Reconstruction to be costly for region ravaged by wars

Sunday 07/08/2016
A newly wed Syrian couple have their picture taken in the war-ravaged city of Homs

Beirut - The sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq have taken a ter­rible toll. Their cities and cultures that have been horribly ravaged by con­flict, in Iraq over the last 13 years and in Syria over the last five, and the birthplace of civilisation has been gutted, changed forever.
It is doubtful that it can ever be fully restored. It will certainly nev­er be the same again as the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the titans of the Sunni and Shia worlds, battle for regional su­premacy.
Yemen, too, once a thriving land where the world’s first dam was built at Marib in the eighth century BC and now the Arab world’s poor­est country has been torn apart by a conflict that is a product of the swelling Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
It will take hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild these crippled states but fears that the conflict be­tween Saudi Arabia and Iran could ignite more conflict may seriously hamper reconstruction efforts.
The Syrian war, the most de­structive conflict in the Middle East since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, has caused a “crisis that is very devas­tating”, Khalid Abu-Ismail, head of the economic policy department at the Beirut-based Economic Social Commission for Western Asia (ES­CWA), said during a reconstruction meeting in May. “It isn’t like any other crisis that has ever happened in other countries.”
After the second world war, the United States contributed $13 bil­lion to the Marshall Plan, an un­precedented drive to rebuild rav­aged Europe that lasted from 1948 to 1952 and ushered in the fastest period of economic growth in Euro­pean history.
Industrial production grew by 35% over that period, boosting the standard of living. That massive undertaking is credited with accel­erating European integration. The full cost of the Marshall Plan was approximately $109 billion in 1952 terms. That is about $120 billion in current US dollar value. In today’s terms that is about what the Ameri­cans have spent on Afghanistan in the last 15 years.
The cost of reconstructing Af­ghanistan, the first regional state to be battered by the Americans after the carnage of September 11, 2001, was $104 billion of US taxpayers’ money — America’s longest war and a war that is still going on.
Efforts to tackle the Herculean task of rebuilding these states are undermined by the danger that re­construction and the peace deals that must precede it could them­selves ignite further conflicts in a region that already seems to be dis­integrating.
Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Pro­gramme observed that the bill for Syrian reconstruction “though im­possible to estimate with any preci­sion, is likely to be hundreds of bil­lions of dollars”.
The World Bank, which will likely play a crucial role in the reconstruc­tion process, has estimated the cost at around $200 billion. Independent experts have estimated $80 billion.
Abu-Ismail of ESCWA, a UN agen­cy with headquarters in Beirut that is also likely to be a key player in re­gional reconstruction, pegs the total at $140 billion.
In Iraq, the cost of rebuilding grows daily as the Baghdad gov­ernment struggles to drive the Is­lamic State (ISIS), a key combatant there and in Syria, out of territory it seized in 2014. Iraq has recap­tured some cities seized by ISIS in its lightning offensive of mid-2014. However, between air strikes, artil­lery bombardments and ISIS’s own nihilistic vandalism, these cities — Falluja, Ramadi, Sinjar, Tikrit, Hit and others — have been battered into rubble to one degree or an­other.
The current fighting in Iraq is sim­ply wrecking again what the Ameri­cans sought to reconstruct follow­ing their disastrous 2003 invasion.
Indeed, the abysmal failure of the 2003-11 US-led reconstruction of Iraq provides valuable lessons for those who seek to rebuild Iraq (yet again), Syria and Yemen after the current interlocking conflicts that are largely a consequence of US failures during the eight-year US oc­cupation.
Instead of building a Western-style democracy, the avowed inten­tion of former president George W. Bush’s catastrophic venture into the Middle East minefield, the Ameri­cans left behind a country riven by sectarian feuding, a culture of immense waste and misspending, poor planning and what one US official called “inadequate coor­dination with Iraqis”, along with rampant corruption fed by US tax­payers’ dollars.
In March 2013, the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Recon­struction Stuart W. Bowen Jr., con­cluded in a blistering final report on the dismal US rebuilding effort that cost a staggering $66.45 bil­lion — a figure topped only by the equally mismanaged programme in Afghanistan — that the Iraq pro­ject was “poorly controlled” and led to “fraud, waste and abuse”. He found that $6 billion-$8 billion was “wasted” during the dysfunctional US occupation.
The scale of urban destruction, particularly in Syria, may pose an­other kind of danger: The multina­tional commercial enterprises that smell big profits in reconstruction.
If the rebuilding of battered cen­tral Beirut — a few hours’ drive from the Syrian battle zone — after Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war is any­thing to go by, the lack of a clear economic plan for the country at large while the elite prospered, the results could be calamitous for Syr­ia and possibly plant the seeds for further conflict.
Bowen’s 171-page final report listed seven lessons learned from Iraq; Create a civilian-military of­fice to control reconstruction pro­jects; commence reconstruction only after security is in place; en­sure the complete participation and cost-sharing with the host-country; establish uniform contracting and personnel rules for all projects; ensure oversight of all projects right from the start; refine the pro­grammes that did work in Iraq; and plan ahead with back-up options prepared.
It was thought that Iraq’s recon­struction could be financed to some extent by the Baghdad government itself but its economic prospects are looking increasingly bleak because of the war and the collapse of oil prices.
Yemen is likely to be taken care of by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, whose forces are hammering the Arab world’s poorest country, which was in parlous condition through ne­glect and corruption even before the current fighting. Arab News has reported that Riyadh has pledged $5 billion to rebuild what it has
Syria is by far the biggest recon­struction problem. Who gets the lucrative contracts there depends pretty much on who wins the war. If the Damascus regime triumphs, it will undoubtedly favour its Russian and Iranian allies.
The Iranians, in particular, have been assiduously buying up prop­erty and businesses in Syria, often at rock-bottom prices, in anticipa­tion of a post-war bonanza that will extend Tehran’s influence in Syria, the gateway for arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which along with Syria’s Golan Heights is its front line against Israel.
If the Arab rebel factions come out on top, then Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies and Tur­key, the opposition’s principal re­gional backers, will probably be the big winners.
“How the conflict gets settled will definitely include a divvying up of reconstruction contracts, in ways that would reflect the regional political balance of power,” ob­served Nizam Ghanem, a Lebanese specialist in regional development and conflict resolution who heads the Menapolis think-tank in Beirut.
“Any reconstruction that fails to invest in the productive capacity of the Syrian economy and in creating long-term added value and durable job opportunities for thousands of Syrians will weaken Syria, both state and society,” he said.
“Capital flows coming from the Gulf region are more likely to invest in the market for real estate rather than productive sectors. Any transi­tion plan would do wisely to diver­sify capital sources, while making sure that Syria’s market is not domi­nated by large monopolies or oli­gopolies” as it was before the war.
Some planners understand that there has to be more than just re­placing the bricks and mortar; the reborn cities they want to see rising from the ashes will need to be de­signed to heal the human wounds and bring Syria’s warring sects to­gether if there is to be any hope of rebuilding the nation.
Funding reconstruction is a major problem. There will be no Marshall Plan for the Middle East. Western powers are no longer prepared, or able, to fork out that kind of money. Even the Gulf states, which would once have been ready to inject bil­lions of dollars to help Sunni com­munities get back on their feet, are feeling the pinch.
In a February 11th analysis of Syrian reconstruction, Cammack observed that the “cataclysmic de­struction of Syria challenges hu­man comprehension… With the international Syria peace process teetering on the edge of collapse, a political solution seems distant.”
He noted that “the rebirth of Dresden, Berlin and Stalingrad… after the unthinkable destruction of World War II is a testament to human resiliency and a symbol of what may eventually be possible in Syria”.
But he stressed: “Regardless of whether Syria can be stitched to­gether as a unitary state or is in­stead permanently partitioned, re­building its infrastructure to even modest pre-war levels will require a generational effort.”
Cammack, like others, warned that “unfortunately, to this point, the reconstruction of Syria has not received sufficient attention, either in Washington or in capitals else­where”.
However, planning is already un­der way to determine priorities and strategy for reconstructing Syria. Moves are afoot in Lebanon, which knows a thing or two about the rav­ages of a civil war, to plan Syria’s reconstruction. Ferid Belhaj, a Tu­nisian who runs the World Bank’s operations in the Levant, told The Arab Weekly that the immensity of the reconstruction project “keeps us awake at night.
“It’s more than the bricks and mortar; it’s about people. Recon­struction will hinge on a recon­struction of societies… that have been torn apart. This is going to take years and years.”
Sitting in his office in downtown Beirut, the heart of the city that was reconstructed after Lebanon’s civil war, Belhaj said: “One of our main challenges will be to overcome the social dynamics that have been cre­ated. People who fled will be com­ing back but will their properties still be there? Will jobs be there?
“If they see something happen­ing they will come back. That’s cru­cial if these places are to have any cohesion… There’s going to be a few messy years ahead.”
Belhaj said Lebanon and Jordan — neighbouring the war zones — “will be the springboards for reconstruc­tion” and that those planning the reconstruction should start stock­piling the tools they will need there now so that when the fighting stops they will be prepared to move right away. “A lot of people in Lebanon are already looking at this,” he said.
Cammack acknowledged that the “most ambitious effort is the National Agenda for the Future of Syria” being put together by ESCWA in Beirut.
ESCWA has assembled teams of specialists — engineers, water ex­perts, architects, bomb disposal and medical units, development planners, conservationists and even archaeologists — to come up with a master plan to remove the unexploded ordnance, restore ser­vices and assess what building ma­terials are required and have them stockpiled for use when the fight­ing stops.
ESCWA’s steel-and-glass tower headquarters overlooks the re­splendent central quarter of Beirut rebuilt after the civil war by bil­lionaire Rafik Hariri. The former prime minister was assassinated in 2005 for his opposition to Syria’s domination of his country — a grim reminder of the region’s seemingly endless power struggles that are unlikely to end with a Syrian peace deal.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed to retake “every inch of our land” that has been taken by opposition forces over the last five years. Such bombast is typical of the Damascus regime but ultimate­ly whoever is left when, and if, the fighting stops will have to comply with the conditions of outside pow­ers and organisations prepared to contribute towards reconstruction.
Even if, thanks to the financial and military support of Russia and Iran, Assad is still standing at war’s end, he “will be left heading a hollowed-out state, a devastated economy and a largely resentful population”, observed Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Endowment’ s Mid­dle East Centre in Beirut.
“His exhausted and morally bankrupt regime will possess few means to rebuild its former system of control and coercion, or even to meet the needs and expectations of its own loyalist social constitu­encies… While the ‘stick’ is insuf­ficient, the Assad regime will not be able to revive past practices of offering the population a ‘carrot’ by subsidising basic services and com­modities,” Sayigh observed.
“Most importantly, it will be un­able to compensate for the debili­tating flight of Syrian human and financial capital, let alone tempt it home, and will remain permanent­ly unable to generate sufficient do­mestic revenue to cover its routine expenditure, let alone rebuild or make necessary new investments.”
Research by the Aleppo Project, a collaborative reconstruction programme based at the Central European University of Budapest, suggests that many of Aleppo’s ed­ucated elite who fled the destruc­tion of their historic city, said to be one of the oldest continually inhab­ited urban centres in the world, will remain in the countries where they found refuge.