Yesterday in a meeting, a colleague asked about what will be needed after the conflict in Syria, what we could help with. I looked down, trying not to be the buzzkill I knew I would be if I expressed what I was thinking. I wanted the professional conversation to continue, as it should, about how organizations like ours could help. My head bent down, I hoped the conversation would pass over me. I was thinking, there's not much we can do if the infrastructure of the country is wiped out. Especially since most of what I do is through online education, requiring lots of electricity, Internet infrastructure and other things.
I remembered working in Afghanistan in 2003-2004 and how difficult it was to rebuild infrastructure, from roads, to dams, to buildings to electricity grids. It takes years to find the money, the people, the expertise to make it happen and even longer if a government is new, not totally organized or without experience in rebuilding a country. And any transition government, especially a democratically elected one, will not be super efficient. In the best case scenario the political leaders will be struggling with governing and working with factions and individuals that are vastly different from them. Conflict and divisions between politicians can cause paralysis in democracies, as we know. In the worst case, leaders will try to build a new authoritarian state. Either way, no one will be fixing the country's infrastructure. Which means no electricity, water, food etc.
I remember sitting in a presentation in the fall of 2004 -- a few months after leaving Afghanistan -- a former U.S. government staffer in Baghad shared pictures and spoke of his experience there. Again I lowered my head, I remembered Afghanistan and the destruction and thought about what awaited Iraq -- the well-paved, well-educated, electricity-powered, clean water having, and efficiently food redistributing Iraq. Prior to the conflict, in 1999, UNICEF estimated 92 percent of urban dwellers had access to water. Now many urban dwellers rely on bottled water and those that can't afford it face sickness for the lack of clean water. According to UNICEF two in five Iraqi households do not have access to safe drinking water. This is notwithstanding the 600 or more Iraqis that died during trying to build this infrastructure to get it where it is today.
The story is the same about electricity. Most of the electricity was actually destroyed during the 1991 First Gulf War, when over 70 percent of the electricity infrastructure was ruined. Apparently the peak of production was at 9000 MW just before the war and is just reaching that peak again at 8500 MW production. The only problem is that demand has of course increased since the nineties, there are more people needing electricity for more things. And the story goes on.
Though Iraq's infrastructure was better than Syria's was before its conflict, Syria also had a strong educated class, infrastructure, including roads, electricity, education, healthcare and water distribution. It was of course not to the level of developed countries but there was a sufficient enough foundation upon which to build. Before the protests and internal conflict, the country was struggling with modernizing its infrastructure from roads to the education sector, and building a stronger economy... now it will have to start from scratch with money it doesn't have. Already there are estimates that it will take 25 years to rebuild what has been destroyed thus far.
And then there's what will happen politically in the country after Assad goes. The jihadis will be left without a war to fight and will turn their eyes to governing. What will happen to religious minorities, the large number of moderates and others in the country? The Syria that was once comfortable with outspoken and powerful women, ethnic and religious minorities will be at the disposal of those that have other visions for the country. And no country in the region has yet demonstrated a viable resolution to those types of tensions.
We're post Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Arab Spring. There are no delusions about what democracy, conflict, invasions, interventions and violence mean in the region right now. But the burden of being the U.S. is that it can't ever really only focus on the U.S. The destruction and chemical weapons make it impossible not to get involved (though there are plenty of historical examples of when the U.S. hasn't gotten involved). This is one of those situations where bad things happen if it doesn't get involved and bad things happen if it does. Unless there was a non-military involvement.
A nonviolent solution involves Iran. When people ask me why the U.S. and Iran haven't made friends after 34 years, I say its like a couple who never seems to get on the same page at the same time. But now, like the rare moment at the beginning of the Afghanistan war, the two countries might actually want the same thing at the same time. Iran doesn't want to channel all its resources to Syria while Iran is struggling, and it has a new president that's not interested in antagonizing the West. That would make it a good time to talk. The alliance likely wouldn't be sustained given the vast differences in ideology, but there could be very specific agreed-upon common interests. It may not be just the couple that has to be on the same page, but the in-laws do too. Israel and others have to be as ready as the U.S. for this compromise.
Yesterday I was on a Skype call with a friend in Lebanon. He turned on his camera for a short bit to show me the streets in Beirut.
"You have to see this, its 6 pm in Beirut and nobody is in the streets." He scanned the street and one lone car drove past during what should normally be the bumper-to-bumper traffic hour.
"People's parents are making them send missed calls just to let them know that they are home at night. Everyone is freaking out. You should be here, you should see live this. Everyone is afraid that if Syria is bombed then somebody inside will retaliate and bomb Israel and Israel will then bomb us. "
After talking for a while longer we began to end the call. I didn't know what to say, he'd grown up in Beirut and faced years of insecurity and violence. Nothing I would say would add to what he already knew. I said, "Text me if anything happens to you."
"You want me to text you if I'm under the ground, in the dirt? Sure! I'll send a message that I have truly joined the underground. Hey Maryam I'm really underground!" He laughs and I do too. We laugh for a strangely long time.