On 15 March 2019, Chatham House’s Syria From Within project, hosted within the Middle East and North Africa Programme, held a public conference titled ‘The Future of Syria: Towards Inclusive Peacebuilding’.
Organized in four thematic panels, this conference brought together policymakers, experts, academics and civil society leaders to identify the main institutional and socioeconomic challenges to stabilization in Syria, and to offer policy recommendations in support of an inclusive peacebuilding process.
Session 2: The Politics of Reconstruction
- Steven Heydemann, Smith College
- Nader Kabbani, Brookings Doha Center
- Alia Moubayed, Jefferies International
Moderator: Neil Quilliam, Chatham House
The ongoing eight-year war has devastated most of Syria’s infrastructure, making its reconstruction bill costly and subject to the political context and polarisation, a fact which underlines the crucial role this process will play in reshaping the future of the country.
As Steve Heydemann showed, there are multiple conflicting visions when it comes to what reconstruction is intended to accomplish. For instance, there is the regime vision of reconstruction and the one held by the EU, as well as other reconstruction pathways which could be imagined. However, at the moment Syria is still far away from the vision of inclusive and effective reconstruction.
Reconstruction needs to be effective and inclusive, noted Heydemann. It should be a process that will not result from programmes aiming to merely restore Syria to the state it was in before 2011. An inclusive and effective reconstruction process is one that doesn’t legitimate the current outcome in military terms and a process that doesn’t simply consolidate and constitutionalize the distribution of power and access to economic resources and opportunities in ways that reflect the conditions that were brought about as a result of the conflict.
The challenge is that the regime offers no opportunity for pursuing a more differentiated form of reconstruction. What is more challenging, as the speakers demonstrated, is how the regime tends to envisage reconstruction as an opportunity to reward those who remained loyal to it during the uprising.
Currently, the regime and its allies are engaging in urban reconstruction projects that can permanently make return impossible for citizens of some areas, pursuing demographic re-engineering. The regime’s reconstruction version is used as a tool to reassert the regime’s control over resources and to gain leverage within communities. It is important therefore to sustain a reconstruction policy that reflects rejection of those practices.
As Heydemann emphasized, policymakers need to ensure that the reconstruction process is not used to regenerate an authoritarian regime and to make sure there would be a recognition of the need to provide security and support to communities that have fled to make them feel that they can return to their homes and rebuild and not feel threatened by the regime.
However, as highlighted by Nader Kabbani, although it would be necessary to have clear guiding principles such as inclusion and effectiveness, it is also important to look at reconstruction from a different perspective to reflect on possibilities given the situation in Syria. He argued that a small-scale reconstruction, or reconstruction at a targeted scale, could be among the options to be considered in Syria so as not to limit the reconstruction debate to an approach that perceives the process as a one with ‘an on-off switch.’
In terms of external actors’ engagement, the panel discussed two sorts of actors, those who are already engaged and who don’t have enough resources, such as Russia and Iran, versus those who have excessive capacities, like the GCC countries and their construction sector, but for whom the incentive behind supporting reconstruction in Syria is countering Iran. Also, China might be involved in a bid to use Syria in its own global industry landscape.
It is important however to take into consideration the complexity level of this process. Using Lebanon as a comparative case, Alia Moubayed argued that it is important to emphasize that the reconstruction process needs not only a focus on a political solution but also on aspects of governance and institution building in order not to miss the opportunity to reshape the economy in a healthier way. There should be a careful look at the underlying causes, which are mainly socioeconomic, from inequality to urban planning and industrial policies. Some of the recommendations she presented are to focus on education for peace programmes, large-scale microfinance mechanisms and reconstruction of the social fabric and cohesion.
Laying down recommendations for policymakers regarding reconstruction in Syria, the panel listed a few key points which should be taken into account to ensure any reconstruction process would be inclusive, effective and above all in favour of the Syrian people. Speakers emphasised the need for international political pressure to create conditions for this process, and for creating an international alliance to address grassroots grievance, build domestic functionality and fund livelihood projects, while endorsing the general approach adopted by the EU in linking its participation in reconstruction to a political solution.
One dimension of inclusive reconstruction is the status of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Engaging in more community-based initiatives and applying bottom-up approaches involving civil society are all important to create a point of conversation for the Syrian people, which becomes a foundation for reconstruction. Donors also need to enact conditionality; they need to be willing to pull the plug if funds for reconstruction, as well as humanitarian aid, are used for the wrong purposes.