Reconstruction to be costly for region ravaged by wars
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.