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The tolls of war in Syria

On a hill on the western edge of Berlin lies one of the German capital’s most remarkable monuments to war, nicknamed Teufelsberg, or “Devil’s Mountain.” It is an artificial mound on top of the ruins of a Nazi military college but covered in 75 million cubic meters of war rubble.

Such rubble mountains are found all over Germany, and as one looks across the Middle East’s ever expanding conflict zones, one wonders how many will be needed there? Of course, the devils will need to be buried, and that is some way off.

Investment advice is far from the purpose of this column, but as one grimaces at the endless photographs and video from the Middle East, it is clear that companies specializing in rubble removal will only expand.

One photo caught the eye: Yet another young child seated atop another pancaked high-rise building, possibly his former home. But where was it? Aleppo, Homs, Mosul, Raqqa, a city in Yemen? As it turned out, it was Gaza — but how could you tell?

As Mosul has fallen and Raqqa is all but freed from Daesh control, yet more horrifying vistas emerge. One estimate is that it will cost $1 billion to rebuild Mosul, but many observers see that as frankly preliminary guesswork. The costs of rebuilding Gaza after the 2014 war was around $4-8 billion. Works involve clearing these giant urban jungles of mangled steel, crumbled concrete and wires, not to mention the toxic waste of war.

The World Bank brought out last week its assessment of the toll of the Syrian war. The media largely ignored it because it is a retelling of the same old story, just with bigger numbers. World Bank reports are dusty dry, and barely address the non-physical, non-financial damage to the country and its people.

The study found that by the start of this year, the war and fighting had damaged or destroyed around a third of the housing stock and roughly a half of the medical and education facilities in certain areas. The survey showed that Aleppo has around 14.9 million tons of debris and rubble, and Homs 5.3 million. To clear Aleppo, it would take around six years of continuous work. Many non-Syria-watchers may be surprised that it is Deir El-Zour in the east that has experienced some of the most horrific destruction.

The full extent of the physical damage due to the conflict will not be fully understood until the rubble is lifted away and the areas still under siege are accessed.

Chris Doyle

All areas of vital infrastructure have been decimated. Take, for example, water: Almost two-thirds of water treatment plants have been destroyed or partially damaged, along with a sixth of the wells across the country, and — remarkably, perhaps — only a quarter of the sewage treatment plants. Water at times has been used as a weapon of war but also as a means of getting parties to cooperate, as everyone needs it for survival. Plenty of coverage has dealt with the atrocious targeting of medical and education infrastructure. Yet how does one account for the human toll when over half the country’s physicians have left?

A raft of caveats must be attached to this data. Firstly, the survey covered only 10 Syrian cities not including Damascus so it is not comprehensive. Secondly the study relies on satellite imagery to establish the damage but without reporting from the ground. As useful as this is, it needs to be further backed up by detailed on-the-ground studies when possible.

Every aspect of the Syrian economy has been crushed. The study estimates that from 2011 to the end of 2016, Syria lost $226 billion, roughly four times the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010.

Once again this must be a broad-brush estimate and, as the fighting continues, one that will only get worse. A major segment of the pre-war economy was oil and gas production, which accounted for a quarter of government revenue. Today Syria produces just 10,000 barrels of oil — down from 383,000. Daesh destroyed the Shaer gas field, one of Syria’s largest, last year. To restore anything like pre-war production will require massive investment in the whole hydrocarbon infrastructure, including oil refineries and pipes.

The reality is that all these figures and studies are indicative and interim. The full extent of the physical damage due to the conflict will never be fully understood until the rubble is lifted away and the areas still under siege are accessed. One report in April estimated that the bill could reach $1 trillion, whereas this time last year the World Bank put it at a more modest $180 billion. Until then we shall have to make do with World Bank studies like this to spark the debate on just how a country so systematically crushed can rise again.

When it does so, it must be Syrians who lead and drive the process. The story of much of the last six years is one of the loss of Syrian citizens’ agency in their own country, where both the regime and opposition groups are increasingly held hostage to outside powers. Maybe one day the rubble and the devils will be laid to rest and Syria will be resurgent — but right now, this is a distant horizon and involves a bill that nobody can pay.

• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.