Rubble in the souk area of Maraat al-Numan. Flickr/Freedom House. Some rights reserved.
The war in Syria has already resulted in the human, economic, and material destruction of the state and society. The numbers are staggering. Seventy thousand people have been killed so far and more than two million refugees are dispersed across refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This is in addition to the partial destruction of major cities such as Aleppo, Homs, and Daraa, their infrastructure, industries and individual households.
Any future government will be faced with the task of the reconstruction of Syria. Who gets to reconstruct Syria, and how, will be both a reflection of the triumphant forces on the ground, and another phase in the Syrian social struggle. There is a risk of a neoliberal approach to reconstruction, which puts markets and growth ahead of people and culture and promotes the ethics of profit seeking, rather than socialized systems of economic organization. This would be a second destruction of the soul, character and material organization of one of the oldest urban spaces on this planet.
The Baath party was never a haven of economic equality. Syria was run as a private enterprise, where a broad coalition between the regime and a politically obedient business class in Aleppo, Damascus and other major cities was forged. The economy itself was reeking of corruption, crony capitalism and monopolies. Emulating the Chinese model, where economic liberalization goes side by side with political authoritarianism, the Baath regime underwent a liberalization process after 2000. This process of privatization transferred state property to trusted individuals with close links to the regime. The Makhlouf family was notorious for its corruption; it controlled transportation systems such as Tartous port and air transport, telecommunication companies, part of the oil industry, real-estate projects in addition to major business deals with the Syrian army. This business empire, which came out of the liberalization policies of Bashar Assad, was one of the reasons cited for the Syrian uprising.
The reconstruction of Syria raises the main question posed by political economy - that is, the dilemma between economic growth and distribution. Who gets what in the after-math of the Syrian uprising? Should the economic benefits of reconstruction go either to a bloated internal elite, or to foreign companies, the main conditions that brought about the uprising will remain intact. There is an obvious need for attracting foreign capital to invest in infrastructure, rebuild households, cities, bridges, and factories. Also, a reinvigoration of economic growth is needed. But who shall be the prime beneficiaries from this process is an important question that will be asked by the same social forces that paid the real price for ousting the regime.
The example of Iraq is useful in this context. The economic liberalization policies that invited international consultancy firms into a process of privatizing the oil industry and other government assets, led to an increased surge in violence, which destabilized Iraq for a considerable time. The liberalization process is a fragmenting force that weakens the central state in relation to various agencies whether it be foreign, or local business networks, NGOs and other institutions. In societies that already experience sectarian tension and weak governance structures, this process could lead to the creation of cantons and ultimately encourage war-lordism and the fragmentation of state institutions. Iraq is evidence of that.
Another significant example is Lebanon. After two decades of civil war, the reconstruction boom of the ‘90s left Lebanon with high internal and external debt approaching fifty billion dollars. Also, the privatization process was conducted in a way that benefited a tight business community in a patronage relationship with the political class. The development process favoured a marginal elite, while neglecting the peripheral regions. The repercussions were enormous as Lebanon failed to develop a solid infrastructure, public transportation and more generally a clear economic plan to generate jobs. Instead of a developmental state that took care of nurturing the productive forces of society, the reconstruction of Lebanon brought about the opening up of the Lebanese markets to international capital flows which resulted in a real-estate bubble that both destroyed the urban space of coastal cities in addition to creating a staggering inequality.
The destruction of Syrian infrastructure has already whetted the appetite of multi-national companies. Competing Qatari and Turkish firms are busy designing plans for the reconstruction of the main cities. Russian, Iranian and Chinese firms are not far off either. How the conflict gets settled will definitely include a divvying up of reconstruction contracts, in ways which would reflect the regional political balance of power.
What will make the liberalization process of Syria even more traumatic is that it is going to be done under extremely weak and broken state structures. It would indeed be an ironic outcome if Syria went back to the situation it found itself in postcolonial times; let us not forget that Syrians, like many other third world countries, supported the nationalization projects precisely in order to wrest the control of foreign capital from their country’s assets and resources.
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. This obviously depends on the source of funding. Capital flows coming from the Gulf region are most likely to invest in the market for real-estate, rather than productive sectors. Any Syrian transition plan would do wisely to diversify capital sources, while making sure that Syria’s market is not dominated by large monopolies or oligopolies. At the same time, special attention should be given to investment in productive sectors and innovative growth such as in telecom, IT and manufacturing. The Syrian National Council has presented a generic plan for the reconstruction of Syria, which by no means responds to those challenges. A testament to what might come.
Syrian cities possessed an authenticity that it is hard to find in the current Middle East. The urban space reflected the history of an entrenched civilization that gave the world one of the first writing systems, theology, art and science. The Syrian revolution and its heroic escalation against the autocratic regime held onto the values of human dignity, equality and freedom.
It would be a tragedy if we were made to witness a second destruction, whereby the urban space is given to multinational companies who would engineer yet another Dubai at the expense of Syrian culture. The Syrian social movement has to be conscious of the necessity of establishing democracy, and strong checks against the post-war government, to make sure that Syrians understand the conditions of aid and consequences of reconstruction plans on their lives and the lives of their children.
Do not destroy Syria twice.