November 16, 2016 - The fourth panel of the Middle East Institute’s 70th Annual Conference, "Syria's Long-Term Humanitarian and Development Challenges," featured Abdullah Al Dardari (UNESCWA), Lina Sergie Attar (Karam Foundation), Shantayanan Devarajan (World Bank), Juliette Tolay (Penn State, Harrisburg), and moderator Barbara Plett Usher (BBC).
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Barbara Plett Usher: [Inaudible] ... to the new State Department. In this panel, as Kate was saying, we’re going to be looking at the long term humanitarian and development challenges facing Syria, which is a very weighty topic. So I’m very pleased to be joined by this impressive panel of experts to try to unpack it a bit. Let me quickly introduce them.
Right next to me is Abdullah Al Dardari. He is the deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, formerly the deputy prime minister for economic affairs in Syria from 2005 to 2011.
Sitting next to him is Lina Sergie Attar. She is a Syrian-American architect, the cofounder and CEO of the nonprofit Karam Foundation, which works with Syrian refugees.
Next to her we have Shanta Devarajan from the World Bank. He’s the chief economist for Middle East and North Africa region.
And then next to him is Juliette Tolay. She is an assistant professor of political science at the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg. And she has expertise on asylum and migration with a focus on Turkey, Europe and the Middle East.
So as Kate was saying this is humanitarian and development challenges we’re looking at, which are very clear. Nearly 5 million refugees are registered in the region, 6 million displaced internally. That is half the population in Syria had before the conflict started. And the conflict is not over. And that’s not counting the hundreds of thousands killed, living under siege in Syria. The country itself has become a pile of rubble in Abdullah’s words.
I’d like to start with you, Abdullah, on the issue to begin with on refugees. It looks as if the thinking and the planning for refugee assistance is moving more from an emergency humanitarian basis to a longer term development approach. Does this mean A: That basic needs have been met? And B: Does it show a sort of acknowledgement that these refugees are not going to be going home anytime soon?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: Well, no, I don’t think it means basic needs have been met. In fact, resources fall short of the needs, of the basic needs of Syrians inside and outside Syria. But it indicates a recognition that pure humanitarian contributions to the Syrian refugee crisis will not be sufficient by 2014. Even 2013, it has become clear to the UN system and the international community that the continuation of only humanitarian support to Syrians is not sufficient. This is a protracted conflict.
The humanitarian support designed by the UN system is mainly designed for short term conflicts, and whether natural or manmade. By 2014 the UN and the international community realize that first there are challenges inside Syria. There are issues inside Syria and forces that are feeding into the conflict. And mainly because of the lack of resilience, the difficulties of livelihoods, people started leaving Syria. That’s why you started to hear about the transition from humanitarian to resilience to early recovery.
Actually when the Syrian refugee crisis exploded and started going to Europe, this is where the thinking started too about how can we change the approach. In the London Conference in February 2015, 2016, there was a decision to focus on education, to focus on health, to ensure that there is no lost generation. All great. First the biggest problem is inside Syria itself. And there was no clear approach adopted by the London Conference on what to do about inside Syria. We understand the political sensitivity of operating inside Syria, especially inside government controlled areas.
Secondly, the signal was to the host community, especially in Lebanon and Jordan that this is going to be a protracted presence of Syrians in those two countries, and in Turkey of course. And that gave – actually it produced a very strong reaction from the governments of those countries, especially in Lebanon.
The idea that Syrians will be staying for long term and accepting that longevity of the refugee conflict and crisis has created a very strong pushback by those governments. And actually we in the international community don’t have answers to all the questions raised by the refugees themselves. Am I going to get education in Lebanon? Am I going back home? Is there money to rebuild my home when I go back?
We will be talking about, of course, reconstruction. But to rebuild 3 million homes in ten years’ time, which is going to be a very unsurmountable task, this is the least the refugees need to achieve in order to go back home. Who will be paying for that? God knows. We’ll be talking about that, of course.
So the London Conference, albeit an excellent signal that the international community realizes the changing nature and the protracted nature of the refugee crisis, it was also a signal to the host communities and host countries that this is a protracted presence and you have to deal with that. With all of the political pushback that we have been seeing in Beirut, in Amman, and in Ankara.
Barbara Plett Usher: Well, Shanta, how has the World Bank been responding to that? The needs, but also the political pushback. I’ve looked at a little bit of some your initiatives or the plans of some of your initiatives. And it seems to me you’re trying to create – well, first of all, make sure people have jobs, which is a whole issue in and of itself. But also to try and get the seeds of a private sector going could be transferred to Syria if and when. Could you just tell us a little bit about what you’re up to?
Shantayanan Devarajan: Yeah, I think the key issue is jobs. And it actually cuts across both the humanitarian and the development front. When you talk to refugees, even those who are getting some food and other support from UNHCR, you realize the fact that they don’t have a job is actually more than not having a job. It takes away their dignity. And I’ve had families come and tell me, “Whatever you can do, if you can find us a job.”
And so we have prioritized finding jobs without necessarily taking a stand as to whether these people will be permanent or not. And let me just give you one example of one thing we did in Jordan, which is to set up a series of special enterprise zones. So these are places where Jordanians as well as Syrians can work.
And the Jordanians agreed to give work permits to Syrian refugees. They’ve agreed to give up to 200,000 work permits. There are about 30,000 already delivered. And the other aspect of the special enterprise zone is that the products from the zone will enter the European Union at concessional rates so that they’re actually getting duty free access to the zone. And this is supposed to act as an incentive for firms to invest in those SEZs in order to be able to sell to the European Union.
And one other aspect and this gets to the reconstruction that I know we’ll talk about, and Abdullah already referred, that at least the biggest zone is set up right near the Syrian-Jordanian border. And by the way, some of the investors in the zone are Syrians who have been displaced. They were going to go to the Gulf. And now they’re thinking of investing in the SEZ.
But this could also act as a way of incubating the post-conflict Syrian economy; that you have factories run by Syrians that are on this side of the border, but that it would be easy for them to then move across the border once there is peace. And this is something, it’s really important. Barbara, you alluded to it as well, which is the development of a private sector in a post-conflict economy is absolutely crucial.
If you expect the government to just revive the economy, it’s not gonna happen. And we’ve tried that. We tried that in Afghanistan. It didn’t work. So if there’s a way to actually develop the private sector using the special enterprise zones that actually might be a way to make the peace last in Syria.
Just one other thing, though, I should add is it’s not just jobs that we’re working on. The other is education. Half the refugee children in Lebanon are out of school. And think about it. Some of them have been out of school for over five years. This is unconscionable. And we cannot let these children miss out on an education. And, of course, you know that that can also lead to all sorts of other practices and them joining other unsavory groups.
So we are also setting up education programs, both in Lebanon and soon in Jordan, for the Syrian refugees. Sometimes schools are running double shifts so that the children can go to schools that are also being used by the local population. And, again, quite impressively I think up to 500,000 this year. The program just started in September. Already 100,000 have been enrolled anew in this program.
And then finally just to say the question is how all of this being financed? And there I think this is one of those places where I think the World Bank has actually been able to do something that hadn’t been done before. Both Jordan and Lebanon are what we call middle income countries. So they’re not eligible for concessional loans from the World Bank or other places.
But what we’ve managed to do is raise some money for projects that help refugees and host communities; they can actually get concessional loans. So these are being financed by an international coalition of donors who are paying the interest essentially for these loans so that Jordan and Lebanon could actually host these refugees.
And in that sense I think that we are fulfilling what – and Abdullah referred to this earlier that the welfare of refugees is a global public good. It is everybody’s responsibility. It shouldn’t be just the responsibility of Jordan and Lebanon who just happen to be located right next to Syria. And I think this concessional financing facility, which is growing actually, is one way the international community can actually deliver on that global public good.
Barbara Plett Usher: Shanta, you are involved also in helping refugees, helping Syrians, but from the grassroots level, from a different perspective. Can you tell us your view of how the bigger agencies are doing? Do you think they’re taking an effective approach from your viewpoint? Can you coordinate better with them? How can you work together most effectively?
Shanta Devarajan: I think you meant Lina, right?
Lina Sergie Attar: Lina?
Barbara Plett Usher: Did I say Shanta?
Shanta Devarajan: Yeah, yeah.
Lina Sergie Attar: It’s okay.
Barbara Plett Usher: That’s why she kept looking around. Sorry, Lina.
Shanta Devarajan: I don’t know the answer to the question.
Lina Sergie Attar: Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of work to be done. And there’s a lot more work to be done. I’m actually very happy to hear these ideas from the World Bank. I think that the kinds of things that we’re talking about, which is jobs and education, are things that Syrians have known to be what is missing for many, many years now.
It doesn’t take that much to know that when you have a war and you have aerial strikes and you start to have a refugee problem that started in 2011, the end of 2011 and began to grow very quickly in 2012, that these kids are out of schools. I saw it when I visited Syria myself and realized that our tiny little organization in Chicago needs to revamp itself to completely focus on long term solutions on education, on trying to get these kids into schooling and be prepared for the future.
We’re in 2016, now we’re talking 5 million refugees, 6 million IDPs. The bombs are still falling. And it’s very difficult for Syrians to be resilient inside Syria when they’re living under bombs. I think the Syrian people have proven to be extremely resilient for the circumstances that they’ve had to live through. And we see that every single day. When we had zones that were not being bombed we watched civil society develop itself. We’ve watched schools develop themselves. We’ve watched municipalities; local municipalities try to govern itself.
But then that was bombed over and over and over again. And what we’re seeing now is the final stage where a year after the refugee crisis started in Europe and the world began paying attention, then suddenly everybody wants to create and innovate and think about jobs and education. And it’s coming way too late, but it’s appreciated. I think that we need a lot more innovation.
I think we can’t just talk about putting kids in schools in Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey without talking about how do we educate children who have missed four or five years of school. These are the problems that I see on the ground where families are very distressed. When you have children that are in middle school who have missed their entire elementary school, and the solution is to put them back in school and they’re behind, we haven’t found flexible ways of educating at scale.
And I think this is where we need a much more innovative entrepreneurial and technological approach to catch up to the crisis. And that’s where I think the biggest problem is with Syria, is I think that it exposed failure at every level that we have; political failure, international community’s failure, military failure, and the aid agencies’ failure to be able to respond to a crisis at the scale in this day and age in a way that’s radically different from the crises that came before, and to be able to respond with flexibility and in context.
So I think that the things that we’re seeing now that are happening which are good, especially for instance in Jordan, are happening because actually the Syrian refugees in Zaatari refused to live in a camp that was built for them like every other camp that’s been built for the past 30 years by UNHCR.
And they decided that they’re not going to be okay living in a plastic tent and getting two meals a day. And they started what they called the Champs-Elysee and opened up their shops. And they have a $3 million a month economy in bike rentals. Because that’s what Syrians do. They open up their shops. They sell. And the refugees are middle class Syrians who were able to get out.
And the refugees who got to Europe are even higher than that; that had thousands of dollars to pay the smugglers to get on a boat and get to Europe.
Barbara Plett Usher: Can I just ask you about that?
Lina Sergie Attar: Yes.
Barbara Plett Usher: Because we hear again and again that they are middle class; teachers, doctors, whatnot. Why aren’t they maybe working in the communities as teachers, as doctors? Maybe not as bike sellers. But there’s a lot of talent and a lot of resources there in the community. There may be complications moving, say, into Jordan and working as a doctor, or into Lebanon. But within the community, can those types of professions be utilized better/
Lina Sergie Attar: Which community?
Barbara Plett Usher: Within the Syrian community like –
Lina Sergie Attar: Inside Syria?
Barbara Plett Usher: No, inside the refugee communities.
Lina Sergie Attar: I think that you begin to have problems, logistical problems in terms of work permits and licenses, and being in a foreign country using these professional degrees. But in a lot of way they are being utilized. In Turkey, Syrian teachers teach Syrian kids. I think that in Jordan, Lebanon, they’re utilizing some Syrian teachers. I think with the more technical degrees it becomes more difficult. By the time you get to Europe we’re seeing people start over from scratch.
And it’s devastating because talent is being squandered. And the most important thing is that Syria’s human capacity, which may be the last thing that we actually have, is being squandered every single year, every single month that we have millions of children out of school. This is going to translate into years forward where development is stalled because we are squandering our human capacity.
Barbara Plett Usher: Juliette, you have a close eye on Turkey, which is also an important host country. Can you tell us how the government and the people there are thinking about the refugees especially as the prospect of their return seems less likely, at least in the near future as Abdullah was saying. Are they adopting new policies? Are attitudes changing?
Juliette Tolay: So actually when we talk about Turkey specifically, in many ways in contrast with what you see in Lebanon or Jordan, the government really has taken kind of a leadership role in kind of dealing with the crisis and taking care of refugees, which has some advantages because you have government agencies with all the structure, and the bureaucracy kind of here and helping with the issue.
It also has some disadvantages because it also makes the situation more political and kind of enmeshed with foreign policy and domestic policy considerations. But if you look kind of more specifically at the policy level, I would argue that the Turkish government in many ways kind of switched from the kind of short term answers to maybe not the long term, but at least the medium term answers relatively early on in the crisis.
Basically they have adopted this temporary protection directive under which Syrian refugees are – that is the status that Syrian refugees have in Turkey. And once Syrian refugees are registered in the country they have access to healthcare, to the kind of national healthcare system, which is for many issues, it’s actually free or at relatively low cost. They have access to the education, kind of the Turkish public education system. This came a lot later, but since last January they have access to the possibility of having access to working permits.
So the procedure is still a little bit complex and there are some issues as to why not many of them have yet been able to acquire these permits. But you see that those things kind of have been put in place by the Turkish government. Now the problem with those is, first of all, there is a major language issue for Syrian refugees coming into Turkey. We are talking about Arabic versus Turkish.
And this is creating issues, for instance to get access to healthcare services, because you don’t actually – it’s very difficult to explain kind of what is your healthcare concerns to a doctor who doesn’t speak Arabic [inaudible]. That’s where we’ve seen situations where Syrian doctors whose diplomas are not technically recognized, but can actually work alongside sometimes as translators with Turkish doctors to kind of help with the situation.
But this is even more so a problem with education because, yes, Syrian children can have access to the Turkish public system, but without any way to somehow kind of close the gap in having the access to Turkish language. It’s actually very difficult for them to be able to pursue their studies here. Hence the flourishment of kind of a parallel Syrian school system that we see happening in Turkey.
There are also issues particularly regarding the job market. A lot of Syrians are employed in the informal market. And so the idea of providing working permits was to kind of take them out and providing them better protections. But that also means that employers are not thinking that they are necessarily so advantageous anymore if they have to be given the minimum wage, if they have to be declared officially to authorities.
So a lot of refugees are actually saying, “I don’t even dare asking my employer to approve my application for working permit,” because of this issue. Since January, we’ve had very little numbers of people, again, applying for work permits.
And maybe kind of moving to the next step, more worrisome is that the status of temporary protection that Syrian refugees have in Turkey, which is again providing relatively good access to a number of services, is also kind of keeping them stuck in a medium situation. It doesn’t give them access to apply for refugee status in Turkey.
And so far, although this is part of a new conversation that is happening in Turkey, it is not giving them – normally if you reside legally five consecutive years in Turkey, you can actually apply for Turkish citizenship. Under a temporary protection scheme you cannot actually do that. It doesn’t qualify as being residency in Turkey. So they cannot apply for citizenship. They cannot apply for refugee status. So they’re kind of stuck in this temporary protection situation which is creating some problems.
Barbara Plett Usher: Just briefly on the back of that, is there a danger? How much of a danger is there for the Syrian refugees in Turkey and frankly in the region becoming a permanent underclass? You’re talking about them in sort of limbo. I know in Lebanon, would there be a Palestinian like situation with the Syrians with less rights, less protections? How does it look in Turkey?
Juliette Tolay: So it’s a not so easy question. In many ways we see a little bit already the underclass kind of being considered. Because even qualified Syrian nationals are being underemployed, if they are employed at all on the Turkish markets. You see a lot of kind of begging on the street by Syrian refugees, which is probably representing a minority of Syrian refugees in Turkey. But it’s a visible minority that is creating some backlash with the local population. So in many ways we have that already.
Barbara Plett Usher: But structurally I mean.
Juliette Tolay: Yeah, structurally it’s gonna be more difficult from previous refugee movements into Turkey to kind of integrate and kind of melt within Turkish society. Because Turkey used to have, and in many ways still have a very kind of nationalist understanding of what it means to be Turkish.
And so, previous waves of refugees from Bulgarians who are actually kind of Turkish minority people from Bulgaria coming into Turkey were able to kind of assimilate much more easily in Turkey. This is gonna be very different for Syrian refugees. Now that said, there are some long term solutions that are being considered by the Turkish governments. Some of them are about resettlement in a third country.
It’s been kind of a long tradition for the Turkish government to resettle refugees coming into Turkey into Western countries for the most part. And this is something that we see also a little bit with the EU-Turkey deal. But otherwise the other two kind of long term solutions that the Turkish government’s talking about, one has been the announcement back in July before the attempted coup in Turkey, so it changed a little bit, the overall framework.
But was to open the possibility of giving some kind of path to citizenship to some Syrians. And we understood later that it was probably mostly to qualified Syrians so that there would not be too much of a brain drain and that Turkey would be able to retain the most qualified Syrians, which might be problematic for Syria, might also be problematic for the resettlement otherwise. But this created a major backlash in Turkey of people being kind of really nervous and not really kind of ready to accept this idea.
And I think the way the Turkish president kind of presented and handled the situation actually really probably made the situation worse than what it could have been because the public was not prepared. Because Syrian refugees already are very polarizing, dividing issue in Turkey. So this doesn’t seem to be working.
The other kind of long term solution that since we’ve seen the Turkish government talking about was actually talking about the safe zone that Turkey is planning to create within Syria. And we’ve seen that with the military incursion that Turkey’s having in Syria since last summer, and kind of the idea of being able to kind of relocate refugees back into Syria in those zones deemed safe by the Turkish government.
None of this at this point seems to be a kind of comprehensive, really good, strong, long term solution for Syrian refugees. So I think the possibility of having this permanent underclass is a possibility.
Barbara Plett Usher: I want to move to reconstruction. But just before I do that, Lina, could you just give us a few brief examples of the kinds of projects you think work?
Lina Sergie Attar: So I relate completely to the examples in Turkey of the difficulty of children and families to integrate into Turkish society because of the language barrier. And what Karam Foundation has been doing since 2012 is investing in Turkish language programs inside Syrian schools. Now this has become mandatory. But when we started no kids were learning Turkish in Syrian schools.
We’ve expanded that for the teenagers, for them to be able to get into the [inaudible] and the other mandatory courses that are needed to get into universities. Because the Turkish government has provided many scholarships for Syrian refugee students. But when they get to that level of education they need to be very good in Turkish and fluent. So they need to be prepared. So we’ve started to add these courses into high schools that we work with.
One of the things that we’re working on right now in Reyhanli, which is on the border with Syria and Turkey, and we’ve been working there for three and a half years, is we’re developing something called the Karam House. And we’re really proud of this project. It’s going to open in January. And it’s basically an evolution of all of the programming that we’ve been doing over the past few years with refugee families and children in Turkey.
And the Karam House will be an innovation center for the community and by the community where Syrian refugee teens, both boys and girls, can access technology, access the Internet, access mentorship and skill training that help them actually, first of all, be teenagers, have access to therapeutic programs, be able to connect to the Internet, be able to learn about computer literacy, to learn how to code. It will have a full maker space. So they’ll have 3-D printers, laser cutters, robotics.
And we have mentors from all around the world, over 200 mentors who have already mentored with us who are willing to come and visit the Karam House once a month in addition to a fully trained Syrian staff that will be able to get them courses in language acquisition and all sorts of skill training for them to be able to rebuild their own futures.
But the most important thing is the stuff that we teach at the Karam House and we give to the families in terms of awareness are things that they actually requested from us. So, for instance, our journalism program is one of the most popular programs that we have for Syrian refugee teens, which is very strange to me because growing up in Syria the last thing you wanted to be was a journalist, believe me. It was kind of a very useless profession unless you just wanted to be speaking for the regime.
But now kids growing up in the revolution, they are fascinated by journalism. They’re fascinated by video editing. They’re fascinated by social media and YouTube. So once we had a journalist with us covering one of our missions which we bring artists, and therapists, and dentists, and writers, and all sorts of creative figures to work with the kids.
And they asked the journalist to give them a workshop. And she used to work for the New York Times. She’s Syrian. And she set up shop in the garden of the school, and we suddenly had a journalism program. And it evolved into kids actually taking these classes and connecting with their mentors long term over Facebook. And now we actually have kids who had never taken a journalism course and are employed in Istanbul as fulltime journalists. One of them, Ahmed, who’s now 19 and applying to university already had two front page stories in a newspaper in Istanbul.
So when you listen to the community and evolve your programs depending on where they’re at. Because refugees’ needs are not static either, they change as time goes by, then we witness a lot of success in our programming. And we also see a lot of pride, and that dignity comes back in terms of being able to shape the programs that are actually serving them.
Barbara Plett Usher: We’re gonna talk now a little bit about reconstruction, which seems a bit theoretical especially with what’s happening today. But nevertheless, again, the World Bank has a map for that. So I’m going to speak to Abdullah in a minute about the governance issues around reconstruction. But first, Shanta, how do you rebuild Syria?
Shanta Devarajan: It’s a simple question. I wish we had a map. But I do think it’s an important question. And we should try to answer it now. The last thing we want is for there to be peace and then we launch a study that takes another six to 12 months to come up with a reconstruction program. So the focus is right now, even though it seems a little remote as you said, is to say what can we do on the day after? And at the end I’m gonna say there may be things we can do on the day before as well. And we’ll come back to that.
So what can we do? Well, one is to try to estimate the magnitude of the reconstruction and, indeed, how much it’s going to cost as a way of trying to mobilize some of the financing for the reconstruction program. And actually this is some work that Abdullah did with his team. One approach was to see, well, how much is it going to cost to bring the Syrian GDP, which has fallen by about $170 billion relative to what it would be in the absence of war. How much would it cost to bring it back up to its 2010 level of GDP? So this is not super-ambitious. And how much is it going to cost over a ten year period?
And if you put the numbers together and you make certain assumptions about the efficiency of investment, and this is gonna be critical because – and that depends on the governance arrangement, which I hope Abdullah will talk about. But you get something of the order of $200 billion. That’s the bill.
And, again, we should start mobilizing those finances now as a way of both being ready to move on day one. But also if we are successful in mobilizing those kinds of finances, that might actually be a signal to the combatants in the war as well. This is maybe the dividend that is waiting for you.
Just keep in mind that the Bretton Woods conference that did something similar for the peace after World War II was held in July, 1944, a year before the war ended. And they actually set up the IMF and the World Bank and the WTO as a result of that conference.
We have also done a similar analysis from the bottom up where using satellite imagery and triangulating it with the social media, trying to just look at what is the damage in six cities including Aleppo, and identifying it across the different sectors. And the numbers that come out of that are roughly comparable to that $200 billion. It’s telling us a consistent story, although this is based on some very strong assumptions and subject to a lot of uncertainty.
But the other thing I just want to say a couple of things have come out when you start looking at the damage on the ground is the disproportionate damage to health and education facilities. In particular health facilities. It’s really troubling that the clinics, the hospitals, and, of course, the doctors and nurses are all leaving the country or have been killed. And this is having a profound effect on Syria as we speak.
There are communicable diseases that had been eliminated that are coming back. Syria is descending into a low income country with all of its characteristics, not just its per capita income, but the kind of diseases you see in places in Sub-Sahara, in Africa, are coming back. So the health sector I think has to be given a privilege.
And this is where I come back to starting not only on the day after but maybe the day before. If there are things that we can do, with the international community can do in order to restore some of those health facilities in such a way that you can deliver the health services that this population needs so that we don’t have a whole generation that is going to be suffering from health problems for a long time.
And in particular, and I think Lina alluded to this, of mental health. The trauma that is created by war for both refugees and internally displaced people, and even people – think about the people who are not even internally displaced who are just stuck there, is really profound. And, again, we need to bring in as much of those mental health support facilities.
And actually Juliette was referring to the situation in Turkey. This is a particular problem for the language issue when you want to provide counseling in Arabic from Turkey. And they are using Syrian professionals as translators for mental health.
So I think not only should we have this plan which, again, Abdullah and I and others are gonna be working on over the next six months, but also we should in designing the plan think about interventions, strategic interventions that can take place today in order to shore up the human capital of the Syrian people lest we have a whole generation that is denied health and education, and which has long term effects.
Barbara Plett Usher: So, Abdullah, one of the big unknowns in this plan is who would actually carry it out, what sort of government. What sort of government would be needed? And when you’re thinking about this, are you thinking about a unified Syria?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: What sort of government? Let me start from the challenges to lead us to the government’s prerequisites of any successful reconstruction plan. First of all, I want to give some numbers and examples to highlight the challenges. Take the housing sector: 190 percent of all homes that were rebuilt, that were built in Syria in the ten years from 2000 to 2010 were destroyed. Syria lost almost 2 million homes out of 4.3 million homes; total number of houses in the country.
To rebuild those, the best scenario, the best case scenario, we will need to build 200,000 homes every year to re-compensate the destruction and the annual normal growth requirement of the population, which is another 100,000 homes. 300,000 homes per year.
Before the conflict in the hay day of Syrian economic liberalization, I don’t want to give any – because I was involved in that liberalization. So whether it was good or bad, it’s a big discussion, and it’s a controversial question in Syria. And I’m happy that whatever I did was controversial. But in the best days of Syria before the conflict the country managed to build 90,000 units every year.
So how could the Syrian institution and the economy and the structure build 300,000 homes every year for ten years post-conflict? That’s one. To build 300,000 units every year you need 30 million tons of cement and 5 million tons of iron bar. The country produces 5 million tons of cement. So it will have to import 25 million tons of cement every year and 5 million tons of iron every year.
The country doesn’t have the roads, the ports, the crossing points to bring 25 million tons of cement, let alone the havoc that would reek on the balance of payment by importing everything for reconstruction, noting that the Syrian construction industry has been wiped out during this conflict. So one of the things one could think of to do now pre – the day after is to look at the Syrian construction industry.
30 million tons of cement requires 1.4 billion cubic meters of water to mix and produce concrete. The country is already a water poor country. It does not have 1.4 billion cubic meters of water to mix and produce concrete.
I’m just giving you the tip of the iceberg of the numbers that myself and Shanta and the teams, and the team of 1,500 Syrians, have been working on for the past three years, by the way. It is gonna be a nightmarish exercise.
However, this is not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is the difficult choices that are facing the Syrian people, and the tradeoffs that they have to face, and the decision they have to make. Where do we rebuild first? Homes or Aleppo? We will not have the resources to rebuild both at the same time.
Now the question is, going back to your question, is what government? Do we have institutions where Syrians can negotiate freely between the losers and the winners on the short term and the long run? Who will rebuild? Who will benefit from rebuilding now? Who will have to wait? Do we rebuild health or education first? We don’t have money for both. We don’t have resources for both. Who will make such tough decisions? What inclusive political institutions we have in the country that are capable of bringing Syrians together to negotiate and agree on those very tough questions ahead of us?
Rebuilding Syria is a question of political economy rather than economics or engineering. Economics and engineering are going to be extremely important. But to answer your question, if we don’t have an inclusive governance, if we don’t have a representative governance, if we don’t have an accountable governance, if we don’t have capable institutions – one of the things Shanta referred to was if you want to reduce the funding gap between the resources available and the resources needed, you have to improve what we call the incremental capital outward ratio of investments in Syria; the investment efficiency.
To improve ICOR, you need dramatic governance reforms. You need dramatic supply side reforms in the Syrian economy. Things like improving the labor market and liberalizing it. Who would take such a decision in Syria? Things like dramatically improving the business environment. What business environment if you don’t have safety, security, and confidence in the political system that should be built post-conflict. These are the difficult issues that we have to make.
So what I’m trying to say is that a country like Syria which enjoyed relatively high human development indicators before the conflict and all these indicators have been wiped out, today we are equivalent to Somalia in human development index after being pioneering in the region in these issues. To add to the numbers that we heard about the hemorrhage of Syrian human resources, the country had around 40,000 doctors before the war. Today 27,000 of them left the country. When and how and what type of confidence measures we can send to bring them back? So that’s one point.
The other point about is it a one Syria or a fragmented Syria? We still believe that the only way forward is with one Syria; a united Syria. Syria, by the way, will not be divided into three or four parts. Syria would implode into hundreds if not thousands of pieces. That would shatter the Middle East as we know it for good. Every single country in the region will be dramatically affected by such a scenario. So let’s not even think about it. There are ideas of appointing a governance in Rakka after liberating it. It won’t work like this. Either Syria as a united country or it is not; it is hundreds of small fiefdoms, not even states.
Barbara Plett Usher: But there is all this talk about political devolution, isn’t there?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: I’m coming to that. There is definitely a need for local level political and economic decision making. There is a need for decentralization. There is a need for devolution. However, again, we have to be very careful. Reconstruction by nature is a very central process. You cannot reconstruct an electricity system in a country in a decentralized manner. Iraq is the best example for that. You cannot reconstruct a national railway system in a decentralized manner. There are practical things that we have to consider.
Decentralization without an inclusive governance in Damascus is not a panacea for the Syrian political issue. Decentralization has to be democratic just as much as central authority has to be democratic. It has to be inclusive just as much as the central authority has to be inclusive. Decentralization of an ethnic, partitioning of the country will not work. Decentralization based on geographical issues and administrative dimensions, it may work. Syria is a very central country. It has been designed to be central. Because the Syrian modern identity is a new one. It’s a creation of post-colonial force; World War I.
We have to be very careful when we play with the question of devolution. Yes to decentralization, but we have to be very careful. We cannot rebuild with such a massive reconstruction requirement. Because, again, if we don’t have enough resources to rebuild both homes and Aleppo at the same time, how could the decentralized authorities of homes and Aleppo decide? Where would they get their resources from? There has to be a national consensus on the major issues.
But at the same time, letting as much authority and freedom to the local level. One of the most difficult challenges Syria faces is that tricky balance between a unified one country and a decentralized country. If we can manage that difficult balance I think we’ll be on the right way ahead.
Barbara Plett Usher: You just painted what sounds like an impossible picture there. But before we get to the kind of government that would make the most, or even make reconstruction possible, we need to stop the bombing. We’ve just had the collapse of the Washington-Moscow agreement, or a few weeks ago. We’ve got uncertainty with this new administration about how much it will push for something along those lines. But either way, it looks as if President Assad is not going to be going anywhere or going away anytime soon. He’ll have some sort of role it seems.
Do you think the international community who’s going to apparently be paying for all of this, would they be willing do you think to back some sort of government that, although not ideal as the way you’ve described it, at least would have stopped the fighting?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: Is that to me?
Barbara Plett Usher: Yeah, in terms of financing, yeah.
Abdullah Al-Dardari: Let’s be realistic. I don’t think that the international community will come up with $200 billion for Syria. There is a need for a very smart out of the box thinking, and Shanta and I will be doing that in the next few weeks and months, to mobilize funds. Grants will not be available at the scale of $200 billion. At the same time you don’t want to come out of reconstruction with an indebted country for the next 100 years. So we have to be very creative.
Let’s agree on another point. Rebuilding Syria will not be done by the supporters of one side to the Syrian conflict. What I’m trying to say that Russia nor Iran have the resources to rebuild Syria alone. And neither Europe, or Saudi, or the Gulf, or the United States have the resources to rebuild Syria alone. Rebuilding Syria has to be a project of international cooperation. What are the political circumstances that would permit the emergence of such a project of international cooperation? That’s our biggest challenge.
Would that happen with a compromise that would be the result of a Trump/Putin understanding on Syria? We are yet to find out. I don’t know. We have to be realistic. My personal point of view here may be controversial.
In my personal opinion the moral thing to do is to stop the fighting. In my personal opinion the big change will come when peace happens. Because as I just said, peace requirement requires reconstruction, and reconstruction requires dramatic changes in governance. The status quo keeps the status quo.
Barbara Plett Usher: Even if the peace is unjust?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: I personally say, and I’ve said that in public before, an unjust peace is better than a just war. The moral thing to do in Syria is to stop the killing, is to bring Syrians back to their home and give them their dignity. What does that mean in detailed political agreement? I don’t know. But we should think out of the box. We should know that the enemy in this conflict is the conflict itself, not the other party to the conflict.
And when you know that your enemy is the conflict your weapons to win this war will be different from your weapons when you want to win against the other side. There is no victory in this war. Even if one party completely wins in the military battlefield, they will find themselves ruling a pile of rubble.
Barbara Plett Usher: Lina, you’re shaking your head.
Lina Sergie Attar: The conflict has an actor. It has actors. A conflict is a noun. It doesn’t act upon itself. And when we talk about, yes, we do need to reconstruct hospitals. But today a hospital in Aleppo was bombed by an airstrike. That’s a fact. And we know who was behind that airstrike. And the airstrikes are coming every single day. Yes, we want to stop the killing. Shouldn’t we stop the No. 1 actor of killing that’s happening right now in Syria which are the Russian airstrikes? There are names to these things that are happening. There are people behind the things that are happening.
The Syrian people, of course we want to stop the killing. We’ve been asking to stop the killing for years. The woman in Damascus who asked in 2011 when it was a peaceful protest, she’s a lawyer, a young lawyer, Rima. She stood in the streets of Damascus with her red flag saying stop the killing. She was put in jail. We have to talk about the facts.
What you’re talking about in terms of reconstruction, all of these tons of materials and all of these things that seem to be impossible, and this massive billions and billions of dollars, yes, of course, nobody’s going to want to reconstruct Syria in that way. But reconstruction without justice will never become a real peace.
And I think the most important thing to happen right now is for everybody in the country to recognize and see their fellow citizens as human beings. This was the ask of the Syrian Revolution; is to be viewed and to be treated like human beings with dignity and freedom. That’s the No. 1 thing that needs to happen. And then we can move on. And I think that there is a time for all Syrians to be working together again.
We were a united country before. And we were never a united country because of the government or the regime. We were a united country for centuries. And we will become again. I’m from Aleppo, the city that’s existed forever. And it will exist again. And it will be reconstructed again. But it’s up to us now to take stock of what has happened to our country after five and a half years and really be truthful with ourselves on what has happened. And, yes, there’s blood on many, many, many hands.
But right now we have to stop the airstrikes. And I think that we have to talk about reconstruction and the day after, the day before, tomorrow the airstrikes need to happen. And it’s a big indicator that a week after the elections the assault against eastern Aleppo has intensified by the Russian regime. And I don’t think that Putin is going to be stopping the airstrikes anytime soon.
Barbara Plett Usher: Abdullah, you wanted to respond?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: I think with that spirit we can be confident that peace and rebuilding in Syria cannot happen without preserving the dignity of every Syrian individual. It’s not gonna happen. All I’m trying to say that when we are asked a question about the real politic of the situation today, especially after the elections, we as Syrians have to present a pragmatic approach focusing on our main priority. What are our main priorities?
I can assure you that there is no peace settlement in Syria without ensuring political governance that respects the dignity and the freedom of every single Syrian citizen. That’s not gonna happen. And you can do that in peace as much as you can do that in war. And if we can do that through peaceful means that’s even better. That’s all I’m trying to say.
I’m also trying to say that we shouldn’t worry much. I don’t know how to translate this. We say in Arabic [speaking Arabic]. We’ve been through plenty. Every time we had any problem, it’s enough to walk down the old streets of the old city of Damascus or old city of Aleppo and know that the city survived thousands of years of conflicts, and earthquakes, and civil wars, and foreign invasions. There has never been an invasion that we know in recorded history hasn’t passed by our country. And it still survived. It is going to be rebuilt.
Barbara Plett Usher: But the old streets in Aleppo don’t exist anymore, do they?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: They were destroyed before. We need not forget that. We will rebuild. I am not worried about the numbers. That’s what I said before. Rebuilding Syria is a question of political economy. It’s not a question of finance, economics, or engineering. There is only one way to rebuild which is an inclusive, open, accountable political system. And if that happens in peace we have achieved the objectives of these young men and women that you just mentioned who went to the streets who want dignity and freedom.
Barbara Plett Usher: But it certainly looks like the people who are bombing, the Russians, the Syrians, they’re not thinking about rebuilding at all. They’re just destroying. There’s no, it doesn’t seem anyway, strategy to save anything to build on, to create anything. It just looks like their planning to raze the place.
Abdullah Al-Dardari: That only demonstrates the futility of the current policies. If you talk to senior officials in Moscow they tell you, “We don’t have money to rebuild Syria.” So the logical next question that I ask them, “What are you doing?” And unfortunately or fortunately every foreign party backing every domestic party to the Syrian conflict is saying the same; we don’t have the resources to rebuild what has been destroyed, which means we as Syrians have to manage this.
We need to work with the international community and it has to be based on inclusive participation of all Syrians. Because this is what will rebuild Syria is the energies, the entrepreneurial spirit of Syrians. It’s not only the billions that may or may not come from the outside. If Syrians can create a Champs Elysees in Zaatari camp, they can rebuild Aleppo and other Syrian cities. I have no doubt about that.
And I have no doubt about the governance prerequisites for the success of that rebuilding, definitely not. A Roman general said once one more victory like this and we will be over. Those fictitious military victories on the ground will make no sense. They will only deepen the conflict, and they will only deepen the difficulty of rebuilding. And they will only assure us that there is no rebuilding without governance and governance change.
Barbara Plett Usher: I want to open it up for questions in just a minute. But before I do that, I just want to open quickly a new topic with Juliette. A couple of you mentioned earlier that people started to pay attention to the needs of refugees once they started flocking to Europe. Those numbers have dropped since March partly because of this UE-Turkey agreement. How sturdy is that deal would you say? And what happens if it collapses? What we’re talking about here does that all change then?
Juliette Tolay: Yeah, I wish I would have a kind of positive, optimistic answer to that. If you look at the actual numbers of the deal. Or in kind of very simply, the idea of the deal between Turkey and the EU was to find a solution to the perceived refugee crisis that really kind of captured the headlines all through last summer and last fall in Europe.
And the idea was to strike a deal between Turkey and the EU whereby irregular migrants, potential asylum seekers crossing through the agency into Greece would be kind of systematically returned to Turkey, so as to kind of deter the willingness of those people to kind of risk their lives at sea, and then kind of protect European borders obviously in exchange of Turkey getting a number of kind of perks as a result including kind of financial help dealing with the 2.7 million refugees that are in Turkish territory. But also some other advantageous regarding liberalization for Turkish citizens and reopening of the negotiations for Turkish membership into the EU.
This was never a perfect deal. There has been a lot of criticism of the deal to start with. It was never really addressing comprehensively as a scale of the issue we’re talking about. But, again, if you look at the actual numbers of people crossing, it dropped dramatically. We went from nearly 2,000 people arriving daily in the Greek islands to about 100 individuals arriving in Greek islands on a daily basis. There have been kind of a number of people that have been indeed kind of resettled.
One part of the agreement was whatever number of people would be returned from Greece to Turkey, the same amount of people would be resettled from Turkey into Europe. There have been about probably, according to the last numbers, about 600 people that have been returned back to Turkey and about probably around 2,000 people resettled from Turkey into Europe. So looking at the numbers, it seems to be looking good. But there are major hurdles around the way.
One of the reasons why we’ve had so many people returned back is because in order to stay in line with the EU kind of human rights obligation, individuals have civil rights to apply for asylum once on the Greek islands. And this has created kind of a major backlog of individual cases that cannot be processed fast enough. Greece doesn’t have enough capabilities. And so we see increasingly kind of protest and kind of anger or frustration really accumulating in the islands.
And some people are saying just this shows that this is on the verge of collapse. Unless the EU kind of pitches in and helps, Greek kind of processing all of those individual applications, this is a bad thing. Greece is about to kind of drop it and say we just can’t do it. The pressure is still very high.
The other reason why there are some serious problems, more kind of political, from the Turkish side, kind of the leader who was really supporting the deal and kind of carrying it as his kind of brainchild was the prime minister of the time who is no longer the prime minister in Turkey. He’s been replaced back in May. So there is a problem of who is really supporting the deal in Turkey knowing that the president himself has been quite critical of the deal.
And then more broadly there are kind of the typical EU-Turkey tensions that are not just Syria, about this topic, but about other topics; that kind of reflecting. We’ve seen a lot of headlines in the last couple of weeks of people saying the deal is about to collapse. Surely people will not be surprised if it collapsed anytime soon. The stakes are high for all the actors.
So we’re kind of hoping that the two sides, in particular Angela Merkel who was kind of supporting the deal from the European side is reaching out talking to Turkish counterparts. But we don’t really know too much about this. If it collapses it’s unclear to know whether – the simple answer is that we will probably have a return of a large number of people crossing through the agency.
There is a possibility that because the flow has been kind of tame and people, Syrians in Turkey or other refugees in Turkey have been at least for the short term kind of looking at other options as a solution. It might not be kind of a certain serge that we see. The seasonal sole, through the winter, it’s a little bit more difficult to travel. So this might have kind of a cushion a little bit. But the likelihood of the numbers picking up again in the spring are pretty likely.
And in every event, the numbers were looking good in the Aegean area. But we had a surge of kind of refugees trying to cross, not necessarily from Syria, although from Syria as well, but from other places in Africa, in particular through kind of the middle Mediterranean routes, crossing directly from North Africa into Italy. And for that, the deal didn’t really have an impact. So –
Barbara Plett Usher: Any questions? I have to put on my 1980s glasses. These are not retro. They’re the real thing. Is there a microphone? There we go. Two microphones. Let’s start there.
Shabnam Mojtahedi: Hi, my name is Shabnam Mojtahedi I’m with the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre. My question is about reconciliation in relation to reconstruction. You could build hundreds of thousands of homes. They could be very beautiful homes. But will people want to return with a deeply fractured society? It’s fractured on multiple lines. But most well-known is the Sunni-Shiite divide that has really been exacerbated as a result of both the conflict in Syria and Iraq. So what are some of the reconciliation challenges in order to encourage people to go back to Syria when the conflict ends? Are there lessons learned from Lebanon and Iraq that we can be looking at?
Barbara Plett Usher: That sounds like a question for Lina and Abdullah.
Lina Sergie Attar: I think that there is many, many challenges ahead in terms of reconciliation. And I do think that the priority has to be stopping the violence and stopping the killing first. I do know that refugee families do want to go home. All refugees want to go home. It’s their dream to go back to Syria, live in Syria. And I think that there’s a lot of challenges ahead in terms of mending and bonding what has been broken in terms of the fabric of society because of the war over the past five and half years.
I don’t think it’s an impossible challenge because at the end, as I said before, we are people who have lived together for centuries. But the fabric of society has been fractured very badly. And it’s going to take a lot of lessons learned, not only from the region, but outside the region of societies that have recovered from civil war on how to reconcile. The longer it waits the harder it will be.
Abdullah Al-Dardari: Rebuilding itself should be viewed as a reconciliation effort. As I insisted before, it’s not a question of engineering or just financial challenges. So one of the things we are working on now is how do we turn agriculture, the revival of agricultural activities across lines into a reconciliation means? How can we revive internal trade across lines as a reconciliation means? This is by the way very important also in the short run to reduce the war economy because the country is now in the grips of the war economy. And there is a vested interest in continuation of the conflict.
So how can we jointly preserve our historical heritage which has been pillaged and plundered nowadays? So, again, I insist that it is not a question of planning the physical aspect of rebuilding. It’s rebuilding in itself should be and is – at least in the team I’m working with, is a reconciliation exercise. There is no point of rebuilding a city if the people of that city are gonna fight again.
And if they don’t feel that they have some justice, some minimum justice, and some respect of their human rights. Syria that is not based on human rights is not going to be rebuilt even with the $200 billion become available to us.
Ilhan Cagri [?]: Can you hear me?
Barbara Plett Usher: Speak right into it.
Ilhan Cagri: My name is Ilhan Cagri from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. And I just want to follow up with this reconciliation idea because it’s going to involve a general amnesty. And why would the Syrians or anybody trust that the Assad regime would not have eventual backlash once people decided to come back?
My second question is Professor Tolay, who’s very nuanced approach I thought was very accurate in Turkey. You’re talking about a no-fly zone, Turkey wanting to set up a safe zone inside of Syria. What would happen with the Kurds in the area? The Kurds are a thorn in President Erdogan’s side. So is this is a way of pushing the Kurds out even further away from Turkey? So if you could speak on that please.
Barbara Plett Usher: Lina, are you going to take the first question?
Lina Sergie Attar: Your question is a very important one. It’s something that we’ve been thinking about for years. And I think that it’s very important to understand that all of these kinds of things that are on the table have been on the table since probably 2013, since the red line of Obama; that Syrians have been thinking about what happens in Assad stays.
And I think as Syrians, and I can’t speak obviously for all the Syrian people, but many Syrians that I know and that I see and are my family and friends is that it’s not the end of the world of Assad staying if the violence ends, if the bombing ends, if people are treated like human beings. It’s not about the person himself or even the regime itself if there was that trust. The problem is is that there is no trust. We’re talking about a regime that the country has been in the grips of for 46 years. And we’re talking about now having multi-generations.
If we just talk about political prisoners alone, we’re talking about now we have three generations of families who have political prisoners. We have grandfathers, fathers, and now sons. Generation after generation of no trust in human rights, not trust in justice, no trust in dignity, no trust in Syrians as citizens. How do you take that away to be able to make that happen? I don’t know.
But that is why people have viewed the removal of the regime, the removal of this president as the first step to be able to start the reconciliation. It’s not because reconciliation can’t be started in the Syrian’s people view because Assad comes down first. It’s because there is no trust in this regime anymore and for very, very good reasons.
So I don’t know how we would start that. But I do think that the minimum is the removal of the regime is one thing that has to be a priority in order for people to be able to start the reconciliation process between Syrians themselves.
Juliette Tolay: Before I answer the question regarding the safe zones, if I can just have two seconds on the reconciliation. Reconciliation is indeed going to be crucial and it’s going to be problematic whatever the solution is been found. We can hope indeed that the post-war solution will be indeed a system that is inclusive, that is drawing lessons from Iraq, and kind of not repeating some of those same mistakes, and really giving room for everyone.
But it’s also difficult given the political condition to see how exactly this might happen. Anyone kind of talking with Syrian refugees, you would hear that the No. 1 wish is to return to Syria, is to be able to kind of go there and rebuild and do everything. However, we know from other post-conflict situations that the reality is that a number of refugees, for many reasons, but some of them being a not acceptable kind of political settlement in their countries will not be returning. So which is why we also need to talk about long term solutions for refugees, that may not be one of returning into Syria.
To answer the question with Turkey. So Turkey has been talking about two different things that kind of work together. But they’re slightly conceptually different. One is the idea of a safe zone, which I think is very much modeled after the safe haven kind of concept that was applied in Iraq in the very first Gulf War, which is kind of basically areas where safety is secured usually by an external military might.
In this case that would be Turkey in Syria, where indeed people would be able to kind of take refuge from within Syria or even be relocated from neighboring countries, probably Turkey back into Syria. The other one is a no-fly zone, which is something that Turkey in itself cannot really implement. But Turkey has been pressuring the US a lot to put in place such measures. It looked at some point that it might be a possibility under the Clinton administration. It seems much more difficult now under a Trump administration.
Turkey has been kind of tied to wait for the US to actually implement such a policy. So Turkey has decided that, again, a couple of months ago to go it alone and do the safe zone by itself in Syria.
Again, Turkey’s official position in the Syria conflict has been to see that they are kind of three equally dangerous enemies of Turkey in Syria. There is Isis. But there are also the Kurds and there is also Assad. So Turkey is kind of having agreements and disagreements with other partners in the region because of this kind of triple, and not necessarily prioritizing Isis over the other perceived enemies.
So one of the reasons why you see Turkey moving in into northern Syria is indeed to – well, to go after Isis and try to kind of make sure that Isis is losing ground, especially in the border areas with Turkey. But also to be here, presence, preventing the Kurds to kind of expand too much territorially.
So from what we seem to understand, kind of Turkey is kind of giving the area east of the Euphrates River to the Kurds, with kind of trying to prevent the Kurds to move west on the other side. That is where kind of Turkish military is right now. They are not kind of advancing into al-Bab, which is a city right between – old town, I would say - between the Euphrates River and Aleppo.
But the question mark is also what’s gonna happen if they retake it and go further into Aleppo? What is going to happen? Because then they’re going to be facing obviously kind of Russian and Assad forces.
And there are a lot of question marks as to what this would mean. So looking at the history between Turkey and the Kurds in Syria, there is a possibility that they can strike a deal. It is just very contentious because the Kurds in Syria have connections with the PKK in Turkey, that has been seen and has operated and been doing terrorist attacks on Turkish soil, and is kind of waging an insurgency in the North Sea. It has kind of been revitalized over the last year. So there is that connection that is strong.
But from a more pragmatic standpoint, I think there is a possibility that they strike a deal. But, again, Turkey will be always fighting to make sure that the Kurdish areas remain as restrained and closed as possible.
Barbara Plett Usher: Abdullah just wanted to make a quick point.
Abdullah Al-Dardari: There was mention of the experience of Iraq and Lebanon. The sectarian constitution of Lebanon will not work in Syria. And the carving up of Syria a la Iraq situation based on ethnic or religious or sectarian partitioning also will not work. By the way, there isn’t a single place in Syria where you have an absolute majority for one ethnic or religious group. To apply an Iraqi or a Lebanese solution for Syria requires massive ethnic cleansing.
Barbara Plett Usher: It’s kind of going on over there, isn’t it?
Abdullah Al-Dardari: But it’s still not working. It won’t work. Therefore, a citizenship based constitution is the only way forward with administrative and fiscal evolution, yes. A sectarian based or an ethnic based partitioning of the country or decentralizing the country will not work. It will only sow the seeds of the next civil war.
Brian Wissil[?]: Thank you. My name is Brian Wissil. I’m a fellow with the Middle East Institute. This is a very interesting conversation. But I think here we have a dilemma, the Catch 22 beyond even the regime, that reconstruction requires central government, but also a central government requires a strong economy or a strong military. And Syria now has neither. So do you think Damascus will be able in the future to regenerate the social contract in Syria and convince Rakka and other cities to pay taxes again to a central government?
And the other part of the question is for Lina. What role do you think the civil society can work in Syria to regenerate that social contract and to keep Syria as one entity?
Lina Sergie Attar: You got the hard one.
Barbara Plett Usher: I think your question was to Abdullah, yes?
Lina Sergie Attar: Yes.
Brian Wissil: Yes.
Abdullah Al-Dardari: I’ll reformulate your question if you don’t mind. What government in Damascus that can convince Rakka, Aleppo, and the others to come back and pay taxes, and feel that this government, that they own this government and that government is accountable to them? In policymaking this is how we should think about things. We need to make sure that there is no alternative for Syria as we said but to be together. To do so, the only way forward is to feel that this government in Damascus is inclusive and representative of everyone else.
So there was a discussion, and there’s still a discussion by the way among very influential circles in Syria and outside of having a bargain. I’ll give you the local authority. You give me Damascus. It won’t work like this. It has to be inclusive and democratic in Damascus, and representative, just as much as decentralization have to be inclusive democratic at the local level.
Lina Sergie Attar: In terms of civil society, I think if there is in such a tragic war, and the large humanitarian scale of the crisis, and the loss that we have experienced as Syrians, if there is to be a silver lining in all of this is really the flourishing of civil society since 2011, both inside Syria, and also I’ve witnessed it as the Syrians that are in the diaspora who have been leaving Syria for many, many years because life was not viable in Syria for a lot of different professions. And they found it much better to live outside of the country.
But I’ve witnessed since 2011 this rebirth of this sense of citizenship and pride in being Syrian, and pride to be part of building something and creating something. So we’ve witnessed the creation of institutions, and local municipalities, and groups like the White Helmets, and people wanting to run schools, wanting to run hospitals, doctors coming from outside Syria back into the country, into warzones to help. And lots of non-profit organizations, everybody wanting to try to work inside Syria and try to build something.
And I think that when the violence ends, and every time the violence even halts for a little bit, we see this really grow even more. And we’ve seen that with the temporary ceasefire earlier this year. And you’re seeing people making things, inventing things. We’re seeing people using technology. We’re seeing people inside Syria really using the most ingenious ways of survival and flourishing in a warzone.
And I think that just the halting of the airstrikes alone you will see so much more production from the Syrians and from the community. I think that is one of the gifts of the last five and half years that will be essential to rebuilding along with the larger agencies in partnership and co-authorship. That’s really the only way forward.
Barbara Plett Usher: Let’s try to get a few more questions in before we finish. Go ahead.
Surpi [?] Edwards: Surpi Edwards. I’m a reporter with Devex. A question about –
Barbara Plett Usher: Can you just speak up a little bit please?
Edwards: Yeah. A reporter with Debex. A question about the Trump administration. What could this potentially mean for funding for humanitarian development programs in Syria? Do you have opinions on that? And what could be some of the potential impacts?
Barbara Plett Usher: Does anybody on the panel want to address that? Shanti, you’re the World Bank man.
Shanta Devarajan: Yes. As Chou Enlai said when somebody asked him what he thought of the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell. No, well, if I had to make a prediction, and certainly the rhetoric has been that the Trump administration will empower Russia to take a more active role in the conflict. And that might have the effect of ending the conflict sooner, but with a lot of damage between now and then. And we have to see how that works towards that reconciliation that Abdullah referred to earlier. Let me just say one other thing about the reconciliation.
Two points. One is, absolutely, if you want to restore an inclusive and accountable government, it’s very important how you manage the reconstruction process. And in particular trying to rebuild the infrastructure the way it was exactly before the war may be a mistake. Because people may not want to go back to where they came from; the internally displaced as well as the refugees.
So the reconstruction program has to be one that empowers the public, the citizens to do what they want to do, to go where they want to go, rather than where we think they should go. And you can see how there’s a tension here because international agencies want to actually plan everything. But really I think we need to give voice to the people with resources so they can choose where to go.
Barbara Plett Usher: This is true of the Trump administration and the effect it would have on Syria has to do with whatever political or whatever outcome there is. But also in terms of, as you mentioned, and I can’t see where you are now, but – there you are. The level of humanitarian aid. Because, of course, the Americans are the chief or they give the most.
It was raised at the first panel this morning, again leaving it as a question because we really don’t know, but I believe the speaker at that time said there would be budget issues. She was talking about a squeezed budget and the humanitarian. She said there’s a lot of support in Congress for humanitarian funding. But sequestration was looming, and that was where she left it. I don’t think we know from Trump himself how he would respond to the humanitarian budget. At least I haven’t seen anything.
Kamran Bokhari: Kamran Bokhari from Geopolitical Future. Shanta, quickly for you, I know that the World Bank has been considering interventions before conflicts end and trying to figure out. If you could just speak to that, that would be great. Lina, on your comment that the air strikes need to stop and that’s the first priority, my question is how do we get Russia to stop? What are those ways in which you envision Washington can actually do it?
Lina Sergie Attar: You don’t want to know my answer. It’s very –
Kamran: Thank you.
Barbara Plett Usher: I’m sorry. I think that will have to be last question. But maybe the rest of you can buttonhole the panelists after we conclude if that’s alright. We’re just gonna have to wrap it up with those two questions.
Shanta Devarajan: Should I go?
Barbara Plett Usher: Yes.
Shanta Devarajan: Thanks for that question. Actually, let me illustrate or answer the question by illustrating what is happening in Yemen. Because I think there might be some lessons for Syria there. As you know, there’s been a conflict in Yemen now for almost two years. And one more thing that the World Bank has been able to do, usually when there’s a conflict and when there’s a de facto government, we suspend all our operations.
But in Yemen we were able to take two operations, a health project and a social fund project, and continue dispersing during the conflict; the first time we’ve ever done this. And we’re dispersing it through UN agencies, the WHO in one case and UNDP in the other, without having to go through a government because it’s not clear which government you need to go through.
But the money is actually reaching the public and actually trying to stave off some of these health crises that I was referring to. So I think there might be some lessons there if we can actually do that through nongovernmental organizations, through UN agencies, working in Syria, actually try to provide assistance during the conflict.
Barbara Plett Usher: Lina, you have the last word on Russia.
Lina Sergie Attar: Thank you very much. I really don’t –
Abdullah Al-Dardari: A diplomatic answer.
Lina Sergie Attar: Yes, a diplomatic answer. Yes.
Abdullah Al-Dardari: Because she told me her real answer. And I said, no, please don’t.
Lina Sergie Attar: I actually really don’t have an answer to how to enforce stopping the airstrikes. I’m an idealist by nature, and I think that really one of the failures of the Obama administration is not intervening in a humanitarian way in the way that serves the people of Syria. Yes, we intervened in Syria in the ways that was not helpful at all.
And I think that it’s wrong for a government, any government in the entire world to ever strike its own people with its own air force. And now we have on top of that the Russian Air Force hitting civilians every single day. I personally don’t know how to stop Russia. I think that what is happening is a tragedy. The city of Aleppo today was hit by airstrikes. A children’s hospital was struck. Over 87 people were killed. A school was struck. People in eastern Aleppo, 250,000 people received texts from the government saying leave or die.
So how do you stop that intense and that level of really pure evil at this point? I don’t know. But I do think that one of the things that I tell people at this point is that everybody really can’t think about Syria as just about Syria anymore. Syria really is not about Syria. Syria is the model of the failure of the international community to act in a way that serves the people. And so our views as Americans towards – whatever they are towards humanitarian intervention, how it’s wrong, is it okay to intervene?
All of these things have to be reevaluated from its core. Because, yes, there are situations where humanitarian intervention is needed. But not in the way for our own political interest. It really is in the way of can we actually live with ourselves and our collective humanity with the stain of this crisis on all of our hands?
Because this is the situation. Syria is on all of us. And the crisis is on all of us. And we need to be able to find a way to make it better for the next time. Because in many ways it’s too late for Syria, but it’s not too late to reevaluate our values for this to happen actually never again.
[End of Audio]
[Duration: 89 minutes.]