In downtown Beirut, signs of the coming cost of Syria’s reconstruction plans

Residential tower blocks under construction in downtown Beirut, February 2. Photo by Tom Rollins for Syria Direct.

BEIRUT: In the streets around downtown Beirut one weekend afternoon, young waiters shark potential customers outside half-empty cafes selling tea and shawarma sandwiches. Many of the surrounding shops are either empty or closed, with posters advertising retail space for rent. Bored Lebanese soldiers look on, guarding the various checkpoints that ring the area.

By the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, these streets were little more than a ghost town. Trees and shrubs had reclaimed the shell craters and vacant housing in the no-man’s land known as the “Green Line,” the former frontline in what was then among the Middle East’s longest and most damaging proxy conflicts.

“Downtown...wasn’t somewhere you stopped,” remembers WalkBeirut tour founder Ronnie Chatah, who grew up in the post-war early 1990s.

“You still had checkpoints in the city; there were places you didn’t go because of landmines,” he says, speaking to Syria Direct in one of the city’s tucked-away bars. “There were many problems.”

With the 1989 Taif Accords that brought an end to Lebanon’s 15-year war, Lebanese society entered a new period that inherited many of the features of the war years: deep, profound social and sectarian divisions and crippled infrastructure. One-time militia leaders became party politicians. And the reconstruction of what was once the downtown heart of Beirut first began with destruction, as building after historic building was demolished and razed to the ground.

Responsibility for rebuilding the ruins of downtown largely fell to Solidere, a joint stock company led by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with the backing of Saudi Arabia, Lebanese banks and foreign capital. Local residents and property owners in Beirut’s once mostly working-class commercial district were given the offer to transfer their ownership to Solidere in return for shares in the company. They would ultimately be replaced by banks, hotels and boutique shopping malls.

"Down with gangster rule." Graffiti in downtown Beirut, February 2. Photo by Tom Rollins for Syria Direct. 

The transformation of this one patch of real estate from an urban warzone to a public-private shopping precinct for Beirut’s bourgeoisie is nothing new, as much a part of the lore of post-war Lebanon as the tired old dispatches about nightclubs and divisions and isolated islands of liberalism. But in downtown Beirut’s half-empty streets and boutiques, there are some indications of what may be in store for urban communities across the border—in neighboring Syria—as Bashar al-Assad and government-affiliated business figures push forward with their own reconstruction plans.

Syrian authorities are using an almost identical system of shares as the one pursued by Solidere, while at the same time preparing to redevelop and raze whole neighborhoods from which countless Syrians have already been displaced.

Meanwhile, analysts suggest that the act of rebuilding in Syria will be more violent, and more damaging in the long-term, than anything seen in Lebanon.

Rebuilding ‘erratic urban areas’

The Syrian government and its allies have now reasserted control over much of the country—although hardline Islamist groups and Turkish-backed rebels control swathes of the northwestern countryside, while the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) maintain an uncertain hold over areas east of the Euphrates River.

And yet the Syrian government has already announced plans to redevelop working-class suburbs of Damascus that turned out against Assad after 2011. A major rebuilding project in one former informal settlement—now renamed “Marota City,” purportedly after an Aramaic word for sovereignty—is already underway.

Analysts and human rights groups anticipate Marota will see formerly working-class, pro-opposition communities replaced by shining skyscrapers and malls.

Damascus Cham Holding, a holding company established in late 2016 to fund the project, has already signed several multi-million dollar contracts with leading Syrian business figures and companies—including several sanctioned by the European Union late last month.

Downtown Beirut in February. Photo by Tom Rollins for Syria Direct. 

Once a patchwork of farmland, largely informally built housing and open space on the doorstep of central Damascus, the area—formerly known as Basateen a-Razi—had long been prime real estate and was included in a masterplan for the capital drawn up in the 2000s.

After early anti-government protests and scattered clashes in Basateen a-Razi between 2011 and 2012, the Syrian government later passed Decree 66 for the year 2012, ostensibly with the aim to “redevelop areas of unauthorised housing and informal settlements [slums]” there. Local residents would be given compensation or shares in future redevelopment, before the bulldozers moved in to flatten their homes.

Decree 66 would become the blueprint for another law, passed in 2018, seen as Syria’s key reconstruction legislation. Law 10 for the year 2018 uses the same basic tenets as Decree 66, but it can be implemented wherever the Syrian government sees fit.  

Under Law 10, along with an arsenal of legislation related to housing, land and property rights passed during the course of the conflict, the Syrian government will purportedly start razing and rebuilding the eastern Damascus suburbs of al-Qaboun, Barzeh and Jobar this summer.

According to observers, other areas of Damascus and possibly even Aleppo—Syria’s largest city and former industrial powerhouse—could see similar plans in the future.

Government officials and their supporters hail the plans as regeneration. They will allow the government to finally address the issue of informal settlements that, by the 2000s, were home to millions of Syrians across the country. Syria’s former minister for local administration, Omar Ibrahim al-Ghalawanji, in 2012 hailed Decree 66 as a “first step in the reconstruction of illegal housing areas, especially those targeted by armed terrorist groups.”

According to Ammar Waqaf, director of pro-government think-tank Gnosos, “re-planning an entire area, which has been heavily affected by war...is far more cost and human effective than retouching or rebuilding it as it was then.”

Downtown Beirut in February. Photo by Tom Rollins for Syria Direct. 

“A lot of building that took place in the past few decades produced erratic urban areas,” he tells Syria Direct. “It would be a mistake to re-do them as they were.”

‘My relatives just left...’

Much the same was once said of Beirut.

“It was very fashionable in the early 1990s to talk about Lebanon’s rebirth, that Beirut would be reborn so that the country would be back in its rightful place—banking sector, real estate, tourism, all that,” remembers Chatah.  

Press reports at the time talked up Beirut as a city “rising from the ashes.” One Western ambassador suggested to the New York Times in 1995 that "failure is really not in the cards. The only question is whether it's going to be a success or a raving success."

But rebirth would come at a cost. Downtown Beirut was home to an old stone souq where ordinary Beirutis would go to buy fruits and vegetables, second-hand clothes, jewellery and other goods. Many of those shopkeepers closed their doors and fled the moment fighting broke out in the mid-1970s.

Nearly two decades years later, with the war over and Solidere on the scene, those original residents and property owners would transfer their property rights in return for shares in the project—shares that both former owners and their legal representatives claim were massively undervalued.

Hariri’s legal consultant during the Solidere years, Lebanese lawyer Bahij Tabbara, would later acknowledge the thinking behind the move: “to force the tenants and landowners to form a stock exchange company against the value of their share.” It was what he called, “a kind of expropriation,” but at the same time “not a real expropriation.”

The system of compensations or property shares pioneered by Solidere in Beirut is being repeated through Syria’s reconstruction legislation—as one NGO worker joked wryly in a Beirut cafe last week, “[the Syrians] got the idea from somewhere.”

Downtown Beirut in February. Photo by Tom Rollins for Syria Direct. 

According to Deen Sharp, post-doctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-editor of a book about urbanism since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Syria’s system is a “direct replication” of the one pioneered by Solidere.

[Read Syria Direct's full interview with Deen Sharp here.]

“In Syria, they are using this joint stock corporation model, to a certain degree, which is what happened in Solidere. In exchange for their property rights, [owners in downtown Beirut] were given shares in the corporation that was dispossessing them of those property rights,” says Sharp.

However in Syria today, Sharp adds, “people are also just being completely dispossessed of their property rights and not given any kind of compensation, in shares or otherwise, in the company.”

As in downtown Beirut, many of Basateen a-Razi’s original residents have seen little benefit from the developments so far—despite offers from authorities, on paper at least, of compensation or shares in the Marota project.

Abu Khattab, originally from Basateen a-Razi, says his family left their homes without any support from the government.

“Compensation was only for the original residents who were still present in their homes [at the time Decree 66 was passed],” he tells Syria Direct. “And for families who’d already left Syria, even if they had their housing deeds and proof of ownership, it was extremely difficult to prove ownership through proxy with a lawyer.”

“My [relatives] just left. They left for another area in the city.”

Downtown Beirut in February. Photo by Tom Rollins for Syria Direct. 

Eventually displaced to Syria’s northwest, Abu Khattab does not anticipate he will ever return home.

Other families did reportedly receive either compensation or shares, but seldom enough to get by in a city suffering from rising rents and prices.

Analysts meanwhile argue that future developments in reconstructed areas have not been designed with the original residents in mind, meaning that compensation and shares will not be sufficient to maintain property rights.

‘Violent’ reconstruction

Urban plans for Marota imagine a shining city situated architecturally somewhere between post-war Beirut and the glassy future urbanism of the neo-liberal Gulf.

Samer Foz, a Syrian businessman and one of the main investors in Marota, has reportedly invested $19 million to build several residential skyscrapers on the site.

The European Union last month sanctioned Foz, long seen as a rising star in government-affiliated business circles, as well as several nominally private sector business figures and entities for “supporting and benefiting from the Assad regime including through the use of expropriated property.” Foz denies the claims.

Foz’s TV channel, Lana TV, has routinely aired advertisements for Marota in between the endless reruns of old Syrian soap operas, referring to the project as a new “landmark” for the Syrian capital.

The advertisement appears to have been cut from air since the EU sanctions.

Public-private partnerships likely flooded with foreign private sector investment are poised to one day erase entire areas of Syrian cities, and the lives once lived among them—the backstreet dukaneh (local convenience store), the informal breeze-block apartment building.

Meanwhile, analysts and human rights groups suggest the plans will radically alter the nature of Syrian cities—who lives in them, and who they are built for—by punitively dispossessing countless Syrians considered to be pro-opposition, or insufficiently loyal, by the Syrian government and its sprawling network of security branches.

The proposals point to how urban planning and infrastructure in Syria has been weaponized by seven years of war, raising concerns that reconstruction plans could be just as punishing as the war effort that preceded them.

According to MIT researcher Sharp, punitive uses of urban spaces are not as visible but they are as “equally violent—and can cause death and destitution—as a dramatic explosion of a building [can].”

And as in Beirut’s post-war demolition and reconstruction projects, the Syrian government is “targeting certain populations in a way….not to promote social cohesion or to heal the wounds of war, but to quite evidently further displace and further control certain political, economic and social pathways of power.”

Some time in the future, the two cities’ urban fates may intertwine once again.

Lebanese authorities are already actively encouraging Syrian refugees to return from Lebanon, despite UNHCR’s protests that these may not constitute safe, dignified returns.

And Lebanese rapprochement with Damascus is already in full swing in a country run— after last week’s formation of the first government in nine months—by several pro-Damascus ministers, as well as one with direct relations with President Assad and his family.

“My guess is that [the] situation that Syria’s in, for better or worse, will largely reflect what happened to Lebanon,” says WalkBeirut’s Chatah.

“The Syrian regime was part of Lebanon’s post-war story. It may be that the Lebanese end up being part of that story too.”

Tom Rollins

Tom Rollins is a journalist and researcher from the north of England, who graduated with an English BA from the University of Cambridge. He previously worked as an independent journalist in Egypt between 2013 and 2015 and Lebanon between 2016 and 2017, and has written for Al Jazeera English, IRIN, Mada Masr and The National. Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomWRollins.