‘Rebuilding’ and social cleansing in Syria

Bashar al-Assad’s regime has laid out a blueprint for the reconstruction of Syria.

Credit: Alessio Perrone

Currently based in London, Hani and Sawsan (pictured left) are the co-founders of Sakan, a social enterprise for affordable and recovery-driven housing in Syria. In the first few years of the revolution, they described themselves as activists.

Alessio: You recently wrote that the Syrian government has started appropriating neighbourhoods around the country. Does this mean that the post-war reconstruction of Syria has started before the war has even ended?

Hani: Absolutely. We don’t know for how many years the conflict will continue, but the regime has already set out a framework for reconstruction.

Bashar al-Assad is trying to promote the image that Syria is rebuilding because it’s a sign of victory – with reconstruction, they’re declaring to the world that the war is over.

You said that the devastation of Syria can only be understood by looking at destruction and reconstruction together. Why?

Sawsan: Because when talking about the devastation of Syria, people usually think of the destroyed buildings – but there is much more than that.

If you look at which areas have been destroyed, you’ll find that the vast majority are former opposition areas. First, they were vacuumed during the war – their populations were forcibly displaced. Now the reconstruction is ensuring that the residents will never return because the state is building houses they can’t afford there.

A returnee sits in a bus next to a picture of Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Qusayr, Syria July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

We call it the ‘urbicide’ of Syria. Genocide is the act of deliberately killing a group with a certain identity. Urbicide is how you do this in a city: in Syria, the regime is weaponizing urban planning to engineer demographic change and ‘cleanse’ certain groups.

Hani: Destruction and reconstruction are leading to the same political goal. First, destruction was a military tool used to drive out a specific group because they were threats to the regime. Now new construction is coming to consolidate this displacement.

Which areas and groups are being targeted?

Hani: It’s mostly opposition areas and informal settlements. Informal settlements host up to 50 per cent of Syrians. They aren’t slums in Syria. They are concrete buildings built on public land, or on private land but without permission.

Sawsan: It also runs across sectarian lines and religious identities. In Homs opposition Sunni neighbourhoods were razed to the ground, but Alawite neighbourhoods were largely spared. Why? Because they were loyalist.

It’s tricky to make it so black-and-white. No area was 100 per cent for or against the regime. And the regime was trying to get rid of informal settlements even before the war. But there’s definitely a strategy behind this.

How does it work? Can you give us an example?

Hani: So far, Marota City in Basateen al-Razi, Damascus, is the only project in the building stage and it serves as the government’s blueprint for reconstruction. Other areas have been designated for reconstruction, but it hasn’t started.

Basateen al-Razi was a lower-class area widely associated with the first turmoil of the revolution, but it never completely fell into opposition hands. So it wasn’t destroyed in the war; it was demolished later.

Marota City is huge: it covers some 215 hectares, the equivalent of 250 football fields. It will be home to 232 very tall glass towers, which aren’t a familiar sight in Syria, and will host a mix of government services and luxury housing. It looks like any modern city without an identity.

Sawsan: Assad wanted to attract private capital. If you focus on social housing for as many people as possible – as you would expect from post-conflict projects – you won’t attract any private funds. Developers want to see an opportunity to make money; so, modern skyscrapers.

How have the residents been forced out and kept out?

Sawsan: The tens of thousands who once lived there are evicted and scattered. The prices will make sure they will never come back: some 60,000 mostly lower-class people lived there, but homes will cost about $6,000 per square metre.

First, the regime issued a notice that everyone should leave their property. Everyone was given one month – then extended to one year – to claim their property rights, and the authorities promised that everyone was going to be compensated.

People with ‘formal’ rights were offered compensatory shares in the project and substitute housing. Those with no formal rights were only offered two years of rental compensation. Others were declared not eligible for compensation and lost their property rights.

But even for the ‘lucky’ ones who received shares and substitute housing, the new homes were supposed to be delivered in 2016. We are in 2019 and nothing has been built yet – the authorities haven’t even decided on the location for substitute housing. Many ended up selling their shares to be able to rent until substitute housing was ready. Meanwhile, the government has already signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with developers.

Hani: It’s important to remember we’re in the middle of a conflict. Many people have disappeared, are detained or displaced. Many are refugees abroad. Many have safety concerns and are afraid of declaring they lived in opposition areas and are refugees abroad. And if you give them one month to claim their property, you’re actually trying to evict them, right?

When did the process start and how far has it gone?

Sawsan: The first step was Decree 66, which allows demolishing and redeveloping informal settlements and provides the legal foundation for reconstruction. It was issued in 2012. To put things into perspective, political unrest began in 2011 – so the decree was only one year into the revolution. The regime’s strategic thinking was way ahead of all the devastation that was going to happen.

Hani: On the other hand, law number 10, which scales up the project, was only passed in late 2018, and things are moving slowly. Very few areas have been officially designated for reconstruction. But it’s worth noting that these areas are very big. Just in Damascus, some 13 per cent of the city has been earmarked for reconstruction.

What does the regime want to achieve?

Hani: The regime says its plans are a solution to informal areas.

But in 2017, Bashar al-Assad himself said of the war: ‘We lost the best of our youth and our infrastructure […] but we won a healthier and more homogenous society.’ For the regime, the goal of the war is a homogenous society loyal to Assad, with only one political opinion. And for this goal, they can use whatever tools they have – one of them is the urban environment.

Think about the destruction between 2012 and 2015. The regime targeted hospitals, houses and bakeries. They used imprecise weapons like barrel bombs. They besieged cities to cut food and medical supplies… everything to make life impossible in those areas. The only reason you can think of is that they were trying to empty those places, to force people to flee – otherwise, they wouldn’t target hospitals and bakeries, they wouldn’t use barrel bombs.

There were even reports that in some areas, the regime deliberately demolished hundreds of homes in opposition areas after capturing a city. This is when you say, well, it’s not random.

Sawsan: Now the reconstruction is being done selectively; it’s about whom to punish and whom to reward. It’s not benefiting the poor, the vulnerable and the victims. It’s benefiting investor cronies, who profit from neoliberal redevelopments.