2902836740

Ghouta was once Syria’s bread basket

Apart from the military victory and the political symbolism that comes with it, Damascus is bracing itself for big economic gains from the restoration of Eastern Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding the Syrian capital, which government troops have marched into this month, ending six-years of opposition rule.

For starters, Ghouta means more livestock and vast agricultural fields for Damascus.

Before outbreak of the war in 2011, Ghouta boasted of 5,665 hectares of highly fertile agricultural fields, with 120,000 cows and 120,000 sheep, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Economy.

It was the base for most Damascus industries and factories because of its affordable rent and manpower.

The industries included furniture, leather, wood, paint, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, building material, and canned food, in addition to handmade items like perfumes, soap, glass, and textiles.

If restored to their previous locations, this would reduce rent in Damascus and authorities hope, distract people from politics and military affairs.

Although many of Ghouta’s fields have been torched or badly damaged, a surprising 30 per cent remain salvageable.

Many of the remaining fields will be cleared and transformed into housing complexes for refugees from different parts of the country.

As for the livestock, only 7,000 cows and 40,000 sheep remain.

Damascus has always relied on Ghouta for its milk, dairy products, meat, poultry, fruits, and vegetables.

Even after Ghouta fell in 2012, its produce continued to reach Damascus, but always at inflated prices on the black market, smuggled through intermediaries from both the regime and the opposition.

During the war, most of Ghouta’s factories were looted and destroyed in the fighting, prompting their owners to relocate, either to Damascus itself or elsewhere in the Arab World–Egypt and Turkey were popular relocation destinations for many.

A total of 437 industrial enterprises, ranging from big factories to small workshops, have applied to re-enter Ghouta since late February, presenting documents to the Chamber of Commerce, proving their ownership of the factories that were being held by the rebels since 2012.

Another 6,000 are still awaiting the final outcome of the battles. The cost of their revamp is estimated at 70 billion SP.

Once recaptured, the government will eventually reopen the Harasta Highway—the economic lifeline of southern Damascus and the route for Ghouta to get its products to Homs and other cities in central Syria.

A government victory in Ghouta will pave the way for development and investment plans there, explains Syrian business journalist Adnan Abdul Razak.

“Of course this easier said than done,” he told Gulf News, explaining that Ghouta is now a shadow of its former self having endured five years of siege, bombardment, and abject poverty.

Challenges

When inflation due to the war gripped the country, prices increased by a whopping 1,200 per cent, Abdul Razak explained.

“However in Ghouta, prices increased astronomically to 5,000 per cent!”

A fleeing civilian population will also hurt government plans for development there.

“Before the operation 400,000 people lived in Ghouta, but now that number is less than 80,000,” he said.

Thousands of civilians have fled in the past two weeks as the government pushes on with its offensive to oust rebels there.

Funding will also be a daunting challenge.

In addition to rebuilding towns and cities, authorities have to restore electricity, clean water, a sewage system, schools, police, and sanitary workers—a colossal task that requires money—money that Damascus doesn’t have at present and will likely come from Russia and Iran—its chief allies.

Still some Syrians are optimistic.

“The economic benefits of recapturing Ghouta are colossal,” says Mustafa Al Sayed, an economic journalist, told Gulf News, adding that he expects to see a surge in religious tourism and entertainment there.

Published in Gulf News on 22 March 2018.