Reconstruction of major industrial zone gives hope to Syrian businessmen

Once touted to become the biggest industrial zone in the Middle East, Sheikh Najjar near the ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo is now simply hoping for a second chance.

Most of its buildings have been reduced to carcasses – destroyed, burned and pillaged in the past two years of fighting in Syria’s former industrial powerhouse.

But with the government’s recapture of the area, Aleppo’s businessmen are taking their first steps to return and restore the once-bustling zone.

“The soldiers retook the industrial zone on July 7 and when we entered a week later, we saw the devastation. Some buildings had simply disappeared,” said 55-year-old Mohammed Handie, the zone’s director-general.

“Despite everything, we remain optimistic, because in the weeks that followed my arrival, I received many requests to return, rebuild, and refurbish machines. It was very encouraging,” he added.

Syria’s war swept into Aleppo in mid-2012, and the fighting quickly divided the city between the Syrian army in the west and opposition fighters in the east.

Sheikh Najjar, located to the northeast of the city, was in fighters’ hands and the scene of fierce battles until its recapture.

Near the industrial zone, the walls are still daubed with graffiti left behind by militants, including the flags of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group and the al-Qaeda affiliates al-Nusra Front.

“Freedom for us and hell for the Alawis,” reads one sectarian slogan, referring to the religious community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

“Working night and day”

The Syrian conflict that began in March 2011 has ravaged the country’s economy and infrastructure.

Economists say the country’s gross domestic product has contracted by more than 40 percent, millions of homes have been destroyed, half the workforce is unemployed and inflation is around 50 percent.

Despite the lingering presence of snipers and the occasional sound of shelling, workers labor away in Sheikh Najjar, rebuilding walls, repainting and installing generators and cables.

“When I returned, my factory had been burnt. All the walls you see, I rebuilt and repainted them,” said 51-year-old Mohammed Hajar, owner of the al-Bayan factory.

“Now I am repairing my machines,” he added. Hajar’s business, which makes fabric for furnishings, once exported to Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.

“I’ve been asleep for two years! So now, I’m working night and day. I have six Italian looms. Two are lightly damaged and won’t take long to get back to work, two others were burnt and I have refurbished them,” he said.

Two more charred looms, covered in a tarpaulin, are awaiting their turn, but the factory is already restarting work.

It is producing 1,000 meters of colored fabric a day, after repairs that have already cost Hajar $75,000.

To return the factory to full capacity would cost the entrepreneur eight times his outlay so far.

When the industrial zone was established in 2004, it was intended to host 6,000 companies, including the 1,250 that were already there.

Most produced textiles, though there were also engineering, food, chemical and pharmaceutical operations employing 42,000 people.

Today, 140 businesses have reopened their doors, and Handie hopes that around 900 will be up and running within two years.

For that to happen, the state will need to invest $62.5 million in infrastructure, because the zone now lacks virtually everything, and the businesses at least $500 million.

But that may be a tall order for the Syrian government, which is struggling to make ends meet and is heavily reliant on aid from its allies.

Handie accuses Turkey, a key backer of militant groups in Syria, of pillaging machines from Sheikh Najjar’s factories and insists many of them are still on the other side of the border.

But despite the challenges, those who have returned to Sheikh Najjar are ebullient.

“I stopped working in 2012 and I lived like a zombie for two years, but I have come back to life being back in my factory,” said an emotional Muwaffaq Abawi, head of a plastics factory.

“Look at me. I’m really alive! And now I’m rebuilding, repainting, restoring. I’m not going to die. We are a people who are not born to die,” he added.

The return of Aleppo’s business owners and the opening of the city’s remaining factories give a glimpse of hope for Syria’s dire economic situation.

In May, an independent research center estimated Syria’s economic losses in the first three years of the civil war at $143.8 billion, which is equivalent to 246 percent of the GDP in fixed prices in 2010.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) issued a report in September that puts the Syrians in front of two difficult options: debt and conditional grants, or continued devastation.

In other words, the Syrians have no choice but to go through the practical application of the so-called Shock Doctrine, where disasters are exploited by a handful of banks, corporations, and speculators to reap huge profits at the expense of the living standards of all Syrians.

In the prospect of a political solution, the whole of the “international community” is ready to announce its project for the reconstruction of Syria. Its committees are drawing up economic and “development” plans, under the banner of a “national agenda for the future of Syria.”

A post-war Syria is considered a lucrative prize for neighboring and European companies, already planning the reconstruction phase.

In June 2013, the Basil Fuleihan Institute of Finances (IoF) held a seminar in Beirut titled “Prospects and Opportunities for Postwar Growth in Lebanon and Syria,” attended by ambassadors of key European nations.

During the event, the French ambassador said “no doubt, the [European] companies are looking out and preparing for available opportunities” in post-war Syria.

However, the dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Damascus, Ruslan Khaddour, called on ESCWA member states to lift the embargo and economic sanctions imposed on Syria, stressing that this would improve the socio-economic indicators that ESCWA is using as a pretext to suggest the country faces a de facto reality that imposes on it having to borrow from abroad and accept conditional grants.

Estimates on the number of people killed in the four-year conflict vary between 124,000 and 191,000, and more than half the population of the country has been forced to flee.

Source: Al-Akhbar English

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