Syria and Lebanon – Paying the Price of Neglect

Friday, March 24, 2023
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Syria and Lebanon – Paying the Price of Neglect

How much more can the Syrian people be forced to endure? With plunging rates of human development in education, health, basic welfare, and other services, not to mention the continued denial of human rights, the abandonment of local governance to the Assad regime, the fragmentation of the country among warring factions, and the absence of any realistic alternatives to a continued stalemate among them, Syria has been pushed beyond repair. It seems that nether Russia nor Iran have a plan other than maintaining the status quo – without the resources or financial capabilities to undertake the widespread investments necessary for survival and reconstruction of the country.

As recently reported, “Even before the earthquakes that devastated northwestern Syria in February, the UN had said that 14.6 million Syrians were in need of humanitarian assistance, with 6.9 million people internally displaced and more than 5.4 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands also sought asylum in Germany and other parts of the European Union, as well as further afield.” Not only has Syria wound up with a devastated economy, but the professional class outside of the capital, Damascus, has largely dissipated as a force for development.

You may wonder, then, why our attention is increasingly focused on Syria despite the many unresolved challenges in Lebanon. Their futures are entwined, as their histories have been. After adding together Hezbollah’s Syrian adventures, the role of Iran in Iraq, and the political links to Lebanon, it is apparent that each can play a role in the continued erosion or emerging successes of the other. Syria is Lebanon’s largest market. Many families share roots that go back hundreds of years. Their cultures are so similar that the food, music, and performing arts all blend into each other.

A decade ago, there were optimistic forecasts of Tripoli and Aleppo twining to facilitate the reconstruction of Syria, in the post-war aftermath. Well, Syria is still divided and Lebanon is now ruined. So much for predictions. Tripoli became the center of poverty in Lebanon – if not, in the entire coastal Mediterranean region – and Aleppo was destroyed twice by ISIS, further ruined by the anti-ISIS campaigns of the government. Today, what has become apparent in both countries is that the central governments are notoriously unreliable and unable to meet the needs of the country from basic infrastructure to telecommunications and energy.

Some Sunshine?

Local initiatives in both countries – not considering the Levantine Energy packages bringing power from Jordan and Egypt – are possible options for creating manageable paths forward for communities and even regions. Local community empowerment under various labels relieves the governments of providing a range of services to citizens at the local level. Utilizing the human resources that were once abundant in both countries deals both with the brain drain issue and magnifies what benefits can accrue from utilizing local talents and energies so that more products can be created for export, value can be added to existing products, and demand can be increased for local services including production of exports.

Various studies conducted pre- and post-pandemic, have spelled out the capacity and areas of opportunity for economies to reduce their import costs and create new streams of income.

The reason why this analysis aims to look beyond Lebanon is that the Syrian markets are right next door. Bringing together the qualities of the two markets as well as the entrepreneurial talents that both have to offer create synergies enabling communities in Syria and Lebanon to overcome their stigmas of poverty and regression. As far as Lebanon is concerned, “The business community is confident – that there are enough unemployed individuals with relevant skills to meet labor demand in these sectors. These initiatives could entice qualified youth to forego emigration, create high-quality private sector jobs, produce additional sophisticated products, increase economic output, reduce demand for public sector jobs, and efficiently utilize savings in the absence of a functioning banking sector.”

Neither country needs to rely on the central governments except for facilitations. As it stands today, in Lebanon, “The overvalued exchange rate and relatively high labor costs contributed to reducing the competitiveness of locally manufactured products in foreign and local markets before 2020. Compounding this, the monopolized market structure lowered entry incentives in key manufacturing sectors. As a result, from 2011 to 2019, value added in manufacturing dropped by 25% to $3.1 billion, and by another 27% from 2019 to 2021.” On the local level, these non-competitive barriers can be reduced significantly, and the pairing of Syrian and Lebanese labor and brainpower can bring about a range of successes.

This alternative serves both countries, reduces tensions, promotes stability, and requires few actions by a central government whether they be autocrats or kleptocrats. Putting power and initiative back in the hands of local communities engenders the stability desperately needed in both countries.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.