First Published: 2017-11-21

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation
While a country can manage without poetry and art, it cannot do without professionals who know how to save lives, run financial institutions and build factories.
Middle East Online

By Stephen Starr - ISTANBUL

Syria will likely be a basket-case economy for at least a generation.

A sadly critical fissure has developed in Syr­ian society. Not along the lines of pro- versus anti-Assad, urban versus rural or sectar­ian lines but between those with the skills to sustain the country after the war and those unable to do so.

The manoeuvring for major infrastructure contracts to rebuild Syria has been quietly under way since last year when it became clear Syrian President Bashar Assad would take back control of most of the country.

The United Nations estimates that putting Syria back together may cost more than $300 billion and the likes of China, Russia, Iran would come up with the money in return for influence with Damascus but once Syria’s towns, schools and hospitals have been rebuilt — no matter by whom — who will run them?

Overlooked in discussions of Syria’s post-conflict redevelop­ment is the country’s lack of skilled human capital. Its middle class fled overseas so Syria will probably remain a basket-case economy for at least a generation.

The start of the uprising in 2011 saw Syria’s wealthiest families quickly move their assets, busi­nesses and children to Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Jordan. By 2014, a year before the great exodus of Syrians to Europe, UN figures showed that Syria’s per person GDP had re­gressed to $1,820. Companies closed and the value of the Syrian lira fell sharply.

This meant that only the wealthi­est and best-educated Syrians could afford to start on the dangerous route from Lebanon to Turkey, then on to the Balkans and from there to central and northern Europe. (Remember the surprise expressed by many Europeans that refugees owned iPhones and were well-dressed?)

The cost of plane tickets, smug­glers’ fees and transportation ran into thousands of dollars per person. Families travelling together were forced to part with multiples of that sum, often selling property in Syria to pay for it all and cutting any links with the homeland.

Of the countless contacts and friends I’ve made during five years of living and reporting across Syria, an overwhelming number had the means to get to Sweden, Canada, Austria or Germany.

Those without access to money that would allow them to leave were forced to remain in Syria. They are the poorest and the least-educated Syrians I’ve encountered. Many are well away from conflict zones and front lines but they are also without passports, jobs or incomes. Among them are young people with unfin­ished degrees, who are unable to enter the professional workforce and develop key skills.

It’s worth remembering that not everyone who left Syria was fleeing the war or was staunchly anti-regime. Many were well-to-do urbanites or belonged to religious minority groups that opposed the attempts to overthrow Assad. The regime may have fanned sectarian fears to fuel the war but its conse­quences have been indiscriminate. All sides suffered.

Some of the Syrians who left will undoubtedly return home. A large percentage of the worst-off refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and those living along the Turkish border regions will have little choice but to do so once the war ends but the millions of others in major Turkish cities, Europe and further afield will not come back, leaving Syria with­out key human capital, namely its professional class. The result is that Syria will remain a country without experienced professionals for at least another generation.

While a country can manage with­out poetry and art, as Syria arguably did pre-2011, it cannot do without professionals who know how to save lives, run financial institutions and build factories.

Critical to Syria’s functioning as a state before the war were its well-trained doctors, lawyers and other professionals. They have left and with them any chance of a prosper­ous, post-war future.

Recovery cannot happen until a new middle class is established and gains the experience needed to run the country. Much can change for the better but chances are that Syria 20 years on will resemble present-day Yemen more than Lebanon.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.


Pentagon skeptical about Russia's Syria pullout claims

Senior Saudi prince blasts Trump's "opportunistic" Jerusalem move

Kuwait ruler’s son named defence minister

EU accused of complicity in Libya migrant rights violations

Saudi Arabia lifts decades-long ban on cinemas

Israeli sentenced to four years for arson attack on church

Erdogan risks sabotaging fragile relations with Israel

6.2-magnitude earthquake strikes Iran

Two Gazans killed by Israeli ‘strike’, Israel denies claim

French FM accuses Iran of carving out ‘axis’ of influence

Somali journalist killed in front of children

Over 170 dead after South Sudan rival cattle herders clash

Russia begins partial withdrawal from Syria

Russia weary of returning IS jihadists before World Cup, election

EU says Syria war ‘ongoing’ despite Russia pullout

Istanbul nightclub gunman refuses to testify

Integrating Syrians in Turkey carries implications

US opinion views Muslims and Arabs more favourably but political affiliation makes a difference

Iranian conservative protesters say Trump hastening end of Israel

Jordan referred to UN for failing to arrest Sudanese president

Turkey demands life for journalists in coup bid trial

Netanyahu expects EU to follow suit on Jerusalem

Putin orders withdrawal of ‘significant’ amount of troops from Syria

Putin to meet with Sisi in Cairo

GCC at a critical juncture

Houthi rebels tighten grip on Sanaa after Saleh’s assassination

Israel’s Syrian air strikes risk renewing escalation as Iran expands presence in Golan

Qatar to acquire 24 Typhoon fighters from UK

Bahraini civil society group criticised after Israel visit

Israel PM faces renewed pressure in Europe

Palestinian stabs Israeli guard in ‘terrorist’ attack

UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed says US Jerusalem decision could help terrorists

Fateh encourages more protests, refuses to meet Pence

Chinese electric carmaker to open Morocco factory

Iraqi victory over IS remains fragile

Morocco’s renewed ties with South Africa likely to consolidate support for Western Sahara stance

Lebanese security forces fire tear gas at protestors

Syria’s justice system: ‘working without a written law'

Egypt revives controversial desert capital project

Iran sentences fugitive ex-bank chief to jail

Iraq announces 'end of the war against Daesh'

Israeli air strike kills 2 in Gaza

UK foreign minister in Iran to push for Briton's release

Turkey's Erdogan seeks to lead Muslim response on Jerusalem

Iraqi Christians celebrate in town retaken from IS