On the 27th of April 2021, the Global Studies Center, “Lucian Blaga” University of Sibiu hosts as a special guest, Mr. Samer Al-LAHAM, Syrian civil engineering, and holds an online lecture entitled “Syria: Its Recent Conflict and the Process of Rebuild Confirmation”.
The event was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Daniel BUDA, Ph.D., Dean, Faculty of Theology St. Andrei Șaguna, “Lucian Blaga” University of Sibiu.
Key experts were Assoc. Prof. Silviu NATE, Ph. D., Director, Global Studies Center, “Lucian Blaga” University of Sibiu, and Flavius CABA-MARIA, President, Middle East Political and Economic Institute.
Mr. Samer Al-LAHAM has been working for years in different managerial positions, from engineering project manager to CEO of one of the bigger LNGOs in Syria (DERD ) and then as a regional director of relief & development organization in Lebanon (MECC) has equipped him with profound experience in initiating a special department in the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate called “ Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development (DERD) “ whose mandate is to enhance the ecumenical relations with churches and partners locally and internationally as well as serving the people in need during the crises.
Syria before the crises
Syria was classified among the safest countries, and it was confidently stepping towards achieving comprehensive development in its various sectors, especially the economic ones.
Before March 2011, the Syrian pharmaceutical sector covered 90% of the local need and exported to 54 countries around the world. The illiteracy rate was limited to 5% before the war that destroyed more than 7 000 schools. Aleppo governance came first in terms of operating forces. The big number of workers which reached $90 can be found in some of the statistics published by CNBC Economic Network.
At the agricultural level, Syria was the first in the Arab world in wheat production, the second in the world in cotton production, and one of the most important centers for the textile industry.
The gross domestic product in Syria, in 2010, exceeded US $64 billion and the government’s contribution to the total output reached 22%. The Syrian oil sector ranked 27th in the world in terms of production, which exceeded 400 000 barrels/day, while revenues reached 7% of the total output.
Electricity production in Syria reached 46 billion kilowatts/hours in 2010 and the country was able to export the surplus to Lebanon and sometimes to Jordan.
The number of schools exceeded 21 000, while the illiteracy rate in the country decreased to 5%, compared to 70% in 1970, with an improvement rate estimated at 8% every five years. The literacy stage was almost eradicated in 2015. The crisis destroyed about 7 000 schools, while many were used either as centers for military actions or shelters to accommodate the internally displaced people.
The tourism business was flourishing in the country before the crises and the revenue exceeded $2 billion, along with increasing in hotels and touristic facilities.
Private educational institutions and universities witnessed significant booming in the country, as we can see many private schools and universities in many governorates.
Christians were enjoying the freedom of worship as well as all possible facilities to develop their diaconal institutions, schools, and health facilities.
Syria during the crises and onward
The war left a heavy toll on the Syrian economy, which is on the verge of collapse, with the halt of industrial production, the decline in agricultural and livestock production, and the exit of oil from the hands of the state.
This led to the loss of the Syrian pound of about 98% of its value, so that the price of the US dollar reached the threshold of 4 500 pounds a few months ago, until the central bank modified the exchange rate to 2 500 SP/ US $, in order to control the market and attract the foreign currency. The prices before the crises were around 50 Syrian pounds.
The results of the Syrian war indicate that an entire generation has been lost in the conflict, and children will bear the cost through the loss of education and health services.
In 2018, the World Bank estimated that about a third of all Syria’s housing and half of its health and education facilities were destroyed by the conflict. According to the World Bank, a total of $226 billion in GDP was lost between 2011 and 2016, due to the conflict.
Some economic statistics were provided on the extent of destruction in Syria, which stated that: more than 70% of the infrastructure is completely or partially destroyed; 7 million housing units have been damaged; more than 700 industrial facilities with strength at a regional level have gone out of business; and that during 2012-2013 alone, more than 3 000 schools were destroyed, according to UNICEF.
These disasters afflicting Syria were summed up by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, on the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, by saying on Wednesday, March 10, 2021: “Syria is still a living nightmare, as about 50% of its people face the threat of hunger.” “It is impossible to fully realize the extent of the devastation in Syria; its people are suffering from the worst crimes the world has known this century… the scale of the atrocities shocks the conscience,” he added.
Impact of the Syria crises on the economy, agriculture, and industry
80 000 barrels of oil were produced daily in 2020, extracted from areas outside the government’s control, compared with the daily production of 400 barrels before the outbreak of the conflict.
20 dollars is the average monthly salary of employees in the public sector in the areas controlled by the Syrian government at the beginning of 2021, according to the exchange rate on the black market. 50-200 dollars is the average of salaries in the public sector. 136 dollars is the cost of the basic food basket for a family of five for a month, according to the exchange rate on the black market.
There is 33 times increase in food prices in the country, compared to the 5-year average before the war, according to the World Food Program.
Significant damage to small and medium industries is present, which led to most of them stopping from working and being abandoned by their owners and workers as a result of the war.
The agricultural sector in Syria has been affected during a decade of war, as a result of armed operations, which has pushed tens of thousands of farmers to either migrate or were forcibly moved internally to safer places and left their lands. Because of the shortage and high prices of fertilizers and pesticides, the costs of agricultural production increased, and it became difficult to cover the costs of this production. For this reason, many farmers stopped their activity. In addition, the frequent power cuts prevented the extraction of groundwater, as farmers use pumps that operate mostly by electric current and fuel, which led to the plantings being exposed to thirst and dehydration.
There is an ignorance of the presence of American forces in eastern Syria, which control its oil wealth. UN reports have confirmed that a quarter of oil wealth is being looted by those forces.
The isolation in the Syrian economy continues due to the sanctions imposed on it, the latest of which is the Caesar Act, which prohibits dealing with Syria in most areas. This caused a shortage of all supplies, in addition to fuel, oil, and gas. The sanctions also include prohibition dealing with the Central Bank of Syria. There are also long lists of sanctions against companies and individuals. UN experts emphasized that the method of sanctions imposed on many countries hit people in the first place before the rulers. In this regard, the human rights expert of the United Nations, Alina Dohan, stressed the need to “lift unilateral sanctions”, given that the people are the first affected.
The sanction has been politicized, especially when reconstruction of Syria is directly related to political reform which may not happen soon. Although the recent virtual Brussels IV conference to help Syria has put some billions of pledges to help Syrians inside and outside Syria, we believe that the money would make a difference to Syrian people if they are spent in the rehabilitation of civil services and agriculture investments, as well as, reactivation of small and medium investment.
Updated figures of the statistic of affected people in Syria according to OCHA report on 2021
- The total population in Syria, as of the estimation in 2017, is 22 million.
- 6 million people left the country to neighboring countries and Europe, since the outbreak of the crises.
- 4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the country.
- 7 million are living as IDPs inside the country.
- 5 million children are displaced, 5.7 million children need protection, 6.6 million are in need of education and 2.45 million children are out of school.
- 90% of the total population is living under the poverty line and 2 million are living in extreme poverty.
- 4 million people are food insecure and 1.27 million are severely food insecure.
- About 3.7 million people (27% aged 12+) have different cases of disabilities.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Syrian people
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the country, with nearly 47 000 – 55 000 cases confirmed in Syria, including at least 1 972 deaths as of mid-March 2021, further straining the health system and reducing people’s access to both emergency and non-emergency care. There is no accurate data about the number of real cases due to not having accurate statistics. Many people have already been affected by the virus and recovered, while many priests and bishops died due to its impact.
At the economic level, due to the different lockdowns imposed by the government to encounter the quick spike of the virus, it is estimated that around 200 000 – 300 000 jobs have been lost since March 2020, with small and medium-sized enterprises being particularly affected. A United Nations (UN inter-agency socio-economic impact assessment of COVID-19) completed in August 2020 found that 15% of businesses had permanently closed, 40% had paused trading, and 30% reduced their activity.
Emergency and humanitarian response by the churches in Syria and particularly by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the Middle East Council of Churches
From the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, churches in Syria responded quickly to meet the emergency needs of people who were forced to flee their homes and villages. The severe military clashes reached many Christian cities and villages where Christians had to move their homes, flee to safer places, and remain displaced for years before getting back to their homes and witnessing what happened to their properties, the fruit of their life.
Churches initiatives were based on their rooted faith to love the neighbors as we love ourselves (good Samaritan: Luck 10: 25-37) and (Mathew 25: 35-46) when Jesus said to his disciplines: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
This rooted faith moved all goodwill people and church-related philanthropic organizations to lend help from their resources to ease the suffering and provide the basic needs to people. Many provided shelter to IDPs in their homes, monasteries, and church facilities were opened to be under the disposal of humanitarian actors.
In parallel, UN agencies began offering help in partnership with local organizations, including the churches and other Islamic organizations, in order to outreach affected people as much as possible, knowing that many affected Syrians headed first to their religious-affiliated entities seeking help.
Due to the long years’ experience of the Patriarchate of Antioch, thorough its specialized Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development (DERD), upon helping the Iraqi refugees from 2006 and due to its long years’ agreement with UNHCR, it was the first national entity to sign an agreement with it to support Syrian IDPs. Later on, other agreements were signed with other UN agencies such as OCHA, UNICEF, UNDP, UNHABITAT, and IOM.
The partnership between DERD and IOCC, as well as, with other church partners, had expanded to cover the needs of Syrians. DERD was considered the largest church-related humanitarian organization after the Syrian red crescent.
The program of the Patriarchate covered different sectors:
- Education (tuition fees, remedial classes)
- Health (medicines, surgery operations)
- Shelter (rehabilitation of shelters to host IDPs)
- Protection (PSS and mental health)
- Basic needs (distribution of food and non-food items)
- Livelihoods & early recovery (cash for work, vocational training, and grants)
- Rehabilitation of schools
- People with disabilities
- WASH programs (sanitation and water)
The programs covered the needs of millions of affected people and host communities across the country.
The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC)
Along with the humanitarian programs of the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Middle East Council of Churches, which has been present in the country since 1988, had launched its humanitarian program in partnership with MECC member churches in Syria. Like in the case of the Patriarchate, MECC was very active in supporting the Iraqi refugees, prior to launching its programs to support the affected Syrian people and vulnerable host communities. Through its long years of partnership cooperation with international partners, the MECC has been helping the Syrians in many sectors, just like DERD. It helped millions of individuals irrespective of their backgrounds.
To preserve the Christian presence, the council has recently launched a new program in partnership with the evangelical churches in Holland to restore the affected services in Syria. The three-year project will rehabilitate more than 40 churches and entities so that churches can preserve the Christian presence and witness it in the Syrian soils.
Where to go
Many would ask where to go? What are the future steps? Shall we surrender to face our destiny or act to rebuild the country in a way to grant better life for the generation to come? Shall we make out of this crisis and its repercussions an incentive for us to build a new homeland based on the principles of democracy, freedom, justice, citizenship, and equality?
Many questions are put forward to us for which we do not have answers yet. However, for us to be reasonable and approach events in a realistic manner, not with futile poetic and romantic language, we have to be aware that the solution of the problem will not be eventually accomplished unless the Syrian people realize that if they fail to preserve their homeland, identity, heritage, history, and civilization, they will end up like nomadic communities that have neither a home country nor an identity.
Shaping a shared future among all Syrians, irrespective of religious and political backgrounds is the cornerstone to restore the social fabric and witness a new cohesive Syrian society that will be based on peaceful and positive relationships.
A new social contract is a must today with the help of other countries and nations which witnessed similar crises and managed to realize a resurrection – so to speak – and rebuild their states.
Q: How does Syria perceive assistance that came from the Christian side during the Syrian crisis? How was the assistance coming from the Christian West and, especially from Romania? Who protects the Christians in Syria, that came there to help?
A: There are different partners and church partners in Syria, for example, the Church of Romania, which helped in the conflict. Besides the Romanian Church, the help also came from the Russian, Greek, and Serbian churches. Moreover, there were also Catholic partners. The majority of beneficiaries were not Christians, because Christians accounted only for 8% in Syria at that time. So, the beneficiaries were approximately 90%, not Christians and only 10% Christians. The problem is that the Christians are too shy to come and ask for help. Of course, a lot of churches are giving help, through the partnerships that had been established. They are helping in the rehabilitation processes of monasteries, but not only.
Regarding the protection of the Christians, in some cases, they need to do it themselves. They organized themselves to be effective in this process.
Q: What is your view regarding the possibility of Syria’s development inside the Arab League? The question comes as the Arab League has resumed its activity in Damascus for the first time since November 2011, when the organization suspended Syria’s membership. Also, do the member states of the Arab League have the possibilities and the willingness to end the Syrian war and the religious conflict?
A: The Syrian conflict is not a local one, but it has become reached an international level and the challenges between different camps are visible. Of course, most of the Arab states have different plans to have agreements with Israel, to open embassies there, but this is out of the question for the Syrian agenda at the moment.
The economic issue is a significant one because when we talk about economics at the international level, it can lead to conflicts. One example is that the Americans are capturing the Syrian oil in the north. Also, Turkey has stolen Syria’s wheat resources from the north, for five years. Those are ways of squeezing the country as much as possible and nobody talks about them.
Q: Will Syria be a safe haven for Christians?
A: As long as the conflict is still there, in the north, nothing will be changed. The situation is still fragile, there are still a lot of foreign fighters. But, when the conflict will come to an end, there should be an international, UN peace agreement.
Concerning the situation of the Christians, if we look back in time, from the beginning of Christianity until nowadays, the Christians have suffered a lot, going through difficult times, but also through good periods. So, it is not the first time. As long as there are churches and monasteries, Christianity will persist, even if they become a tiny minority in Syria. It is not a matter of numbers, but a matter of faith. Also, indeed, many Muslims do not like the Christian people, because the presence of Christianity affects their lives. There are many young Christians that prefer to leave the country and go to a place where they can exercise their religious faith and where they would have a future for their children.
Q: What effect can the external influences and actions on the integrity of the Syrian state? Is there a chance for Syria to return to the state that it had prior to 2011? Or is it more probable for it to change its structure?
A: No one can predict how things will develop in the future and if the Syrian map will be completely different. Syria created a buffer zone in the territory of the Kurds and it is not very probable to leave this territory, but it may try to include those fertile lands within the Syrian borders. The Kurds, supported by the United States, took this opportunity and tried to create their independent state, although by nationality they are Syrians. If this happens, their example would be taken by other populations. In this case, Syria will no longer be the Syria that we know today. Moreover, the Syrian government will not accept having its territory split. In this respect, it is difficult for people to live together, in unity and this is why a new social contract is needed for Syria. Unless the Syrians accept what had happened in the past and realize a reconciliation, peaceful relations within the state are not likely to prevail in the future. We see big cities, crowded with people because it is safe and, if you go outside, in the rural areas, you realize that they are empty. It is clear that Syria needs international support and efforts to get out of this state, to save the country, and to save the people. Action is needed because the current situation does not affect the rulers, but it affects the people. The forces in Syria are punishing the people, not the system. Syria needs assistance and help from other countries that have been in the same situation but have eventually recovered.
Q: How do you see the demographic changes in Syria? Can we talk about an irreversible process that will be a result of the ongoing situation? How can these demographic changes be managed, in the future process of rebuilding Syria?
A: Syria is witnessing demographic changes, constituting a radical process. For example, the people who went there, with different mentalities, different cultures. This created a lot of challenges because people always tend to go back to their roots. If they do not have the ability to do so, they have to adapt. The host communities should help them in this process, to be integrated in one way or another. There are more programs, both conducted by the United Nations and by local organizations that aim at establishing social cohesion. Of course, in this way, the groups are shaped, through the social activities that are created, in order to find a better language of communication and to fill the gaps of the social differences. The process takes time and it needs passion and a different approach. It is not an easy process, as small things can lead to big challenges between people. The demographic challenges are there, they are real and no one can control them, not even the state. This is why social cohesion programs are needed, but it is hard for them to show any positive result in the near future.
Q: What geopolitical lessons can we learn from Syria’s regional consistency in the last decade? Also, what about Romania’s role and position in this case?
A: Romania is now part of the European Union, but it used to be very close and similar to Syria. But Romania has taken a different path and it is enjoying a stable life, regardless of the economic problems, which anyways started to show progress. Entering the EU has brought lots of challenges, but they helped Romania to move from the communist system to the capitalist one. Solidarity among people, having a national interest to preserve the country, and putting the well-being of the nation in front of the personal interests are a must in the Romanian educational system and are key factors without which nothing can be realized. In Syria, it was completely different. When the infrastructure, the schools, and the hospitals were destroyed, those who did it thought that they were punishing the government, but they were punishing the citizens.
Q: Can we talk about proper premises for a sustainable reconstruction process in Syria? What preconditions must be met for the reconstruction process to be sustainable?
A: There is a lot of money for reconstruction, but political reforms are also needed. Another significant problem is corruption. We see corruption everywhere, not only in Syria but also in Lebanon and it cannot be ignored. Without fighting against corruption, without creating an independent juridical system, sustainable reconstruction cannot be achieved. It is very important to rehabilitate the educational and health institutions, which represent two basic issues that are much needed in the country. Also, the infrastructure, including the irrigation system and the electricity, is important for reactivating the economy. A lot of people who have factories are ready to put them at work again, but for this electricity is needed. If those problems are not solved, Syria will witness another kind of crisis, which will not benefit anyone, not even the neighboring countries.
The problem with the Syrian refugees that are currently in Turkey and that would be in Greece the following day if they would be permitted to leave is worth mentioning. Some people pay money to UN agencies to keep the Syrian people inside the country and not let any more waves of refugees head to Europe. It is a matter of when Turkey decides to open the gates.
Q: We see the involvement of China in the rebuilding process of Syria. Does this represent a process of dependence of Syria to China or of interdependence between the two states?
A: China will have a role in Syria because it has the necessary technology and resources to help in the process of Syrian reconstruction. Moreover, Syria will never be an ally to those who benefited from the crises in the past years. All options are open, even in Lebanon where debates between the political parties on the role of China take place. China is ready to come to Lebanon, to rebuild Lebanon, provide electricity, and restore the port of Lebanon. But this does not mean that China would intervene in those two countries and Russia will surely not allow this to happen. Also, Iran has the technology, the know-how, and the experts that could help in the rebuilding of Syria.
Q: Is China’s investment pattern bringing a new regime pattern in the countries that it invests in?
A: There are of course associated costs of those investments. Syria has a lot of investment potential, at all levels: it has big lands, water resources, huge parts of the desert that can be used for agriculture or solar power generation, and, of course, big resources of oil, that are now controlled by the US. The government pattern problem is a matter of managing the power in the country and between the two superpowers. But Syria is not willing to bring anything new in this respect.
About the author:
Delia-Maria MOTAN is Intern research at MEPEI, and her research interest lies in international relations and political science in the Middle East. Currently, she is studying at the Faculty of the Political Science / University of Bucharest.