Letter from Syria / the Tigris-Euphrates Region

Picture the cement superstructure of some future small office building, vaguely futuristic in form, strange angles, sitting on scrubland. No walls yet, just empty space between the beams.

Strung between the beams is somebody’s laundry. It’s hard to imagine who would hang laundry here. The nearest residential housing is at least a kilometer away.

More scrubland. Suddenly, a brightly colored waterslide park erupts out of the desert.

The car speeds like a racer past the other vehicles on this hard, flat, macadam road. You pass sheep, walls, fields of stone and cedar, something that makes you think it’s a mosque. And finally, a Subaru dealership.

This is not exactly what I expected when I agreed to come to Aleppo, Syria, to teach the ISIS Method to a four-country regional development training. But then, I didn’t really have any expectations.

It’s been a busy period. I didn’t have time to think much about this trip, beyond the professional planning that the workshop obviously required. Something about Syria surprises me, but I can’t yet put my finger on it. Perhaps that’s why my writer’s brain seized on that just-started, very-unfinished building with the laundry fluttering:  I imagined photographing it, writing a poem about it. There’s something symbolic in that image, something about this region.

It is a region with a very promising future, this is what one feels, even if the flowering of that future is decades away. The region is like a futuristic building, the kind one has never seen before, still under construction.

I’m here because these four countries, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, share the water and fate of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They do not yet share much else — with certain obvious exceptions, of course, including the predominant religion, and thousands of years of history and cultural tradition. But the idea of transboundary collaboration on water, the lifeblood of this or any other region, is new.

So I have come as part of the faculty for a training program designed and managed by a Swedish firm, Ramboll Natura, and financed by SIDA, Sweden’s development aid agency.

And what an interesting group they have assembled! Sophisticated, engaged, questioning. Most are engineers working in water ministries and agencies of various kinds; a few are political scientists. I learn just bits of their life stories: a few have survived extraordinary traumas, though would never guess by looking at them. My dual nationality, Swedish-American, leads to a number of interesting conversations with some of them — about, for example, US-Iran relations. Perhaps, we conclude, the two nations have trouble getting along partly because they are more similar than they appear in some ways.

This is an ISIS workshop. We are using the Pyramid, but the focus is really on the ISIS sequence, Indicators, Systems, Innovation, and Strategy, in a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder context. These workshops cover a lot of ground, fast: that’s the point. That’s why the tools we use to teach the ISIS Method are called “Accelerator.” There’s no time to lose, the clock is ticking. We have to learn fast, plan fast, do fast.

But for this group — multi-lingual, not so used to working with each other, much working in English (their only common language) — I slow it down a little. We take our time analyzing the linkages among environmental systems, economic factors, social concerns (including regional security), and wellbeing. We need to:  there are a few comical misunderstandings, but there are also a few real aha! moments.

Surprisingly, the Indicators we look at that appear most troubling, at least in the long run, are not security-related, but environmental:  all the key indicators they select are in decline, region-wide. Social conditions seem to be steadily improving. Economies are up and down, but on the whole, the group is optimistic about the well-being of the people — with a notable caveat of uncertainty regarding Iraq.

But there is a lot of intelligence in this group, and a lot of passion to tackle these problems as well. Even some of the ministry people almost sound like activists at times. They are full of ideas — training programs they want to run, models they have developed, policy changes that need to be made — and it seems a pity that I only have one copy of The Sutainability Transformation to give away (they all vote on the best idea, the winner gets a book).

We have discussions about regional versus national perspectives, and the need to build trust. How do we do that? Step-by-step, we conclude. Start by getting to know each other, sharing information, doing things together.

Like this course.

My flight back to Stockholm, by way of Istanbul, leaves tonight at 3 a.m. It was a punishing schedule to get here, too. I’m exhausted and deeply lacking sleep. I’ve somehow lost my telephone.

It’s all worth it.

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