With the armed conflict apparently winding down in Syria, questions relating to reconstruction have taken center stage in discussions about the country’s future. What has made those discussions more pertinent is the urban development framework that the regime has put in place for this process.
Among the laws and decrees passed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Law No. 10 received particular criticism, as it allows the regime to dispossess people of their property in designated development zones. In return, property owners are to become shareholders in regime-mandated property development companies should they be able to “prove ownership” of their property.
Law No. 10 reveals parallels between the Syrian regime’s approach and the reconstruction of Beirut’s central district, which was largely destroyed during the Lebanese civil war. There, the government granted Solidere, a private real estate company, the exclusive right to develop and rebuild downtown Beirut. Individual property owners had to chose between owning shares in Solidere or selling them for a value far inferior to that of their property.
The similarities between the Lebanese and Syrian experiences with reconstruction do not end there. In Syria, the Assad regime is preparing the groundwork to bar the return of, or expel, populations that participated in the uprising against its rule. For instance, the regime has authorized the destruction of informal settlements in the periphery of Damascus under the pretense of urban renewal. The quarters that were targeted for destruction were ones in which anti-regime protests took place.
In Lebanon, urban development has not been used to reinforce regime hegemony, but as means of leverage by various political parties and organizations to exert control over certain areas and keep some communities out. This is especially apparent on the periphery of Beirut. In a book on the subject, Hiba Bou ‘Akar, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, focused on neighborhoods along what had been the wartime Green Line, which divided communities between eastern and western Beirut.
In the areas of Hayy Madi, Sahra Choueifat, and Doha Aramoun planning was shaped by the logic of war, as peripheral districts were not only considered spaces of real estate development but also territories or frontlines in future wars. Planning was thus dealt with as a simultaneous tool of development and conflict.
In Hayy Madi, ruins from the civil war are still visible to this day despite the boom in construction in recent years. This is partially due to the fact that the Maronite Church has bought land there to prevent it from being sold to non-Christian—in the case of Hayy Madi, mostly Shi‘a—developers. However, given that the church does not have the funds to rehabilitate destroyed buildings, the ruins have remained, until Christian developers offer to buy the land.
In Sahra Choueifat, political parties have competed intensely over the zoning of the area. Taking into consideration the tedious process of altering zoning laws in Lebanon, it is remarkable that Sahra Choueifat’s zoning was modified eight times between 1996 and 2008, illustrating the fierce struggle over the district. In the years following the civil war, Hezbollah and to a lesser extent the Amal Movement saw Sahra Choueifat as an extension of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Shi‘a stronghold, and thus facilitated the development of affordable housing in the area. Indeed, Hezbollah pushed to have Sahra Choueifat zoned for low- to middle-income residential use.
On the other hand, the Druze-dominated Progressive Socialist Party sought to keep the area zoned for industrial and agricultural use, partly to curb the inflow of Shi‘a to a historically Druze-owned area. Interestingly, following armed clashes in May 2008, when elements of the March 14 coalition, including the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party, fought against groups in the March 8 coalition, including Hezbollah and Amal, planners and municipal officials in Sahra Choueifat framed their approach to planning in a more overtly sectarian and political manner than previously. Before that, they tended to explain zoning changes in technical terms.
Doha Aramoun, located south of Beirut and seen as an extension of Sunni-majority western Beirut, was singled out for infrastructure investment by the government of the late prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. In recent years, and in the aftermath of the May 2008 clashes, property owners and municipal officials in the area, who are mostly Druze, became more reluctant to allow in Shi‘a real estate developers, who are perceived as being connected to Hezbollah. For instance, some municipal officials have encouraged Druze property owners to sell to Sunni rather than Shi‘a buyers.
The lessons from post-conflict Lebanon show that even when armed violence has ended, political actors can punish or reward certain populations through formal state or market mechanisms. In Syria, the regime did not hesitate to commit crimes against humanity to quell the uprising against its rule. It is natural, therefore, that it make use of the state’s power to ensure that potentially hostile populations do not revolt in the future.
Because of this, the Assad regime cannot be trusted to lead the reconstruction process. Reconstruction in Syria should be preceded by a political settlement centered on transitional justice and the rule of law. Without such a settlement, the regime will approach reconstruction as an opportunity to pursue its war against a significant segment of the Syrian population by other means.