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In Syria’s reconstruction, Lebanon sees economic opportunity

After nearly seven years of war, as Syria looks toward a massive reconstruction project, neighboring Lebanon sees an economic opportunity. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Lebanon as the task of rebuilding Syria begins to take shape - and the lingering regional divisions that will haunt it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, Syria’s grinding civil war has led to destruction on an astonishing scale. Great swathes of the country lie in ruins. But now plans for rebuilding are beginning to take shape.

    As special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from neighboring Lebanon, it’s a task that will be haunted by the divisions that tore Syria apart.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The devastation of nearly seven punishing years of war in Syria is massive, second only to the terrible human suffering, the loss of homes, infrastructure, entire towns and cities.

    The United Nations predicts it will cost at least $250 billion to rebuild and repair the battered country. But across the border in Lebanon, some see opportunity. People in the coastal city of Tripoli are hoping reconstruction projects pass through here. In a country still trying to recover from its own civil war which ended in 1990, a generation ago, investment and jobs are desperately needed here.

  • Dr. Ahmad Tamer:

    From the history, Tripoli is a very important city for the commercial and trade of Syria and Iraq.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dr. Ahmad Tamer is the manager of Tripoli’s commercial port. An expansion project has already begun here, with the port’s ability to process four million tons of goods expected to reach six million within the next two years. That, he says, will help it act as an import hub for goods and construction materials on their way into Syrian cities.

  • Dr. Ahmad Tamer:

    It’s very close to the Syria border, so we can present all kinds of services for the trader, for everything for Syria.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Tripoli is a half-hour drive from the Syrian border, and has acted as a crucial import hub for Syrian cities such as nearby Homs for generations.

  • Fawaz Hamidi:

    Historically, we live from trade, and we are very flexible to deal with any situation.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Fawaz Hamidi runs the special projects department in Tripoli’s Chamber of Commerce. The city’s businesses, he says, are poised to enjoy a boom from Syria’s reconstruction.

  • Fawaz Hamidi:

    We have a long history of trade in Tripoli. Effectively, Tripolitans are traders. And our historical role used to service Syria, Iraq and even the Gulf through the Mediterranean. We are also — in the region, we are different in the way that we can create a link between east and west.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Small businesses in Tripoli are also hoping to benefit. In the ancient old quarter of the city, Khaled Halepi runs a curtains and fabric store. He is a proud third-generation shop owner, and is confident traders like him will be in high demand once reconstruction starts.

  • Khaled Halepi:

    Now all the factories in Syria are gone. So they will take their products from Tripoli. We are the gate here.

  • Jane Ferguson:

     You feel like for yourself here?

  • Khaled Halepi:

    Yes, even for myself.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Curtains?

  • Khaled Halepi:

     Yes, curtains, textiles, carpets, everything.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    You could see markets opening up for you in Homs, Aleppo?

  • Khaled Halepi:

    Homs, especially Homs. They are the nearest to Tripoli, that Homs. Homs needs everything. All the factories have gone there. They need everything.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It might not be that simple, however. After six years of sectarian war, commerce is now political.

    Assad and his family are allied with Shia forces. The opposition in Syria is predominantly Sunni, as are the people in Tripoli.

    The business community here has had strong ties to Syria for generations. But many in this largely Sunni city backed the opposition when the war broke out in Syria. That could mean they risk being shut out of reconstruction efforts by the surviving Syrian government.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Old relations between Sunni Lebanese traders and Syrians might well be outdated now, says economist Sami Nader.

  • Sami Nader:

    What we have seen in place, it’s a total transformation of the demography in Syria. There is no more Sunni in Homs, for instance. And, usually, the economic access or that economic trade route was Tripoli, Homs being the two big Sunni cities.

    In Homs, for instance, there is a total transformation of the demographics. The social fabrics have changed. Are the Sunnis today of Tripoli the ideal partners to deal with a pro-Assad regime businessman? I’m not sure of that.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Instead, lucrative contracts are likely to go to those who backed the Assad regime. Iran and Russia helped save Bashar al-Assad’s rule, sending their militaries and proxies, like Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia, to fight for his government.

    As a literal form of payback, business deals are now being signed. Last year, $1 billion worth of deals in construction, oil, gas and mining went to Russia. Companies linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards signed deals this year in telecommunications, and they are already rebuilding Syria’s power grid.

    The U.S. has said it won’t contribute funds until there is a political process to replace Assad. That looks increasingly unlikely, leaving Western countries and others opposed to his rule facing a dilemma- how to fund reconstruction in Syria without helping Assad and his loyalists.

    In the meantime, the system will remain a corrupt one, based on who you know. And businesses from places like Tripoli, where they opposed Assad, could struggle.

  • Sami Nader:

    If we don’t have in Syria a governance system that will ensure a fair trade relationship, someone that will abide by the rule of law not, by the rule of some and by the rule of mafia, I don’t see Tripoli taking great advantage of this effort of reconstruction.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Business leaders here say they aren’t discouraged.

  • Fawaz Hamidi:

    Whoever is there and whatever is going to happen, we have no enemies in the region, not on the east and not in the west and not in Iran and not in the Arab world. We are friends with everybody, and we are open to do business with everybody.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It’s still not known who will fund the reconstruction effort in Syria, much less oversee such an enormous task.

    Separating business from politics after such a bitter war may very well be all but impossible.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jane Ferguson in Tripoli, Lebanon.

     

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