The Yarmouk camp in South Damascus in November. Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP.
AMMAN: The guns went silent in Damascus months ago, when the last remaining suburbs outside government control were violently retaken in East Ghouta and then South Damascus earlier this year.
And yet, every other week, the muffled boom of an explosion sounds off somewhere in the eastern reaches of Damascus, followed by a dust cloud rising into the air.
Unlike in previous years, these explosions are controlled: demolitions of neighborhoods for a variety of reasons, all purportedly fulfilling the government’s vision of reconstruction.
Barzeh is just one of several formerly opposition-held areas of the Syrian capital now undergoing demolition, renewal and reconstruction. Syrian army engineers have recently conducted demolitions in neighboring al-Qaboun, Harasta and Jobar—all neighborhoods around eastern Damascus—while urban planners are reportedly now extending reconstruction plans throughout the city’s eastern and southern suburbs. Last week, officials announced that three Damascus suburbs will be developed next year under a controversial law for reconstruction—Law 10.
“The government is demolishing buildings,” Abu Fadal, a 55-year-old mechanic originally from Barzeh, tells Syria Direct, “on the grounds they are no longer suitable for housing.”
With the government and its allies now in control of the majority of Syria, Damascus is ramping up its narrative of a country rebuilding itself after years of war. In the capital, reconstruction projects are already underway. Meanwhile, myriad laws passed during the course of the Syrian conflict are also facilitating plans for massive development projects to be jointly managed by local councils and private holding companies.
Much of the controversy around Syria’s post-war reconstruction plans has, until now, centered around Law 10—a 2018 measure establishing the legal infrastructure for reconstruction projects across the country that has been criticized by human rights groups for potentially dispossessing millions.
However, according to interviews with lawyers, residents in Damascus and analysts, the Syrian government is using a broad range of different laws and decrees—both new and old—to begin the long business of reconstruction. Presented as a robust legal process through which the government will rebuild a country in tatters, the Syrian government has made use of arbitrary, punitive demolitions as well as liberal interpretations of anti-terrorism legislation to raze whole areas of neighborhoods that fell to the opposition after 2011. Analysts and lawyers meanwhile claim the plans are tantamount to population control along social class lines.
A construction vehicle razes homes in Qaboun in November.
Residents who have attempted to return home or simply check on their properties, however, tell Syria Direct that they’ve found little evidence of the supposedly rich legal framework backing the government’s reconstruction efforts. Blocked from returning to rehabilitate, let alone visit, their former homes, displaced Syrians now living in other areas of the country are uncertain about what the future holds.
Abu Muhammad, a 53-year-old former municipal water worker, had two houses in Barzeh before the war began—one of them informally built on agricultural land, but which the family managed to regularize years ago.
“I inherited it from my father,” he tells Syria Direct. “He built it stone by stone himself.”
The second home, also in Barzeh, was informally built without permission. Abu Muhammad has proof of ownership for the first house, but not for the second.
He’s been unable to return to either until now.
“I don’t understand a lot about the state and laws,” says Abu Muhammad. “What I do know is that we tried to go back many times and [the authorities] wouldn’t let us.”
Informal settlements: Chief constituency of Syria’s uprising
Informal settlements around Damascus and other Syrian cities were among the first areas to join major anti-government protests between 2011 and 2012.
Often comprised of working-class Syrians whose families had migrated to the outskirts of cities in the decades leading up the conflict, these neighborhoods would become hotspots of anti-government sentiment. By 2012, when protests were replaced by armed clashes, rebel groups moved in to suburbs throughout eastern and southern Damascus.
Syria’s informal settlements are areas of housing built on land designated as “zones of collective contravention,” or publicly owned land. Informal settlements primarily developed during the 1970s and 1980s, and grew as rural-urban migration increased during the early 2000s. By 2004, almost 40 percent of Damascus’s population were living in informal settlements.
While the Syrian government had drawn up plans for redeveloping the informal settlements well before 2011, including a comprehensive plan for Damascus in 2007, the conflict has weaponized the government’s approach to urban planning.
Human Rights Watch documented arbitrary demolitions within former opposition-held areas—some of them now slated for Law 10 development, including Tadamon and al-Qaboun—as early as 2012. In some cases, official land registry documents were used to target housing or businesses of individuals purportedly linked to the opposition.
Other areas of Damascus that were sites of large protests or early clashes, including Barzeh, Daraya and Kafr Souseh, were also singled out for demolitions.
As the conflict has gone on, the Syrian government has created and made use of a growing legal infrastructure for razing informal settlements and compensating former property owners before rebuilding from scratch.
‘A first step in the reconstruction of illegal housing’
Reconstruction is already underway in Basateen a-Razi, since renamed Marota City. A new site adjacent to it, which spans swathes of outer southern Damascus including parts of the former opposition stronghold of Daraya, has been slated for development under the new name of Basilia City.
A working-class and largely informally built corner of southwestern Damascus, Basateen a-Razi had been the site of early protests that later escalated into armed clashes between 2011 and 2012.
In September 2012, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued Decree 66, designating Basateen a-Razi—as well as a series of other satellite towns and informal settlements around southwestern Damascus—for redevelopment.
Omar Ibrahim al-Ghalawanji, then Syria’s prime minister, hailed Decree 66 as the “first step in the reconstruction of illegal housing areas, especially those targeted by armed terrorist groups.”
Since then, informal housing in the area has been cleared. A new grid of blocks and roads has paved its way across the former neighborhood, visible in satellite imagery from the years since 2012.
Google Earth imagery from 2012 to 2017 shows gradual demolition of the Basateen a-Razi neighborhood of Damascus.
It would become the blueprint for future reconstruction across the country. Decree 66—in tandem with Decree 19 for the year 2015, which empowers local authorities to form private joint stock companies for funding planning projects—set the stage for massive reconstruction projects around Damascus.
Meanwhile, Law 10 expands the model set by Decree 66 to the rest of Syria, establishing a process where zones for redevelopment will be declared by decree and setting up a system for former residents of areas slated for redevelopment to lay claim to their properties. Once an area has been designated for development under Law 10, according to the original text of the law, property owners would be given a 30-day deadline to prove ownership.
Despite rumors that Law 10 would be revoked, modifications made by a later decree, Law 42, have instead extended the deadline for proof of ownership for unverified property owners from 30 days to one year.
Some observers suggest Law 42 changes little on the ground—particularly for refugees and former residents of informal settlements, who are concerned they could be legally dispossessed of their homes.
Even if the law had been revoked, “there would be another law that did similar things that either already exists or that would be written in the future,” says Emma Beals, independent journalist and Syria in Context editor, who has researched Syria’s reconstruction plans.
“Law 10 was a logical step in [the government’s] very clearly articulated trajectory in terms of housing, land and property, and where they see reconstruction going,” Beals added. “While [Law 10] has been reported as an outlier, as a unique piece of legislation...it's not a diversion in terms of the road the government has been traveling on for some time and will continue to travel along.”
Officials in Damascus remain adamant that the plans are crucial to the future of Syria, and will pay off for Syrians.
“This is for the benefit of the citizen,” Faisal Sorour, an attorney and member of the Damascus Governorate Executive Office of Planning and Budgeting, told pro-government daily al-Thawrah last week. “Not at his expense.”
Days before state media reported that Law 42 had passed, authorities in Damascus confirmed that application of Law 10 will begin in June 2019 in the neighborhoods of al-Qaboun, Barzeh and Jobar.
‘I don’t have a contract—I don’t have anything’
Human rights groups warn that Law 10 effectively lays the blueprint for dispossessing countless displaced Syrians—including millions of refugees currently in neighboring countries and beyond.
Under the law, if an individual’s property is recorded in the official Land Registry, they do not need to prove ownership. But if there is no record, property owners or their close relatives must present documents proving ownership to local authorities within a year. The time period was originally 30 days, now changed by Law 42.
Displaced to Jaramana from his original home in al-Hameh, 40-year-old mechanic Firas was told by a local municipal official in Jaramana that he would have to present all of his property’s documents to the local council—including a deed, its status, his family ledger as well as proof that backlogged water and electricity bills had been cleared.
At the same time, Abu Fadal told Syria Direct that he managed to verify ownership of his home in Barzeh, which is built on agricultural land, by presenting old electricity bills.
Under Decree 66, Law 10 and Law 42, former residents who have proven property ownership are then given shares in new property developments, provided they comply with other registration laws. Otherwise, unclaimed or unverified properties return are handed over to the local council or the state itself.
At least on paper, former residents do have a right to prove ownership through the courts. In situations like those of Firas and Abu Muhammad, Law 33 for the year 2017 provides a way for those who have lost or damaged property documents to still prove their ownership, through legal proceedings in a real estate court—in theory.
However, Muhammad Jameel, a Damascus-based lawyer, told Syria Direct that “legal councils formed to address these legal problems haven’t begun work yet.” Jameel asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons.
Abu Muhammad, the former municipal water employee from Barzeh, remains concerned he will be unable to prove ownership of his home there.
“They told me I have to take my paperwork for the house, relevant court documents [proving the owner does not have convictions for alleged criminal or terrorist activities] and my ID,” he said.
“[But] I don’t have any contract. I don’t have anything.”
‘They’re saying they want to build a new Syria’
Despite the focus on Law 10, the Syrian government is making use of a slew of legal and arbitrary means to ultimately rebuild Syrian cities in its own image.
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Aside from Decree 66 and Law 10, the Syrian government has passed more than 45 laws related to housing, land and property since the beginning of the uprising and ensuing conflict.
But one of the main ways the government conducts demolitions and subsequently blocks returns of civilians is through Law 3 for the year 2018.
Presented as a law “concerning the removal of the rubble of buildings damaged as a result of natural or abnormal causes,” the law gives the government significant leeway in defining what constitutes rubble or damage, meaning that neighborhoods can be closed off and housing subsequently destroyed.
Authorities have confirmed that Law 3 is being used in new developments—most recently, the Ministry of Local Administration said that expropriations in Tadamon were carried out under Law 3.
A number of Damascus neighborhoods—including those that have not been designated under Law 10—remain partially or completely closed, even for civilians wanting to briefly visit to check on their former homes.
At the same time, the Syrian government has reportedly borrowed elements of counter-terror laws originally passed following the Baath Party’s coup in 1963 to confiscate and, in some cases, destroy private property.
They include Law 19 for the year 2012, which sets broad definitions of terrorist acts, organizations and funding.
Decree 63 for the year 2012 legalizes the confiscation of “movable and immovable property” belonging to those accused of terrorism against the state. This extends not only to those convicted of terrorism, but rather applies to individuals the moment a claim of terrorism activities is brought against them.
According to pro-opposition outlet al-Modon, the Syrian Ministry of Finance recently published the findings of a study documenting over 40,000 cases of property seizures as a result of “terrorist activities” by their owners in 2017. The previous year saw 30,000 seizures.
But while the government maintains its wholesale reconstruction of entire Syrian cities will benefit civilians, those waiting to return to homes they’re unsure are even still standing are far from convinced.
“They’ll re-develop our area and raze all the informal settlements to ‘improve the way the country looks’,” says Abu Muhammad, blocked from visiting his two informally built houses in Barzeh. “And on top of all this destruction, they’re saying they want a new Syria—God help us.”
“I don’t want compensation, I don’t want anything. I [just] want to return to my home.”
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Infographics Training Project in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.