Since Russia’s intervention in Syria began in 2015 – and, prior to that, the proliferation of Iranian-backed militias around the country beginning in 2013 – the Syrian regime has won a series of military victories after years of territorial losses; victories which have allowed Bashar al-Assad to markedly improve his prospects for post-war political survival. This “triple alliance” has employed several military and political tactics to defeat rebellious communities in the main urban centres of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
The so-called Local Reconciliation Truces (LRTs) are considered a keystone of the Syrian regime’s project to restore control over opposition-held areas, in a parallel de facto trajectory to its nominal participation in internationally-backed negotiations. The LRTs comprise agreements between the Syrian regime and its allies (Russia and Iran) on one side, and besieged rebel-held towns on the other. In general, the character of “truces” varies, encompassing ceasefires, the lifting of sieges, and full or partial evacuations of both combatants and civilians to other opposition-held areas. The recent LRTs add another socio-economic layer to the conflict besides the more well-known sectarian and political dynamics. Rural and poor communities have been systematically transferred through these truces in many cases, likely to be replaced by people from different political affiliations, sects, or social classes. The story of three different rebel-held areas (Homs, rural Damascus, and Aleppo) will be examined to illustrate how the Assad regime employs the issue of land, property management and selective reconstruction as a tool for self-enrichment and political control. The Syrian regime has a long history of politicising and manipulating such issues: this notably took place in the 1950s land reforms, which mainly targeted large Sunni landowners, as well as in the building of the “Arab belt” in North East Syria, which aimed to reduce the Kurdish proportion in the country’s wealthiest region. After the 1982 massacre in Hama, the regime demolished several houses and built new ones to be occupied by loyalists instead of rebellious families.
Forced displacement is one of the main components shaping the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. According to the UNHCR, there are more than six million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) inside Syria – adding to the more than five million refugees outside of the country, which in sum represents half of the country’s total population. The prospect of any future return of these displaced people to what used to be their homes has become significantly endangered. Prior to 2011, less than 50% of land in Syria was officially registered, while one-third of Syrians lived in informal settlements (40% in Damascus and 50% Aleppo). Many houses were built without official permits, particularly in the poor and informal settlement areas around the cities, where the level of destruction has been (deliberately) higher throughout the conflict.
Moreover, many Syrians did not possess any statutory documents attesting to their Housing and Land Property (HLP) rights at the time they were displaced – either because they did not have such documents in the first place, or because their papers were damaged by bombardment. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that 70% of refugees lack basic identification documents, while most of them face significant obstacles to the issuing or renewal of identity and civil documents. Many reports accuse the regime of targeting, bombing and burning HLP administration buildings and offices (especially in the opposition-held areas in Homs and Damascus), in addition to confiscating such documents at checkpoints. Such episodes weaken owners’ claims to HLP assets in the future, and facilitate the transfer and occupation of such properties by other individuals and/or commercial establishments.
The Syrian regime has issued many laws and decrees to facilitate the manipulation and transfer of HLP ownership: these include Decree No. 5 of the 1982 Urban Planning law, Law No. 15 of 2008 which facilitates the foreign ownership of land, Decree No. 8 of 2007 which allows for the construction of large-scale developmental projects, and Law No. 26 of 2000 (later replaced by Law No. 23 of 2015) which “regulates” the state expropriation of lands in urban centres (a process commonly known as “regulation”, often of slums and “unauthorised” housing). Crucially, the recently-promulgated Law No. 10 of 2018 authorises the formation of new local administrative units which allow for the confiscation of property by the state without compensation if the owner fails to register and prove their property ownership within 30 days (this was later extended to a year) – a common reality for most IDPs and refugees. This law was widely criticised internationally, as it threatens the return of refugees and IDPs despite the regime nominally promoting it as means to re-develop the informal slums and war-torn areas.
The recent 2018 law No. 10 is based on the former Law No. 66 of 2012, which aimed at developing “unauthorised” housing and informal residential settlements and transforming them into high-end commercial and residential redevelopment projects. The main barrier faced by owners seeking to establish ownership or authorise power of attorney for a representative to do so is the short time-window allotted, which is insufficient particularly for refugees living abroad as many of them require “security clearance” before conducting any bureaucratic action, in addition to the substantial fees they are expected to pay. Women IDPs and refugees (especially widows) in particular face serious legal, social and economic barriers which preclude them from establishing their HLP rights, especially with regards to inheritance.
Decree No. 63 of 2012 empowers the Ministry of Finance to seize (im)movable assets and property from people who fall under Law No. 19 of 2012, the counterterrorism law. According to Human Rights Watch, the former law “provides a dangerously broad interpretation of what constitutes terrorism, and unfairly criminalises a large segment of the population without any due process rights or fair trial.”
These sets of laws give the regime full power to appropriate lands and properties or transfer their ownership for political, security and commercial reasons. The Syrian conflict provides the regime with valuable opportunities to implement its pre-war plans for socio-economic alterations to many urban centres, which would promote higher economic benefits for its politico-financial patronage networks. The dynamics of LRTs – which have entailed besieging, bombarding and evacuating these slums and the areas populated by the poor under the banners of “reconciliation” and “fighting terrorism” – work to accomplish these plans. Since the Syrian regime launched its economic liberalisation programme in the 1990s, the merchant class has re-emerged to restore its historical alliance with the state bureaucracy – replacing the working class that temporarily benefited from the populist regimes of the socialist post-independence era. Such a transformation marginalised a large part of society which lost its social welfare safety net.
This socio-economic dimension features markedly in the cases of the city of Homs, the rural suburbs of Damascus, and Aleppo, where the uprising was overwhelmingly centred in the disadvantaged rural suburbs, as well as areas hosting the poor and (informal) working class. Such areas were exposed to the regime’s intensive aerial assault and military operations, followed by forced population transfers.
In their report No Return to Homs, The Syrian Institute demonstrates that the Assad regime deliberately and systematically displaced more than half of the population of the city of Homs between 2012 and 2014 through the use of tactics including massacres, torture and siege. The majority of the destroyed neighbourhoods were from the poorer Sunni demographic. The report shows that the pattern of destruction closely traces the master plan of the “Homs Dream” urban development project – a pre-war government project to establish high-end and modern residential and commercial neighbours (including skyscrapers, shopping malls and parks), supplanting the densely-populated poor areas.
In September 2014, the regime’s Homs Provincial Council declared the Baba Amro and Abasiya neighbourhoods (the first neighbourhoods to witness displacement in the city in 2014) “random residential settlements” – allowing the council to demolish all buildings in these areas (and the surrounding neighbourhoods) in line with Decree No. 66 of 2012. Notably, the regime prevents the return of the population to neighbourhoods which were approximately 80% destroyed, while restricting the right of return to those able to provide proof of ownership as well as a special “security permit”. However, the fear of detention, conscription or torture deters many displaced persons from returning. The reconstruction plan for these areas encompasses medium-rise residential towers with commercial facilities, financed by private investors and shareholding companies.
Relying on Law No. 66 of 2012, the regime suggests two “regulatory” zones in Damascus: the Basateen Mezzeh district and the area spanning from Qadam to Darayya. Notably, many of these neighbourhoods have been affected by the LRTs’ evacuations (for example, Darayya has been fully emptied). Marouta (“sovereignty”) and Basiliya (“heaven”) are the chosen names for these two projects; the latter (which will transform Damascus into a smart city with a higher level of luxury, as announced by the project’s official website) will be implemented by the newly-established company called “Damascus Holding”. The main parts of the project will be carried out by three businessmen: Samer Fouz (who owns the Damascus Joint Stock Security Company), Mazen al-Tarazi, and Rami Makhlouf (through his company Rawafid Damascus Joint Stock). The aforementioned names belong to the regime’s inner political and economic circles.
The government has started evacuating and demolishing all buildings in the areas included in its master plan (most of which were held by rebels or ISIS and were affected by LRTs). The issues of ownership and compensation are still ambiguous and do not include unoccupied properties, unless the owners designate attorneys (representatives) to prove their possession; otherwise, the law transfers ownership to the government, which will subsequently entail awarding construction and development contracts to private companies and investors. The form of compensation for owners comes in the form of offering shares in these “regulatory companies”, which they can either sell or create a company with other shareholders to invest in the divisions. If the owners refuse to do so, their shares will be sold in a public auction. Naturally, the original owners will lose their agency over decision-making on their former properties when they become small shareholders within these large companies.
Compensation is calculated according to the value of the property prior to “regulation”, which is woefully inadequate to buy a comparable residential unit following the project’s completion. This increases the probability that the structure of social classes in these areas will be altered.
The advertised photos and videos for these development projects include scenes of high-end, glass-fronted buildings and skyscrapers, shopping malls and restaurants which explicitly reflect the new social class that is more likely to afford living in these kinds of neighbourhoods – built on the ashes of the houses of the former middle and lower classes. The issue also affects the surrounding neighbourhoods of these first-class luxury areas, as the living costs, rents and business-operating expenses will increase exponentially, forcing much of the population to cede their places to the upper social classes who can afford the new reality.
Aleppo and Rural Hama
The same scenario was repeated in Aleppo and rural Hama, where the Random Housing Law No. 15 for 2008 additionally specified three “random housing” areas, including Tal Al-Zarazeer, Al-Haidarieh, and Wadi al-Joz. Notably, all of these neighbourhoods were occupied by working-class and poor populations, and became centres for anti-regime demonstrations after 2011. The three areas witnessed intensive bombardment by the regime and many of their buildings were subsequently “lawfully” razed following their recapture. The Wadi al-Joz slum in Hama, for example, was encircled by regime forces in 2013. Even after the withdrawal of Free Syrian Army combatants, the regime demolished most buildings in the slum over several few days and ousted the whole population. The same also happened in the al-Arb`een slum in 2012. Both neighbourhoods are located on the Hama-Aleppo highway and contain high commercial value, which also highlights the economic over military rationale at play in displacing their inhabitants and demolishing their properties following regime recapture. The other two areas in Aleppo were affected by the LRTs, and after the regime took them back its bulldozers immediately began demolishing the remaining buildings.
The aforementioned episodes added a layer of “social cleansing” to the fundamental nature of these truces and reflected the Assad regime’s blueprint for reconstruction. Furthermore, the regime uses “selective reconstruction” as a conflict tool against poor and rebellious communities, and as a reward for its allies and patronage networks.
Consequently, the long-term cultural and socio-economic implications of such destruction, expulsion, dispossession, reallocation measures and selective reconstruction are more likely to affect social cohesion and national reconciliation in the long term by deepening the sense of injustice and dispossession, in addition to the “intentional change” of what constitutes the notion of “Syrian society” across social, economic and ethnic levels.
Munqeth Othman Agha is a postgraduate student in the department of International Relations at the University of Sussex as a Chevening Scholar. He holds an MSc in Economic Development from Clermont-Auvergne University. His main research interests are local governance in Syria, the political economy of conflict and post-conflict reconstruction.
 HIC-HLRN. “Reconstruction: The Next Struggle in Syria.” Chap. 7 n Habitat International Coalition—Housing and Land Rights Network. The Land and Its People: Civil Society Voices Address the Crisis over Natural Resources in the Middle East/North Africa. (Cairo: Housing and Land Rights Network, Habitat International Coalition, 2015): 253–258.
 See for example: Damascus Holding Company. “Marota City.” YouTube, August 17, 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2lOhyRCwJo; samatv2. “إعادة الإعمار || مشروع تنظيم 66 – بساتين خلف الرازي بـ دمشق.” YouTube, March 18, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGtLgmITrB8; HomsDream. “Homs Dream – حلم حمص.” YouTube, Febraury 15, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcCo-hLAKk0