Reconstruction following the devastating wars and state failure which followed the Arab uprisings of 2011 has become an increasingly pressing issue. In Iraq, the liberation of territories from the Islamic State came at great human and infrastructural cost. In Syria, the reconquest of territories by the regime of Bashar al-Asad has been accompanied by international discussions of modest steps towards reconstruction, after a war which generated more the half of the world’s refugees and internally displaced whilst sowing devastation across much of the country. Yemen has endured the near complete destruction of its infrastructure and economy, leaving much of the population at risk of starvation and disease. Libya is devastated by its multiple conflicts and the successive disintegration of what is left of its institutional structures. While none of these wars has yet fully ended, international and expert attention is increasingly focused on the impending challenges of reconstruction, repatriation and reconciliation.

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the destruction which these wars have left behind. These wars have unfolded across multiple levels. Millions of people have been dispossessed from their homes, driven into exile at home or abroad. Infrastructure has been devastated, with many cities and towns utterly destroyed. National economies have evolved into local war economies. State and local institutions have been fundamentally reshaped. Communal polarization around sectarian or political identities has progressed to extreme levels. Entire communities have been severely impoverished as health and educational attainments plummet. And the individual trauma suffered by tens of millions of people afflicted by conflict and violence will have enduring psychological and developmental effects.

Download POMEPS 30: The Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction (pdf)

The reconstruction now being discussed is not just about physical or economic rebuilding. Reconstruction can never be separated from politics, and the looming choices will rarely be driven only by humanitarian or economic needs. Reconstruction will take place across a range of political contexts, from the brutally fierce restoration of the Syrian regime to the corrupt, and the sectarian and inefficient Iraqi system to the nearly nonexistent states of Libya and Yemen. External and local actors alike will get rich or be frozen out, accumulate social power or face marginalization. Amnesties could restore war criminals to positions of power, or transitional justice institutions could lead to their political exclusion. Across the region, the forms and modalities of reconstruction will shape a new political status quo with long lasting implications.

In January 2018, POMEPS and the Carnegie Middle East Center convened a workshop in Beirut to discuss original research from a wide range of cases on the politics of post-conflict reconstruction. Workshop participants made no assumptions either that conflict had ended or that reconstruction would imminently begin. Rather they aimed to explore the interlinkages between reconstruction, reconciliation and repatriation focusing on regional examples. Some of the cases presented involved ongoing conflicts, the winding down of which could be seen flickering on the horizon. Others involved conflicts which ended decades ago, such as Algeria’s and Lebanon’s civil wars, allowing for a historical perspective. The research featured in this collection focuses on very different dimensions of post-conflict situations, from the contestation of memory to the physical rebuilding of cities in rubble.

Several key themes and questions emerged from the discussions:

The Politics of Reconstruction

Reconstruction is itself a loaded term, one which might smuggle in a wide range of veiled assumptions. Some might infer that reconstruction meant a rebuilding of the status quo ante, something which might be neither normatively desirable nor politically possible. In some cases, as in the Gaza mechanism discussed by Stefanini, policies labeled as reconstruction can actually be a vehicle for sustaining and perpetuating structures of domination. Saudi and UAE humanitarian assistance in Yemen can be seen as an effort to sustain support for the broader military effort.

Others might see the push to begin thinking about reconstruction as a political drive to force an end to any viable support for the conflict itself. American and European discussions, for instance, about how they might “win” the reconstruction of Syria could be a face-saving way to move on from more than a half decade of attempting to win through war. The Asad regime, certainly, views calls for reconstruction as a way of signaling the end of conflict and the beginning of his international rehabilitation.

Some might also see a focus on reconstruction as a way to avoid dealing with the difficult issues of responsibility, especially in contexts such as Syria where the key party to the conflict has been signaled out for forced population transfers and for crimes against humanity. A focus on physical rebuilding in such context implies that any justice mechanism, including transitional justice or the articulation of shared memories can and will take a back seat to the economic opportunities and political gambits which define post-conflict. Critically, such a focus is likely to undermine international norms of accountability and justice and will serve to reward those accused of such crimes. While many Syrians and outside actors alike call for “just and inclusive reconstruction,” the realities are likely to be anything but.

Reconstruction in places like Syria are especially complicated by the questions of how assistance can be given to a regime that was in large part responsible for the country’s devastation and has been implicated in war crimes. International actors today are struggling with whether and how to support reconstruction for Syrian communities whilst ensuring that this does not end up privileging political supporters of the regime. Standing aside from reconstruction efforts in Syria may avoid offering support to the Asad regime, but at the cost of perpetuating Syrian suffering and ceding post-war influence to other actors. There are no clear positions yet on the institutional mechanisms through which reconstruction funding may be provided, what new institutions and oversight mechanisms are needed and what existing institutions within the different countries need to be rebuilt or simply reshaped.

What needs to be reconstructed?

Discussion of reconstruction often begins from economic needs assessment and templates derived from international best practices, rather than through engagement with the affected individuals or with the actual realities on the ground especially in the aftermath of civil conflict. In fact, reconstruction will be deeply intertwined with the reconfiguration of power relations in these societies emerging from conflict.

The physical reconstruction needs are staggering. The United Nations Special Envoy has estimated the cost of rebuilding Syria at $250 billion but some estimates go as high as $1 trillion. In Yemen, the ongoing war has brought more than a third of the population to the brink of starvation while the World Bank has assessed the cost of physical rebuilding at some $40 billion. In Libya, reconstruction actually means building new state institutions and reconciling the country’s disparate social groups. Even if such levels of funding prove to be available, however, there is no simple economic fix for these shattered societies.

The political and societal dimensions of reconstruction are as critical as they are often overlooked. Civil war and mass atrocity have left behind traumatized populations and deeply divided societies. Before economies can be rebuilt or political institutions revitalized, these societies will need to come to grips with the scale and magnitude of these legacies of violence. As the essays by Parry and O’Driscoll demonstrate in Iraq, the trauma inflicted by the Islamic State and the damage done to the social fabric of the country will take decades to undo.

Who will pay for reconstruction?

With little consensus amongst the international community on how to end these different conflicts, and a considerable turning inwards as pressure grows on elected governments to invest within and not outside their countries, the question of where this funding will come from looms large. Neither Russia nor Iran are able or willing to provide the levels of financing needed to rebuild what they were complicit in destroying in Syria. While China recently pledged over $20 billion in Arab development assistance, it is unlikely and probably unable to provide what is needed. European and American assistance, if forthcoming at all, would be tied to international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. The Trump Administration has indicated little support for large-scale American economic assistance to rebuilding Middle Eastern states. Only the Gulf states have the financial resources to fund large scale reconstruction, but they are parties to the wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya and cannot offer non-political reconstruction assistance.

Refugee return and repatriation

Refugee repatriation and the return of the internally displaced to their homes of origin will be a central challenge for any post conflict reconstruction plan. Guarantees for safety and security aside, the nature of the conflicts in the region mean that any sustainable peace needs to take into account the needs of displaced populations and refugees in any post conflict scenario. These include international guarantees of physical safety and access to basic services. For Syrians, who make up more than 50 percent of refugees and internally displaced world-wide, the challenges of return are compounded by the survival of Bashar al-Asad and his regime who were responsible for their displacement in the first place. In the absence of a wide-scale political settlements, there are few guarantees that their return to Syria and to their areas of origin will not expose them to retribution or revenge.

Refugee return will also likely vary from one country to the other and from one region to the other within the different countries. It will depend on conditions in the areas of origin and on the nature of the political bargain that ends the conflict and the willingness of the ruling elite to allow populations it may consider politically hostile at best, to come back to the country or to move back to areas of interest. Return may well mean secondary displacement, as refugees are unable to return to destroyed homes or to prove their ownership of confiscated property.

In Syria, the regime is putting in place multilevel obstacles to refugee return including laws that may dispossess them of their properties, security vetting mechanisms that mean mainly women, children and the elderly amongst those willing to return may be allowed to do so and the extension of the military conscription law that will see every male between the ages of 18 and 42 join the military or pay hefty fines beyond their economic means. At the same time, the regime, with the help of Russians is beginning to set up camps ostensibly to house returning refugees and some of the internally displaced. This is taking place as they work to link refugee return to international support for rebuilding Syria.

This approach of setting up refugee camps within Syria may not entice people back voluntarily in large numbers. Refugee camps in a context where reconstruction needs, especially for housing are massive, land is being appropriated and rebuilding will likely privilege regions that supported the regime throughout the previous years of conflict implies a long-term displacement crisis with the need for continued support from the international community. As happened in Iraq, where actual efforts to address the post-civil conflict needs faltered at best, this also means that Syrians are unlikely go back to their areas of origin anytime soon.

Can there be justice, or even memory?

What is also troubling for Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans and Yemenis among others is the absence of any mechanisms for transitional justice or political accountability. The question of whether justice or rebuilding should come first is important in all countries moving out of conflict. Should rebuilding states be encouraged to defer historical reckoning or transitional justice in the name of preserving fragile new stability? Or should they insist on some basic justice measures and if so at what level of the command chain? The lack of accountability and justice mechanisms played a key trigger in the uprisings to begin with, and in a post conflict situation this absence is particularly worrying. In the short run it may encourage individuals acts of vengeance and in the long run it will likely undermine the sustainability of any settlement.

For countries in the Middle East, there is little historical precedent to suggest that there will be any justice forthcoming. Few Arab states, other than democratizing Tunisia and – to some extent – Morocco, have opted for meaningful transitional justice. Iraq’s efforts to hold regime officials to account after the fall of Saddam Hussein rapidly degenerated into sectarian vendettas. The lessons of countries such as Lebanon and Algeria, discussed in this collection by Haugbolle and Ghanem-Yazbek, point towards amnesia and impunity rather than memory and justice. But the large scale efforts over the last seven years to preserve evidence of war crimes in Syria points to the possibility that such amnesia and forgetting may no longer be possible.

The essays, available in an open-access pdf here, offer no single answer to these questions, or any easy path forward. Together, however, they offer rich and challenging comparative and theoretical perspective on the difficult issues facing those now turning to the demands of reconstruction in the Middle East.

—Marc Lynch, Director, POMEPS

Maha Yahya, Director, Carnegie Middle East Center

July 2018


IntroductionMarc Lynch, George Washington University, POMEPS Director and Maha Yahya, Director, Carnegie Middle East Center

Seeing Like a State-builder: Replication of Donor Reconstruction Dilemmas in SyriaFrances Z. Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & University of Oxford

Reconstructing Authoritarianism: The Politics and Political Economy of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in SyriaSteven Heydemann, Smith College & The Brookings Institution

Legal Pluralism and Justice in Iraq after ISIL, Jacqueline Parry, Institute for Regional and International Studies, American University of Iraqi Sulaimani

Physical and Societal (Re)construction in Nineveh post Islamic StateDylan O’Driscoll, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), University of Manchester

Postwar Reconciliation and Fragile Peace in AlgeriaCaroline Abadeer, Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and Yuree Noh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center

Algeria’s Peace Process: Spoilers, Failures and SuccessesDalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, Resident Scholar, Carnegie Middle East Center

Lebanon and the Fog of ReconstructionDeen Sharp, Earth and Environment Sciences, City University of New York

Libya’s Policing Sector: The Dilemmas of Hybridity and Security PluralismFrederic Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Marshalling Order in Yemen: How Reconstruction Will Make or Break the Post-War OrderPeter Salisbury, Chatham House

Thinking about Legality: What Memory Studies Can Contribute to Transitional JusticeSune Haugbolle, Roskilde University

Normalizing the Siege: The ‘Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism’ and the Contradictions of Humanitarianism and ReconstructionPietro Stefanini, The Palestinian Return Centre

Wartime Nonviolent Mass Protests and Post-Conflict Politics, Reyko Huang, Texas A&M University

The Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction