Sunday, May 27, 2018

Civil war leaves Syrian economy, cities in ruins

In Syria's cities and towns, entire blocks of apartment buildings have been shattered, their top floors reduced to pancaked slabs of concrete.

Centuries-old markets have been gutted by flames and gunfire in places like Aleppo and Homs — an irreplaceable chunk of history wiped out in a few hours of battle.

And then there are the many factories, oil pipelines, schools, hospitals, mosques and churches that have been destroyed in nearly 19 months of violence.

Aside from the human tragedy of the lives lost in the civil war — activists estimate the death toll has now passed 32,000 — there is the staggering damage to the country's infrastructure, economy and cultural treasures.

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said last week that the economic losses from the ongoing conflict have cost the country about $34 billion, with the figure rising daily, while the opposition estimates the loss at $100 billion.

Experts say the real figure cannot be measured with any accuracy, given the continuing nature of the raging violence and the difficulties involved with getting independent observers into the country to assess the damage.

Although there are some pockets of Syria that have been relatively shielded from the conflict, the destruction in most of the country's major cities is staggering. Experts warn that whenever the civil war ends, it will take a monumental international effort, and perhaps a generation of Syrians, to rebuild what has been broken.

"In terms of infrastructure, major parts of Syria have effectively been bombed back to Ottoman times," said Ammar Abdul-Hamid, a Syrian activist and a Washington-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, which compiles statistics from the conflict, said in a Sept. 28 report that 589,000 buildings — including residential homes, schools, mosques, churches and hospitals — have been destroyed, with thousands more severely damaged.

The group said it used specialized civil engineers to come up with its damage estimate and put the cost of reconstructing residential properties and other buildings at about $40 billion.

Before the March 2011 start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad, Syria had prided itself on being an oasis of security in a region wracked by violence and sectarian tensions.

Despite the regime's massive corruption and a repressive political dictatorship, there also were signs of progress: The country had finally shed its socialist legacy, the economy was booming, and its cafes were packed with tourists, young entrepreneurs and businessmen discussing their latest projects.

That image could not be more different now.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its commercial and cultural center, has been hit hardest by the violence, along with the central industrial city of Homs. In both places, large swaths of residential areas have been razed, buildings have gaping holes and scorched facades, and hundreds of factories and manufacturing plants have closed.

When the uprising began, inspired by Arab Spring revolts that brought down longtime dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syrian forces used light weapons to disperse largely peaceful protesters. As armed elements began to fight back, the Assad regime began using heavy machine guns, artillery and tanks against them.

The conflict soon became a full-blown armed insurgency and the Assad regime grew more desperate, introducing military aircraft. In recent months, warplanes have been used daily, pulverizing buildings in an attempt to crush rebel strongholds.

On Sept. 29, a fire caused by the fighting swept through Aleppo's covered market, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Old City, burning more than 500 shops.

Some of the country's most significant historical sites have been turned into bases for soldiers and rebels, including historic citadels and Turkish bath houses known as hamams.

"It's a dirty war. Nobody is stopping for a minute to consider the damage that they are causing," said Haytham Manna, a prominent exiled Syrian opposition figure, likening the fighters on both sides to Taliban extremists who in 2001 smashed the 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

"Who will pay these bills later on? Nobody," he said.

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