Syria's Reconstruction - the Good, the Bad & the Ugly
Let’s begin with the ‘ugly’. This would be the combination of laws, structures and projects, recently decreed and initiated by the Syrian regime. They range from the vulgar ‘ugly’, like the large scale confiscation of the homes of the displaced and refugees, to the surreal ‘ugly’ with luxury housing projects announced at the very site where families were pressured to abandon their homes.
Indeed, the regime understands reconstruction as a process through which allies are rewarded, communities are redefined, and, just in case the ‘lessons’ of the last seven years have not been fully absorbed, reconstruction, or the lack thereof, is used to invent memory. Areas that were known to be staunchly against the regime, like the Khalidiyyah neighbourhood in Homs or Salah al-Din in Aleppo, appear to be deliberately ignored, as though constituting reminders on a grand scale of the fate of those who stand up to the regime. All of this is ‘ugly’ because of how indifferent it is to human suffering.
The ‘bad’ reflects frameworks and agents that intrinsically lend themselves to abuse, either because of an obsession with material gain, or because of sheer weakness. Foremost among the ‘bad’ are global actors and corporations that interact with reconstruction as though it was a guaranteed product that could be delivered if only conditions were met and the resources to pay the bills secured. Syria’s tragedy will only end through a political settlement that leads to a genuine transition towards an inclusive and democratic Syria. This noble objective, however, should not be pursued as a way through which the international donor community, the West in particular, can be convinced to adopt and fund Syria’s reconstruction. This massive project, estimated at anywhere between 200 and 400 billion dollars, will be a project through which Syria is further broken rather than rebuilt. All one has to do is to study recent precedents, from Bosnia, to Afghanistan and Iraq, to understand the way in which this inherently ‘bad’ option works.
Corporations want to sell their products; they do so regardless of whether their products are irrelevant or even counter productive to the area being reconstructed. Read, if you wish, the story of how Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) ignored studies that pointed to the fact that soil was not compatible with plans to have a pipeline buried beneath the Tigris River. Three years later, after the bill had reached $100 million and nearly $1.5 billion in revenues had been lost, the digging was finally halted. Or read Bassam Yousif’s account “Coalition Economic Policies in Iraq” in which he described how, even as Iraq’s unemployment rate was near 40%, foreign workers were imported in the tens of thousands. And, just in case you think this is confined to Iraq, please also read about similar experiences in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Not only do these grand projects fail, there seems to be a direct correlation between how much money is used and how significant the failure is. Indeed, top-down approaches that are guided and controlled by global corporations are bad, even when they intend to do good.
The UN is another variation of the ‘bad’, though in my mind, it is far more moderate on the scale of bad, and at times even potentially useful. As pointed out in a recent LSE conference I attended, the UN does not confront the regime when it restricts its access to areas requiring humanitarian assistance. This is undoubtedly true, and it reminds me of how the UN acted during the siege of Madaya. Stationed in Damascus, and only forty kilometers away from where people were literally being starved to death, UN convoys stayed put. Also very difficult to process is when the UN agrees to oversee the displacement of entire communities from areas like Homs, Darya, and Idlib. In this manner it becomes indirectly complicit in the purposeful demographic distortion of Syria. All of this seems to be reflective of weakness bordering on cowardice. And it is a trait that is contradicted at times even from within the UN when some UN reports describe in detail the regime’s massive and systematized violence.
The UN, however, is also a structure within which a level of monitoring and accountability exists, as does evidence of successful initiatives with local communities. I once took part in such an initiative in Syria, and later documented the unfortunate way this experiment in political and economic empowerment ended. The weakness the UN exhibits when interacting with the Syrian regime can be partially explained by how restricted its current mandate is. As such, the UN is presently ‘bad’ but has the potential to become a more positive force if it was empowered with the mandate to work directly and without regime restrictions with the millions of Syrians whose communities have been severely damaged over the last seven years.
This brings us to the last and most important category, the ‘good’. The ‘good’, no doubt, are the Syrians themselves who alone, so far, have truly engaged in the process of reconstruction, a genuine variant of reconstruction that aims at rising above the deep wounds and damage that was caused by seven years of violence. It is a creative, resilient and ongoing process of reconstruction. The good are the inhabitants of towns under siege who found ways to reconstruct their lives even as they were attacked and bombarded. They identified alternative means to generate power, built hospitals, and stocked an underground library with books rescued from bombed buildings. The good are Syria’s children who found ways to reconstruct their own schools by having the older children take the place of teachers, caregivers and counsellors for friends and younger siblings. The good are Syria’s women whose stories far exceed ‘survival’, and who are indeed actively engaged in reconstructing a life for themselves and their families.
What is fascinating here is the fact that as we continue to discuss reconstruction, how much it will cost, who will undertake it and under what conditions it will take place, those most in need of reconstruction efforts are neither waiting for help nor expecting it. This is far more about us than them. In identifying ways to provide assistance, whether through a UN with a very different mandate, or some other creative way that skids around the regime/global corporations trap, we are in fact demonstrating that even though we have totally failed in stopping the violence that was unleashed against the Syrian people, we have at least succeeded in assisting them in reconstructing their lives.
*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.