Rebuilding Syria after revolution

Although now is apparently the time for destruction in Syria, hopefully, the time for reconstruction is not far off.

While it is difficult to estimate the actual cost of the damage inflicted to the country’s physical infrastructure by more than 16 months of a popular uprising — most of the destruction having actually occurred after the summer of 2011 — the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is considered by Western nations as their main interlocutor in the opposition, recently estimated that Syria would need some $12 billion in immediate financial support in the first six months after a potential fall of the regime.

While little of Syria’s large industrial concerns — such as power plants and refineries — have been hit, the urban landscape of many of the country’s cities is littered with flattened buildings, destroyed water, electricity and phone networks and crumbled roads and bridges. The cities of Homs — the country’s third-largest city — and Deir-ez-Zor have been particularly devastated, but so too have been dozens of smaller cities and towns across the country, in additional to the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo. All-in-all, large parts of Syria will need to be entirely rebuilt.

It’s difficult to estimate what the $12 billion figure encompasses but if it were to cover only the first six months, this amount would exclude the cost of rebuilding most of the hard infrastructure, as this would obviously take much more than six months to carry out — in other words the total budget for rebuilding the country is likely to run much higher. In all cases, the question of how to source the money remains open.

Spokespersons from the SNC have said that they will seek support from “friends.” Knowing the financial turmoil the European Union and the United States are going through, they probably have in mind the deep-pocketed Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been very active in supporting the opposition. Another issue to have in mind is the handling of any large disbursement of money. Indeed, contrary, for instance, to Libya or Iraq, which have vast reserves of oil and gas and therefore the means to reimburse almost any amount of debt they incur, Syrians will need to be very careful to efficiently use the money they will receive. Indeed, no one will lend money to Syria for free, and aside from the political cost that will come with such help there is also a financial cost, i.e. a debt burden that will be supported by the population for years if not decades to come.

Will any transitional government in Syria have the means to manage and spend $12 billion in financial support, let alone that it will have to be spent in only six months? From a political perspective, can a non-elected body — because any transitional authority is unlikely to be elected — legitimately spend such a large amount of money, an amount that will burden Syrians for years to come? How about the longer term and the larger amounts of money that will be associated with any reconstruction program that a future Syrian government will be in charge of? Can Syrians avoid the missteps and massive corruption that have come to be associated with the Iraqi reconstruction program?

The current and previous Syrian governments have shown a remarkable inability to handle large projects and to manage efficiently investments that carry significant costs. Indeed, very few of the large infrastructure projects announced by the Syrian authorities in the last two decades have taken off because of numerous bureaucratic and political constraints; and those that have been carried out have faced endless delays, cost overruns and suspicions of corruption.  It would be naïve to think that these obstacles will be bypassed easily. From what the opposition has shown in terms of (lack of) knowhow and capacity, and from what we know from the Iraqi experience, there is serious ground to worry.

Because of its political implications and future costs, any reconstruction program for Syria will have to make clear how it will be funded and repaid and what measures will be taken to limit corruption as much as possible; more importantly, however, it must be sanctioned by legitimate representatives of the people if it is to embody a meaningful new beginning for the country.


Note: This article appeared first in the August 2012 edition of Executive Magazine