As the regime of President Bashar al-Assad enters the final stages of its military campaign to consolidate control over central parts of Syria, it is transforming urban planning laws, with the aim of creating new demographic realities. In that way it hopes to consolidate its territorial gains and reshape Syria’s future to its own advantage.
The most recent example of this is Law No. 10, promulgated by Assad on April 2. The law authorizes cities and towns across Syria to earmark zones within their administrative boundaries for development or reconstruction, and to create real estate development companies to oversee design and implementation of such projects. For many observers, this is simply the latest in a series of legislative changes with the aim of permanently dispossessing certain Syrians and rewarding regime loyalists. Germany’s Foreign Ministry recently described the law and similar attempts to transform Syria’s demographic makeup as “perfidious.”
A LAW THAT DENIES PROPERTY RIGHTS
What has generated the most concern about Law No. 10 is its implications for the preservation of property rights, particularly those of refugees. Once an area has been designated under the law and a real estate development decree issued, property owners or tenants are required to present proof of ownership, such as title deeds or lease agreements, within one month. Properties are then evaluated based on current market prices and owners are issued with shares, commensurate with the estimated value of their properties, in a newly established public-private real estate company. Owners have little recourse to challenge the estimates, which in the current conflict environment are likely to be much lower than market value. Similar conditions are also outlined in Law No. 3, issued in 2018, for the removal of rubble and the demolition of affected buildings throughout Syria.
Law No. 10 extends Decree No. 66, which was issued in 2012 to “redevelop areas of unauthorized housing and informal settlements [slums]” across all of Syria. The decree presents a living example of how Law No. 10 may be applied, by identifying two districts in and around Damascus—Basatin al-Razi in the Mazzeh district of the capital and a larger area encompassing towns stretching between Darayya and Al-Qadam in the East—for redevelopment through a multimillion-dollar project that presents a glitzy image of Damascus’ future.
Decree No. 66 allowed for the expropriation of highly lucrative land, as well as the destruction of informal settlements in Basatin al-Razi. Such settlements are areas where housing units were constructed on land to which the occupants had tenuous or no legal claim, or where housing was not in compliance with planning and building regulations. Most residents are rural migrants who moved to the capital from the 1960s onwards. They have no security with respect to the land or dwellings they inhabit, and their areas will become the site of a new development renamed Marota. Conceived as a public-private partnership, the project is managed by a new holding company, Damascus-Sham, established by the Damascus Governorate and funded through private investors who will own shares in the development. Businessmen affiliated with the regime have acquired majority shareholder status.
The project presents an illusion of urban gentrification. However, by displacing thousands of the capital’s poorest populations and offering up prime real estate to the city’s rich bourgeoisie and select middle class, it represents an attempt at political and socioeconomic cleansing. The areas slated for destruction were at the forefront of demonstrations against the regime in 2011 and sites of armed rebellion in 2012. Similarly, the areas of Darayya and the towns east that have been opened to redevelopment were the locations of demonstrations in the early days of the uprising and became strongholds for the armed opposition. The residents areas were besieged for years and most left because of capitulation deals enforced by the regime. They have been dispossessed of their homes with no alternative housing provided. Meanwhile, other informal areas, composed mainly of pro-regime communities, such as Mazzeh 86, have not been included in Decree 66.
A similar holding company to Damascus-Sham, but on an even larger scale, has been announced for Homs Governorate, an area that stretches from the Lebanese border to the Iraqi border and includes ore minerals among its assets. The creation of these companies was facilitated by Decree No. 19, issued on April 30, 2015, which allows towns and cities to create private holding companies to manage urban or regional assets and properties. This includes, among other things, building infrastructure, issuing construction permits, and managing the financial transactions of towns or governorates. However, subsidiaries that may be wholly owned by the private sector would implement these tasks.
For millions of refugees, going back to Syria to present proof of property ownership under the new Law No. 10, when such proof exists, is tantamount to a suicide mission. Males are wanted by the regime for escaping mandatory military conscription, while other Syrians are likely to be imprisoned for opposition activities. For others, presenting proof of property will likely be impossible. Many fled Syria under duress and, because of conflict in their areas, without legal papers, including title deeds. In a governorate such as Homs, where only 26 to 50 percent of the pre-conflict population remains, the scale of the challenge is immense.
The difficulty of engaging in legal challenges related to property further complicates matters. Prior to the conflict, close to 40 percent of Syrians lived in informal settlements, and therefore had limited access to legally recognizable proof of ownership. Under the new laws, a bias toward formal housing, land, and property undermines the rights and lives of millions of Syrians who lived in these settlements. For others, weak pre-conflict zoning mechanisms and implementation of urban planning laws meant that their properties were not officially registered, so that many continue to hold Ottoman- or French-era title deeds. And for those who come from areas that sustained considerable damage and where property records have been altered, Law No. 10 ends any hope they may have had of being able to go back and reclaim their properties.
A MASSIVE RECONSTRUCTION BILL
Syria’s rebuilding needs are massive and Law No. 10 will likely play multiple roles in this respect. The World Bank estimates that around 30 percent of housing has been partially or completely destroyed. The cost of reconstruction is estimated at between $100 billion and $350 billion, a bill far beyond Syria’s capacity and that no one is ready to foot among its allies or the international community.
From the regime’s perspective, Law No. 10 will serve four purposes. First, it allows the regime to kickstart reconstruction activities in specific parts of Syria that represent a strategic interest politically or economically. Second, it gives the regime an additional vetting mechanism over returnees and a way of stripping political opponents of their assets. For refugees, who are largely perceived by the regime as being traitors, this increases their risk of dispossession and permanent exile. Third, the law will allow the regime to consolidate its power base by repopulating strategic areas with loyalists. At the same time, the law provides an instrument to bar the return of potential sources of future resistance. Finally, the law will allow the regime to generate funds to finance its activities, military or otherwise, and reward its loyalists by allowing them to buy into valuable real estate projects at values well below market rates. Regime-affiliated businessmen can also be tasked with construction and development of these areas.
The first three regions selected for the application of Law No. 10 leave little doubt that it will be used to punish regime opponents. According to Hussein Makhlouf, the minister of local administration, they are the districts of Baba Amr, Sultaniyyeh, and Jobar in Homs, as well as informal settlements in Aleppo and in the area of Harasta in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. All these areas were at the heart of the opposition to the Assad regime and subjected to the government’s siege and starvation strategy. Baba Amr was entirely depopulated and subsequently razed to the ground, with reports indicating that property records were modified to strip owners of their properties.
Application of Law No. 10 undermines any hope for future national reconciliation in Syria, instead laying the groundwork for major population displacement. This imposes a question on the international community. Should countries fund reconstruction of Syria in this context, thereby aiding a regime that has engaged in the widespread cleansing of its own population? The answer seems obvious.