Men rest at workshop in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria, on April 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters
Men rest at workshop in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria, on April 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters

One of the most pervasive arguments regarding the Syrian War is that the process of reconstructing the country would be the best gateway for a sustainable peace, as it would employ millions of Syrians, including thousands of young men currently under arms.

The hundreds of billions of dollars needed for reconstruction, the thousands of jobs that would be created and the slow but steady revitalization of the Syrian economy would allow Syrians to move past their differences and focus on rebuilding.

Several proposals are already on the table. Some, like those hinted at by the United States and proffered by the European Union, come with political strings attached; others, such as the United Nations’ National Agenda for the Future of Syria, less so.

Meanwhile, the minimum cost of rebuilding Syria is estimated at US$200 billion. To put this figure in some perspective, the Syrian government’s budget for the year 2017 is US$5 billion dollars. It is estimated that Syria will need at least 20 years to reach its pre-war gross domestic product (GDP).

These factors suggest that the process of reconstruction might take years to really lift off. A shorter economic route to peace is now available, however – one that would alleviate some of the current economic burdens and pave the way for Syrians to move beyond some of the issues that have divided them for the past six years.

On May 4, Russia, Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum in the Kazakh capital Astana to create four de-escalation areas in Syria. The four zones, located in the provinces of Damascus, Idlib, Homs and Deraa would see a cessation of military hostilities between government and opposition forces for a period of six months.

One of the aims is to ensure better delivery of humanitarian aid and to create the conditions for the safe return of refugees and internally displaced persons. However, the fourth article of the memo also stipulates that in security zones established around the areas of de-escalation, checkpoints manned by personnel from the three guarantor states would ensure the unhindered movement of unarmed civilians and facilitate economic activity.

A Syrian man walks past destroyed buildings in Aleppo’s formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighborhood on January 21, 2017. Photo: AFP

Public services that are still provided by the Syrian government – water and electricity, above all – would return to the four de-escalation zones. If these provisions come to fruition, commercial exchanges between government and opposition-held areas will soon follow. Such exchanges can benefit civilians on both sides, revitalize markets and help to further reduce tensions.

The total number of civilians currently living in these de-escalation areas is estimated at around 2.7 million, while over 15 million people inhabit government-held areas, which include the majority of Syria’s urban centers (especially Damascus and Aleppo). Economic activity in the four areas is mostly based on agriculture, in addition to small-scale light industries. The province of Idlib, known for its olive oil production, is close to the large commercial and industrial center of Aleppo.

Another opposition-held enclave consists of the Rastan and Hula agricultural plains and is located a few kilometers away from the central city of Homs. The residents of East Ghouta, near Damascus, could again sell their fruit and dairy products in the city’s markets. The southern province of Deraa is the historical granary of Damascus, and could soon resume business with the Syrian capital.

Commercial exchanges will help relieve the economic hardships faced by many Syrians, and can help in preventing a further devaluation of the Syrian currency

If this agreement survives the many challenges hindering its implementation, the fourth article of the Astana memorandum – temporary though it may be – could become an important stepping stone towards a sustainable peace in Syria. Syrian government institutions are still functioning after six years of war, and public services such as health, education, and utilities could be restored to the four de-escalation areas.

Commercial exchanges will help relieve the economic hardships faced by many Syrians, and can help to prevent a further devaluation of the Syrian currency. An international effort to lift some of the suffocating economic sanctions imposed on the country is crucial to the success of these efforts. Finally, re-establishing economic interdependence is key to safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity.

Taken all together, these steps will provide a quicker and easier economic gateway to peace in Syria before the arduous reconstruction process properly takes off.

Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, and the editor of Dimashq Journal.