On February 1st, the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut organized a discussion, bringing together four scholars with an expertise on Syria and Iraq, to discuss the implications and potential pitfalls that “reconstruction” will bring forth in both countries on the short- and long-term.
“Reconstruction” has become a popular term, commonly thrown within discussions regarding the short-term future of the Arab world, in light of the repercussions of the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, whereby several Arab states have become battlegrounds between local, regional and international actors, triggering countless humanitarian crises and physical destruction of urban landscapes. However, “reconstruction”, regardless of its positive connotations, is not an apolitical process, since the actors who get to control the reconstruction process are those who will play a role in determining the future of the war-torn countries and whether the entrenched issues that have caused the current disasters will be resolved or not.
First to speak was Steven Heydemann, a professor of Middle East Studies at Smith College and a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution. Heydemann first began by pointing out that there is much talk on “reconstruction” in the international community, despite the fact that the conflict is still raging in several parts of Syria. Whereas, in theory, the purposes of ‘reconstruction’ include physically rebuilding the war-torn country, fostering economic growth and creating employment opportunities, Heydemann stated that the Assad regime is attempting to use reconstruction to reassert its authoritarian grip across the whole of Syria through rewarding areas that remained loyal to the Baath Party during the war, while punishing rebellious areas.
He added that the “reconstruction” of Syria has become a battleground within international circles: While Russia is working hard to legitimize the Assad regime and its sovereignty, the West has sought to use reconstruction as a means to obtain meaningful concessions from the regime. Heydemann concluded on a pessimistic note, stating that there will most likely be deadlock in the near-future regarding the reconstruction of Syria, since the causes of the conflict will not be addressed, and regime-led poor reconstruction efforts will only further sow the seeds of potential discord within the country.
The second speaker, Jacqueline Parry, the Research Director at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. Within the contact of the Iraqi situation today, Perry stressed the fact that despite the several years of bloodshed and chaos over the preceding years, signs of optimism have started to emerge. However, the challenges towards a meaningful all-encompassing reconstruction are massive.
Several internally displaced persons (IDPs) have managed to return to their lands, but some have not yet done so out of fear for their lives. Many IDPs do not trust the military groups that are in control of their lands, such as the largely-Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) or the Kurdish Peshmergas and are afraid of being targets of collective punishment, especially as reports have shown that some PMUs have held strong anti-Sunni revanchist sentiments. The process through which IDPs get to return to their lands is also a hindrance: the vetting process, which involves the Iraqi state and the security apparatus, is unclear, and it is not always evident who is being marked as a supporter or former supporter of Daesh. Nonetheless, Parry pointed out the role played by tribal negotiations in ensuring the safe return of IDPs and stated that there is a potential for a civic form of Iraqi nationalism to emerge, should the post-war reconstruction be carried out in a holistic, transparent and effective manner.
The next speaker, Dylan O’Driscoll, Research Associate at the Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, further elaborated on the points raised by Parry by focusing on the highly pluralistic Nineveh governorate in North-West Iraq. O’Driscoll highlighted how, should Iraq have some form of peace and positive prospects for the future, reconstruction should not be a return to the status quo ante. As a matter of fact, the authoritarian tendencies and the corruption of the Nouri Al Maliki-led governments (2006-2014) caused the discontent and grievances that eventually led to the rise of ISIS. However, as the Nineveh governorate was liberated, Iraqis of the region have developed a different, more empathetic, view of the Iraqi state and the Iraqi army, which bodes well for the emergence of the aforementioned Iraqi civic nationalism. O’Driscoll concluded by outlining the crucial importance of the upcoming elections, as they will determine whether the reconstruction process will pave the way for a more united Iraq.
The last speaker, Mark Lynch, professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliot School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, gave an even more pessimistic outlook on reconstruction across the Arab world. Lynch highlighted the sheer scale of destruction, both physical and human, in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and questioned what kind of future generations, which have grown up in times of war and have only known misery and tragedy, will emerge in the near-future. Regarding funds for reconstruction, Lynch explained the politicized nature of the process, as foreign aid always comes with strings attached, and stated that it is a possibility that China will emerge as major provider of reconstruction assistance, as the traditional providers, namely the West, has neither the willpower nor the funds to do so, and other actors, such as the Gulf states, will have very stringent conditions attached to their assistance packages.
In conclusion, the discussion shed light on a very important issue that will have tremendous repercussions on the short- and long-term future of key Arab states. Though there is room for cautious optimism, such as in the case of Iraq, the larger picture is gloomy. Across the Arab world, a “lost generation” of youth are growing up in war-torn countries whereby misery, death and chaos are the norm. Post-conflict reconstruction will by no means be an apolitical process. At least in the case of Syria, the experts seemed to agree that reconstruction will most definitely strengthen the grip of the Assad regime which will further cast doubt into Syria’s future. The picture is far from rosy.
To see the discussion go to: http://carnegie-mec.org/2018/02/01/politics-of-post-conflict-reconstruction-event-5805