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

A dwindling number of options

Press reports that the Syrian government is printing money in Russia to pay civil servants salaries and to close its budget deficit have raised serious concerns.

Two issues — one political and the other financial — are at stake.

The decision to print Syrian bank notes in Russia has been known for some time, as the Minister of Finance, Mohammad Jleilati, announced at the end of May that his government was close to finalizing discussions with the Russian authorities for that purpose. It follows a ban imposed last fall by the European Union on printing Syrian bank notes; two EU members, Austria and Belgium, were among the countries printing Syrian currencies.

However, by going to Moscow, the Syrian authorities have only confirmed an increased dependency towards their Russian counterparts, with all the political consequences that this new state of affairs may entail. For months now, the consecutive rounds of sanctions imposed by the EU, the United States, the Arab League and Turkey have squeezed the Syrian government’s room to maneuver and increased reliance on Russia. Last December, for instance, the Central Bank of Syria announced that it had opened correspondent accounts with three Russian banks — VTB, VEB and Gazprombank — in a bid to avert new sanctions on its foreign assets by the European Union, which were eventually imposed in February.

Since then, there has been speculation that much of the country’s foreign reserves had been moved to Moscow, though a lack of transparency makes it difficult to confirm the location of these assets or their size (estimated at around $17 billion prior to the beginning of the uprising in March 2011). Other indications of this growing dependency include negotiations to have Syria join the existing Customs Union that consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, or the recent series of bilateral agreements in sectors as varied as petroleum, electricity and manufacturing.

As international calls for action to stop the bloodshed in Syria grow, Russia is likely to hold an increasing number of cards in its hand to pressure Damascus. From a financial and monetary point of view, however, the main issue of concern is not where Syria prints its currency but for what purpose. Indeed, while the story initially published by Reuters quoted Syrian bankers saying that the newly printed money was meant to finance the government’s deficit, the governor of the Syrian Central Bank strongly denied it, saying that the new bank notes would replace worn out bills, an operation the central bank “has been regularly doing since it was established just like every central bank around the world.” The government has also denied it was having any difficulties financing salaries and other payables; Jleilati recently said that the 2012 budget deficit was forecast at a reasonable 6 to 7 percent of gross domestic product, in line with expectations. The Minister of Finance has an obvious interest in downplaying the difficulties his government is facing, but while there is little doubt that the treasury is increasingly strained, it is difficult to claim that a collapse is imminent.

It will not be easy to identify the purpose for the government to print new bank notes. Since May 2011, the Central Bank has stopped publishing its monthly bulletin, which reported, among other things, the levels of money supply. What is clear, however, is that if the government were to resort to the printing press to finance its expenses, the risk is an immediate inflationary impact.

While the government had managed to keep a relative lid on the consumer price index for most of last year, prices have jumped in recent months, climbing 15 percent in January on an annual basis, and more than 30 percent in March and April — including a more than 40 percent increase in the food and beverages category. Relying on the printing press, therefore, risks increased social unrest.

However, the only obvious conclusion from this debate is that both from a political point of view and from a financial rationale, the options at the hands of the Syrian government are fast declining.


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