswärtigen Amt für beeindruckende Persönlichkeiten. 25.11.2015.

7              UNHCR says most of Syrians arriving in Greece are students. 08.12.2015.

8              Flüchtlingen den Zugang zum Studium ermöglichen. 13.11.2015.

9              Christiane Habermalz: Zunächst die “Studierfähigkeit” ermitteln. 13.11.2015.

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