Syria: A Real-Estate Led Destructive Engineering In Damascus and Homs



Since the beginning of the Syrian war, the expression “creative destruction” has taken on an unbearable literalness. The carpet-like razing of entire neighborhoods and converging evidence suggest that the destruction in Syria is being used as an urban planning strategy to expel a large part of the population and enable the enrichment of developers intimately connected with the government. Observing that the targeted areas are home to the country’s Sunni Muslim population, leads to think that the Assad regime has been purposefully using the conflict to homogenize the demographic composition of Syria’s cities.

Mortars and Shelling as Urban Planning Tools ///

The intensity of the shelling has been a unique characteristic of the Syrian conflict, which does not seem consistent with the battle tactics of other wars, as much of the destruction has occurred away from the frontlines (see “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” Human Rights Watch, 2014). As Leïla Vignal notes in “Destruction-in-Progress: Revolution, Repression and War Planning in Syria” (Built Environment, 2014), in February 2013 alone, shellings took place in 250 to 400 different locations every day. Moreover, the destruction sites covering large urban environments are numerous, as are craters found close to one another in open areas. The demolition has been so widespread and systematic that it can be classified under the Geneva Convention as a war crime for unlawful destruction of civilian property. The Human Rights Watch study of the bombings shows that a second wave of destruction often followed the first, and therefore couldn’t be linked to any armed hostilities. The pattern and scale of the destruction, indicative of an urbicide, and its correlation with master plans for future development, designed before the war but continuously updated by the regime, proves that the bombings are being used as a planning tool. Indeed, neighborhoods that have been partially or entirely erased from the map, in which most of the buildings and infrastructure have been either heavily damaged or destroyed by the bombardment, are the very ones implicated in pre-war redevelopment proposals.

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Before (Jan 3, 2013) and after (August 8, 2013) the destruction of entire neighborhoods in Al-Mezzeh and Qaboun/Jobar, Damascus. / Google Earth (2017)

The most striking example of this is in the city of Homs, particularly in the Baba Amr neighborhood, which was completely razed between 2012 and 2013. The patterns of destruction in the city follow very closely the perimeter of a much-contested 2010 redevelopment project called “Homs Dream,” which called for a glittering commercial district in place of the predominantly-Sunni residential community. Another important example is the urban renewal program launched by Presidential Decree 66 on September 19, 2012, which targeted a series of informal settlements in Damascus. These areas had a number of projects associated with them, such as the Detailed Studies prepared in 2007 and then re-launched during the war in 2012. Indeed, through issuing Decree 66, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad initiated, under the guise of planning regulations, the destruction and redevelopment of two municipalities as part of a “general plan for the city of Damascus to develop the areas of unauthorized residential housing” — i.e., slums.

The al-Mezzeh neighborhood was destroyed between December 2012 and July 2013, and Jobar, an area included in the Detailed Studies, was engulfed by the front line in 2013 and swept off the map in 2014, both therefore post-decree. Vignal further explains: “the recourse to the planning decree to justify the razing of the opposition-held neighborhoods can be understood as a pragmatic usage of planning regulations, in order to pursue ‘lawfully’ unlawful repression-related demolitions. Indeed, if the razing complied with the law of war, which authorizes a limited and justified use of destruction, there would be no need to resort to urban planning regulation to justify it.” Furthermore, the regime’s desire to portray its policies as measures to redevelop so-called “illegal housing” seems contradictory — Decree 40, issued five months earlier, ordered the demolition of all unauthorized buildings erected after the decree date. Yet these informal constructions had to multiply in order to cope with the needs of a growing number of internally displaced people (IDP) due to the war. In the article “Informal Settlements in the Syrian Conflict: Urban Planning as a Weapon“ (Built Environment, 2014), Valérie Clerc explains that Decree 66 eases the slum clearance and redevelopment program that was planned pre-war. This and other legislation of this kind during the war were intended to contribute to the “rationalization” of such destruction, while facilitating expulsions and land grabbing. From 2012 onward, the housing capacity of informal settlements, including their public spaces and basic infrastructure (water, electricity, and health and education facilities), was either partially or completely destroyed in Homs, Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and Deir ez-Zor by ground or aerial bombardment.

War and Real-Estate ///

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Destruction (red) along strategic axes: situation of Al-Mezzeh and Qaboun/Jobar in Damascus.
Map drawn by Lynda Zein (2017).

According to Clerc, Decree 66 and the regime re-launch of the Detailed Studies in the Fall of 2012 were following a geostrategic logic. Indeed, the areas subjected to razing, as documented by HRW, have a strong potential for real estate development, as all are situated in strategic and marketable locations. According to Vignal’s paper, in the Damascus neighborhoods of Jobar and Qaboun, the flattened areas are situated next to the prominent motorway going to Homs and Aleppo and in the city’s al-Mezzeh neighborhood, a development plan has already been drafted on the southern fringe of the military airport, featuring high-end apartment blocks. In this light, it seems that Decree 66 was a response to the scarcity of available lands, in both urban and suburban locations, for potential investors. Indeed, their interest in these “sites,” informal neighborhoods situated in favorable locations, started to rise in the second half of the 2000s in the context of modernizing Syrian real estate (Clerc and Hurault, “Property investments and Prestige Projects in Damascus: Urban and Town Planning Metamorphosis,” Built Environment, 2010), resulting in a slew of revitalization proposals. Vignal states that

times of war in Syria offer the opportunity to use a military situation to disguise or to promote other interests. Destruction and massive displacements of population, together with the emptying of urban neighborhoods, might provide one of these opportunities.

Real-estate is definitely a key constituent of the Syrian War. The regime was keen to show, through public policies on urban planning and investment, a continuity of capital despite the ongoing war. In December 2011, the Ministry of Tourism proposed around 40 projects to potential investors at the 7th Tourist Investment Market Forum and, in January 2012, the regime announced the construction of 25 industrial cities and 180 new investment projects. In this regard, Assad does not only see destruction as a way of persecuting those who defy him, but as a means for creating, on stolen land, large projects that will fulfill his vision of a homogenous Syria for the exclusive use of his clan. These emptied lands are indeed reserved for Assad’s supporters, such Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and owner of the real-estate company Cham Holding, whose hands are already all over the areas in Damascus designated by Decree 66, in particular those stretching from the al-Mezzeh Highway to the neighborhood of Kafr Souseh. In August of 2015, the Syrian government announced that it had passed a measure to rebuild Baba Amr in accordance with the mentioned pre-war “Homs Dream“ plans, which would see modern shopping malls, parks, and skyscrapers replacing the now-destroyed neighborhoods. The project was led by Iyad Ghazal, former governor of Homs, who fled the country at the beginning of the revolution in 2011 after demonstrations calling for his resignation over the plans, which even before the war were affiliated to land seizures, forced evictions, and demolitions. Ghazal reportedly fled with suitcases full of money, given to him by Assad, and became a partner in a construction company based out of the United Arab Emirates, the aptly named “Cartel Group.” Cartel Group will most likely manage a “big touristic project in the capital city,” as revealed by the media on his return to Syria in 2012. In June 2014, Talal al-Barazi, Ghazal’s successor as the governor of Homs, who owns a few real estate companies of his own, presented to the Homs City Council a proposal to “reconstruct the neighborhoods of Baba Amr, al-Sultaniyeh and Jobar,” and advocated for adding Baba Amr to Decree 66. Moreover, Al-Barazi is a partner with Assad and Makhlouf in a number of new real estate companies which were set up specifically for the reconstruction market, such as the al-Bawadi company, established during the war in 2012.

The future developments in Baba Amr will come at the cost of some of 2012 and 2013’s bloodiest battles and deadliest sieges by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah forces. An intensive campaign of shelling for three weeks in February 2012, for example, destroyed at least 640 buildings and resulted in at least 950 craters in open areas.

Instrumentalizing War for the (Re)construction Industry ///

We find ourselves in a situation where the Syrian reconstruction market is in the very hands of those who are responsible for the destruction. These “reconstruction” efforts are in fact the war’s primary motivation and determine its structural logic. The suspicion that the areas subject to targeted bombings are reserved for future development by the regime and its allies seems to be supported by the various contracts signed during the war under the apparent banner of “renewal.” The reconstruction market is thus an integral component of this powerful economy of war. The very idea of “reconstructing” cities according to plans created before the war, with no regard for the traumatization and massacres staged therein, is abhorrent. Even more surprisingly, if these projects are actually feasible within the post-war state, it will mean that the regime had from the beginning counted on having a tabula rasa.

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Screenshot from the website presenting a massive redevelopment project for Damascus.
Damascus Governorate (2012).

The regime’s allies, the Iranian and Russian governments, have the opportunity to turn the war into a business opportunity, as they have aided in the destruction and thus paved the way for construction projects in the future. Contracts have already been signed, like the May 2014 deal between the Syrian development firm Real Sorab and the Iranian construction company Pars Garima. This confirms former Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi’s comment that the Iranian private sector will be a “partner in the reconstruction.” It should be seen as no coincidence that the Iranian embassy is located on the al-Mezzeh highway, the site of some of the most intense real estate speculation in the country, as mentioned above. Russian companies have also been awarded nearly a billion dollars contracts.

The role played by the reconstruction business in the war is also evidenced by the many trade conferences organized by the government, such as the two-day conference on the “Reconstruction of Syria,” followed by a three-day trade fair, held in Damascus in November 2014. The Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party (BASP) hosted an economic forum entitled, ironically enough, “Homs: From Destruction to Reconstruction,” in Homs on November 10th, 2016. Speaking at the forum, Hussein Arnous, Minister of Public Works and Housing, glibly emphasized the importance of the private sector contribution to the rebuilding process through establishing real estate projects and encouraging expatriates to reinvest in Syria.

Aside from the many opportunists who have come along to claim their piece of the pie, the regime’s collaboration with the United Nations seems to show yet another worrying aspect of the reconstruction effort. At the end of 2013, during a meeting with UN officials, Homs governor al-Barazi insisted that the government should not have to bear the responsibility of reconstruction alone, and that he expected the international community to help shoulder the burden. In August 2016, a UN-supported rebuilding project began to clear the debris from the Jouret al-Shayah neighborhood in Homs. While this would later be described by officials as an effort to rebuild what had been destroyed due to acts of terrorism, in truth, the neighborhood in question was largely destroyed and depopulated by government bombardments during the nearly two-year siege of the Old City. As Vignal explains, “the British based NGO Action on Armed Violence documented twelve types of arms most used in Syria. It underlines that aviation and helicopter bombing, as well as the larger missile-types, are only in the hands of the regime forces.” Even the throat-cutting Daesh (ISIS) would have not been able to reduce Syria to such a state of widespread desolation.

Thus, any participation in Syria’s future reconstruction projects will be seriously problematic — collaborating with the regime will lend credence to the false argument that the destruction and massacres were not and are not made primarily by the Assad regime, while allowing the government, through its rebuilding programs, to legitimize itself as a cooperative, neutral political body.

Demographic Change Through Destruction and (Re)construction ///

Depopulated neighborhoods, such as Jouret al-Shayah, where a UN-brokered “population transfer” in 2014 removed the remainder of the besieged population from the city by force, raise one of the major issues of the Syrian war. When the UN becomes complicit with the regime’s “reconstruction“ of such areas that were intentionally massacred, destroyed and depopulated by that very regime, it validates war crimes. These pre-meditated real estate bombardments decimate the local population, mainly Sunni Muslims, ravaging an entire social fabric for the sake of supposedly quelling a rebellion. Yet once the future reconstruction takes place, the remaining original inhabitants will not be allowed to return, their former neighborhoods being literally occupied by new residents.

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Map of destruction in Homs drawn by Lynda Zein (2017).

More information about the state-led demographic reengineering of former Sunni-Muslim neighborhoods can be found in reports such as PAX’s “No Return To Homs“ (February 2017), Naame Shaam’s “Silent Sectarian Cleansing“ (May 2015), and The Day After’s “Local Truces and Forced Demographic Change in Syria” (January 2017). The destructions and following redevelopment projects in Syrian urban areas are implemented in order to alter their demography. Indeed, according to these reports, it has been mainly Sunni neighborhoods that are being erased from the map.

The PAX report shows that by June 2012, the government had depopulated and reclaimed large parts of Homs by targeting and partially or fully destroying more than a dozen Sunni-majority neighborhoods, such as Baba Amr, Karm al-Zeitoun, Jib al-Jandali, Hay Ashera, Bab Sbaa, Marija, Deir Baalbah, and Bayada, in addition to the Christian neighborhood of Hamidiyeh. Most bordered Alawite-majority areas. The perimeter of the “Homs Dream“ masterplan proposal, which as noted above closely resembles the eventual pattern of destruction, covers territories where densely populated Sunni neighborhoods once stood. Moreover, the project did not include the transformation of any Alawite-dominated areas. The conflict, through the destruction of civilian areas, seems to have given the government the opportunity and tools to implement and accelerate its pre-war urban redevelopment projects that aimed to change the demographic structure of Homs. Indeed, in Alawite-majority neighborhoods which remain populated and largely intact, though with nominal damage from opposition shelling, Sunni residents were and are being forced to leave. In addition, most of the slums that Decree 66 focuses on have a Sunni majority.

There are further correlating elements that suggest the destruction of Sunni areas is part of a state-led plan to change the demographic composition of Syrian cities. The regime employs various strategies to prevent the return of displaced Sunni inhabitants to their communities. While majority-Sunni neighborhoods such as Baba Amr and Khaldiyeh are still ghost towns and have restricted access, the Christian-majority neighborhood of Hamidiyeh is one of the few where people have been allowed to come back, largely thanks to quickly initiated UN rehabilitation projects. During the reconstruction of Old Homs, the Bab al-Hood neighborhood, again primarily Sunni, was omitted from the effort, even though it is strategically central. These discriminatory selections reinforce the idea that the reconstruction process is being used in order to deprive displaced Sunnis of their right of return. The new legislative orders are also creating further barriers to reclaiming homes. The extreme looting of the homes of residents who were forcibly displaced (where even the piping of buildings is stripped) has continued even after the end of the siege, suggesting these people are not welcome to return.

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Screenshots from short film “Homs Dream” promoting a large development project in 2010.
Homs Municipality (client) ArtWareCorp (film production)

Along with these destructions and forced displacements, the government’s demographic engineering is further sustained through a violent persecution of the displaced once they are outside of Homs. The green government buses used to displace populations have become a symbol of the regime’s surrender and starve strategy. Indeed, more than 100,000 people were trapped inside the al-Waer neighborhood of Homs in the siege of 2013. But even after the people tried to flee elsewhere, they were prevented from taking refuge, such as in the small town of Deir Atiyah, where government forces turned away IDPs in what the UN described as a crime against humanity. The displacement, sieges, and further persecution appear to show that the regime’s ultimate goal is to drive people out of the country and prevent their return. The PAX report argues that the Syrian government has used Homs as a blueprint by ”repeatedly employing the same pattern of siege, starve, destroy, and transfer across the country.” Darayya, a suburb of Damascus and one of the areas included in Decree 66, as well as East Aleppo, were unfortunately subjected to the same pattern in August and December 2016, respectively.

Analyzing the parcelization of neighborhoods affected by the war, and closely scrutinizing any reconstruction plans can help us understand what was and remains at stake in the Syrian war. In much the same way as the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, used the pretext of political unrest to order the massacre of thousands of civilians in the city of Hama in 1982, the Assad family’s Ba’ath party has used the current war to advance its historical goal of creating a homogenous Syria. The party, supposedly secular, has been supported by various countries from the West, helping concentrate power for a chosen minority with the intention of controlling the majority. Finding out who has already collaborated and who intends to do so in these destructions will help reveal the wider geopolitical cords of this conflict. In this sense, any architects involved in these government-contracted projects should bear in mind that this future urban environment will enable the ethnic-cleansing of primarily poor Sunni inhabitants, and will add to the regime’s toolkit to further control, segregate, and oppress its population.

In the same way that the vibrant Syrian revolution was repressed, in one of the bloodiest crackdowns of the 21st century, it unfortunately seems that the reconstruction and the future of the country will also be determined by the greed of the dictatorship.