Strategic destruction to make way for exclusive reconstruction in post-war Syria

Eight years of war have left large portions of Syria’s main cities destroyed. The bloody armed conflict that started out as a popular uprising in 2011 – around demands for democracy and equality – has caused more than 370,000 deaths, has led to the forced displacement of over half the population and has pushed an estimated 5.6 million Syrians into exile. As the final tremors of war and bombardments subside, the time has come to rebuild a country in ruins, to allow for the return of its population. But what kind of reconstruction model has been chosen?

For many observers, the government has used the war as an urban planning tool, allowing it to design a country tailormade for the victors: the Bashar al-Assad regime and its cronies. During the conflict, the Syrian regime relentlessly bombarded a number of opposition-controlled areas, levelling entire neighbourhoods, even after the insurgents had fled, as has been widely documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In neighbourhoods of cities such as Homs, Aleppo, and the outskirts of Damascus, a process referred to by Czech-Syrian architect Lynda Zein as ‘dys-construction’ (deconstruction) is underway, in other words: “Not rebuilding what has been destroyed but razing it to the ground and replacing it with something entirely different,” she tells Equal Times. Zein believes the government is resorting to this tabula rasa approach to evict the poorest residents (mostly opponents) and attract more affluent people, who are less likely to challenge its authority. “It is an extreme form of gentrification,” she says.

On coming to power in 2000, Bashar al-Assad initiated a number of measures aimed at opening up the economy, including land development deregulation. The war has been used to accelerate and facilitate this process.

The arsenal of new property laws includes Law 10, adopted in April 2018, which allows for homes to be expropriated or demolished for the purpose of rebuilding on the same land, with very little compensation granted to the owners. Although Decree 66, approved in 2012, authorised the demolition of informal settlements (making up roughly 40 per cent of the country’s housing stock when the conflict broke out), all reference to them has been eliminated in Law 10 that has taken its place, effectively legalising the mass confiscation of all types of property, to make way for urban development. Thousands of people who fled during the conflict are being left without a home to go back to.

As Russia and Iran, the regime’s main allies during the conflict, begin to carve up the country’s natural resources, and other countries such as China and the Gulf States start to make measured investments, the international community – represented by the United Nations and the European Union – continues to call for a political solution in Syria as a precondition to its participation in the country’s reconstruction, whilst maintaining the sanctions against Syrian institutions and public figures.

“Its role is controversial and contradictory,” says Syrian-Swiss researcher Joseph Daher. “Europe insists it will not reconstruct in Syria for al-Assad, yet it has no qualms about reconstructing in Palestine without blaming Israel, and it is soon likely to assist in the reconstruction of Yemen without holding Saudi Arabia to account. Without precluding the regime’s responsibility, there needs to be consistency.” Given the reality on the ground, the expert believes that pragmatism must prevail. “It is a period of defeat: people are tired, thousands upon thousands are living in appalling conditions, NGOs and European actors should take part in the reconstruction – that is, provided certain conditions are set out: we will help you, provided citizens are allowed to return and you guarantee their safety.”

Luxurious large-scale urban developments, with no room for ordinary Syrians

Syria would require investments of between US$250 billion and US$400 billion to rebuild its economy and infrastructure, according to UN estimates and the Syrian government itself. The civil war saw one-third of the country’s buildings badly damaged or destroyed, whilst causing the country total losses estimated at US$226 billion, roughly four times its GDP in 2010. With the state bankrupt, no funds are available for reconstruction.

It is against this background that the government has given the local authorities free rein to set up public-private partnerships (PPPs), entrusted with funding the reconstruction projects and, of course, reaping the dividends. Such lucrative contracts are placed in the hands of an economic elite with links to the regime, such as construction tycoon Samer Fawaz or Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, who is quite literally making a killing from the devastation.

The most tangible example of the new reconstruction policy promoted by the Syrian government is Marota City, a mega-development in the Damascus suburb of Basateen Al-Razi: having razed dozens of hectares of land, its officials are planning an area for new development including office buildings, commercial centres and some 12,000 luxury homes. Another project in the making is Basilia City, a brand-new residential development with 4,000 homes located on the outskirts of the capital. According to experts, reconstruction in other cities like Homs or Aleppo could follow a similar pattern.

“The residents expropriated of their former homes will be replaced by more affluent newcomers. At the same time, reconstruction is being carried out in specific areas where there was prior economic development, whilst more depressed zones are being left aside,” says Daher. “It is a model that builds on the neoliberal policies that have been thriving since the accession of Bashar al-Assad, and will only serve to replicate and exacerbate the inequalities that existed before the war,” he says, recalling that similar patterns have already been observed in other post-war situations, such as Bosnia, Iraq or Lebanon, to name but a few.

If there is one mirror in which current-day Syria is vividly reflected, it is Lebanon, a country with which it is intimately linked, in geopolitical terms, through its past, present and probably its future.

In the mid-1990s, the centre of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, suffered a fate similar to that being experienced by many cities in the neighbouring country today. Alluding to the lack of public funds and the need to break with the sectarian strife that had plunged the country into 15 years of civil war (1975-1990), the government committee in charge of reconstruction entrusted the task to a private company, Solidere. Its principal shareholder was a millionaire who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and returned from exile at the end of the war with the promise of restoring the capital city to its former glory. Rafik Hariri, who would go on to become prime minister of the Mediterranean country and was later assassinated, in 2005, is seen as both a hero and a villain in Lebanon. While some see him as the architect of the country’s rebirth, others view him as the personification of some of its endemic ills, such as cronyism and corruption.

Under the aegis of Solidere, the reconstruction of Beirut’s central district was intended to create a symbol of modernity after years of war: “The aim was to have an urban setting that would attract foreign investment and be a showcase of prosperity,” explains Mark Ghazali. This young man is the guide of the Layers of a Ghost City tour, through which he attempts to explain the ins and outs of the controversial project. Throughout the tour, Ghazali draws attention to the visible effects of a consummate urbanicide: modernisation was accomplished by totally eradicating the identity of an area that was once the showcase of the city’s life and tradition, a meeting place for citizens of all faiths and social backgrounds.

Cities without memories

Today, downtown Beirut, as it is known locally, offers a landscape of glazed high-rises and luxury superstores alongside an exclusive sailing club and a marina lined with yachts. The old souk, where traders once sold their handicrafts and local products, has today been replaced by a commercial centre filled with international brands like H&M, Zara and Dunkin’ Donuts. The old theatres have disappeared, the famous Opera Cinema has been turned into a Virgin Megastore, and one of the city’s most emblematic sites, Martyrs’ Square – situated on the Green Line that once separated Christian majority East Beirut from Muslim majority West Beirut – is now a carpark.

The centre of the Lebanese capital is a bubble, totally detached from the rest of the city, an exclusive place where public spaces are conspicuous by their absence. Save for the occasional tourist and army or security personnel watching over the official buildings and offices, its streets are virtually deserted. With housing prices exceeding US$1,000 per square metre, rich expatriates and Gulf citizens make up the majority of the district’s new residents. “Who can afford to live there? I’ll give you a spoiler: very few Lebanese people,” says Ghazali.

During the reconstruction phase, another phenomenon arose linked to the deconstruction (to which Zein referred): according to our sources, close to 87 per cent of the buildings in the area were demolished, far exceeding the destruction of war, and thousands of people were evicted in exchange for very meagre financial compensation or shares in Solidere, a pattern suspiciously reminiscent of that currently being followed in the new urban development projects in Syria.

Nor did the new Beirut reserve any space for its historic heritage: hundreds of remains from ancient civilisations, dating back to Roman, Ottoman and Mamluk times and uncovered during the course of excavation works (turning the Lebanese capital into one of the world’s major archaeological sites in the 1990s) were also destroyed, mostly without a second thought, given the urgent need to return the city to the pre-war splendour that had lent it the name “Paris of the Orient”.

Converting it into an artificial paradise, the bulldozers ripped out its very soul, as well as its memory. Not a single monument stands in honour of the memory of the victims and the ravages of war. The only site earmarked for reconciliation, the so-called “Garden of Forgiveness”, has not yet been built, supposedly due to a lack of funding. “The approach chosen has been that of amnesia,” says Ghazali.

Although no official figures related to reconstruction costs are available, investments are estimated at US$70 billion, and it is difficult to know who they have benefitted, aside from those who contributed to the post-war urban development bubble. Clearly not the population: to fund its reconstruction, the small state embarked on a borrowing drive that has left it with the third highest public debt in the world, amounting to around 150 per cent of its GDP.

Lebanon’s reconstruction model consummated the marriage between public interest and private profit. The contracts were dealt out to companies in which the political leaders awarding them had strong vested interests. The leaders of the different warring factions went on to become the political leaders of the post-war era, dividing up the different sectors of the economy among themselves, from water to electricity, telecommunications and infrastructure, turning public services into their own personal and lucrative businesses.

“There are many parallels between the Solidere model in Lebanon and what is happening in Syria: the privatisation of the reconstruction process, nepotism, mass expropriations…,” Daher warns. How a country reduced to rubble is reconstructed largely determines its future, and the current model looks set to create renewed tensions and greater inequalities. Many are left wondering whether there will be a place for all Syrians in the new Syria.

This article has been translated from Spanish.