Urban planning project obfuscates demographic shift unfolding in southwest Damascus, says LCC member

Greater Mezzeh, the southwest region of Damascus city, is comprised of more than half a dozen neighborhoods. Syrian regime military bases and installations sit to the north and west, with the Mezzeh military airport to the south.

Though entirely under regime control, the loyalties of Greater Mezzeh’s residents are split.

The western half is home to mainly regime supporters. Families of Alawite soldiers settled on the northwest mountain in the 80s in what is now called Mezzeh 86.

Regime officials and army and security officers live and work in the villas, government ministries, embassies, high rises and surrounding military installations that dot west Greater Mezzeh.

Most residents in the eastern half of Greater Mezzeh sided with the opposition in the early days of the Syrian uprising, which subsequently witnessed fierce fighting between rebel and regime forces in 2012. This area is known among Damascenes as a slum.

Mezzeh Basateen, northeast of the Mezzeh military airport, is one such neighborhood in the eastern half of Greater Mezzeh.

With an estimated population of 125,000 people, the district is the “entry point” to the capital from the southwest countryside, a member of Mezzeh Basateen LCC who requested anonymity tells Syria Direct’s Moutasem Jamal.

In September 2012, while rebel and regime battled for control of Greater Mezzeh, the Syrian government issued Decree 66, a framework for a reported urban planning project outside the capital.

According to the degree, published on the Syrian Baath Party’s official website in September 2012, the government will “redevelop areas where there is unplanned housing” in the southeast areas of Kafr Sousa and the Greater Mezzeh neighborhood (including Mezzeh Basateen) as well as in adjacent suburb of Darayya and areas in the south Damascus district of al-Qadam. The aforementioned are all rebel-held areas.

In June 2015, regime forces demolished dozens of residences and three mosques in Darayya that bordered the southeastern and eastern sides of the Mezzeh military airport in order to fortify the area from rebel attacks, reported Syria Direct.

Later that summer, construction crews, escorted by regime security forces, expanded the demolition campaign into the Mezzeh Basateen area just north of the bulldozed Darayya neighborhoods, reported pro-opposition Alsouria on August 28.

What is really happening, says the LCC activist, is a concerted effort to drive pro-opposition residents out of Mezzeh Basateen. While families driven out of their homes were to receive monthly stipends during the construction phase, “no evicted family has gotten a single Syrian pound.”

There is little residents can do, the activist says. People “don’t have any power or strength to undertake any collective action because any attempt to organize will be met with mass arrests,” he says.

“Being arrested in Syria basically means the end of your life.”

Q: Could you explain why the regime began this demolition campaign in the Mezzeh Basateen neighborhood? Some media sources are claiming that the regime’s goal is to alter the area’s demographic composition. Do you have any evidence of this?

In part, the regime’s actions are motivated by Mezzeh Basateen’s geographic importance. Located in southwest Damascus, the neighborhood is seen as the entry point to the capital from the southwestern countryside where Darayya is. Just beyond this point lie other areas that fall outside of regime control.

Furthermore, Mezzeh Basateen includes dozens of embassies and ministry buildings including the Ministry of Justice, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Ministry. Senior regime officials as well as army and security officers live in the neighborhood alongside several branches of the mukhabarat, the most important of which is the Political Security Administration. Moreover, the regime is aware that the majority of the neighborhood’s residents support the opposition. This point is key here.

This geographic, military and security importance as well as the fact that it is a bastion of popular support for the revolution, have all contributed to the regime’s anxiety over the Mezzeh Basateen neighborhood. Previously, there were dozens of protests that broke out in the neighborhood. The army stormed it three times, once in February and again in June. Then in July, the regime committed a massacre there. All of this was in 2012.

To answer your second question, I think what I said indicates how the regime sees the area and how it is planning to solve what it sees as a dangerous problem. The people who the regime is expelling now are families from the area who own that land, as opposed to the population of Mezzeh 86 who aren’t from the region. That land belongs to the families of Mezzeh Basateen, but it was illegally seized in the 80s and Hafiz al-Assad gave it to the Alawites so it would be a pro-regime area.

Now Mezzah Basateen is one of the most famous slums in Damascus. The people were forcibly displaced from the area set to be demolished. But the regime didn’t make any organized plan [when it was settled]. This is clear evidence that the plan is not for reorganization or renovation. On the contrary, it is meant to get rid of the area’s opposition population and attract supporters in their place.

Q: How did they demolish the houses?

Construction workers were escorted by intelligence patrols from Military Security Branch 215; a group famous for killing thousands of detainees. [Ed.: For details on Branch 215, see this 2013 report from the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria.] When the workers came, there were dozens of armed security forces to suppress anyone who refused to comply with the demolition and displacement.

Q: The regime vowed to reimburse the population. Has it fulfilled these promises? What has been guaranteed to those evicted?

Every family who owns a home was promised a monthly stipend of SP30,000 (approximately $158) to rent a house somewhere else until the region is renovated after five years, at which time the people can return to their new homes.

It’s important to keep in mind that with rising rent and the rarity of empty homes because of those who have fled war-zones in other areas, this amount will not be enough to even cover the rent of one room in Damascus.

But up until now, it hasn’t happened anyway. We don’t anticipate that it will because the regime lies, as you know, even in weather reports. It wants to delude the people into thinking that their right [to housing] is safeguarded. Whoever strives to evict you because of your political position will not give you anything in exchange for it.

Basically the regime wants to punish youand keep you silent.As of now, no family that was evicted has gotten a single Syrian pound. They have already started demolishing a number of houses and have yet to compensate the owners with alternative housing.

Q: Tell us more about the people whose homes were demolished.

Of course they feel intense frustration because of the war, the rising prices and the many checkpoints [where regime forces] extort people. This current displacement and the lack of alternative housing for rent has increased this feeling of frustration and loss among those without a place to live. All this, given the severe housing crisis in Damascus and the massive constraint from the influx of internally displaced Syrians from areas on the front lines. Everyone feels tense and anxious and understands there is nowhere to go since the effects of war are everywhere.

As for the material status of the population, the majority is from the middle class. They aren’t poor or desperate, but they are not rich to the extent that they are completely comfortable financially. There is a serious problem in that most of those threatened with expulsion live and work in the area. This means that they will lose their homes, possessions, livelihoods and their futures and that of their children.

Q: Have any neighborhood leaders intervened to stop or challenge the demolition campaign?

Some neutral neighborhood leaders who don’t have a clear political stance (so all parties are satisfied with their involvement) have intervened, but all of these attempts have failed. They requested a meeting with Bashar al-Assad but he refused.

As for the population, they don’t have any power or strength to undertake any collective action because any attempt to organize will be met with mass arrests of everyone involved. As you know, being arrested in Syria basically means the end of their life. So who is willing to carry out a public campaign to resist the project since they will certainly be killed? Some of those who have objected on social media using their real names have received death threats over the phone from unknown persons.

Q: Are people convinced the regime’s depopulation campaign is motivated by sectarian politics?

The vast majority of the population is absolutely convinced that this despicable policy of evicting them from their homes [is motivated by sectarianism] and to attract others from different sectarian and religious groups to take their homes. But of course I don’t want to hide the fact that some don’t see this as such, but rather view it as a genuine reorganization of the neighborhood.

Most of us, as activists in the area, are academics and we don’t reject an urban planning project, but the timing is suspicious. And as I mentioned previously, the last thing the regime is interested in is urban planning. The regime is a repressive, military and security entity and the last thing it is thinking about is urban planning. Thus, is it rational that the regime comes at the height of a war and wants to reorganize the neighborhood? It isn’t logical.

Q:The regime’s pretext for demolishing the houses is that the Mezzeh Basateen area is unorganized from an urban planning perspective, but the Mezzeh 86 neighborhood, with a majority Alawite population, is also unorganized. Why does the regime want to demolish and rebuild Mezzeh Basateen and hasn’t mentioned reorganizing Mezzeh 86?

Most of the Mezzeh 86 neighborhood’s population works in either the intelligence services, the army, in National Defense militias or Shiite gangs that kidnap, kill and steal with impunity. The regime leaves them alone, as they suppress the opposition.

There are a number of observations I would like to point out.

First, the regime killed several neighborhood’s inhabitants throughout the peaceful protests during 2011 and 2012.

Second, hundreds of people from the neighborhood have disappeared in Assad’s detention centers over the past three years.

Third, the regime has committed massacres in the Mezzeh Basateen neighborhood. On July 22, 2012 the regime executed 25 young men in the square. The army isolated them while storming civilian homes. On the same day, the intelligence service arrested hundreds of young men and has not released any information about them since.

Fourth, throughout all of this, Mezzeh Basateen has been blockaded with 13 roadblocks. The neighborhood is a prison in every sense of the word.

Fifth, the population of Mezzeh Basateen lost more than 80 percent of their land in the 70’s and 80’s through oppressive land acquisitions and all they have left now is what remains of the neighborhood.

Sixth, in addition to thousands of homes in Mezzeh Basateen, it contains several schools, factories, as well as numerous stores and craft shops.

Seventh, in September 2012, the regime issued Decree 66 authorizing the demolition of the area and expulsion of its population under the pretext of repopulating it over the course of five years. Yet the reorganization took 40 percent of the land, labeling it public property, such as parks and schools.

 

Moutasem Jamal

Moutasem Jamal studied English literature. He moved to Jordan after losing his job because of violence in his area.

Samuel Kieke

Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.