Robert Fisk — The Independent June 11, 2016
It might seem obscene, even grotesque. But the businessmen, construction giants and entrepreneurs of Lebanon are already planning the rebuilding of a physically shattered and broken nation called Syria. With at least 280,000 dead – the statistics become more wobbly the longer the civil war continues – what’s the point of talking about the nation’s restoration, you may ask? Well, who could be more expert than the men and women who have restored – not very successfully, it must be said – the glories of their own capital of Beirut after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war?
The great and the good of Lebanon’s private sector have therefore been meeting to discuss the frightening reconstruction costs of their not very lovable neighbour. The economic losses of the Syrian conflict are estimated, so far, at £185bn and, according to a Syrian consultancy, reconstruction will take between fifteen and twenty years to complete. But why wait till the end of the war? “If George Marshall could draw a plan for the reconstruction of Europe before the end of the Second World War,” Lebanon’s former economics minister says, “Lebanon must start preparing now for the reconstruction of Syria.”
Brave words from Nicholas Nahas, you may say, but his impatient colleagues expressed much the same optimism at a conference of businessmen in Beirut. The Lebanese are well known as the 10 per cent men of the Middle East and don’t want to be left out of the reconstruction profits once the war is over – whoever is then in charge of Syria. There are plans for a massive increase in the capacity of Beirut port and of the small harbour in the city of Tripoli and the reopening of the overgrown airport at Qlaiyat in the far north of Lebanon.
Lebanese banks – and there are seven private Lebanese banks in Syria today – are the only institutions who know how to open enough letters of credit to fund Syria’s reconstruction materials: so rebuilding Syria means big profits for them.
There’s even a steam train enthusiast in Beirut who has for more than two years been proposing a four-track electric railway from Beirut port which would speed trains through a vast tunnel in the Lebanese mountains to a marshalling yard in the Bekaa Valley – poor Baalbek, I keep thinking! – from where steel and concrete would be trucked over the anti-Lebanon range to Damascus, Homs and even Hama.
Nabil Sukkar, a development and investment analyst who was a close economic confidante of Hafez al-Assad – father of Bashar – turned up in Beirut to tell Lebanese and UN delegates that priority must be given to the reconstruction of the great Syrian motorways from Aleppo to Damascus and other cities as well as the Syrian harbours of Latakia and Tartous.
But how to blend dreams with reality? Millions of Syrians have fled the war and their children – those in Arab countries, at least – are growing up with poor or non-existent education, despite local and EU assistance. How can legions of young Syrians reconstruct their country if they cannot read or write? True, the ancient centre of Damascus has been largely spared destruction but the old city of Aleppo and its wonderful mosque – and the Ottoman heart of Homs – has been reduced to rubble.
Who will reconstruct the masterpieces of Syrian architecture?
Lebanese architects tried to inspire a recreated but re-imagined Beirut after their own war. They restored the French mandate streets of the 1930s but allowed the bulldozers into the Ottoman ruins. Instead of the popular soukhs that once adorned old Beirut, the new streets are packed with Parisian and Italian fashion houses whose prices only the wealthy can afford. Yet, as economist Marwan Iskandar points out, Lebanon’s expertise in schooling and hospitals on an international level should help Syria restore its education and health infrastructure.
So do the Syrians and their Lebanese assistants start with the restoration of the beauty that was destroyed – or by reconstructing the huge suburbs whose original slums housed thousands of those whose oppression and poverty inspired the 2011 revolution? There are cynics who claim, rightly, I fear, that much of the destruction has been caused to buildings, which were themselves a scandal of construction. So why not force the thousands of secret policemen to abandon their dungeons and do a proper job of rebuilding their country with their hands?
At the very least, Syria’s poor must be given homes of which they can be proud. This is an opportunity as well as a burden. But post-World War Two experience does not, despite the Marshall Plan, hold out much immediate hope. I remember the rusting, corrugated iron nissen huts that surrounded my own home town of Maidstone for years after the war, all that bankrupt Britain could afford families in the decades of austerity. Despite the reconstruction of old Warsaw, the Polish capital and the fire-bombed German city of Dresden were later packed with grey concrete slab apartment blocks which were a disgrace for generations. Syria must not suffer that fate – a recreation of the pre-civil war housing which would only reproduce the same pre-war bitterness.
By chance, Thomas Piketty, France’s brilliant cover-boy economist, has also just been in Beirut, explaining how the Middle East is the most economically inequitable place in the world. Only 10 per cent of its 280 million people benefit from 60 per cent of its revenues, and Isis – the enemy of the world as well as Assad – “feeds on the frustration” of this inequality. The system favoured by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where supplicants come “to seek crumbs from the table”, does not work. Piketty favours an Arab Union based on the EU model – some hope.
But of course, the big problems remain. Who will fund the rebuilding of Syria? The Gulf States will surely refuse if Bashar remains. But Russia, China and Iran will assuredly want to put up the cash if he stays. Then it would be the Syrian émigré opposition which would be cut off from the country’s reconstruction. And the US, of course.
Or would a victorious Syrian army become the arbiter and guarantee of Syria’s economic future, whoever is the nation’s official leader? For as we all know, the world loves the military. Just look at the money we – I’m including Russia — have poured over the years into the armies of Egypt, the Gulf, Jordan, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and, of course, Israel. The Syrian army rebuilds the Syrian nation. A regime tautology, a cliché. But I can already imagine it on the billboards.