While none of the devastating wars and state failures which followed the Arab uprisings of 2011 has yet fully ended, international and expert attention is increasingly focused on the impending challenges of reconstruction, repatriation, and reconciliation.

In January 2018, the Carnegie Middle East Center and the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) convened a workshop in Beirut to discuss these issues through an interdisciplinary and comparative lens. Those papers have now been published in the POMEPS Studies series as “The Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the destruction which these Middle Eastern and North African wars have left behind. Millions of people have been dispossessed and driven into exile at home or abroad. Infrastructure has been devastated, with many cities and towns utterly destroyed. National economies have evolved into local war economies. State and local institutions have been fundamentally reshaped. Communal polarization around sectarian or political identities has progressed to extreme levels. Entire communities have been severely impoverished as health and educational attainments have plummeted. And the individual trauma suffered by tens of millions of people afflicted by conflict and violence will have enduring psychological and developmental effects.

The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has estimated the cost of rebuilding the country at $250 billion, but some estimates go as high as $1 trillion. In Yemen, the ongoing war has brought more than a third of the population to the brink of starvation, while the World Bank has assessed the cost of physical reconstruction alone at some $40 billion. There are few international actors willing and able to provide such levels of financial assistance, and those that might will inevitably do so with political rather than reconstruction goals in mind.

That is to be expected. Reconstruction can never be separated from politics, and choices will rarely be driven only by humanitarian or economic needs. The forms and modalities of reconstruction will shape a new political status quo, with long-lasting implications. Local and external actors alike will get rich or be frozen out, accumulate social power or face marginalization. Amnesties could restore war criminals to positions of power, or transitional justice institutions could lead to their political exclusion.

“Reconstruction” is itself a loaded term, one which might smuggle in a wide range of veiled assumptions. Some might infer that reconstruction means a return to the status quo ante, something which might be neither normatively desirable nor politically possible. In some cases, policies labeled as reconstruction are actually a vehicle for sustaining and perpetuating structures of domination. Saudi and Emirati humanitarian assistance in Yemen, for example, can be seen as an effort to maintain support for their broader military effort in the country.

Some might also see a focus on reconstruction as a way of avoiding dealing with the difficult issues of responsibility, especially in contexts such as Syria where the key party to the conflict has been accused of forced population transfers and crimes against humanity. Others might see the push to begin thinking about reconstruction as a political drive to force an end to any viable support for the conflict itself. American and European discussions, for instance, about how they might “win” the reconstruction of Syria could be a face-saving way of moving on from more than half a decade of attempting to win through war. The Assad regime, certainly, views calls for reconstruction as a way of signaling the end of conflict and the beginning of its international rehabilitation.

Reconstruction in places such as Syria is especially complicated by the questions of how assistance can be given to a regime that was in large part responsible for the country’s devastation and has been implicated in war crimes. International actors today are struggling with whether and how to support reconstruction for Syrian communities while ensuring that this does not end up privileging political supporters of the regime. Standing aside from reconstruction efforts may avoid offering support to the Assad regime, but at the cost of perpetuating Syrian suffering and ceding postwar influence to other actors.

Refugee repatriation and the return of the internally displaced to their homes will be a central challenge for post-conflict reconstruction plans. Any sustainable peace needs to take into account the needs of displaced populations and refugees. These include international guarantees of physical safety and access to basic services. Refugee return will depend on conditions in the areas of origin and on the nature of the political bargain that ends the conflict and the willingness of the ruling elite to allow populations it considers politically hostile to come back to the country or to return to areas of interest. Return may well mean secondary displacement, as refugees are unable to move back into destroyed homes or prove their ownership of confiscated property. As happened in Iraq, where actual efforts to address post-conflict needs faltered, this also means that Syrians are unlikely to go back to their areas of origin anytime soon.

What is also troubling in the political discussion about reconstruction today is the absence of any mechanisms for transitional justice or political accountability. A focus on physical rebuilding in such a context implies that any justice mechanism, including transitional justice or the articulation of shared memories, can and will take a back seat to the economic opportunities and political gambits which define the aftermath of the conflict. While many Syrians call for “just and inclusive reconstruction,” the realities are likely to be anything but that. The lack of accountability and justice mechanisms was a key trigger of the uprisings to begin with, and in a post-conflict situation this absence is particularly worrisome. In the short run it may encourage individual acts of vengeance, and in the long run it will likely undermine the sustainability of any settlement.

For countries in the Middle East, there is little historical precedent to suggest that any justice will be forthcoming. Few Arab states, other than democratizing Tunisia and, to some extent, Morocco, have opted for meaningful transitional justice. Iraq’s efforts to hold regime officials to account after the fall of Saddam Hussein rapidly degenerated into sectarian vendettas. The lessons of countries such as Lebanon and Algeria point toward amnesia and impunity rather than memory and justice. But the large-scale efforts over the last seven years to preserve evidence of war crimes in Syria point to the possibility that such amnesia and forgetting may no longer be possible.