The Syria of tomorrow

(The New Arab) The bombing of a bank in Beirut earlier this month, led some commentators to point out how important credit lines from Lebanese financial institutions will be, when the time comes to begin rebuilding Syria.

Over five years of conflict have caused an estimated £185bn worth of damage to a country where one in two people has been forced from their homes. The Geneva peace process is hanging by a thread and the supposed "cessation of hostilities" is failing to stop the rising death toll, with 224 people killed in the first week of Ramadan.

The Syria of today is wracked with conflict with no obvious prospect of it coming to an end, but what about the Syria of tomorrow? It may seem strange to ask such a question while barrel bombs continue to smash against the buildings of Daraya, or while the black flag of IS continues to fly over its capital Raqqa and much of the country.

Yet painting a vision of tomorrow is an essential element for peacemakers in setting their objectives.

The future is bright. We must remember the strengths and potential of the Syria that was, as we explore what it could be. Syria's mercantile past and location as a key regional trade hub is well established. Before the darkness of conflict enveloped the country, its tourism industry was going from strength to strength. It offered traditional hospitality, ancient ruins, vast crusader castles and boutique hotels in the heart of Damascus - supposedly the oldest continually inhabited city on the planet.

Much of this has been lost with the Souk in Aleppo burnt, the walls of the magnificent Krak de Chevaliers hit by artillery and parts of the famous Palmyra destroyed by IS. But as we saw recently in London's Trafalgar Square, 3D printing can allow for history to be recreated, in this case it was a Palmyra arch but much more can be restored.

Meanwhile, the Syria of tomorrow could become a playground for cutting edge urban design and architecture, as planners take advantage of the destruction to start from scratch in building new, green, energy-efficient cities.

Where public transport systems replace the ubiquitous Middle East traffic jam, the rapid rise of unsustainable urbanisation is checked with connected and developed rural areas. New schools will need to be set up with the latest thinking on education helping to reintegrate the tens of thousands of children whose learning has been violently interrupted.

The country could become a hub of humanitarian best practice. Nowhere else on the planet has the same experience of delivering aid in conflict zones. It is likely that demand from the population will put Syria at the forefront of academic conferences addressing the trauma of the war and the need for reconciliation.

Wealthy Syrian émigrés and a diaspora that has been building professional experience across the globe could help to jump start reconstruction efforts, and give the post-war economy a viable starting point.

Corruption, a plague on the Syria of old and partial trigger to the uprising, will need to be rejected and fought against right from the off, to avoid an unaccountable economy of vested interests emerging. The informal economy will also need to be pragmatically managed and integrated.The tourism industry in Cambodia and Rwanda bounced back after witnessing terrible tragedy

Instead of external aid dependency there should be efforts to ensure the emergence of a mixed economy in Syria that looks to cement a productive interdependence of trade with the country's neighbours. The large proportion of young people in the country could find mass employment within such a reconstruction project, which if handled effectively could also provide a political project that replaces the pursuit and maintenance of power for its own sake.

Civil society operating across the country, rather than an all-powerful centralised state, could also lend legitimacy and empower Syrian citizens as part of this wider strategy.

All this may seem like unrealistic and idealistic but it is essential to maintain the idea and vision of what "Syria" is - and what it could be - whilst it suffers from the current existential challenge of conflict.


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