The regime is championing its reconstruction efforts, but the reality on the ground tells a very different story.
The Syrian government has been trying to create a sense of renewed normalcy in Aleppo’s eastern neighbourhoods, with a new urban plan, a recent ministerial visit and a government media campaign focused on cleaning streets and removing rubble. One quick tour of the area shatters all notions of a peaceful return to normal.
The Syrian regime seized control of the city in late 2016, after years of aerial bombardment with missiles and barrel bombs, shelling and siege. Few buildings in the eastern neighbourhoods escaped the effects of the bombings: whole streets were wiped out, and the entire infrastructure of these impoverished districts was destroyed.
Although more than 60% of the residents of Aleppo lived there before the Syrian revolution, many of these areas previously lacked many essential services. During the war, even the Old City has not been spared from the wave of systematic and deliberate destruction, which sought to clear out civilians before driving out the armed military factions.
What is most striking as one walks in semi-deserted neighbourhoods now is the realization that these streets were once crowded with people. Young people are rarely seen about, since most abandoned these areas for fear of compulsory military conscription or harassment from security forces. Most returnees are elderly or beyond the age of conscription for reserve duty.
Accordingly, one can distinguish between two distinct population groups: the group that returned home after residing in western neighbourhoods; and the group that returned home after leaving for a few days during the attack that led to the fall of eastern Aleppo. Many of the second group were later subjected to arrest, investigation and financial extortion. Some of them are still detained on charges of cooperating with the rebels or working in rebel organizations, even if humanitarian or charitable in nature.
For the people who remain, security concerns have overrun everyday life. There are frequent arrests and raids, and nearly all daily matters require security approvals, from acquiring housing, to opening a shop, to moving household furniture.
Even documenting deaths requires security approvals, a sad, tragic irony in these circumstances. As such, many people refrain from documenting the death of their loved ones for fear of being wanted by security forces. They fear that they will be prosecuted in place of their deceased relatives, which entails the confiscation of the deceased relative’s money and inheritance if he or she is wanted by the security authorities.
The neighbourhoods are not actually subject to the direct authority of the state, but to the shabiha gangs who seized the property of the displaced, especially commercial shops and stores. The shabiha are exacerbating the security problems.
Fighting with small and medium arms broke out between the Al-Barri shabiha (a regime-backed militia) on the one hand, and the Kefraya and Al-Fu’ah shabiha. Last October, these two factions struggled for influence in neighbourhoods extending from Al-Salehien to Marja and Bab An-Nayrab, all the way to Karm al-Turab and Myassar. The Kefraya and Fu’ah shabiha seized many abandoned homes, some of which were owned by people who went to fight with the Al-Barri shabiha, who are considered the traditional leaders of these neighbourhoods.
Dozens were killed and wounded in the intervention by high-level security, military, partisan and political leaders in Aleppo to end the conflict between the two factions. However, conflict continues to flare up between groups of shabiha in other places and in different forms. Ordinary people remain in the crossfire, and there have been many cases of kidnapping, killing and rape in both the eastern and western neighbourhoods.
The shabiha are not the only ones confiscating real estate – the Aleppo Governorate has been housing the shabiha in people’s homes abandoned since the end of 2016. And following the visit of the ministerial delegation to Aleppo late last year, the regime’s prime minister tasked the minister of local administration with removing the effects of war and destruction from the city. This stipulated the need for accelerating new urban plans, which means the demolition of entire neighbourhoods.
Most of the eastern neighbourhoods are listed in the new, organized demolition plan as ‘transgressor’ neighbourhoods, which makes them open to widespread clearance. Demolitions actually began in some neighbourhoods (such as Al-Haydarieh) before they were stopped for unknown reasons. However, without a conciliator’s authority to deter or control them, the demolitions may return at any moment.
The permanent absence of services from the eastern neighbourhoods also presents its own set of issues. Since electricity has not returned to these neighbourhoods for two years, the people are forced receive electricity from shabiha-owned power generators, paying hefty sums of money (in effect, their income) for no more than 10 hours of electricity per charge.
Health facilities, such as hospitals and clinics, are also absent. Some schools have been rehabilitated through financial donations from international humanitarian organizations under the administrative supervision of the regime. However, they still suffer from a shortage of teachers and large class sizes due to the small number of available, open schools.
The roads, especially side and backstreets, are riddled with potholes and lack adequate lighting. Many of them have been closed or blocked because of rubble and dilapidated buildings. Economic experts note the regime’s inability to rebuild or reopen streets, or even remove the rubble, given the stagnant economy. Recent reports show that the regime has asked its loyalists to pay 40% of the costs of rebuilding their destroyed homes.
Despite the regime’s public messages about supporting the return of refugees and the displaced, one wonders how any influx could be supported given the parlous state of the current residents.