Syrian ex-minister leads team planning for reconstruction of war-ravaged country

A six-member U.N. team led by a former Syrian planning minister is drawing up a comprehensive postwar reconstruction plan even as the country's civil war rages on with no apparent end in sight.

A joint U.S.-Russian push to bring together Syria's political opposition and representatives of President Bashar Assad's regime to negotiate a peaceful transition has given their work new urgency.

In a rare interview, the U.S.-educated economist, Abdullah al-Dardari, told The Associated Press that more than two years of fighting have cost Syria at least $60 billion and caused the vital oil industry to crumble. A quarter of all homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, and much of the medical system is in ruins.

Now, he says, the Syrians have to be ready to rebuild when the fighting ends. He says his team has been overwhelmed with requests for a reconstruction plan to support the U.S.-Russian initiative on the off chance it succeeds.

"I see a glimmer of hope," said al-Dardari, who now works for a Beirut-based U.N. development agency. "There appears to be more readiness for a political compromise by different groups in the opposition and by officials in the government."

Earlier this month, the U.S. and Russia agreed on a joint push to get Syria's political opposition and representatives of the Assad regime to negotiate a political transition in Syria. An international conference, possibly to be held in early June, would help launch talks.

Despite much skepticism, the initiative, announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week in Moscow, is the first serious attempt in a year to end Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced more than 5 million.

The two sides remain far apart on the terms for negotiations, with the opposition insisting Assad must step down first and the regime unwilling to commit to an open-ended cease-fire. Both say they want to hear more about the agenda and participants before agreeing to talks.

Al-Dardari's plan, known as the National Agenda for the Future of Syria, is being drafted on the assumption that the conflict, now in its third year, will end by 2015 and that Syria will remain territorially united with a central government based in Damascus, regardless of who ends up ruling the country.

"Is that possible? If one looks at the situation today, then the immediate reaction is, 'No, it's not possible,'" al-Dardari said.

"However, I think the human losses and the catastrophic destruction should create sufficient moral pressure on the parties of this conflict — internal and external, since this has become a proxy war — to think seriously of a political compromise."

Syria's vicious civil war, in which the government has relied heavily on its air power to crush the rebels, has destroyed towns and wiped out entire blocks of apartment buildings. Centuries-old markets and archaeological treasures — once a major tourist draw and source of revenue — have been gutted by flames and gunfire in places like Aleppo and Homs — an irreplaceable chapter of history wiped out in a few hours of battle.

Factories, oil pipelines, schools, hospitals, mosques and churches have been systematically destroyed.

The fighting has devastated the Syrian economy, halting the country's oil exports and destroying much of its manufacturing industry and infrastructure.

Deep divisions among Syria's opposition and rebel groups are likely to complicate any international effort to help in reconstruction. Syrians also are convinced they will get little outside help to rebuild.

Al-Dardari appears well placed to be a leading figure in postwar reconstruction plans.

A Sunni Muslim who served as Syria's minister of planning for two years until Assad named him deputy prime minister for economic affairs in 2005, al-Dardari has been credited with masterminding the opening up of Syria's socialist-style economy into a free market enterprise, courting foreign investors and advocating political reforms to accompany the country's economic transformation.

He quietly left his government post in the summer of 2011, a few months after the uprising erupted against Assad's regime, which is dominated by Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. He joined the U.N soon after and remains a neutral figure who meets with opposition representatives and government officials.

Since August, he has been working as chief economist at the Beirut-based U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), heading a team of six economists and 30 experts inside and outside Syria.

Al-Dardari knows he faces a monumental task in any reconstruction effort.

He estimates the overall damage to Syria's economy three years into the conflict at $60-$80 billion. The economy has shrunk by about 35 percent, compared to the 6 percent annual growth Syria marked in the five years before the conflict began in March 2011. The economy has lost almost 40 percent of its GDP, and foreign reserves have been extensively depleted. Unemployment has shot up from 500,000 before the crisis to at least 2.5 million this year.

The fighting has destroyed or damaged 1.2 million homes nationwide, a quarter of all Syrian houses, al-Dardari said. In addition, around 3,000 schools and 2,000 factories have been destroyed, and almost half of the medical system — including hospitals and health centers — is in ruins.

To rebuild the 1.2 million homes, Syria needs $22 billion, plus an additional $6 billion to provide electricity, water, gas and other infrastructure, he estimates.

"The projections are sobering, if not scary," al-Dardari said, adding that fighting needs to end to strengthen the chance of Syria remaining a unified country, not a collection of self-ruled, sect-based entities.

"The fighting needs to stop soon, very soon, and it needs to end with a political solution that will preserve national sovereignty and territorial integrity, or there will be no economic reconstruction, and we'll lose Syria as a country altogether," he warned.

His team has put the reconstruction of the country's energy sector as a top priority. "It will provide a major source of cash for a country that will be stripped of cash," al-Dardari said.

Before the uprising, the oil sector was a pillar of Syria's economy, with the country producing about 380,000 barrels a day and exports — mostly to Europe — bringing in more than $3 billion in 2010. But the vital industry has buckled as rebels captured many of the country's oil fields, setting wells aflame and looters scooping up crude. Exports have ground practically to a standstill as production has dwindled.

The priority for any postwar government, al-Dardari said, will be repairing the pipelines and wells that were destroyed, rebuilding Syrian refining capacity to its prewar level of 200,000 barrels a day and bringing daily oil exports to 160,000 or 170,000 barrels a day.

His group is also in touch with Syrian industrialists and businessmen who would form the crux of any reconstruction effort.

The prospect of implementing any rebuilding plan hinges on the ability of the country's warring parties to come together, al-Dardari said — a tall order in the face of the sectarian hatred and brutal revenge killings that have marked the uprising,

But without territorial unity, a central authority and a strong, functioning civil administration across the country's 14 provinces, Syrian investors, who al-Dardari says will provide the bulk of funds for rebuilding, will not return and infuse the needed cash.

"If I were a Syrian businessman or woman who left Syria and took my business with me, and were to fly back into Damascus airport, I would want to see that Syrian customs — not some sort of other entity — and Syrian police are there," al-Dardari said.

Al-Dardari's project does not address the political makeup of a postwar government in Damascus.

"We are planning for the rebuilding of Syria after the dust settles," he said. "We don't interfere in the question of who should run Syria."


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