As the Syrian government moves forward with its plans to appropriate and remake neighbourhoods across the country, waiting for peace to begin international reconstruction efforts is not an option.
As the international community debates how to approach rebuilding the country after seven years of conflict, the Syrian government has already embarked on its own reconstruction process. The development of Basateen al-Razi – for which Bashar Al-Assad personally laid the foundation stone in 2016 – marks ground zero for the process and sets the blueprint for the government’s intended vision for the reconstruction of Syria.
Basateen al-Razi is one of two sites designated for reconstruction under Presidential Decree 66 of 2012. Decree 66 provides the legal and financial foundation to expropriate areas of unauthorized housing and informal settlements, and to redevelop them through private sector investments. Many areas designated in this decree are economically and politically important, often strategically located in or around urban cores and past centres of opposition activity.
The strict procedural requirements of Decree 66, coupled with the political realities of the designated areas and their poor and illegal conditions, have enabled local authorities to expel a majority of the residents, often with little or no compensation. The decree coupled with other legislation enabled private investors – many regime cronies – to begin to develop the designated areas, at the expense of their original residents.
Manipulating urban planning
This suggests that the idea for the reconstruction of Syria under Decree 66 is to manipulate the power of urban planning in order to engineer demographic change based on both economic and political interests. A set of other laws, put in place since early 2012 have played a part in the implementation of Decree 66 in the Basateen al-Razi development, and form a structure of legislation to manipulate urban planning to enable the government’s vision for the reconstruction of Syria.
Among these is Decree 63 of 2012, which allows the finance ministry to seize properties of people who fall under the Counterterrorism Law of 2012. This embraces the Syrian government’s broad interpretation of what constitutes terrorism, criminalizing a large segment of the population without due process or a fair trial.
Decree 19 of 2015, meanwhile, allows local administrative units (LAUs) to establish fully-owned holding companies to carry out work on their behalf, including managing all LAU properties. The assets managed by the holding companies and any of their subsidiaries are exempted from taxes and fees. This means that these holding companies benefit both from the advantages of operating under the company law and also from owning public assets. This decree provides a formal framework to award reconstruction and development contracts to corporations or investors and pay them with shares in the zone, at the expense of the original residents, as in the development of Basateen al-Razi.
Decree 11 of 2016 suspends registration of property in registries closed due to conflict, including those in non-government held areas. This means that registered documents at any of the registries that were outside government control, including ones that were kept running by opposition entities, will not be recognized.
Most notably, Law No. 10 of 2018 can be considered a systematic escalation of Decree 66, empowering LAUs to create redevelopment zones within their areas to be designated for reconstruction. This entails LAUs re-registering property rights within the designated areas with extensive requirements for property owners and tenants to prove their claims to their properties in person or through legally appointed relatives. Failure to do so means that ownership reverts to the LAU, with no due compensation.
A jumbled international approach
The international community seems to have contradictory positions towards the reconstruction of Syria. The European Union has delivered a strong and decisive message of putting reconstruction on hold until a political settlement is in place. But in government-held areas, other international organizations and UN agencies are already engaged with reconstruction efforts, though they categorize them as ‘relief, rehabilitation, or stabilization’.
The method for determining which neighbourhoods are targeted for help in these efforts lacks transparency, and is presumably significantly controlled by the Syrian government since it controls security in those areas. The majority of neighbourhoods targeted so far were part of UN-brokered local settlements resulting in population transfers and forced evictions of residents. Projects have mostly failed to account for the rights of original residents. This raises a serious ethical concern, in view of the documented human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Syrian government in order to depopulate these areas.
In non-government held areas, the situation is more complicated. The conflict in Syria has had a devastating impact on these areas, with over half of the internally displaced people relocated there and entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground. The vast population influxes to these already exhausted areas have put them under further strain and have exacerbated humanitarian needs – especially housing.
The populations in non-government held areas are among the most vulnerable because they have no legitimate institutions that can be held accountable, and they are denied any means to demand accountability from the Syrian government. This puts a significant responsibility on the international community to establish an alternative mechanism for those people to document their land rights in a way that can have legitimacy in future land or property disputes.
Additionally, the response to the acute needs of housing in these areas has been limited to international humanitarian relief efforts, in the form of unsafe and inadequate temporary shelters, or to a commercial response resulting in generally unaffordable prices being charged by private developers and landlords. This has significantly contributed to inflating the real estate market, including the rental one.
A March 2017 report on the property market in Azaz, in the Turkish-dominated area of northern Aleppo, showed that the rental market had reached twice that of Istanbul. The stabilization committee in the region attributed inflation in the property market to the large influx of displaced people, the availability of livelihood opportunities and the lack of services and infrastructure in the surrounding areas, as well as inequality in wages between the local market and employees of the international humanitarian system living in the area.
Local councils do not have sufficient resources or influence to provide housing solutions or to regulate the market. Increasing restrictions by neighbouring governments on imports of construction materials, and the continuous inflation of the construction market, have significantly reduced the ability of the affected population to find solutions for their own housing needs.
Steps to take
Refraining from engaging with reconstruction in Syria is not a solution. This only exacerbates the problem as it allows for all projects in Syria to be dictated by the government. While fighting the government’s legislation should remain a priority for the international community, they should also work in non-government areas to develop a precedent for how reconstruction in Syria can unfold in a more just and inclusive way.
They should also put in place a legitimate mechanism to document unjust policies and account for compensating those affected, guided by the UN Pinheiro Principles on housing and property restitution and potentially implemented through the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism.
Holding back funding does not hold back time. The more time the Syrian government has to implement its own framework for reconstruction, the more entrenched this framework will become.
Sawsan Abou Zainedin and Hani Fakhani are both Syrian architects and urban development practitioners with master’s degrees from the Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit at UCL. They co-found SAKAN, a programme aimed at developing alternative recovery-driven housing models in Syria.