Syria: freedom is economics too

Before any elections, the first stone will have already been laid - with reconstruction. On which policies will Syria be rebuilt? Which checks and balances will be organized around an international aid campaign driven by vested interests? Who will plan it? What can work, and what doesn't, in Syria?


Demotix/Austin Tice. All rights reserved.

I have a vivid memory of March 2011 in Syria - that of knocking on the door in the middle of Damascus, me opening it to find myself faced by a police officer. "That's it", I thought: those were the early weeks of unrest in Daraa, security forces were stationed all over Damascus in anticipation of the Friday protests, and the house where I was staying had been hosting some meetings of youth groups. Instead, the policeman just handed me a black plastic bag. Inside there were four cans of Barada, the local beer. As I recovered, a friend walked up to the door, passed some banknotes to the policeman, closed the door and explained to me that police salaries were too low to support a family, so the man had a night job as a delivery guy for wine merchants - and that often he did not even bother changing his outfit in between duties. 

I shall not decry once more the fact that, nowadays, that Syria is gone and shattered into pieces, and that we do not yet know how it will end. What I would like instead to remember is that the people who took to the streets in those early months indeed wanted liberation from that policeman and his like - but more, they wanted to liberation from his poverty too.

In March 2011, Syria was a country way beyond financial havoc. The average family would have bread and electricity paid for by government, yes; but even this state assistance was shrinking, while job opportunities were simply nowhere to be found. This was an irreversible disaster that Assad rule, no matter how oppressively it operated, could not solve and could not hide. For thousands of Syrians, at the beginning of the uprising, there was simply nothing more to lose. 

The legacy of Assad's dictatorship, for the past five decades, has ingrained in Syria a disdain for politics as of some dirty business to beware of; this frequently surfaces almost disingenuously in the statements of the Syrian opposition, so often criticized for its indecisiveness. We forget that in the Syrian case, everybody is only now beginning to question his - or her - rights, chances, obligations, as distinct from the interests of a ruling "patriarch" dropping bread and oppression from his unapproachable throne. We only have to look at the ongoing European experience to remind ourselves that the economy is a major political issue. It is political in the first instance because it must concern all citizens and ensure their dignity. As for the citizens themselves, they have a duty on their own behalf to keep questioning how economic policies serve their interests. 

This is why we are opening this debate, after hosting the London conference on Syria's future scenarios. Sooner or later, once this horrible nightmare is over, Syrians will find themselves having to perform this duty, ideally with free elections. But before that moment comes, the first stone will have already been laid - with reconstruction. On which policies will Syria be rebuilt? Which checks and balances will be organized around what will surely be an international aid campaign driven by vested interests? Who will plan it? What can work, and what doesn't, in Syria? 

With this series of articles and opinions we would like to raise awareness in preparation, debating the economic aspects of Syrian reconstruction policies. Post-conflict experiences in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon, mushrooming inequalities in aid distribution, and the outcry against disaster capitalism: there is enough literature out there to scare us all. Let us face it: these past ten years of wars and destruction don't encourage optimism. But still, let us try to sketch a way through. The Syrian conflict might be out of hand and far from resolved - but this also means that there is time to prepare for the day after. It is in the hope of enumerating the peculiarities of the Syrian case, its priorities and risks, that we host this platform. 

And platform it is, in the basic sense that we have tried whenever possible to operate on a horizontal level, encouraging the exchange of opinions between contributors. I would like to point that there was a deliberate choice to hunt for younger - in some cases, and I shall drop no names, extremely young! - opinionists. This, because what is shaking the region is also a generational breaking point: after years of passé ideologies and hierarchies, a new blood of ideas and plans that has hitherto found no means of expression, and still hasn't altogether - despite these two years of Awakening. Yet, as you will see, there is no shortage of awareness, or irony, and or even optimism.  

The starting point for this discussion was a long conversation - here adapted into an article - with the economist Jihad Yazigi, who patiently lays out the economic roots of the present crisis, remarks then circulated among other authors. What makes Syria a special case, he argues, is a protest igniting first of all in rural areas - unlike other Arab protest waves, and fuelled by the discontent induced by Bashar al Assad's hasty economic reforms.  It is in this light, Yazigi tells us, that we have to look at the heavy Islamist presence among the rebels, once again contradicting what we assume is an urban phenomenon. We cannot escape these roots: they triggered the revolts, and they will need to be addressed by any reconstruction. Portraying the class dimension of the protests is also Maurice al Haddad, who, from his origins between the outskirts of Homs and the North of Lebanon, is able to expand on what post-war reconstruction could mean for the impoverished population outside Damascus and Aleppo. For them, (either pro-Assad or rebels), there will be little to cheer in either democracy or freedom, should power simply pass from one elite to another, and reconstruction remain a top-down international business venture.

Nizar Ghanem has zoomed in on the sore point in Yazigi’s argument for leftists sympathizing with the protests: post-war reconstruction is invariably a neo-liberal call. In the case of Syria, this reconstruction menu has not only already proved faulty, but it is clear would kill everything noteworthy in this country which harbours the Arab-Levantine soul. I endorse his appeal, and invite you to read his words for a more detailed explanation. 

Finally, Yazigi raises a variable which is increasingly fundamental in the politics of the region, yet hardly explored: that of Turkish investment, coupled with a plainly assertive foreign policy on the part of the ruling AKP party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Little is understood about this much-discussed rising star and the real reasons behind their increasing interests in the Arab world. A hasty western press, always at ease with simplification, tends to identify the Turkish role as some imperial nostalgia - there is even a term for it, Neo-Ottomanism - when not flattening all analysis into a gruesome equation of Sunni Muslims (the Islamists of AKP) siding with other Sunni Muslims (as the Syrian opposition is often depicted despite its Alawite, Ismaili, or Christian components). To Foti Benlisoy, Turkish involvement is strictly a business proposition. And explaining how AKP represents and marshals the needs of an expanding Anatolian capitalism, Foti also allows us to glimpse what the Turkish role in the reconstruction of Syria will look like: more private entrepreneurs and constructors, but probably also more schools to create an ideal business environment just across the border.

Finally, to Clare Lockhart falls the duty to resume and reframe the Syrian picture from the technical point of view of an expert and professional, speaking out of her experience of post-conflict reconstruction evaluation, and finally willing to list precise recommendations. For this kindness on such short notice go our special thanks. 

We hope this is just the beginning of an illuminating debate on the values, the needs, but also the failures of whatever will come out of these days of conflict in Syria. We hope more voices will join in, and we believe it is the right time to address the issue. Debates on economic reform among Syrian groups - such as the Economic Reform Task Force, and interest in a Syrian Marshall plan - suggest that there is still so much more to say about new economic policies in Syria. And it must be said. Because no man can be called free, as long as the voice of his hunger is louder than his dreams. 

About the author

Annalena di Giovanni is a researcher based between Beirut and Istanbul.