Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A new chapter in Syria?

If US Secretary of State George Marshall could draw up a plan for the reconstruction of Europe at the end of World War II, could not something similar now be done for the reconstruction of Syria, asks Nehal Al-Ashkar

Syria (photo:AFP)
Syria (photo:AFP)

The historic city of Maaloula in Syria, known for its important sites, has been destroyed, the rocky location of this old city not protecting it or its people from the war that broke out seven years ago in the country. The city’s ancient mosques and churches have been destroyed, among them the 1,600-year-old Monastery of Marsarkis. According to a recent UN report, 60 per cent of the historic city has been severely damaged and 30 per cent destroyed.

Maaloula, of course, is not alone. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and half of the country’s 22 million population have been forced to flee their homes since the war in Syria broke out in 2011.

Raghad, a Syrian girl who came with her family to Cairo after the situation in Syria became unbearable, has become well-known in Egypt because of the experiences she has been through. “When my parents decided to move to Egypt, it was not easy for me to leave my home and come with them. However, I did not object because I knew that this was the best solution to forget the bitter loss of my husband in the war.”

“He was my source of my strength”, she added. “Sometimes when I look at what has happened to Syria and the destruction of the country I can’t believe that it will ever be possible to return. But I hope we can one day go back and rebuild the country,” she said.  

Despite the destruction, Syria today offers an early chance for investors to reap the rewards of eventual reconstruction. Syria’s people must be given homes that they can once again be proud of, and the reconstruction of the country that will eventually take place will be an opportunity as well as a burden.

Many are comparing the situation in Syria today to that in Europe after World War II. However, some opportunities then were not taken, and despite the reconstruction of the Old City of Warsaw in Poland, for example, much of the city was rebuilt in the form of concrete apartment blocks that were a blot on the city for generations.

It is to be hoped that Syria will not suffer this fate. For Khadir Khaddour, a non-resident scholar at the US Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre, “the war in Syria means reconstruction, and in the absence of a Marshall Plan for Syria [such as the one that helped rebuild Europe after World War II] the question remains of how this reconstruction will be funded.”

According to Safinaz Mohamed, an expert on regional affairs, “reconstruction in Syria will be very difficult unless there is a real political solution between the players first, including the regional and international players and those from the regime and opposition.” Some areas of the country have already seen a ceasefire under Russian supervision, she said, and the countries that have become involved in the Syrian crisis, among them Russia and Iran, “must now act together, and this will need negotiations to bring about.”

 “Reconstruction cannot take place except in those areas that have already seen a settlement. In order to do so, it will be necessary to develop a multi-phase plan and a general framework on the basis of which the recovery process should start.”

Commenting on Egypt’s role, Mohamed said that “it must be quick, and it must be effective. The Egyptian government should present clear plans regarding the ways it can assist. Russia is trying to find an Arab country that can assist in the reconstruction of Syria, and Egypt must grasp this chance as it has all the requirements to play such a role.”

“All the talk about reconstruction in Syria will not be effective unless there is a real plan for a political settlement, however,” she said.


AFTER THE ARAB SPRING: Originally part of the Arab Spring revolutions that swept much of the Middle East in 2011, the situation in Syria turned into chaos following anti-government protests that escalated into armed conflict.

The conflict, which has now lasted for some seven years, has killed hundreds of thousands of people, according to UN and other reports. The factions involved include the government led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and its Russian and Iranian allies, the Syrian opposition, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.

Russia, the US and its coalition allies are also main players in the conflict, and they have been carrying out air strikes against IS and other terrorist groups in Syria. Today, the conflict in Syria has led to one of the largest refugee movements in modern history, with more than a quarter of the country’s population having fled abroad or been internally displaced.

One Syrian source also saw responsibility in the Arab League. “The Arab League declared ‘economic war’ on Syria when it imposed economic sanctions on the country,” he said. “These sanctions were meant to destroy the country, not to help to reform it. They were imposed outside of the UN framework, and they are in violation of international law and basic human rights.”

Commentators agree that  the present humanitarian crisis in Syria is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the world after World War II. Syria has become the world’s largest ethnic battlefield, and what is happening today in the country will be one of the most important factors in redrawing the map of the Middle East — according to some commentators it is part of a US strategy to take control of the major oil and natural gas resources of the region.

According to a recent report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “the humanitarian needs in Syria remain staggering in terms of scale, severity and complexity, indicating little overall improvement. Against the continued backdrop of high levels of violence and systemic violations of International Humanitarian Law [IHL] and International Human Rights Law [IHRL], no amount of humanitarian assistance and protection services can substitute for a political solution.”

According to the same report, “while the crisis has affected all people living in Syria to varying degrees, some segments of the population and locations have been more acutely affected than others. The most severe needs across multiple sectors are concentrated in areas of ongoing conflict or areas with large numbers of IDPs [internally displaced people]. Of the estimated 13.1 million people in need, an estimated 5.6 million people in Syria are experiencing acute needs. This refers to people in need living in areas where the overall levels of need

are considered to have reached catastrophic, critical or severe levels.”

“In October 2017, the number of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers registered in Turkey stood at over 3.6 million. Nearly 3.3 million Syrian refugees were under temporary protection in Turkey, including over 1.4 million children. Meanwhile, the number of refugees and migrants on the move towards Europe dropped slightly. Over 4,100 people arrived in Greece by sea in October 2017, a 15 per cent decrease from September 2017, and 35 per cent of whom were children. According to the Turkish Coast Guard Command, about 2,900 people were rescued or apprehended at sea.”

For one Syrian source, “one main problem is the blockade that has been imposed on Syria because of the conflict, and this has meant that the amount of aid and fuel allowed into the country has decreased to a trickle and the amount of food reduced.”

“Despite the enormous scale and urgency of the crisis in the country, UN aid, compared to the aid from Syrian organisations, has not been effective. Syrian solidarity organisations are responding to the country’s needs. They have taken urgent need of those most affected by the turmoil, including those that have been injured, the families that been displaced, and the communities caught up in the violence.”

“Programmes have been developed to alleviate the suffering and restore some semblance of hope and relief to individuals and families,” he said.


RECONSTRUCTION IN SYRIA: There is growing debate about reconstruction in Syria within Western and regional political circles.

According to Middle East Monitor, a UK-based website, “the European Union has been studying reconstruction options closely, while some Western and non-Western governments are preparing to play a role in the process. Regional states are also strengthening their activities in this regard, as no one wants to miss the boat when the time comes for Syria to step beyond the current conflict. However, this debate seems to be based on the assumption that post-war reconstruction plans will target Syria equally as a whole and that all Syrians will be treated equitably in this process. The reality suggests that this assumption is erroneous.”

“The World Bank estimates that post-war reconstruction in Syria will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and through the international community it is treating the reconstruction of Syria as a pressing priority. The Gulf states will surely refuse [to help pay] if Bashar Al-Assad remains. But Russia, China and Iran will assuredly want to put up the cash if he stays,” the Monitor wrote.

For Ahmed Sayed, an expert on Russian affairs, “based on governmental reports about $195 billion will be needed for the country’s reconstruction, while unofficial reports say that it will take $250 billion to rebuild the country, meaning a difference of $55 billion between the official and the unofficial reports.”

“Most Western companies have not been invited to participate in the rebuilding. The Gulf nations have declared they will not participate in the reconstruction process unless there is a political process first to remove Al-Assad. The reconstruction contracts are most likely going to go to Russian and Iranian companies that support Al-Assad. China and Brazil are trying not to miss the boat. Russian energy companies have already started looking for gas and oil in Syria. They have signed a total of $1 billion worth of contracts for infrastructure, as Damascus has given Russia priority.”

In August 2017, for the first time in six years the Syrian government decided to hold its an International Trade Fair in Damascus, the last being held in the summer of 2011. This was intended to “send a message that the war has ended and that we are at the start of the path towards reconstruction,” according to Bouthaina Shaaban, a spokesperson for the Syrian government.

The fair was staged on the southern outskirts of the capital near the airport. Russian, Iranian and Chinese companies headed the list of attendees, which also included representatives of European firms. Markets across the Middle East are anticipating a mammoth reconstruction boom that could stimulate billions of dollars in economic activity. Lebanon, Syria’s neighbour, is in prime position to capture a share of this windfall and revive its own sluggish economy. One Syrian source commented that “Syria has been looking forward to reconstruction for years, and since August 2016 it has been inviting investors and businessmen to participate in international trade fairs. Today, the state is increasing this process by activating the new investment law,” he said.

Elhami Al-Meligi, an expert on Syrian and Lebanese affairs, said that “Lebanon has suffered from the economic repercussions of the armed conflict in Syria for six years, and now it hopes to benefit from the reconstruction through the participation of its companies. There are also Lebanese officials who want to attract investments to Tripoli, one of the poorest areas in Lebanon. This city could experience a boom because of its proximity to some of the most devastated areas of Syria, such as the city of Homs.”

 “There is a consensus in policy circles that Russia and Iran cannot afford the financial burden of the reconstruction in Syria alone and that international donors should participate, even if their motivation is not entirely about heading off humanitarian catastrophe. Politics plays a role in providing financing for reconstruction, and this is the most important thing for Syria after it emerges from the crisis,” Al-Meligi said.

Iran has played a major role in supporting the Syrian government with military force and equipment, and it has also aimed to develop a “soft-power strategy” in Syria and the region, according to an article from the US Middle East Institute. “The Syrian government is heavily indebted to Tehran for its military support over the past six years, as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] and its proxies have played a significant role in shifting the tide of war in favour of the Al-Assad regime. Although the Syrian war is far from coming to an end, the IRGC has already stepped up efforts to dominate Syria’s economic sector and expand Iran’s soft power influence over Syria,” the article said.

Nashaat Al-Deehi, an expert on Iranian affairs, commented that “the most important question will be who pays the reconstruction bill in Syria, especially since Syria is not oil-rich Libya and not oil-rich Iraq. There have been moves to find a source for the reconstruction funding that the Gulf states would indirectly bear,” he said.

“Despite the importance of the role of Iran, no one can deny that it is subordinate to Russian direction, which is totally responsible for what is happening in Syria. Therefore, the reconstruction will depend on an agreement between Russia and the West within the framework of broader understandings including on the Iranian nuclear file and the Kurdish issue, together with the situations in Ukraine and North Korea.”

Mohamed Abdel-Kader, an expert on Turkish affairs, commented that “the reconstruction of destroyed Arab countries such as Libya and Syria is a priority for Turkish decision-makers, who are following the geographical status quo. Turkey is not only looking for a political opportunity that can be exploited to maximise its strategic gains, but is also looking for a great economic opportunity for Turkish companies to engage in the reconstruction of neighbouring countries, especially Syria. This will support the Turkish economy to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, and it may reflect how the Turkish government is thinking. It also reflects the alliance of the Islamists with businessmen in Turkey that determines the country’s foreign policy and regional policies. Turkey wants to see Turkish industries and goods enter the Syrian market.”

“Working on this strategy in coordination with Russia and Iran will help Turkey find an advance location in Syria. This will be one of Turkey’s main tools for boosting its economic interests,” Abdel-Kader said.

 “There will also be the question of the survival of Al-Assad and whether or not the Syrian regime will change its position that rejects Turkey’s participation in the rebuilding of Syria. For the regime, Turkey is one of the countries that participated indirectly in the war through supporting terrorist groups and radical organisations by allowing them to use Turkish territory as their starting point for heading into Syria.”

Latin America in general and specifically Brazil also has a developing relationship with the Middle East. According to the US financial news service Bloomberg, “Brazil plans to reopen its embassy and restore full diplomatic relations with Syria in the hope of participating in the war-torn country’s reconstruction, even as it is facing stiff competition from countries that have much closer political and business relations with Syria, like Iran, Russia and China.”

“Big challenges lie ahead for Brazilian companies interested in the Syrian market. US-imposed financial sanctions make Western banks reluctant to do business with Syria. The violence is also far from over, and the government has yet to reclaim important cities like Deir Al-Zor, where heavy fighting continues, and Idlib province, a haven for Islamist groups, most of them affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”


THE EGYPTIAN ROLE: According to a recent report by Al-Monitor, a US news website, “Egypt’s Ministry of Trade and Industry has launched widespread calls to Egyptian companies to participate in the reconstruction of Syria, especially after the expulsion of IS. Egypt seeks to participate in the reconstruction in Syria, unlike in Iraq in the 1990s when it was excluded from the process.”

Egypt took part in the Damascus International Trade Fair last August, and according to the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, 30 Egyptian companies were present to highlight the role of the Egyptian private sector in rebuilding in Syria. A “Rebuild Syria 2017” exhibition was also launched last September in Damascus under the patronage of the Syrian ministry of public works and housing, which saw the participation of 162 companies and 24 countries.

According to comments made to Al-Ahram Weekly by the Egyptian Engineers Syndicate, a delegation of Egyptian engineers visited Damascus from 19 to 21 January this year headed by Tarek Al-Nabrawi, the head of the syndicate, and including members from Alexandria and the New Valley governorate. During its visit, the delegation held meetings with the Syrian Engineers Syndicate and the prime minister and minister of housing, and concluded the visit with a meeting with the speaker of the Syrian People’s Assembly, the country’s parliament.

 “Head of the Syrian Syndicate Ghaith Al-Qattani gave a presentation concerning the structure of the Engineers Syndicate in Syria, saying that he hoped the Egyptian visit would be the beginning of further cooperation between the two syndicates in all engineering activities in the public and private sectors,” the source said. He added that “Syria needs international companies to invest in rebuilding, and Al-Qattani said Syria could gain a lot from Egyptian experience in the reconstruction and restoration of buildings and monuments, especially in the field of reinforced polymers.”

According to Al-Nabrawi, “the Egyptian Engineers Syndicate can play an important role in rebuilding Syria. And Egypt will be present not only economically, but also from the point of view of nationalism, because the relationship between Syria and Egypt is a historical one that goes back decades if not centuries.”

“Cooperation between the Egyptian Engineers Syndicate and the Syrian parties concerned aims to open the market in Syria up to Egyptian consultants and companies,” he told the Weekly, adding that “Syria is opening the door to companies in many fields, such as electricity, building materials, steel, aluminum, ceramics and sanitary materials, all of which have a role to play in the Syrian market and in rebuilding the Syrian cities that were destroyed in the conflict.”

“There should be a leap forward for Egyptian construction companies in Syria in the upcoming years,” he said.

The Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce also has a role in promoting the export of goods and services, and assisting in the reconstruction of Iraq, Libya and Syria has been identified as a priority in close collaboration with its counterparts, the Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan Federations of Chambers of Commerce.

“Exhibitions on reconstruction and business links will be held in Syria in April and in Libya in May, following the participation of over 200 Egyptian businessmen in the Kuwait Donor Conference on the reconstruction of Iraq held earlier this month,” said Federation secretary-general Alaa Ezz.

“The exhibitions will encompass the whole supply chain on reconstruction work, including engineering, design, relevant contractors, companies specialising in electricity, oil and gas, water and wastewater, roads and bridges, hospitals and schools, and the manufacturers and suppliers of machinery, equipment and building materials. There will also be special zones for white goods and furniture and for consumer goods, textiles and ready-made garments,” he said.

“The Egyptian Federation attended the Damascus International Trade Fair last year with a 600-square-metre pavilion in a prime location. Thirty Egyptian companies were represented and meetings were held with the Syrian deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Walid al-Moalem, minister of economy and foreign trade Samer Khalil, minister of tourism Bashir al-Yazgy, grand mufti of the Syrian Republic Ahmed Badr al-Din, and the chairmen and board members of various industries.”

“This year, the Egyptian Federation of Chambers of Commerce has reserved 3,000 square metres at the 2018 Damascus International Fair to maintain the momentum. Six years ago it established a committee to help set up Syrian factories in Egypt to maintain the country’s business and international markets until the time when the situation returns to normal in Syria and to build links with Egyptian partners on know-how and market access,” Ezz said.

“We are helping to establish a complete industrial city in Egypt for Syrian business, the idea being to help the country’s business community to survive and not to lose markets. When the situation in Syria stabilises, these businesses can return home to restart operations while retaining their Egyptian manufacturing facilities,” he concluded.

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