Syria’s reconstruction is fraught with risk for western powers

Damascus Letter: The job will be enormous and expensive, and may increase resentment

Performers at the opening of the Al-Sham International Arabian Horse Festival in Damascus this week. Photograph: Youssef Badawi/EPA

Performers at the opening of the Al-Sham International Arabian Horse Festival in Damascus this week. Photograph: Youssef Badawi/EPA

 

Reconstruction is a word spoken only in a whisper in Syria. No one hopes for a Marshall Plan to rebuild the country now the eight-year war has ended in most of the country.

The job could take 15 years and the bill has been estimated at $250 billion (€220 billion) by the World Bank and $400 billion by the Syrian government. The US and Europe have pledged a total of $10 billion for reconstruction but vow to withhold funds until there is a political transition, as they put it, “away from Assad”, although President Bashar al-Assad remains firmly in power.

Loyalists and critics both oppose regime change after rebels and jihadis have been routed and the Syrian government now rules more than two-thirds of the country.

Some in the anti-Assad camp argue reconstruction can begin only after there is a political settlement acceptable to them. Others say reconstruction must be postponed until after military uncertainties are resolved.

Two-thirds of the 18 million people remaining in Syria rely on international humanitarian aid for food and medicine 

They cite al-Qaeda’s reign in the northwest province of Idlib, threatened intervention by Turkey to drive Kurdish forces from a broad band of territory south of the Turkish-Syrian border, and the deployment of US and European forces in the east with the aim of countering Iran’s influence in Syria.

Fixated on Iran, the US not only refuses to fund rebuilding but is also set to legislate for sanctions which will bar and punish any country or individual doing business with the government and associates. The EU has imposed a fresh round of sanctions on Syrian businessmen and entities involved in projects for building luxury housing on confiscated land.

Reconstruction cannot wait. Two-thirds of the 18 million people remaining in Syria rely on international humanitarian aid for food and medicine. Poverty stands at nearly 70 per cent. Unemployment, 10 per cent before the conflict, is 50 per cent.

A quarter of the pre-war population of 23 million is displaced within the country, while a quarter lives in exile. Refugees dwell in neighbouring countries where conditions are poor and there is pressure to return home. The multitude cannot be resettled until a large proportion of the one million war-wrecked houses have been rebuilt.

Tehran and Moscow

Damascus has granted investment concessions to its military allies, Tehran and Moscow, but Iran faces a domestic economic crisis and Russia’s resources are limited. Despite constraints, Iran has signed agreements for building a power plant in the coastal province of Latakia and an oil refinery in Homs.

Russia has reached a deal for rehabilitating the energy sector but implementation will have to wait until Damascus regains Syria’s main fields, which are held by US-backed Kurdish forces.

China has pledged $2 billion to reviving Syrian industry. The Emirates and Bahrain reopened embassies last December in an effort to restore commercial ties and reduce Iran’s role in the country. Emaar, the Emirati construction firm, seeks to invest in real estate in areas destined for upscale redevelopment and other firms are ready to develop renewable energy. Saudi Arabia is not involved.

US pressure to refrain from participation in the reconstruction discourages all but Western-sanctioned Iran and Russia.

The domestic challenge posed by rebuilding Syria is enormous and multi-faceted. Priority must be given to clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance. Entire urban neighbourhoods and towns cannot be reclaimed and must be razed. Abandoned villages and farmland must be revived, key industries rebuilt and temporarily repaired infrastructure renewed.

Corruption, cronyism and contested land ownership hamper progress. Graft is widespread, loyalists receive preferential treatment when contracts are awarded and the government has adopted but not implemented controversial legislation granting Syrians a year to prove ownership of property slated for expropriation and development.

Refugees and displaced are in no position to claim ownership even if they have deeds. Many do not. Rural Syrians flocking to city suburbs during the 2006-10 drought built without permission on public and private land. Skilled workers are in short supply.

US and European bans on the import of fuel, equipment, construction and raw materials, and spare parts for machinery are already creating obstacles for entrepreneurs determined to rebuild factories, homes and reclaim land. Sanctions and starving Syria of reconstruction funds are certain to intensify poverty.

Embittered Syrians could, once again, turn to jihadi movements to retaliate against regional and Western powers. This is what happened in Iraq after the US invaded and occupied but failed to reconstruct the country and rebuild lives.

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