After ISIS, how do we build a peaceful future for Iraq and Syria?

An Iraqi woman celebrates victory over Islamic State in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, in December.

Conflicts have a 44% of recurring within five years, says the World Bank Image: Reuters/Khalid al-Mousily

Mirek Dušek
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
Maroun Kairouz
Head of Middle East and North Africa, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

On 9 December 2017 Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, formally declared victory in the country’s protracted war on ISIS. Just a few months before, in September, Lebanon had cleared its north-eastern border with Syria of extremist elements; a month after that, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Raqqa, until then the capital of the self-proclaimed “Caliphate”. Across the Levant, the terrorist outfit seems all but defeated, as it desperately holds onto its last sliver of territory in Syria, near the Iraqi border, having once ruled over 40% of Iraq and more than a third of Syria. Though its bloodthirsty methods have alienated the region’s population, the demise of ISIS’s reign in the Middle East would not herald the end of its efforts, as witnessed by the number of terrorist attacks it perpetrated throughout the world in 2017, even as it continued to lose ground.

Having almost won the war, the region’s countries now face the task of winning the peace, if they are to avert the resurgence of an ISIS 2.0. Indeed, a study by the World Bank has found that conflicts have a 44% of recurring within five years of the end of a civil war. For that reason, reconstruction and reconciliation will be indispensable to avoid another war or the emergence of an extremist outfit that may exceed even ISIS in brutality. A Marshall Plan for the Levant has never been more needed than today. And with the cost of reconstruction estimated at $100 billion for Iraq and at least $200 billion for Syria – which doesn’t include the costs incurred by neighbouring countries suffering from spillover effects – new approaches are required to make this process durable, sustainable and inclusive.

Governments cannot act alone; multistakeholder involvement is needed

Though international aid will be needed to stabilize Iraq and Syria – after securing an end to the war through the diplomatic process – and to meet humanitarian needs, it is incapable of sparking on its own the revival needed to create jobs and unshackle fragile local economies. In any case, given the sums required, international aid would be insufficient. Public sector leaders in the region need to involve all relevant stakeholders in the reconstruction process. International businesses can provide the investment needed to restore what was lost in the war. Partnerships with national businesses can help them navigate local customs and procedures. Leaders in the public sphere, therefore, should create a legal framework that incentivizes and protects private sector participation in their national reconstruction efforts.

An SDF fighter in a field hospital in Raqqa in June 2017
An SDF fighter in a field hospital in Raqqa in June 2017 Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
Commit to accountability and transparency

Part of the success of the Marshall Plan resided in the fact that it was administered directly by the donor country, the US. Due to the security and political situation, this would not be an option in the Levant. In order to gain the trust of international donors and investors, countries will need to provide them with guarantees their money will not be lost through corruption. Syria ranks 173rd and Iraq 166th out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index. In Iraq, according to Dr Sami al-Araji, the chairman of the country’s National Investment Commission, the national budget has been inflated by 500% between 2004 and 2015, an increase he attributes mainly to cronyism.

The public sector must commit to being transparent by disclosing online full details of the aid and investments received. Going a step further, they could even use drones or nanosatellites to provide frequent updates on the progress of different initiatives, to provide businesses and citizens with evidence of the integrity with which the reconstruction process is being managed.

Emulating Guatemala, they could call on the international community to offer its support in monitoring their public sectors. The Central American nation enlisted the assistance of the United Nations in 2006 to create the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has managed to win several high-profile corruption cases in the country. The arrangement would also go a long way to restoring citizens’ trust in their governments as well.

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Start small, go local

Public sector leaders will be tempted to hit the ground running with infrastructure mega-projects. Though this may make sense in terms of economies of scale, it’s also important to consider the costs associated with corruption, complexity and the lack of competition. Starting with smaller projects would help revitalize the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that are the engines of job creation at the local level, as well as being easier to monitor for corruption. For instance, instead of rebuilding big power plants, any move to reestablish energy networks could start with mini solar plants that would feed a single block of flats with electricity.

Instead of merely financing aid, international donors should consider making strategic investments in SMEs, in exchange for small stakes that they could liquidate once the recovery is on a solid footing. This would encourage the adoption of local solutions, spark the creation of new companies, foster social entrepreneurship and create jobs that do not vanish as soon as the donors pack up and leave. The World Economic Forum showcased the untapped creative potential and business acumen that the region holds when it hosted, in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation, the 100 startups shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Middle East and North Africa Summit in the Dead Sea in May 2017. This community constitutes a resource – often overlooked by governments – that must be tapped to make the reconstruction durable.

An anti-ISIS march in London in October
An anti-ISIS march in London in October Image: Reuters/Tom Jacobs
Mending the social fabric

It is not only the physical infrastructure that must be repaired. More than 13 million Syrians and 3.5 million Iraqis have been forced out of their homes by the conflict. Millions suffering from injuries and traumas are in desperate need of medical, psychological and social support. Communities have been fractured by displacement and distrust. Mending the social fabric will be essential if a sustainable recovery is to take hold. For this purpose, social media platforms should do a better job of countering the propaganda that jihadists release online. The public sector could pioneer the use of blockchain in their property registries, to breed confidence among citizens that their lands and assets will not be grabbed by unscrupulous officials. Blanket subsidies should be replaced by targeted cash transfers that help the most vulnerable; using mobile money to do so would increase transparency and create the momentum for the spread of financial technology within local markets. This would allow for a faster and safer turnover of cash and thus stimulate economic recovery.

More importantly, for residents to be active participants in the reconstruction efforts and not mere bystanders, they will need to be equipped with skills that empower them to contribute. Refugees scattered across different regions and countries will have been exposed to different education systems – if they’ve been educated at all. Thousands of children living under ISIS were sent to ideology schools that taught them no useful skills. Thousands more were completely deprived of any sort of formal education. Traditional education systems are incapable of coping with these challenges. A new system that adopts a modular approach to skills should be built, in collaboration with NGOs, faith-based organizations and private educational providers.

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