Rebuilding Syria: The History and Impact of War

By: Daphne Tong Jia Min, Lim Shi Jie Josiah

Research Head: Tan Chok Geow Editor: Sakshi Sanganeria

Illustration by Jasmine Abstract:

There is little doubt that rebuilding Syria will be difficult. With multiple sub-national and national actors each with divergent visions for the future of Syria, it is evident that fault lines will continue to threaten the fragile stability that the Assad regime enjoys for now. But geopolitics is just one of the challenges facing the war-torn nation. The loss of human capital, lack of funding and lasting psychological harm of the war are some of the other more tangible barriers to rebuilding the country. But to understand why these factors are so significant, we must first explore the impacts of the Syrian conflict and its monetary, human and social costs for a country already reeling from these crises pre- war. Therefore, our article seeks to outline the development of the Syrian conflict, investigate its impacts and from there, identify the main barriers to rebuilding the fractured country.

1. Background to the Syrian War As with most conflicts, the exact cause of the Syrian war cannot be isolated without excessive reductionism. Rather, the trigger points and main factors leading to the Syrian conflict serve as convenient starting points. The trigger point of the Syrian conflict is widely recognised to be the 2011 Arab Spring movement which saw protests demanding democracy and the end of the Assad regime erupt in cities such as Deraa in March 2011. In particular, the protests are largely believed to have been the result of declining economic conditions, severe droughts and prolonged ethnic discrimination against the majority population. While initially beginning as non-violent protests, the government’s military response (which saw hundreds killed and wounded in the process) soon led to both sides taking up arms. Some of the key actors during the height of the conflict included national actors such as the Assad government and its allies and sub-national militias including ISIL. But with each stakeholder pursuing divergent interests (ranging from access to resources to self-government and geopolitical leverage) significant disunity and infighting resulted. Rather than a war against the Assad regime then, Syria was at war with itself. But with the decline of ISIL, the brokerage of significant peace treaties and the persistence of the Assad government, it appears that the situation in Syria has stabilized, albeit with deep fault lines that continue to threaten the fragile peace. It is at this juncture that Syria looks to begin the process of rebuilding itself. 2. Impact of the War The Syrian war has had profound economic impact with a loss in GDP of US$226 billion - the equivalent of four times that of 2010’s GDP. During the first four years, an average of 538,000 jobs were destroyed annually, resulting in widespread unemployment of 78 per cent. The migration of 5 million refugees has also led to a significant loss of human capital. Outside Syria, severe sanctions dubbed the ‘Caesar Act’ were imposed to restrict trade which prevented foreign investments as well. The Syrian war has also exacted a high social cost as seen from the decline in the Syrian Human Development Index as it fell from 111th to 155th place. With the destruction of health facilities and schools and the use of schools for military installations, Syrians were also deprived of their basic needs as services became unavailable. The war also heightened levels of interpersonal mistrust in besieged areas, with trust declining by 47 per cent since. The prevalence of violence, degradation of living conditions and forced displacement have also contributed to a persistent sense of insecurity. 3. Rebuilding Syria With more than 400,000 deaths, over half the population displaced, and the loss of over 538 thousand jobs annually, estimates put the number of Syrians who are not working, in school or any form of training to be at 6.1 million individuals (World bank). This, coupled with the migration of a significant portion of the well-educated, has definitely led to the sizable loss of human capital in

Syria. With the lack of schooling or training for the next generation of Syrian workers, this translates to a prolonged drought in the pool of available talents that post-war Syria will be able to rely on to rebuild the key infrastructure and sectors of the economy. Therefore, skills atrophy and the loss of human capital as a result of inactivity will contribute to a shortage of skilled talent that will continue to delay Syria’s reconstruction. Unless more jobs are created and schools function, there will be a huge cost imposed on everyday Syrians who remain unable to lift themselves out of poverty. In the entire situation, perhaps the most obvious challenge is a financial one. In early 2019, the cost of rebuilding the country was estimated to range from $250 billion to $400 billion- far exceeding the entire government’s budget of $8.9 billion for 2018. For comparison, Syria’s nominal GDP was $17.1 billion in 2017. Moreover, turning to external funding is highly problematic. Economists estimate the investment gap to be between $250 billion and $1 trillion. However, given the sanctions imposed by Western countries, it remains highly unlikely that Syria will be able to access foreign markets for trade or for investment. Relying on its foreign allies, such as Russia and Iran,for financial support is likewise unlikely to yield results as both countries continue to prioritize their own economic problems. Lest we forget the social cost of war, “a key lesson from Iraq is that rebuilding infrastructure is no substitute for rebuilding society” (Dragovic, 2020). Indeed, social institutions such as a strong social safety nets and high levels of social trust are as, if not more, importantthan concrete and steel for any well-performing economy - much less country. If Syria hopes to develop its human capital, efforts must be made to mitigate the psychological harm of war- especially as such harm can leave genetic scars on young children and hamper intellectual and physical development. Reparation and communication is, likewise, essential to maintain the fragile peace that the Assad regime enjoys with certain rebel strongholds-lest these fault lines become new hotbeds for conflict. Perhaps the most significant barrier is the lack of political will. As it appears for now, Assad is not looking to rebuild Syria as a country. Instead, reconstruction efforts seem to be directed and biased and the worst hit rebel regions are being given little to no funding. Indeed, allegations of cronyism and resource and asset agreements with Russia and other wartime allies of the Assad government appear to confirm that Assad is using reconstruction as a way to reward allies and punish opposition - in a word, the consolidation of power. In closing therefore, the Syrian war has imposed a significant cost on its population while doing little to affect the continued rule of the Assad regime. But for now at least, the situation has stabilized and thought can be given to the question of rebuilding Syria. Where Syria goes from here depends quite fundamentally on what the Assad regime does - if it continues to politicize the reconstruction effort to consolidate power. For everyday Syrians then, one can only hope that the worst has come to pass. References

1. Bowman, B. (2020, February 28). What It Will Really Take To Rebuild Syria. Retrieved from 2. Daher, J. (n.d.). The Paradox of Syria's Reconstruction. Retrieved from https://carnegie- 3. Lloyd, W. (2019, July 8). The Economic State of Syria. Retrieved from 4. Mind the Gap: Why Mental Health Care Matters for Rebuilding Syria. (n.d.). Retrieved from 5. Sahloul, A., Lister, C., & Hauer, N. (2020, March 18). As Syria looks to rebuild, sanctions remain a major barrier to trade and investment. Retrieved from and-investment 6. Sarah Dadouch, A. K. (2020, January 23). Assad may have won the Syrian war, but now he's battling the economy. Retrieved from but-now-hes-battling-the-economy/2020/01/22/6c9e1d36-360c-11ea-a1ff- c48c1d59a4a1_story.html 7. Social degradation in Syria: how the war impacts on social capital. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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