- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 4, 2012

BERLIN (AP) — The head of the main Syrian opposition group called Tuesday for a massive aid program to help rebuild his country, if and when the regime of President Bashar Assad falls, and warned that a lack of economic development would open the door to extremism.

Abdelbaset Sieda, the head of the Syrian National Council, told a meeting of Syrian opposition representatives and diplomats that a program similar to the post-World War II European reconstruction effort, commonly known as the Marshall Plan, would be needed in the event of the fall of the Assad regime.

He said Mr. Assad’s regime has devastated the public finances and institutions to such an extent that Syria won’t be able to rely immediately on oil revenues and taxes in any rebuilding effort.

The gathering of a working group on economic rebuilding, which Germany chairs jointly with the United Arab Emirates, is designed to address how to prevent the collapse of basic services and infrastructure and how to revive the economy in a post-Assad Syria.

“In the aftermath of the destruction … we are convinced Syria needs a Marshall-style plan to ensure it stands again on solid financial and economic ground,”  Mr. Sieda said in Berlin.

“Without real comprehensive development, we will open up the opportunity for the growth of all kinds of extremism in the region,” he said.

Unlike neighboring Iraq, Syria lacks vast oil reserves that could kick-start the economy and help finance the reconstruction of infrastructure damaged in the fighting.

Syria used to produce about 380,000 barrels of oil a day, of which 250,000 were for local consumption and 130,000 for exports. By comparison, oil giant Saudi Arabia produces about 10 million barrels a day.

The meeting’s host, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, said economic recovery and a successful political transition must go hand in hand, and he called on the international community to be ready to provide economic support.

But he stressed the importance of overcoming another problem: the divisions within Syria’s opposition.

Mr. Westerwelle said a common platform of opposition groups urgently is needed.

“The people in Syria must see that there is a credible alternative to the regime of Bashar Assad,” he said. He called on the opposition “to create as fast as possible the conditions for … a transition government.”

However, he stopped short of French President Francois Hollande’s call last week for the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government now.

Diplomatic efforts to solve the seemingly intractable conflict in Syria have failed so far, but Western nations say that preparations need to be made for a post-Assad future.

“There can be no doubt, the days of the regime are numbered: It has lost all legitimacy to represent the Syrian people; it is crumbling from inside,” Mr. Westerwelle said. “On the international level it is increasingly isolated; the overwhelming majority of countries reject the massive violation of human rights; there is no future for Bashar Assad in a new Syria.”

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