As the war in Syria winds down the daunting task of resettling refugees and internally displaced people and rebuilding the country faces tremendous obstacles, reports Jeff Klein.
By Jeff Klein Special to Consortium News
During visits to Syria in 2016 and 2018, the devastation from years of war was tragically evident. Block after block in central Homs had the bombed out look of post-Second World War Berlin. The Old City and historic Souq of Aleppo was in ruins. Passing the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, we observed a shell-pocked landscape of ruined and burned out buildings and farms that stretched for miles. In the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp/neighborhood and the southern Damascus suburbs the fighting is still going on between government forces and elements of Daesh (ISIS) and al-Nusra. The result will be comparable devastation after the successful conclusion of combat operations.
On the other hand, Damascus, modern Aleppo, Hama, Dera’a and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus — despite being targeted by rebel mortars and rockets which caused many civilian casualties — have remained largely intact, even as the fighting has taken a steep toll on the exurban neighborhoods and rural towns nearby.
Less well known is the heavy damage to Syria’s industrial infrastructure, particularly in Aleppo. After 2011 anti-government forces occupied the extensive industrial zone outside the city and proceeded to systematically loot the modern factories. Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of industrial equipment from textile, plastics, chemical and pharmaceutical firms were sold off or simply stolen and shipped across the nearby border to Turkey. What could not be transported easily was destroyed.
A first-hand view of this devastation was possible during a visit to the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City last month. Ruined buildings and workshops dotted the landscape in every direction. Hazem Ajjam, General Director of the Chamber of Industry, explained that 90 percent of the factories in the 4400-hectare industrial zone were destroyed or heavily damaged. The electricity and water systems had been put completely out of operation. Our briefing took place in a makeshift building near the destroyed shell of the previous chamber headquarters nearby.
The Sheikh Najjar utility systems are about 50 percent restored and up to 500 factories are operating at partial capacity or more. Ajjam estimated that daily production was at about $5 million compared to an output of $25 million per day before the war.
We toured an operating plastics molding factory with new Chinese machinery, an industrial recycling plant producing paper and cardboard (also with Chinese equipment) and a spinning mill with modern hi-tech machinery imported from the Swiss company Oerlikon. However, most of the factory buildings we passed remained severely damaged and seemed to be out of operation still.
The war has also taken a heavy toll on the Syrian medical infrastructure, which once offered universal free or nearly free treatment. Elizabeth Hoff, the Norwegian head of the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) in Syria, briefed us at their headquarters in the former Dutch embassy. She reported that as of the end of 2017 more than half the country’s hospitals, clinics and primary health care centers had been damaged beyond repair or were only partially functioning. This infrastructure could not be easily repaired because international sanctions against Syria blocked the import of critical spare parts and equipment.
The once-thriving Syrian pharmaceutical industry has also been severely impacted by the war. Hoff estimated that before 2011 Syria supplied about 90 percent of its own medicines and was on the verge of producing even advanced cancer drugs. Most of the pharmaceutical plants were either destroyed or became inaccessible during the fighting. The industry, also hampered by the international sanctions regime, is struggling to regain 30 percent of its pre-war production.
As the Syrian government has been gaining militarily in recent years, clearing the roadways among the ruins has been relatively prompt and some reconstruction has begun, particularly on historic and culturally important buildings like the Khalid ibn Walid mosque and various damaged churches in Homs and the Umayyad Great Mosque of Aleppo. The main thoroughfares in the old covered souqs in Homs and more recently Aleppo have been largely cleared of rubble and a few shops here and there are open for business.
Judging by the family crowds at the re-opened cafes at the base of the Aleppo citadel, life is slowly returning to normal in the areas formerly held by the rebels, and once the scene of heavy fighting in 2016. We met Abdel Hay Kaddour, who had fled his home in East Aleppo when it was occupied by Jihadists and was struggling to rebuild his “boutique hotel” in the Aleppo souq. He kept shaking his head and repeating “Why did they do this to us?”
But rebuilding shattered neighborhoods and housing stock on a large scale has barely begun. It will be an enormous and costly challenge. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has estimated a cost of $400 billion for reconstruction.
American Money to Destroy, Not Build
Where will this money come from? The U.S. and its allies, which have spent tens of billions to destroy Syria, have largely renounced any responsibility to rebuild the country under its current leadership. Trump has recently placed a freeze on recovery funds even for the areas of Syria occupied by U.S. military forces and their largely Kurdish allies. In Congress, the House recently voted a ban on any aid to areas controlled by the Syrian government.
Certainly Russia, Iran and perhaps to an even larger degree China will play a key role in Syrian reconstruction through direct investment, large-scale financing on easy terms and partnership with Syrian enterprises. Rumors that Qatar, which had previously financed extremist anti-government rebels, may do an about face to invest in Syria, possibly as a way to stick it to its Saudi rivals and gain favor with neighboring Iran. Syrian officials have denied this.
But as plans for reconstruction are being formulated, the war itself is far from over. The U.S. still occupies a large swath of territory in the East of the country that contains much of Syria’s oil and gas reserves, while Turkey maintains military control over areas in the north adjacent to its own borders. And despite recent setbacks, predominantly extremist sectarian rebels still hold out in areas around Dera’a in the south (supported by nearby Israel) and especially in the northwest around Idlib. Even with decisive government military gains it is unlikely that violence will completely subside in the country for a long time to come.
The Monumental Task of Resettlement
Large-scale resettlement of internal and externally displaced people will also be a huge undertaking. We observed this first hand during a visit to a temporary facility at Herjaleh, south of Damascus, for refugees from recently liberated Eastern Ghouta. Abdul-Rahman al-Khatib, the town’s mayor, told us that there were 21,000 people in the relocation center now. He said that over 300,000 people had cycled through the center previously before most of them had returned to their original homes as the security situation improved and infrastructure was rebuilt.
Al-Khatib readily acknowledged that many of the men in Herjaleh had taken up arms against the government, either voluntarily or by coercion, when the area was under the control of Jaish al-Islam and other anti-government factions. Nevertheless, the families all received temporary housing and food from central soup kitchens, while the children attended UNICEF-funded pre-fab classrooms For many of them it was the first time they had ever attended school. Mothers were also lined up at an office to get registration documents for their infants and children. Most of the government records from before the war had been intentionally destroyed by the rebel factions and registration of newborn children was impossible while the fighting continued. The children also received what for many were their first inoculation shots.
We heard from more than one adult and from several children that Herjaleh was “paradise” compared to the battle-scarred region they left – though most also expressed the desire to go home as soon as it was possible.
According to Russian sources, at least 60,000 residents have already returned to Eastern Ghouta. No doubt the number of civilians in Ghouta had been inflated for propaganda purposes, as it had also been in Eastern Aleppo, where most of the civilians had stayed when the rebels departed and up to a million more have returned to the city since the end of local fighting.
The resettlement process continues across the country. Thousands have recently returned to Tadmur/Palmyra, which was twice captured by rebels and twice liberated by the Syrian army since 2015. The world heritage ruins had been the site of infamous vandalism by the ISIS/Daesh occupiers and its ancient theater the scene of mass executions of captured Syrian soldiers. The director of the Palmyra museum, Khaled al-Asaad, was captured and cruelly beheaded by ISIS.
But the war has also caused a significant drain of talented and educated Syrians who will be sorely needed for reconstruction. Many of them will not be quickly convinced to return to a country that remains in turmoil.
Tourism was once viewed as a promising source of hard currency, with more than 8 million annual visitors accounting for up to 14 percent of the Syrian economy in 2010. It will not soon recover. Although Syria offers much as a destination with its impressive cultural history and historic monuments, along with an enviable Mediterranean coastline and close proximity to Europe, mass tourism is a distant likelihood in the aftermath of war and possible long-term simmering conflict.
There is also the hard truth that not all of Syria’s economic difficulties can be attributed to the war alone. Even before 2011, the country was suffering from a rapid population increase that put a severe strain on its ability to provide adequate employment and services to its inhabitants. Environmental degradation and inefficient management of water resources were further exacerbated by a prolonged drought that forced many farmers off the land and into the impoverished exurban neighborhoods that became incubators of discontent. The generally more pious and conservative displaced rural population, largely Sunni, became prime targets for
extremist sectarian agitators who exploited their legitimate grievances.
Severe economic and social inequality will also continue to be a destabilizing factor in the country. Of course, this is not a problem unique to Syria, but the disparities in wealth and lifestyle between Syria’s urban elite and its working and rural classes are extreme. Amid all the disruption of war luxury cars, expensive clubs and shops are common in the upscale neighborhoods of Damascus, while many ordinary Syrians elsewhere are barely surviving. The sons of the Syrian elite also frequently have the means to avoid active military service if they choose.
Wages remain painfully low for most Syrian workers. At the factories we visited in Aleppo employees told me that the typical pay was 45,000 to 100,000 Syrian pounds a month – or about $100 to $240 at the current, albeit depressed, exchange rate. Hotel workers in Damascus earned around the lower end of that range.
It’s true, of course, that prices for basics remain low by U.S. standards, but living on those wages, especially for a family, is not easy. By way of contrast, a good meal in a nice, though not extravagant restaurant in the Old City of Damascus, with wine, beer or arak ran about 8-9000 Syrian pounds per person. This was cheap for a U.S. visitor but close to a week’s pay for some Syrian workers. A fast-food meal ran something like 1000-1500 Syrian pounds. ($1 is about 500 Syrian pounds.)
A stifling government bureaucracy and widespread corruption are also barriers to healthy economic recovery. Everyone complains about petty corruption as a routine of daily life, from the slipping of a few dollars to a clerk at the border for a smoother passage, to the payment of larger amounts to get construction or business permits, or bribes to avoid long waiting time at government offices. Of course, there is a class component to this kind of corruption. Though it affects all Syrians, it is those with the means to pay that get the benefit; those who cannot simply suffer.
Larger-scale corruption and cronyism in the economic sphere is also much talked about, though harder to document. It is widely believed that family connections and influence are the keys to lucrative business opportunities and the concentration of wealth within a relatively exclusive ruling elite. This too is a fetter on the economy that comes at a cost to the majority of Syrians and is a source of keen resentment among much of the population.
Finally, there is the issue of democracy and transparency of government. While it is clear that a majority of Syrians hope for a victory by Bashar al-Assad and his government as the surest way to end the war and preserve Syria’s fragile multi-ethnic secular society, a more open and participatory system are crucial for the long-term stability of the country.
A vibrant civil society with a broadly legal political opposition, the ability of workers and students to organize peacefully and a free press are necessary for the evolution of a truly democratic Syria. Reforms will also help to promote national unity and combat the centrifugal forces of sectarianism and religious extremism. This will be the struggle for the future of Syria as the war winds down and in its aftermath.
Jeff Klein is an anti-war activist who has written and spoken frequently on the Middle East
If China wants to stop pretending they have a global role, and actually act like they have one, they can start by helping to rebuild Syria, and show the World that the Empire will not be permitted to destroy countries at will. Russia has largely done that, but China could certainly do more to help.
Many Thanks for this other-side-of -war report on Syria. Refreshing break from the propaganda of the enemies of Assad and from the war reporting so hard to sift thru for the truth. Gives me hope that Syrias can survive.
“After 2011 anti-government forces occupied the extensive industrial zone outside the city and proceeded to systematically loot the modern factories. Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of industrial equipment from textile, plastics, chemical and pharmaceutical firms were sold off or simply stolen and shipped across the nearby border to Turkey. What could not be transported easily was destroyed”.
Is that the behaviour of a “moderate opposition”? Is that the way to behave if all you want is to rescue the Syrian people from a tyrannical dictator?
Anyone who thinks the US would chip in to rebuild and get its troops the hell out of Eastern Syria is seriously delusional. More likely, Syria will be embargoed by Washington for the next 60 years like Cuba and its troops will remain planted in the oil fields just like they have never left Korea since 1953. Because Washington has not really “succeeded” (in bringing peace, stability and Western-friendly governments) in any of the seven wars or invasions it has perpetrated in the Middle East and North Africa, it has made damned sure that those devastated countries remain unable to rebuild, reunify, or integrate back into the world economy. The chaos and human tragedy left behind is the legacy that Washington wants to make permanent, the thinking being that, if Washington can’t control the place, nobody will be allowed to do so.
Realist, and for what you describe there is historically a few mountains of evidence. Only as the U.S. decisions to wage war on a global scale, and to run roughshod over not only its enemies but it’s allies will leave the U.S. up a creek without a paddle. At the rate the U.S. is going I would suspect that in the very near future the U.S. will have isolated itself, and be financially devastated by the quarter mark of this 21st Century. That is if American doesn’t use it Big Red Button first. Joe
Joe, Rebuilding Syria? It is not going to happen. This article in Strategic culture by Bhadrakumar pretty much describes what is coming?
Correction – The article in strategic culture is by Peter Korzun.
Thank You great article Dave.
The road to hell is paved with bad decisions, and with what we are witnessing in Syria the U.S. is building a super highway to the devil’s door.
Okay Dave. Joe
Yes, few will argue that the US would in fact assist Syria; those who suggest that merely clarify that it will not.
The fragmentation and destruction of Israel’s neighbors was paid for by Israel via political bribes and control of US mass media, the legacy of the unregulated market economy
Well said, Realist. Very astute and prescient observations.
Illuminating reporting by Jeff Klein. Much appreciated.
It will be an intimidatingly large job, but I hope the rising Eurasian states – Iran, Russia, and especially China with its great economic power – see Syria as more than just a charity case. A successful, coordinated recovery strategy for Syria will be an important step in realizing the future of shared prosperity and security that the Atlanticist elites so loathe and fear. Countries like Turkey and perhaps even Germany would notice – possibly, given time, to meaningful strategic effect.
China could find reconstruction projects after US wars to be a better place for dollars than US bonds.
The UN must decide to tax and sanction unruly rogues like the US.
The UN should tax members and prohibit trade with those that don’t pay.
Special assessments to cover war reparations, on pain of complete embargo and expulsion.
Those who don’t pay taxes or assessments should be removed from the UNSC.
Those who violate embargoes are also embargoed absolutely and expelled.
Same for those that threaten or otherwise seek to influence UN officials.
Otherwise we need a United Civilized Nations and the UN must be forgotten.
Certainly the US, Israel, and KSA warmongers should pay the reparations bill under UN sanctions.
Thank you Jeff Klein this accounting of the damage and state of repairs.
A great sentiment, Sam, but I fear you are completely deluded if you think the UN is even remotely likely to adopt your proposal.. The UN is bought and owned by the Americans and has no authority or influence outside of the US demands.
Oh, I agree that the UN is controlled by the US through money power, and presumably any reform to tax members is prevented by other US money power over trade. So a new UN with the teeth to negotiate is needed, and perhaps it must control all of its members’ foreign trade to do this.
If so, the transition would require members to boycott US trade during sanctions. The effect would be that all members effectively embargo the US until it accepts its duties as a citizen of the world.
Perhaps the transition can be brought about by another trade bloc forming a better UN, which present UN members gradually join, abandoning the US.
So I will predict an EUN (Eurasian UN) for the sake of argument, forming in the next 10-20 years.
The US would have to pay the price of its bullying, but that could perhaps lead it back to civilization.
Anyone who may know of the prospects is welcome to comment.
Send the Reconstruction bill to the USA! It was their orchestrated & failed, coup d’état of Syria that caused this mess, so they should be liable to pay for thiis man-made disaster, caused by their arrogance & hubris with the massive loss of life & refugee flood that Europe is having to deal with, caused by their illegal interference? What’s a few trillion more to add to the US debt mountain, just print some more worthless, Illuminati fiat toilet paper currency, that should do the trick? A new Marshall plan for Syria? Yeah right, like that would ever happen? America can’t even fix its own Country with it’s crumbling infrastructure, lousy privatised healthcare & pharma & massive extremes of wealth? Instead of making America great again, Trump should make America “isolated again”, like it was previously, at the turn of the century, when it used to butt out of global affairs, concentrating on its own turf & citizens rather than meddling in other Countries sovereignty!
“A new Marshall plan for Syria?”
The “Marshall Plan” was an extension of “Lend-lease” an extension from “profiting” from its “allies” in the “2nd World War” to “ensuring” control of Oceania plus the “Soviet Union” through debt and dollar primacy, the debt in many cases not being “repaid” until after 2010.
Perhaps that level of naivety is waning.
I was being sarcastic, of course the Marshall plan was another control mechanism of American imperialism but it did rebuild those Countries infrastructure as the only positive!
I think the Marshall Plan in it’s initial beginnings was a find idea, but it got corrupted along the way the same way the CIA infiltrated the Peace Corps. This ilk that crawls and slithers into American policies and it’s programs, is an ever hard creature to capture, let alone destroy. I might add, it will take a most clever and crafty citizenry to put in place an honest enough legislature to remedy it, as if it could. At this point in time who can trust anything coming out of Washington?
But the idea is fantastic to say the least. Joe
“it did rebuild those Countries infrastructure as the only positive.”
The exceptionalists always attempt to evangelise prime or sole agency, often through framing – “We the people hold these truths to be self-evident” applies.
Your assertion quoted above is so framed and is historically inaccurate.
History is a lateral process – interactions – and there were many positives as consequences of the “United States of America”‘s interventions including increasing facility and resolve of others to transcend it.
As an example this facilitated the transcendence of the “Soviet Union” by the Russian Federation.
Peace activist Jeff Klein would do well to stop using the term “rebels” to describe armed forces battling the Syrian government.
Disregarding the fact that the term is part and parcel of Israeli-Saudi-U.S. Axis “regime change” narratives, Klein refers to “rebels” seven times in this article.
Klein reports that “predominantly extremist sectarian rebels still hold out in areas around Dera’a in the south (supported by nearby Israel) and especially in the northwest around Idlib”.
In the south, so-called “rebel” terrorist fighters trained by the U.S. in the Jordanian town of Safawi, close to Daraa, crossed into Syria and have been fighting with Al-Qaeda affiliates, while the rest joined the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) forces.
Following the pattern of past U.S. “anti-terrorist” military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American-led military campaign east of the Euphrates River allowed thousands of Islamic State fighters to escape, thereby preserving these “assets” to fight another day.
And in the north, so-called “rebel” terrorist fighters poured into Syria and continue to be supplied from NATO-member state Turkey. These forces have demonstrated their willingness to use chemical agents as weapons, both in direct attacks and in false flag incidents designed to provoke a western military response.
The continued presence of these armed terrorist forces on Syrian soil represents the greatest threat to the future of Syria.
Abe – agree with you about use of the word ‘rebels’. It grates every time I read it.
I think the author gets confused about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. His rhetoric sounds very much like the rhetoric that justified the “civil war” in the first place. Only in his civil war all the bad guys are on the side of the Syrian government and all the good guys are those who fought for freedom. Just that the revolution got a little out of hand.
One interesting fact brought out recently is the impact of the horrendous drought as a cause of unrest, since it could be easily exploited to somehow put the blame on the Syrian Government.
“The U.S. and its allies, which have spent tens of billions to destroy Syria, have largely renounced any responsibility to rebuild the country under its current leadership.”
Herman did we read the same article? One of the titles is…
“American Money to Destroy, Not Build” Try reading it again. Joe
Joe, I did read it and agree with his point about destroying and not rebuilding. Of course, that is a tragedy. My points are what you see. So many “progressives” used the same slant before the “Civil War” started and their propaganda was the fodder used by those who wanted to destroy Syria as a nation. And flippant remarks don’t serve anyone, Joe. I certainly wouldn’t insult you by asking you to do the same thing you asked me to do. would I? So., peace.
Sorry I didn’t think my remarks were that flipping, but you did, and for that I apologize. In fact, after giving it some thought it really doesn’t matter. You raised a good point though, and the author did use some words and phrases which I wouldn’t have used. So just ignore my comment Herman. But you must admit the article wasn’t all that bad either. Joe
Joe, it did make the point, very tellingly about the destruction we wrought, and the fact that there is no western move to restore what they destroyed. It saddens me that we are like this, and once again put in a plug for the JFP, the Jews For Peace organization that invites non-Jews to join. I have. Certainly there are other organizations fighting for the rights of the Palestinians, but they are doing it with passion and intelligence and who knows what might come from its efforts. I have come to believe it will be the Jews who collectively come to their senses and right the wrongs they have done. That is, if it happens, at all..
Herman if you have read my comments over time all you would hear coming out of me, is my concern and worry for a backlash against all Jews. I have said on many occasions to how Netanyahu and his kind are the very people who are stirring up this hatred of the Palestinian and all things war like in the Middle East with the result of this one day turning into a dangerous thing for all Jews.
Americans should be worried about the backlash as well, and American Jews may suffer all that much harder. We are judged by our leaders actions on the world stage.
Gideon Levy, Miko Peled, are among the many Jews who talk a different talk that the Netanyahu Israeli type Jew. It’s a shame though, that the voice of Jewish dissent is so quieted. Joe
“I have said on many occasions to how Netanyahu and his kind are the very peoplewho are stirring up this hatred ”
“Americans should be worried about the backlash as well, and American Jews may suffer all that much harder.”
A various points and with varying intensity from Mr. Herzl on-wards sections of “Zionism” have used “Anti-Semitism” as as a recruiting tool for populations to facilitate their colonial project.
The process of transition from use to encouragement of “blow-back” by some sections of “Zionism” as policy has been an increasing trend since at least the “Balfour declaration” but not restricted to “Jews” but including “interested” colonial powers including the present opponents to circumvent/deflect/preclude “Arab nationalism”.
Perhaps a wider perspective will aid perception upon which strategies of transcendence could be/are being derived.
Just a miscommunication about miscommunication; often “rebel” avoids changing the subject but sounds a bit like the US/KSA/Israel rhetoric.
please don`t be confused the bad guys are the U.S. neocon masterminds who planned the distruction of the 7 countries in 5 years as General Wesley Clark explained.
The U.S. & “its allies” , in line with the PNAC “plan” have spent tens of billions to destroy Syria & have largely renounced any responsibility to rebuild the country under its current leadership. Trump has recently placed a freeze on recovery funds even for the areas of Syria occupied by U.S. & the U.S.Congress voted a ban on any aid to areas controlled by the Syrian government.
So hopefully Russia, Iran & China will play a key role in Syrian reconstruction
Amazingly Tucker Carlson Tells Truth About Syria
The article was fine. The idea that there were good guys in this war is childish. The Syrian government was the lesser evil and the insurgents were the greater evil. And we had no right to intervene.
Also, some of the insurgents were rebels — that is, Syrians who wanted to overthrow the government. Some even had legitimate grievances. You can acknowledge all this without supporting intervention or going along with all the mainstream propaganda.
I would suspect that out of fairness, and since the U.S. insisted against international law to get militarily engaged in the sovereign nation of Syria, that reparations are on in order. If the capital could be raised to rebuilt Syria, or any other nation, which got invaded over the implementation of the Yinon Plan then I would think reparations are in order for those nations as well. This must be paid by the U.S. & it’s Middle East & Gulf State allies.
Oh and please to whom ever Syria’s benefactor should be, don’t bring in outside help, but hire and pay the indigenous worker better than a days decent wages. Imagine Europe could decrease their refugee populations down if Syria were a place of employment, and an opportunity. Would not Europe chip in with this less liability to worry about? So hire from within. In fact build manufacturing facilities for the product needed to rebuilt Syria & the destroyed Middle East, and oh don’t forget the farmer.
This could be done in a world which puts humans first over profit, but with that I’m done with this comment.
Fairness does not apply to Syria, or any of the countries destroyed by the allied and other forces. It would be nice, if that would pretty much be the standard, that may even prevent destroying a country on the first place. Unfortunately, we do not live in a nice world…
My use of the word ‘fairness’ was facetious at best, but I get your point. All I was saying, was that since the U.S. has broken international law that it would be most appropriate the U.S. bare the burden of it’s destruction, and pay these tattered war torn countries their well deserved war reparations. Although Al, as you well point out that will never happen. Why Vietnam is still waiting for the 3 billion Nixon promised them for war reparations. Not to mention the American freed slaves who were guaranteed 40 acres and a mule, who never saw a dime of it. Ask the Native-American about the American white mans fork tongue. Yes, the U.S. word is just a token, and a Trojan horse to be accepted as payment in full, but like a dead beat dad owing child support ‘the check is in the mail’, if you have the time to look for it. So fair goes along side of empty, for that’s the exceptional nation doing what it does best, lie.
Thanks Al for furthering the conversation. Joe