Despite ongoing fighting in Syria, the Assad regime says it has embarked on reconstruction. In 2012 the government issued Decree No. 66, providing the legal foundation for developing areas of unauthorized housing and informal settlements—those in which properties have not been registered but may have been passed on for generations. In October 2018, the government issued Law No. 10, which expanded Decree No. 66 beyond informal areas and allowed towns and cities to earmark zones for development and reconstruction. Marota City, a pilot project in Damascus under Decree No. 66, is the blueprint for future projects under Law No. 10 and ground zero for the regime-led reconstruction process.
Marota City is an urban development project being built over the informal settlement of Basatin al-Razi in western Damascus. Some 50,000 residents of Basatin al-Razi have lost their homes because of Marota City. However, the project’s implementation is floundering. State institutions have imposed excessive requirements that are hindering progress. Thousands of families have been evicted and are lost in a corrupt bureaucratic quagmire while trying to secure a roof over their heads and claim their property rights.
Marota City is illustrative of the problems likely to surround reconstruction under Decree No. 66 and Law No. 10. The project underlines a broader truth about Syria’s reconstruction framework, namely that it will not rebuild Syria or stimulate recovery. It is mainly a politically motivated gentrification process that, by transforming the socioeconomic landscape through a reconfiguration of urban space, aims to consolidate the regime’s authoritarian control.
The [Marota City] project underlines a broader truth about Syria’s reconstruction framework, namely that it will not rebuild Syria or stimulate recovery.
A Discriminatory Framework and Stumbling Implementation
Marota City faces many complications. These include restrictions on residents’ claiming their property rights, delays in paying compensation, evaluations of property that have disadvantaged shareholders, and a reconstruction approach favoring regime-connected capitalists. The state has allowed few effective means of addressing these shortcomings, though resistance to the project is visible.
Restrictions on Claiming Property Rights
In preparing for Marota City, the authorities imposed conditions making it very difficult for residents of Basatin al-Razi to lay claim to their property rights. Decree No. 66 and Law No. 10 gave only thirty days for residents to prove their property rights. In a country at war this was a limited timeframe, allowing for abuse. The problem was addressed in an amendment to Law No. 10 in November 2018 that extended the deadline to a year in future projects. However, this left issues unresolved. In Basatin al-Razi, the timeframe implied that the forcibly disappeared could not claim their rights or appoint legal agents on their behalf. Their families faced restrictions by association through harassment, surveillance, and persecution. Residents who had fled Syria or were internally displaced had the challenge of confirming their property rights remotely. This was exacerbated by the fact that many lacked identification documents to make a claim or appoint a representative. Moreover, individuals displaced to and from opposition areas faced discrimination and additional risks and barriers.
Those who claimed their property rights successfully faced the dilemma of informality. A flaw of Decree No. 66 is that while addressing informal settlements, it accounted solely for people with formal property rights. Only those with deeds received shares in Marota City. Residents could submit proof that they owned unregistered property. However, this entitled them only to a rental allowance and in some cases substitute housing. Many residents were left with very little, since thousands of properties in Basatin al-Razi were informally owned. Indeed, before 2011 nearly 50 percent of land in Syria was unregistered. This was exacerbated during the war with most property registries being destroyed or suspending their work. Unregistered property could be primarily attributed to the state’s failure to introduce effective regulatory procedures during periods of rapid urbanization.
Once residents claimed their rights, an inspection commission valued resident’s properties for compensation before issuing eviction notices. Between 2015 and 2017, all residents were evicted, and their properties, estimated at over 6,700, were demolished. The lack of clear rules in the valuation process, however, resulted in certain properties being deemed ineligible for compensation. Those affected could not contest the decision.
Another problem with Marota City has been that compensation to former residents has been inadequate and delayed. Those receiving rental allowances—including former property owners, residents of informal buildings on public and private land, and leaseholders—have received sums equivalent to 5 percent of their property value. This is worthless in Damascus’s inflated rental market. In 2016, rent prices were over 300 percent higher than in 2010. When residents complained, local authorities told them to “rent in other informal settlements.”
Those entitled to substitute housing, including former property owners and leaseholders who resided in Basatin al-Razi until their eviction, have still not received substitute housing, which had been promised for 2016. Although no plans were introduced to reassure eligible evictees, they were asked for a 15 percent down payment on their substitute houses in July 2018. Deductions were made to rental allowances to cover these payments. Today, with no progress having taken place, the Damascus Governorate’s administration has blamed the delays on uncertainty over the location of substitute houses and difficulties in signing contracts with developers. While the authorities ignored the war when setting deadlines for residents to prove their property rights and engage in other steps, they repeatedly used it to excuse their deferrals in providing compensation.
In addition, residents contested the conditions of eligibility for substitute housing. According to the official responsible for implementing Decree No. 66, 15 percent of Basatin al-Razi’s evictees were ineligible for housing and 5 percent filed complaints against their ineligibility. In January 2019, officials in Damascus Governorate said they would reopen 500 rejected housing claims. This bothered residents whose eligibility had been confirmed, as they feared further delays.
Those who legally owned property in Basatin al-Razi were compensated with shares in the Marota City project. However, the valuation of their properties was systematically lower than market prices, while administrative costs further reduced what residents received. The valuation was based on the properties’ condition and surroundings at the time of estimation, not on their projected value after development. This lowered their price and therefore the value of compensatory shares. The actual value of land left to resident shareholders after the assessment and deductions of all costs—including administrative costs, licensing, contractors, and green spaces—is estimated to have barely reached 17 percent of total land value.
Shareholders had only a year to conduct transactions with their shares. They had one of three options: they could combine shares with those of other shareholders and request a plot for development; they could combine shares with those of other shareholders to establish a joint stock company to invest in, exchange, or sell their plots; or they could sell their shares at a public auction through the Damascus Governorate, which dispensed payment via the central bank.
There is no conclusive information about how many shareholders chose each option. However, dozens of comments on social media suggest that many sold their shares as they could not afford the other options. Those who chose to sell had their shares assigned to plots of land by the governorate, which could purchase some of these plots itself or sell them at public auctions. The equivalent value of the residents’ sold plots was deposited at Syria’s central bank and distributed to shareholders every six months.
Those who developed their plots were requested to collaborate with their co-owners and purchase a license for the proposed development. This presented difficulties, ranging from the shareholders identifying each other and making joint decisions to determining share value at every stage of the project’s advancement, allowing them to make informed choices. However, the greatest challenge was securing the financing to develop their plots.
Damascus Governorate subjected Marota City to Law No.82/2010, requesting that shareholders obtain a building license within one year starting from March 2018. Otherwise, an annual fine of 10 percent of the plot’s value would be imposed for four years, after which the plot would be sold at a public auction. Obtaining a license required approval for a provisional architectural design so that a technical study could be authorized by the Engineers’ Syndicate. In March 2019, acknowledging delays, the governorate allowed a one-year extension before fines would be imposed. By June 2019, 60 percent of owners had gained approval for their designs, but only one plot had been licensed. This leaves only a few months for owners of the remaining plots to gain their licenses before significant fines are deducted from their shares.
There is little information on how many Basatin al-Razi residents can develop their plots in Marota City. Nor is there much data on whether they might afford access to its residences in the future. Their complaints on social media suggest they will not, especially as the average cost of a square meter in residential units is estimated at $6,000. One certainty, however, is that private companies with regime ties have secured major development contracts in the area.
According to the development plan, 270 plots are planned in Marota City, of which 166 belong to private individuals, sixty-two to Damascus Cham Holding Company, and the remainder to the government. The Damascus Governorate established Damascus Cham Holding in 2016 with a capital of $133 million to manage some of its properties. Between July 2017 and March 2018, the company signed six contracts with businessmen close to the regime whose companies would invest in Marota City in exchange for land. The first was with Samer Foz at a cost of $333 million. The second was with Mazen al-Tarazi at a cost of $250 million. And the most recent contract was with Rami Makhlouf at a cost of $48.3 million. In these companies, the businessmen’s shares are greater than those of Damascus Cham Holding, giving them more power over implementation. Three other contracts were signed in 2018, and others are likely. However, nothing has been allocated to fund substitute housing or help citizens develop their own plots. In fact, the interests of Syrians appear to be the last thing on the regime’s mind.
An Unjust Project to Enhance the Regime’s Power
Since the announcement of Decree No. 66, activists in Basatin al-Razi have called Marota City a politically motivated gentrification project. This is valid given that most residents are from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom had joined the opposition in the uprising’s early days. Community leaders requested a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad to voice their concerns, but it was never granted. Given the obstacles to organizing a collective response, residents have had no choice but to comply with the project.
Worse for them, the project’s framework restricts the residents’ latitude to challenge it. The only available way for them to reclaim their rights is through the official appeals channels under Decree No. 66. Damascus Governorate established a disputes settlement commission, but the plan’s implementation is not halted during the appeals process. The commission mostly investigates cases related to the assessment of residents’ properties or disputes between shareholders. Furthermore, it is exempted from the rules of civil procedure, with the power to arbitrate disputes and issue binding decisions based on “principles of justice,” not actual law. There have been no public reports on the number of disputes raised around Marota City, but posts on social media community groups have reported hundreds of objections.
Advocacy through social and state-registered media are the only spaces left for residents to voice their apprehensions outside the restricted official process. Groups have been established, mostly on Facebook, for people to share updates, help each other understand the process, and express frustration. The exchanges indicate that people hold Damascus Governorate responsible for failing to formalize property ownership. They are demanding that it be held accountable for undermining the rights of residents of informal settlements. Residents have requested that they be considered partners in Marota City’s development and that measures be put in place to facilitate this. This includes providing lists of potential funders and developers, creating incentives for banks to support citizens in developing their plots, and exemptions from certain taxes and fees. Many also reflected on the social costs of fragmentation due to their eviction.
Resistance to the project has also grown overseas among Syrian exiles. However, given their limited influence over developments inside Syria, they have focused on working with the international community and potential investors and funders to influence regime-led reconstruction. Their activism centers around two lines of argument. The first is based on the principle that contributing to reconstruction in Syria, which is largely led by the regime and loyal businessmen, means being implicated in human rights violations and crimes against humanity.
The second argument, implicit in the first, engages with the legislative and procedural frameworks set by the regime to guide reconstruction. It affirms that the regime’s neoliberal projects are aimed at consolidating its authoritarian power while punishing communities opposed to it. Meanwhile, Syrian-led efforts to produce options other than the regime’s reconstruction approach are increasing. These include the drafting of principles for just reconstruction, awareness-raising campaigns to explain controversial legislation and projects, spatial mapping to document property rights and violations, and creating alternative housing solutions, among other initiatives.
The campaign to influence reconstruction has opened up a debate over doing so to affect political outcomes in Syria. The restrictions enforced by the European Union and the United States on reconstruction funding, as well as economic sanctions, are a result of this campaign. The EU even expanded its sanctions list to include Syrian businessmen and companies investing in Marota City. The regime has dismissed such worries, claiming its efforts are directed at rebuilding the country and reviving its economy. The government has held reconstruction fairs, declaring that Syria is open for business and announcing that participation in reconstruction would be exclusive to “friends of Syria” or its allies. The regime has also portrayed sanctioning countries as “enemies” that should have no place in reconstruction. It has taken advantage of international calls for refugees to be repatriated by affirming that countries blocking reconstruction funds have delayed this process. The regime’s allies, notably Russian President Vladimir Putin, have backed this attitude. Putin has told the EU that stability anchored by the regime, which reconstruction funding would reinforce, is the only way for the 6 million Syrian refugees to go home.
Reconstruction That Won’t Truly Revive Syria
The regime’s claims that reconstruction will rebuild Syria, revive its economy, and facilitate a return of the displaced are legitimate. However, there are doubts as to whether its reconstruction framework can fulfill such assertions. Projects have failed to introduce a rights-based approach that can contribute to recovery. They have failed to critically engage with the problem of unregistered property, itself a consequence of institutional failure. Laws have restricted the margin of displaced communities to prove their property rights, resulting in the further displacement of tens of thousands of people. They have also curbed the ability of economically disadvantaged groups to maintain a dwelling in their areas of origin, while facilitating the access of a wealthy elite.
In addition to its discriminatory nature, the reconstruction framework cannot be viewed in isolation of Syria’s political context. The destruction during the conflict was not solely collateral damage. Its scale, nature, and consequences implied that it was used as a weapon of war to eradicate the populations of opposition areas. This opposition mostly thrived in informal and disadvantaged neighborhoods that bore most of the devastation. Additionally, many believe the damage took place along sectarian lines, with a majority of destroyed areas being Sunni.
The destruction during the conflict was not solely collateral damage. Its scale, nature, and consequences implied that it was used as a weapon of war to eradicate the populations of opposition areas.
The strict procedural requirements of reconstruction suggest that those who forcibly fled destroyed areas will likely not return. Most of the people who remained will not be able to afford to stay, given their relative poverty and the projects’ neoliberal substance. Indeed, the reconstruction framework can be seen as a continuation of this process of destruction, which has significantly altered Syria’s demographic order. By empowering crony capitalists to transform the country’s sociopolitical and economic configuration, the regime hopes to fortify its authoritarian grip over the country.
Marota City is the only comprehensive project testing the regime’s reconstruction framework thus far. However, manipulating urban processes to consolidate authoritarianism has taken different forms. The regime has systematically demolished neighborhoods it has recaptured, including intact and habitable buildings, and blocked access to inhabitants. Since 2011, the government has also issued dozens of laws challenging housing, land, and property rights. In addition, it has manipulated international aid and recovery funding to serve the regime’s political and economic interests. This includes dictating the terms for how United Nations agencies and international organizations rehabilitate infrastructure and housing. These efforts so far have only benefited regime-approved areas.
Meanwhile, international restrictions on Syria’s reconstruction are failing to influence developments on the ground. The regime’s political and military allies have been granted exclusive access to key economic sectors, including natural resources and ports, giving them the upper hand in future reconstruction. Additionally, the regime has been approaching unconventional donors, including India and Brazil, and empowering crony capitalists to invest in reconstruction.
In the long run, it is unlikely that the regime will be able to dispense with support from the EU and the United States given their economic and political weight in the region and the enormous cost of Syria’s reconstruction. However, the regime has so far initiated a reconstruction process in which it can manipulate efforts in its own favor. Marota City demonstrates that while reconstruction is being debated internationally, the rights of Syrians are being further abused at home. The international community’s approach has been limited to refraining from engaging in reconstruction pending a political transition while maintaining sanctions whose burdens fall unevenly on average Syrians. That is no solution. New guidelines are needed for any international role in rebuilding Syria. These should facilitate immediate action to enable the revival of the Syrian population, end human rights violations in the name of reconstruction, and ensure that any measures taken do not empower the regime.
About the Authors
Sawsan Abou Zainedin and Hani Fakhani are Syrian architects and urban practitioners. Their work focuses on housing, urban development, and reconstruction in Syria through research and practice. Abou Zainedin and Fakhani recently founded Sakan Housing Communities, a social enterprise aimed at developing inclusive and socially just housing programs to aid social, economic, and institutional recovery in Syria.