The politics of urban reconstruction in Syria
By Edwar Hanna, on 2 July 2018
In April 2018 the Syrian government modified and extended an earlier Damascus-only urban reconstruction decree (Decree 66), to now be applied nationwide in Syria. This new law (Law 10) allows the Syrian government to award contracts for reconstruction to national and international investors, and to compensate citizens in the form of shares in regulatory zones.
The earlier Decree 66 demonstrated the politicization of urban renewal policies. It had named two informal zones in southwest Damascus to be reconstructed following the new 2012 master plan of the city; it also increased the percentage of informal settlements on the list to be demolished from 40% to 60%. However, these were not areas that were devastated by conflict, the conflict was in the redevelopment. Unlike most Syrian cities, Damascus, has not been under urban destruction due to the ongoing armed conflict. Yet, it has experienced different manifestations of urban contestation. This contestation has been clearly manifested by the so called ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ which has started – despite its name – during the conflict in 2012 and caused exclusion and eviction to many residents.
The history of Degree 66 is highly pertinent to the present context of Law 10, as it is the same strategy being manifest, but now on an even larger and more detrimental scale. In 2018 the Syrian government proposes through Law 10 to do what was done in the one Damascus zone five years earlier on a national scale; removing people from their homes, inadequately compensating people, disposing of property rights, advancing the agenda of external ‘developers’ and in many other ways leveraging urban reconstruction as another weapon of conflict.
What happened before and what does this tell us about what is going to happen now?
- Government positioning of such reconstruction as progress: The government worked tirelessly on circulating decree 66 through media channels, radio, and the national newsletter as the pilot project towards modern post-conflict Syria. As the Damascus Governor noted at the time “Three main principles have been fundamentally taken into account in this project. These are; Social Justice; The high performance of implementation; and financial returns for Damascus governorate which allow sustaining services provision and initiating new projects”.
- The areas for redevelopment were largely areas of opposition to the government, hence reconstruction and removal of people can be seen as politicized: The decision of implementation took place only in the first Zone that hosted frequent demonstrations between 2012 and 2013. Moreover, this zone is very close to the most international organizations, embassies, ministries, and one of the presidential palaces. This gives the quarter a strategic standing in Damascus.
- Many informal residents did not receive equitable compensation and rehousing: The Decree 66 has dealt with the entire zone as a collective ownership among its residents and despite the many different types of property’s ownership and the specific context of informal unites, people got rehousing in the yet to be built compensation units based on their shares. Therefore, many informal residents who used to live in small informal houses were not able to get the smallest apartment in the compensation units due to the variation of scale.
- Many residents were driven from their homes: Some residents had their properties seized due to their political stance they had, and others due to lack of equitable shares. As part of the whole ‘reconstruction’ implementation many residents were forcibly evicted from their homes with their possessions. Sometimes not even with this dignity. As one soldier expresses during one of the demolitions, “They were among the lucky ones. Not everyone is being allowed in to take their possessions”.
In April 2018, while the Degree 66 project is still under construction, the Syrian government modified the Decree 66 to be applied nationwide in Syria, whether formal or informal areas and issued Law 10. So now citizens – whether in the country or outside the country – are faced with a situation of not knowing what is the basis of their property rights. There is an enormous amount of confusion and significant potential problems; these include the challenge of lack of property documentation, lack of access for registration of ownership and many other challenges that do not even begin to touch on the political scenarios.
- Problem I – the burden of proof for refugees as well as IDPs: Law 10 has specific procedures to claim ownership of the property which is exclusionary and not feasible to more than 6 million refugees living abroad. Refugees who fled the country either lost their ownership documents or they do not have access to the embassies to certify the needed proofs. Which put them under the threat of losing their rights since the Law 10 seizes properties for those who are unable to prove their rights within specific period of time. Germany as the country with the lion’s share of refugee in Europe recently expressed concern about this context; ‘’Law 10 is designed to expropriate refugees,” a senior German government official
- Problem II – the danger to heritage and culture: Law 10 neglects all the social and cultural aspects that are integral to the Syrian cities by stating the targeted area of reconstruction depends only on the economic turnovers of the projects in this area. It might turn Syrian cities into new Solidere, the Beirut downtown project that ended up empty of people during the daytime because people don’t feel it belongs to their city.
- Problems III – lack of capacity on Local Administration levels: on a very practical level the new Law places a significant administrative burden on local government at a time of continuing crisis, and there is a strong concern that this will make it even more of a crisis. The Law says citizens are to be compensated in the form of shares in regulatory zones – but only where such regulatory zones are defined following a feasibility study of the area provided by the local administration unit and approved by the Ministry of Local Administration. This law centralises all decisions in the hand of local administration units, which don’t have the capacities, experiences or resources for these large-scale projects.
Bearing all this in mind and learning from the recent past in Syrian urban politics it is clear that Law 10 simply cannot be ignored as just an internal Syrian minor urban issue. It is an international issue. Thus, international organisations, government officials in the EU and elsewhere, Syrian lawyers and urbanists amongst others, have recently expressed their concerns against this legislation and successfully managed to get the issue onto the U.N. Security Council’s agenda to follow up.
As part of this movement ‘Syrbanism’ – which is a Syrian-led platform focuses on investigating the political, social and economic aspects of the urban discourses in Syria – has initiated an awareness-raising campaign about the Law. “Syrbanism aims at simplifying the technical language of urban policies to become understandable for all non-expert citizens”, notes Nour Harastani, Syrbanism co-Founder, “It starts by raising awareness in order to mobilise knowledge-based actions’’. The organisation has created two short informational videos, one in English and one in Arabic, to clearly and simply present the facts about the Law 10 process. The videos explain in detail the procedures and options citizens need to know about their property rights. The videos can be accessed via Youtube and the Syrbanism site. They are designed to provide information and as such are for use by all Syrians; so that everyone understands the situation and therefore can advance better solutions. The videos have been shared not only by refugees and opponents, but also by supporters to the government – because they are about potentially unworkable and damaging legal processes that are not just untenable on many local levels but also detrimental to most ordinary people. It is hoped that by all parties understanding the negative impacts of this law, that it can be reconsidered.
Syrbanism aims to continue its awareness-raising work now in the next steps to reach out to more Syria-related organisations to bolder mobilisation and impact on advocacy within the EU to make an effective pressure on the Syrian government. Syrbanism believes that any reconstruction agenda, besides being negotiable and accountable, should consider the rebuilding ‘lives’ other that just ‘houses’. Otherwise, the Syrian conflict would definitely be shifted to another, more complex and longer-term one.
Edwar Hanna is a recent graduate of the MSc In Building and Urban Design in Development. Trained as architect, he now works in international development and is co-Founder of the Syrbanism initiative.