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Passing the Torch to a New Generation of Syrians

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Damascus

Few, one imagines, in the Syrian Arab Republic these days  question the urgency and enormity of the task of  reconstruction of their ancient country from war inflicted destruction caused by a carnage  already more than half as long as World War I and approaching half as long as World War II.

For this ten millennium civilization and its thousands of priceless treasures, many partially destroyed, emergency efforts are needed today to preserve and protect the structures from thieves and war damage. Not many here would disagree with this priority of the Syrian government.

Historic sites damages or  in danger  include several  among those listed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List registry including the Ancient City of Aleppo (1986), Ancient City of Bosra (1980),Ancient City of Damascus(1979),Ancient Villages of Northern Syria (2011),Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din (2006) and the Site of Palmyra (1980). Centuries-old markets and archaeological treasures have already been gutted by flames and gunfire in places like Aleppo and Homs.

Examining and discussing in Syria and Lebanon, some of the assessments of damage now being painstakingly documented,  as well as  pursuing some summaries of the  data and analysis from on-the-scene government investigators,  it is clear that plans for reconstruction at the earliest possible opportunity are being readied. Taking the lead, and poised to help, is the Syrian population as well as officials exhibiting pent up kinesis waiting to be released at the first sign of a credible cease fire so as to begin to rebuild their country.

Reconstruction of Syria will be aided by three regime reshuffles since the beginning of the March 2011 uprising, which has infused much ‘new blood’ into the Syrian government. This process includes more than 20 changes at the ministerial level in recent months, in some cases replacing well entrenched and influential, if slightly fossilized, political operatives with overboard government roles from decades past. The bold reformist initiative is designed to reshuffle the corridors of power and have one claimed goal: To push and achieve reform.

More than a few officials have advised this observer of their deep convictions and their commitments for reforms which they note are spreading inside as well as outside government.  “God knows we made serious mistakes and misjudgments and we will be judged by God for our failures. But in the meantime we need to reform for our people, families and for our own self-respect.  And we are constructing massive reforms here in Syria which are not yet apparent but that will surprise many and please more.  We are Syrians! We know what is right and that changes and reforms are overdue and what our duty is!”

Last month’s most recent infusion of  7 Minsters, known for their competence  not  political pedigree,  include several ‘independents’  intended, according to one adviser to Syria’s President Assad,  to bring much needed new blood and energy to the leadership. Their mandate is to face the current challenges straight on while eschewing entangling perceived political obligations from the past.  These ‘best and the brightest’  are being empowered here to help rebuild Syria, it was explained to this observer  by two university professors as being a government priority but without the American best and brightest noblesse oblige arrogance  and fascist tendencies of the Bundy brothers and McNamara’s ‘whiz kids’ from the 1960’s.

The most recent changes have included bringing in the following gentlemen (why no women!) who are known for their competence rather than simply as stalwarts of the ruling Baath party.

Qadri Jamil: Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs
– Malek Ali: Minister of Higher Education
– Khodr Orfali: Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade
– Kamal Eddin Tu’ma: Minister of Industry
– Samir Izzat Qadi Amin: Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection
– Bishr Riyad Yazigi: Minister of Tourism
– Hassib Elias Shammas: Minister of State, replacing Najm Eddin Khreit.

One of the “new breed” of Syrian public servants is Bishr Riyad Yazigi, a non-Baathist, independent Member of Parliament, who appears  beholden only to his vision of restoring Syria and its vital tourism industry, as part of rebuilding his country, and  for which he was appointed  Minister on 8/22/12. .

Minister Yazigi, who I first met  up on Mount Quisoun a several weeks ago is distinctively Kennedyesque in his good looks, charm, vigor, progressive ideas and charisma.

A  businessman, born in Aleppo in 1972, is currently the youngest member of the Assad Cabinet, land like others, is not a Baath Party member. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Informatics Engineering from Aleppo University (1995) and is an independent member of the People’s Assembly (Syrian Parliament) for Aleppo city. He is married and has three children.

Yazigi is reputed to spend these days often working around the clock to rebuild Syria’s tourist industry.  “Not just to help our economy, even though tourism brought in more than $8 billion annually before the crisis two and one half years ago,” one official who admires Yazigi explained, “But the Tourism Ministry is working to reconnect to the World  the way we Syrians used to reach out.  Syria’s treasures, from the cradle of civilization that we are, fundamentally belong to all of humanity and please accept our promise that we will do our best to repair all damage to the antiquities and will welcome every assistance as we shall welcome every visitor again before long, enshallah (God willing).”

Earlier this month, Minister Yaziqui stressed to a gathering of “Loyalty to Syria” members anxious to start rebuilding their country, the importance of NGO’s in revealing the reality of events in Syria to global public opinion and pledged to work with them to present the image of Syria as a tourist destination given its richness with historical and religious monuments. Meeting members of “Loyalty to Syria” Initiative, he pointed out that the Tourism Ministry is working to show the image of Syria as a tourist destination of unparallelled richness of historical and religious monuments and that all Syrian must redouble their efforts to achieve their goals of “boosting the social values and developing national capacity to serve the best interest of Syria.”

The Syrian reformers tasks  are daunting.  Yet so were those, admittedly on a smaller scale, that faced Lebanon following 33 days of near carpeting bombing by the Israeli government employing, as they have done for more than three decades, a vast array of American weapons gifted by American taxpayers with neither their knowledge, consent or opportunity to object.

The cost of rebuilding Syria is perhaps incalculable. The Syrian government announced this week that it has earmarked 50 billion Syrian pounds ($250 million) for reconstruction next year in the war-torn country. For 2013, the figure was 300 billion Syrian pounds. ($ 1.2 billion).

But these sums are a drop in the bucket.

According to Syrian real estate experts, including Ammar Yussef, if the war in Syria suddenly stopped and reconstruction began today, around $73 billion would be needed to put the country back on track. Yussef, insists that the bombings, fighting and sabotage of infrastructure during the conflict has as of August 30, 2013, partially or completely destroyed 1.5 million dwellings. If the rebuilding were to start today, led by the new ‘reform team’ it would include rebuilding more than 11,000   sites, some being full blocks, requiring 15,000 trucks, 10,000 cement mixers and more than six million skilled workers.

A  U.S.-educated economist, Abdullah al-Dardari, now working with Beirut-based UN development agency, claims that more than two years of fighting have cost Syria at least $60 billion and caused the vital oil industry to crumble. A quarter of all homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, and much of the medical system is in ruins.

Al Dardari’s team estimates the overall damage to Syria’s economy, three years into the conflict, at $60-$80 billion. Syria’s economy has shrunk by about 35 percent, compared to the 6 percent annual growth Syria marked in the five years before the conflict began in March 2011. The economy has lost nearly 40 percent of its GDP, and foreign reserves have been extensively depleted.  As noted above, unemployment has shot up from 500,000 before the crisis to at least 2.5 million this year. The fighting has destroyed or damaged 1.2 million homes nationwide, a quarter of all Syrian houses, al-Dardari claims. In addition, around 3,000 schools and 2,000 factories have been destroyed, and almost half of the medical system — including hospitals and health centers — is in ruins. Before the uprising, the oil sector was a pillar of Syria’s economy, with the country producing about 380,000 barrels a day and exports — mostly to Europe — bringing in more than $3 billion in 2010. But the vital industry has buckled as rebels captured many of the country’s oil fields, setting wells aflame and looters scooping up crude. Exports have ground practically to a standstill as production has dwindled.

Syria does have vital labor resource to perform high quality reconstruction and her workers are ready to begin today given that the current unemployment in Syria noted above, according to this observers’ interlocutors at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Industry. Syrian workers are perhaps the best and most reliable in the world.  Well known for building and maintaining Lebanon and the Levant, even though currently paid one half to one third what less productive nationals receive.

Despite the enormous challenges, there appears some light on the horizon if those governments involving themselves in the Syria crisis and wringing their hands at the toll of human misery and destruction, will achieve a permanent ceasefire during the current thaw in serious communications.

The new generation of officials entrusted with Syria’s salvation and reconstruction appear to be in place and are anxious to be allowed into the war zones. The politician’s duty are to open their paths without further delays

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (SSSP) in Shatila Camp (www.sssp-lb.com) and is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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