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Syria ex-minister leads rebuilding plan

Friday - 5/17/2013, 11:52am  ET

In this picture taken on Friday May 10, 2013, Syrian economist Abdullah al-Dardari, a chief economist at the Beirut-based U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and a former deputy prime minister in President Bashar Assad's government, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press, In Beirut, Lebanon. Al-Dardari tells The Associated Press in a rare interview that his six-member expert team has been overwhelmed with requests for the reconstruction plan to support the Kerry-Lavrov initiative on the off chance it would succeed. A group of economists led by one of Syria's top reformists are feverishly drawing up a comprehensive post-war reconstruction plan, even as the country's civil war rages on with no apparent end in sight. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BARBARA SURK
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- A six-member U.N. team led by a former Syrian planning minister is drawing up a comprehensive postwar reconstruction plan even as the country's civil war rages on with no apparent end in sight.

A joint U.S.-Russian push to bring together Syria's political opposition and representatives of President Bashar Assad's regime to negotiate a peaceful transition has given their work new urgency.

In a rare interview, the U.S.-educated economist, Abdullah al-Dardari, told The Associated Press that more than two years of fighting have cost Syria at least $60 billion and caused the vital oil industry to crumble. A quarter of all homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, and much of the medical system is in ruins.

Now, he says, the Syrians have to be ready to rebuild when the fighting ends. He says his team has been overwhelmed with requests for a reconstruction plan to support the U.S.-Russian initiative on the off chance it succeeds.

"I see a glimmer of hope," said al-Dardari, who now works for a Beirut-based U.N. development agency. "There appears to be more readiness for a political compromise by different groups in the opposition and by officials in the government."

Earlier this month, the U.S. and Russia agreed on a joint push to get Syria's political opposition and representatives of the Assad regime to negotiate a political transition in Syria. An international conference, possibly to be held in early June, would help launch talks.

Despite much skepticism, the initiative, announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week in Moscow, is the first serious attempt in a year to end Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced more than 5 million.

The two sides remain far apart on the terms for negotiations, with the opposition insisting Assad must step down first and the regime unwilling to commit to an open-ended cease-fire. Both say they want to hear more about the agenda and participants before agreeing to talks.

Al-Dardari's plan, known as the National Agenda for the Future of Syria, is being drafted on the assumption that the conflict, now in its third year, will end by 2015 and that Syria will remain territorially united with a central government based in Damascus, regardless of who ends up ruling the country.

"Is that possible? If one looks at the situation today, then the immediate reaction is, 'No, it's not possible,'" al-Dardari said.

"However, I think the human losses and the catastrophic destruction should create sufficient moral pressure on the parties of this conflict -- internal and external, since this has become a proxy war -- to think seriously of a political compromise."

Syria's vicious civil war, in which the government has relied heavily on its air power to crush the rebels, has destroyed towns and wiped out entire blocks of apartment buildings. Centuries-old markets and archaeological treasures -- once a major tourist draw and source of revenue -- have been gutted by flames and gunfire in places like Aleppo and Homs -- an irreplaceable chapter of history wiped out in a few hours of battle.

Factories, oil pipelines, schools, hospitals, mosques and churches have been systematically destroyed.

The fighting has devastated the Syrian economy, halting the country's oil exports and destroying much of its manufacturing industry and infrastructure.

Deep divisions among Syria's opposition and rebel groups are likely to complicate any international effort to help in reconstruction. Syrians also are convinced they will get little outside help to rebuild.

Al-Dardari appears well placed to be a leading figure in postwar reconstruction plans.

A Sunni Muslim who served as Syria's minister of planning for two years until Assad named him deputy prime minister for economic affairs in 2005, al-Dardari has been credited with masterminding the opening up of Syria's socialist-style economy into a free market enterprise, courting foreign investors and advocating political reforms to accompany the country's economic transformation.

He quietly left his government post in the summer of 2011, a few months after the uprising erupted against Assad's regime, which is dominated by Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. He joined the U.N soon after and remains a neutral figure who meets with opposition representatives and government officials.

Since August, he has been working as chief economist at the Beirut-based U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), heading a team of six economists and 30 experts inside and outside Syria.

Al-Dardari knows he faces a monumental task in any reconstruction effort.

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