Fellow, Institut d’études internationales de Montréal (UQÀM)
Seventy years ago, Europe was brought to its knees by the destruction caused by World War II. Many of its large cities and infrastructure were destroyed, its economies were in tatters and there were millions of refugees and displaced persons. Stalin was moving his pawns into the occupied countries of Eastern Europe and threatening the Allied zones.
Understanding the danger and the need to put the continent back on the rails (while at the same time seeking a market for its products), the United States put together a generous system of loans and financial assistance which enabled the continent to be reborn: the Marshall Plan. This initiative clearly succeeded. Europe is now — compared to what it was — at peace. Despite Brexit, the European Union continues to be an economic giant and democracy reigns.
In 2017, to a lesser extent, it is in the Middle East where despair has taken hold. After six years of a fratricidal conflict in Syria and Iraq, cities such as Hama, Aleppo and Homs have suffered enormously. As we know well by now, the record of human suffering continues to be terrible, with hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded, millions of displaced persons and refugees, hospitals and schools bombed, etc. The situation specifically in Syria is not yet stabilized, far from it, but we are witnessing a reduction in fighting in certain zones and peace negotiations are taking place (up to now without success). It could be that we are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Even with Bashar al-Assad still in the country, reconstruction and the return of refugees has modestly begun. International organizations are no doubt already planning their contributions.
Based on the Libyan experience and the invasion of Iraq by American forces, it is a safe bet that such planning is not taking place in Western capitals. The history of the Middle East has taught us that it is always easier to mobilize military coalitions than to invest in reconstruction and the well-being of traumatized civil populations.
The costs of rebuilding Syria and reestablishing the displaced will be exorbitant. All sorts of figures are in circulation, but they are undoubtedly imprecise, due to a lack of on-the-ground evaluation. Apart from the European Union, it is hard to see where the money would come from, if other states such as Canada and China do not start contributing. The Gulf States, usually the main financial contributors in this part of the world, have already participated in various appeals for funds from the United Nations, but the region’s current campaign against Qatar, at the initiative of Saudi Arabia and its acolytes, is the Gulf’s main focus at the moment. (Also, the fact that Doha is getting closer to Tehran — a supporter of Assad — complicates a coordinated approach on Syria.)
We can certainly not count on the Trump administration to propose a Marshall Plan version 2017. It won’t be the Russians, not known for humanitarian assistance, who will put money on the table. The Iranians have limited means and are concentrating on Iraq. As for the Syrian government itself, its credibility with the population it has been massacring is at the lowest possible level, with the exception of a few minorities. It will therefore be up to the international community as a whole to take up the challenge.
After the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein at the beginning of the 1990s, the international community forced Iraq to pay heavy compensation. It could count on the oil revenues of Baghdad to do so. In the present situation there was no invasion by a foreign actor who could be forced to take responsibility, but rather internal fighting with diverse groups in opposition to the Assad regime.
Some observers will say that it is too early to consider reconstruction. Some Syrians however are already beginning the process — relying on small donations. They need significantly more and sustained support. It is essential to rapidly restore a semblance of normal life in Syria so that the displaced and refugees wishing to do so can return.
And most of all it is important to demonstrate to the populations of the region that the world can contribute to peace and a better future for the Middle East.
The project of rebuilding Syria will be long and arduous, particularly because the prime instigator of this tragic spiral of violence, Assad, is still in power in Damascus and because his supporters in Moscow, Tehran and militant group Hezbollah are not ready to abandon him. Putting all the pieces together will take a generation and progress will be complicated since the unity of the Syrian state has been torn asunder.
But, to contribute to the efforts, the international community should concentrate on a flagship project that will attract attention and bring hope. The reconstruction of the centre of Beirut after the long and cruel civil war in Lebanon is a good example. Springing from the efforts of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the private sector, and not spared by financial and political problems, it still managed to show the Lebanese the importance of working together and it brought back their pride. Surprisingly, Lebanon did not get caught up in the chaos of the Arab Spring, despite its internal difficulties, and it has survived the conflict at its borders. The Lebanese Army is even helping fight ISIS.
Why not start by reconstructing Aleppo, a multicultural and economic hub of Syria and a UNESCO site? Canada could encourage the creation of a coalition of countries for such an initiative. The EU of course, but also Turkey, relieved to see refugees on its soil return to their country, might be interested. And why not China? Rebuilding Aleppo would create work for the local population and stimulate the private sector.
We could use our current positive image and our vision of a multicultural future for societies to launching a global initiative for the reconstruction of Aleppo. It could showcase Canadian values, especially at the level of foreign policy and development. Foundations, such as the Aga Khan’s, for example, could be stakeholders. Such efforts may also help in Canada’s bid for a seat at the UN Security Council in 2020.
The Syrian communities in Canada and elsewhere would be thrilled, even if cautious. Such a project could result in a unique cooperation between Islamic and non-Islamic countries. And who knows, the former belligerents of yesterday could become the allies of tomorrow.