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memri
November 1, 2017 No.
1356

The Damascus International Fair – A Show Of Strength By The Syrian Regime

By: O. Peri and N. Mozes*

In recent months, three large international fairs were held in Damascus, by means of which the Syrian regime sought to demonstrate its victory over its enemies and stress that the rebuilding of Syria has begun. The first and largest of the two was the 59th Damascus International Fair, held on August 17-26, 2017 and attended by a record number of representatives: official delegations from 20 countries and companies from 23 countries. The fair was held after a six-year hiatus due to the deadly civil war that cost the lives of some half a million people. The Syrian state media reported that this fair attracted two million visitors, more than any of the fairs held before the war. The media also reported that large-scale contracts between local and foreign companies were signed at the fair.[1]

One month later, on September 19-23, the Rebuild Syria Exhibition 2017 was held, attended by 164 companies from 23 countries in the Arab world and elsewhere.[2]On October 23-25, the sixth International Energy Fair took place in Damascus, attended by some 45 Syrian, Arab and other companies.[3]

Most of the representatives at the fairs were from countries that supported the Syrian regime throughout the war, such as its strategic allies Iran and Russia, and post-Soviet states such as Moldova and Belarus. Small companies from Europe attended as well, including from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark. Furthermore, despite the Arab League decision of 2011 to suspend Syria's membership in the organization, the fair was also attended by official representatives from Arab states such as Egypt, Libya and Lebanon, and by seven companies from the UAE.[4]

The record attendance at the fairs despite the ongoing fighting in Syria[5] constitutes a significant show of force by the Syrian regime, headed by President Bashar Al-Assad, and demonstrates the regime's confidence in its victory and its ability to regain its legitimacy and return to the fold of the international community – especially in light of the fact that, during the war, there were considerable doubts regarding its survival and many Western leaders declared it illegitimate.

The Syrian regime's confidence is well-grounded, considering the significant improvement in its military and political situation. Militarily, the regime and its allies, Iran and Russia, have made significant gains on the ground. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is following the fighting in the country, reported in August 2017 that the regime had managed, within three months, to regain 34,000 square kilometers held by ISIS.[6] Moreover, the siege and attrition policy adopted by the regime throughout the war[7] has proved effective, and has enabled the regime to bring about "local reconciliation agreements" in many areas, as part of which armed combatants are given the option of surrendering their arms and either staying in the area or leaving. Furthermore, the recent "de-confliction agreements" – brokered by the U.S., Russia and Jordan in southern Syria, and by Egypt and Russia in the eastern Ghouta of Damascus and in the rural area north of Homs – freed the Syrian army to redouble its efforts on other fronts.

On the political level, it seems that many Western countries, chief among them the U.S., are increasingly adopting Russia's position on resolving the Syria crisis, a position that prioritizes the fight against ISIS and accepts Assad's remaining in power. Ten months into Trump's term in office, it appears that his administration has yet to formulate a coherent policy on the Syria crisis. Alongside statements and moves against the Assad regime – such as the bombing of the Al-Sha'irat airbase following reports on a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhoun in April 2017, and a considerable reinforcement of U.S. forces on the ground – the U.S. has apparently begun cooperating with Russia in combating ISIS[8] and facilitating the de-confliction agreements advanced by Russia and the Syrian regime.

Moreover, France, heretofore considered one of the major supporters of the Syrian opposition, has begun, under President Macron, to withdraw from this position. "I have not said that Bashar Al-Assad’s departure is a precondition for everything because nobody has shown me a legitimate successor," said Macron, and added, "There is need for stability in Syria, because I do not want [it to become] a failed state."[9]

In addition, over the past year there has been a slight shift in the position of several Islamic states that previously spearheaded the opposition to Assad's regime. The most prominent of these is
Turkey. Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Bashar Al-Assad has no part in Syria's future,[10] he did agree that Turkey act as a guarantor of the Astana process along with the Syrian regime's strategic allies, Russia and Iran. As part of this process Turkey pledged to bring about calm in the Idlib area, the main remaining stronghold of Syrian opposition that is controlled by Jabhat Fath Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra).Thus Turkey has essentially conveyed that its top priority is the fight against the Syrian Kurds and their attempts to take control of the areas along its border, and to that end it is prepared to cooperate with the strategic allies of the Assad regime – Russia and Iran. In addition, there are also some indications of a shift in Saudi Arabia's position, as evidenced by its support of the Russian-sponsored de-confliction agreements.[11]

In light of this shift in the positions of the West and of Turkey and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the Assad regime, and in light of the regime's military achievements, Arab states such as Egypt and Libya have also drawn closer, and are now openly expressing their support for the regime.[12]

These military and political developments also have economic ramifications. The cost of rebuilding Syria is estimated at $180 billion, and many countries and companies are likely to want a share of the profit. Naturally, Russia and Iran expect to receive the largest share, as a reward for the political, military and material aid they extended to the Syrian regime throughout the war. However, companies from European countries that opposed Assad during the crisis are also likely to want to be involved, despite statements by their top officials that they will not take part in rebuilding Syria under Assad.[13]

Although it is unclear who will finance the reconstruction, the Syrian regime is attempting to use this economic incentive to leverage its political standing, as reflected by the two international fairs and the importance it ascribed to holding them at this time and on this scale.

This report reviews statements by Syrian officials and articles in the Syrian state press about the 59th Damascus International Fair.


Image: SANA (Syria), August 16, 2017

Syrian Regime Officials: The Damascus Fair – A Victory For Syria

The 59th Damascus International Fair was opened with much fanfare under the sponsorship of President Bashar Al-Assad, although he himself did not attend the fair but was represented by Prime Minister 'Imad Khamis. Other senior officials visited the fair as well and met with representatives of the participating countries. The fair was also extensively covered in reports and articles in the Syrian state media. 

The Syrian officials who attended the fair stressed that it reflected the victory of the Syrian state. Prime Minister Khamis said in his speech at the opening ceremony: "The Damascus International Fair is genuine proof of the might of the Syrian state and its ability to shake off the dust of war... This year the fair is larger and more historic than ever, for it constitutes an economic victory [and reflects our] clear and genuine readiness to begin reconstruction..."[14] He added that "in an era of division into blocs, it is vital to reach an agreement about [forming] a unified economic bloc that includes [all] supporters of peace and [Syrian] sovereignty, so as to build an economic system that will enable us to defend [our] sovereign decisions, confront the ambitions of economic colonialism and shatter the oppressive economic sanctions... The renewal of the fair, and the massive participation of local and foreign companies, constitute official [proof] that the war has not managed to harm the institutions of the Syrian state... This [fair] is the epitome of Syrian victory. We tell you that Syria is bursting with vitality."[15]

Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Al-Ja'afari likewise stressed, during a visit to the fair, that it reflected and consolidated the military victory: "The renewal of the Damascus International Fair not only advances the war effort toward the stage of resounding victory, but is itself part of this victory, for economic victory is part of the political and military one. [The process of] consolidating the victory has taken on an economic character because the priority today is reconstruction... Syria is a phoenix risen from its ashes. The renewal of the fair demonstrates that this country is a land of wonders and that our people is a wonderful people capable of performing miracles..."[16]

Regime officials emphasized that the large attendance at the fair meant that the West's economic siege on Syria had been shattered. Bashar Al-Ja'afari said: "The hundreds of thousands of visitors who came to this fair, the extensive economic activity by Arab, international and local [players], and the anticipation of large-scale trade agreements [all] shatter the bonds of the unilateral measures [taken against Syria], and spark the reconstruction [of the country] with the participation of the Syrians themselves, both inside and outside Syria. They also bring investments back to Syria, so that life can return to what it was [before the war] or perhaps even improve beyond this."[17]

Syrian Transport Minister 'Ali Hamoud spoke in a similar vein: "We have received important requests to operate [airlines] between Europe and Syria, and there are [also] requests for [permission to] fly over Syria. In other words, there is great openness toward Syria, now that the whole world agrees that it has won."[18] It should be noted, however, that Hamoud did not specify which countries had submitted the requests. It is likely they were submitted by post-Soviet states that have maintained their ties with the Syrian regime throughout the crisis. In this context it should be mentioned that a Syrian cargo plane recently landed in Benghazi for the first time in seven years, thus creating an economic air link between Syria and Benghazi.[19]

Syrian Transport Minister: Russia, Iran, China Will Get Priority In Rebuilding Syria

Syrian officials who spoke at the fair stressed that the countries that supported the regime throughout the war would be given priority in rebuilding the country, projected to cost $180 billion. At a conference of Syrian and Russian businessmen on the periphery of the fair, Syrian Minister of Economy and Trade Muhammad Samer Al-Khalil said that intensive efforts were underway to prepare the economic conditions and tighten cooperation with the friendly countries, in particular Russia, that are expected to play a prominent role in the rebuilding of Syria.[20] Transport Minister Hamoud said that friendly countries such as Russia, Iran and China would be given priority in preparing projects in Syria, especially in the domain of transport, i.e., the repair and construction of airports, sea ports, roads and bridges.[21]

The Syrian regime ascribed great importance to the participation of a large delegation from Egypt at the fair, participation which confirmed the support of President Al-Sisi's regime for the Syrian regime. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem said in a meeting with representatives of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce that the participation of such a large delegation reflects "the genuine desire of [our] Egyptian brothers to strengthen their ties with Syria," and called to continue these meetings and visits in order to advance the cooperation between the countries on the economic level and in combating terror. He added that the regime's decision to hold the fair "indicated the robustness of the Syrian state and of its recuperation."[22]


Opening ceremony of the 59th Damascus International Fair (image: SANA, Syria, August 18, 2017)

Syrian State Press: The Fair – A Demonstration Of Syria's Strength Heralding The End Of The War

Similar statements were made in the Syrian state media, which reported extensively on the fair, describing it as  clear proof that security and stability have returned to Syria and that the country is now beginning to rebuild. A report by the official news agency SANA stated: "The ten days of the Damascus International Fair were  [clear] proof of the Syrians' thirst for joy and their determination to live in peace. Several months earlier, the Syrians [had already] proved their ability to salvage beauty from the rubble and shake off the dust of war within a short period of time... [but] what happened at the 59th Damascus International Fair proves that, despite the situation it has faced, Syria is now embarking on years of building that will surpass the expectations of friends and foes [alike]. The massive attendance during the first days of the fair – which instead of sparking complaints about crowding evoked laughter and joy among the Syrians and among the Arab and foreign visitors who attended the fair's opening event – drew the attention of the local and foreign media. [This media] had no choice but to accurately portray the Syrian people's determination to continue to work and be productive, and to accurately portray the security and stability that prevail in many regions and cities in Syria... It should be noted that the 59th Damascus International Fair was the first [sign] that Syria's lifeblood is beginning to circulate once again after the grief and the pain of the war. Attended by 2,247,000 visitors, it was a success that was reported in most of the countries of the world. It was a message that the Syrian people wished to convey, [and which can be summarized in] a single sentence: 'Syria is bursting with vitality.'"[23]  

Firdaws Diab, a columnist for the Syrian state daily Al-Thawra, stressed that the fair was the opening shot of Syria's next campaign – the campaign of reconstruction – and that the very fact that it was held was a defeat for Syria's enemies. She wrote: "The Damascus International Fair, with its social, economic and political aspects, and its spiritual and historic significance, is a major mirror reflecting the return of spirit and life to the homeland. It is also a welcome opening and a step in the right direction in the next campaign of the Syrian people: [the campaign of] construction, development and rehabilitation of the buildings, the people, the souls and the hearts that have been cracked and shattered by pain and sorrow... [The fair] is a clear message to all the enemies of this homeland that this [Syrian] people, with its state and its national institutions, which the enemies of the homeland vied to topple and destroy, can achieve the impossible. [This people] is able and determined to survive and to renew the construction and development, for it, and it alone, will continue to hold the keys to its future. It has not relinquished and will never relinquish its will, its independence, its honor and the integrity of its land. The renewal of the Damascus International Fair, after a hiatus of several years due to the terrorism, is the best proof of the economic vigor of the Syrian state and the defeat of the terror organizations and the countries that support them, which throughout the years of the war tried to destroy the institutions of the Syrian state and undermine its social and economic infrastructure. [The fair] is a resounding blow, a stinging slap in the face, and a further defeat for all the forces fighting Syria, and it reflects the determination, the steadfastness and the courage of the Syrian people, which have amazed the world..."[24] 


Visitors at the 59th Damascus International Fair (image: SANA, Syria, August 26, 2017)

Some articles focused on the presence of companies from the EU at the fair, seeing this as a shattering of the siege on Syria, even though these companies were small and their representatives mostly avoided speaking with the media. 'Imad Salam, a columnist for the state daily Al-Ba'th, wrote: "The 59th Damascus International Fair cannot be regarded as a passing event or as routine activity of the kind that takes place at any [other] time or place. Rather, it is a state-level event with symbolism and significance of its own. It is an important turning point in the recovery from the crisis, which proves that the rebuilding of Syria has effectively begun and that Syria's post-war economy is moving forward, along with the victories that the Syrian army has achieved and will [continue to] achieve on the ground. This is evident in the number of companies that took part in the fair, from 43 countries, among them friendly sister countries as well as countries that participated in the war [on the side of] the terrorists and continue to impose oppressive sanctions on the Syrian people. This means that the [fair] breaks the siege and is a clear sign of the return of security and stability to Syria, thanks to the sacrifices of the army, the steadfastness of the people, and the wisdom of the political leadership. It also proves that the Syrian economy is back on its natural track, [as evident from] the variety of exhibits by [our own] national companies as well as Western and Eastern companies [that took part in the fair]."[25]

Al-Thawra columnist Bassel Mu'ala wrote in a similar vein: "Syria after the 59th Damascus International Fair will be different from Syria before the fair... This fair declares to the world that the Syrian economy has entered the stage of recovery after the lean years of the war. This is evident from the large number of participants in the fair, estimated at 43 countries and more than 1,300 delegations of Syrian, Arab and foreign businessmen... The presence of international and Arab [delegations] pained the enemies of Syria and embarrassed those who had betted on the failure [of the fair] this year. Some saw [the holding of the fair] as an uncalculated risk by the regime, but those who counted on its failure were in for a surprise... The presence of delegations from countries whose governments still bet on Syria's defeat underscores [the fact that] the plan [to defeat] Syria has already failed."[26]

* O. Peri and N. Mozes are research fellows at MEMRI.

 

[1] SANA (Syria), August 30, 2017.

[2] SANA (Syria), September 19, 2017.

[3] SANA (Syria), September 23, 2017.

[4] Peife.gov.sy, August 11, 2017. It should be noted that the presence of Lebanese ministers at the fair sparked controversy in Lebanon between the March 8 Forces, led by Hizbullah, which is an ally of the Syrian regime and favors normalizing relations with it, and the March 14 Forces. The latter opposes the Syrian regime while outwardly espousing the official stance adopted by the Lebanese government throughout the war, whose essence is maintaining neutrality regarding the events in Syria. 

[5] During the Damascus International Fair it was reported that a mortar bomb had hit the fairgrounds, causing fatalities and injuries. Arabic.sputnik.com, August 20, 2017.

[6] Syriahr.com, August 19, 2017.

[8] According to statements by U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield (see releifweb.int, September 18, 2017).

[9] France24.com, June 21, 2017.

[10] Reuters.com, April 25, 2017.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2017.

[12] On the rapprochement between Egypt and Syria, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1347, Egypt Draws Closer To Assad Regime: Openly Participates In Damascus International Fair, Brokers Ceasefire Agreements In Syria, September 21, 2017.

[13] British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said his country would not support the reconstruction of Syria before a political process takes place to transition away from Assad. Reuters.com, September 18, 2017.

[14] Teshreen (Syria), August 17, 2017.

[15] SANA (Syria), August 18, 2017.

[16] SANA (Syria), August 22, 2017.

[17] SANA (Syria), August 22, 2017.

[18] Al-Watan (Syria), August 24, 2017.

[19] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 18, 2017.

[20] Al-Watan (Syria), August 20, 2017.

[21] Al-Watan (Syria), August 24, 2017.

[22] SANA (Syria), August 17, 2017.

[23] SANA (Syria), August 30, 2017.

[24] Al-Thawra (Syria), August 17, 2017.

[25] Al-Ba'th (Syria), August 18, 2017.

[26] Al-Thawra (Syria), August 22, 2017.