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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


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.

Figure 1: the new master plan of Damascus 2012


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”.

Figure 2. The first and the second implementation phases of reconstruction defined by the Decree.NO. 66

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.

Figure 3. The options citizens have according to law 10

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.

Möbius Strip, Borders and Frontiers: Jerusalem’s urbanism revisited

By Camillo Boano, on 10 December 2010

Some years have passed since my last visit to Jerusalem. At Tel Aviv airport, the usual aesthetic rituals of control formally welcome me in a sophisticated landscape of conflicts, borders, fences and checkpoints where everyday life is fragmented in what Wendy Pullan recently called a “frontier urbanism”.

Before returning to London following a brief period of research and analysis of the Security Barrier (the wall) and Palestinian Refugee Camps, I captured an image that has been used to introduce lectures at UCL on contested urbanism and the critical dimensions of architecture and design, and later forcefully relegated to my desktop.

Paradoxical landscape, At Tur, Jerusalem, @Boano 2008

Conflicting emotions touch me when looking at it, as the production and reproduction of Jerusalem, and possibly all of the West Bank landscape, is for me emblematic of a magnificent and paradoxical post-modern urban present. The complexly layered narratives and plethora of contested spaces and territories has resulted in an urban archipelago that is simultaneously fascinating and frightening, clear in its vision yet obscure in its pattern, rich and wretched, beautiful and revolting.

Last week I attended Wendy Pullan’s Lecture at City University in London, when she and Mike Dumper discussed some findings from their ongoing research on Conflict in Cities. It was very interesting, longitudinal, interdisciplinary and comparative research, well positioned in the current academic and policy debate over the need for a more comparative urban perspective.

Though the debate was centred on a quest for confirming the validity of the notion of frontier urbanism and what differentiates the “frontier” from a “border”, the central ideas were well presented around urban space and its structures employed to promote contestations and asymmetries, dichotomies and oppositions in the vertical as well as the horizontal dimensions.

The debate was unpacked around borders and boundary-making processes grounded in the general theories of social and symbolic boundaries, urban sociology, theories of the social construction of urban space and its representational force and cultural significance. In the specific case of Jerusalem, contests over space are not merely conflicts between exchange value and use value, productive capital and collective consumption, but rather are a paradoxical quest over ethno-national identity, sovereignty and the sacred. It is a contestation on the recognition of the “Other” in a Foucaultian sense. Or, as Nir Gazit points out in his article on Divided Cities in the Middle East in a special issue of City and Community, boundaries simultaneously include and exclude.

Boundary-making is a dialectical process between self and other, not only based on a continuous process of reclaiming natural and altered landscapes, but also entailing a reorganisation of the discursive field according to the imperative or normalization: as Samman (2006:213) posits, “The Wall that runs through Jerusalem is not simply erected on a naturally marked border, but is itself constructed in order to naturalize an otherwise artificial division”.

It depicts the essence of an overall system comprising a dispersal of fortress‐like spatialities, enormous concrete barriers guarded by watchtowers manned by machine‐gun crews, connected by special routes and bypass roads, military convoys, patrols and checkpoints, all forming a complex multiple space of “hollow lands and vertical geopolitics” (Weizman 2007). The latter is a quotation that I found strangely absent from all the detailed literature and research in Conflict in Cities as it stands in a very interesting stream of research on architectural/political relations and the  “arena of speculation” that incorporates varied cultural and political perspectives on space and architecture in West Bank.

The Separation Barrier, Abu Dis, Jerusalem, @Boano 2008

To me this presumes, from an architectural perspective, a bio-political practice in which the territories are inscribed. However all of the thoughts above, and specifically the City University in London lecture, seems to me incomplete without touching and recognising the theses on biopolitics outlined by Michael Foucault (2007) which have profound architectural significance as they revolve around the notion of cultural representation.

In that respect biopower and biopolitics are categories by which Foucault characterises security as a dimension of governmentality, where population or the statistical description of population is an object from which technological and administrative protocols are extrapolated. Stemming from this specific point of view, the paradigmatic case of Jerusalem could also be instructive if read through the lenses of Giorgio Agamben (1998). His theorization of topologies of exception, if conceived as open and closed and at the same time producing not only a rational management of the population or instrument of corporeal punishment (the camp), but a diagram of inclusive exclusion (or exclusive inclusion) producing and reproducing an ever-moving state of fluidity and contingent spatial arrangements.

Excep­tion has transcended the camp as a paradigmatic notion, and following its own principle of operation, has extract­ed itself out into the open landscape (Agamben, 2005:18). This rupture of clear limits in favor of a blurry, continuous state of lines in movement works by grabbing the entirety of space, “ruling over what it is capable of interiorizing” (Deleuze and Guattari, cited in Agamben, 1998:18). A brief detour to Deleuze and Guattari might be also useful as they consider this spatial tension as a struggle between smooth and striated space (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). The transition between one and the other occurs through a cycle of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation; spatial meanings are destroyed or emptied and then substituted.

Such a vision is thus consolidated in an uncharted geography, as once the notion of the territory ceases to be a bounded location, “the dialectic of inside and outside has been replaced by a play of degrees and intensities, of hybridity and artificiality” (Hardt and Negri, 2000:187-188).

While surely all of this literature and the Jerusalem case do need to be checked with cautions, it seems to me that the frontier is the antithetical political space and could be conceived as a space of flow in its elastic and shifting geography, a boundless border zone that could never be represented by drawing static lines at the risk of simplifying its spatiality and its “thickness” – Attempts that Petti, Hilal and Weizman recently made in a highly provocative and interesting manner their recent exhibition “The red Castle and the Lawless Line”, which I think complements very well the debate enriching an architectural political vision.

Like the two sides of a Möbius strip, in any point along its length what seems to be happening is that both the camp and the Utopia become visible poles of antinomy where the ambivalent logic of inclusive, biopolitical exclusion portrait a “neither leave nor enter” logic. As biopolitics begins its work of normalisation, the Utopia and the Camp align and the no-man’s land that separates them disappears.

But the wall, as an apparatus of division is conflictive with itself as an object that solidifies an otherwise fluid barrier. The fluidity of the line (materialised with the wall) is actually it is strongest and most lethal characteristic. As the wall clearly marks the physical limit of one country and the beginning of “another”, it simultaneously plays against Israel’s most sacred military tool: the lack of transparency and clarity about what constitutes the boundaries and precision of the law- it clearly maps where the white, grey and black zones are.

The frontier and the barbed wire, or the Wall in its manifestated thickness is then internalised, materialising the Mumford prophecy of being the earliest manifestations of cities as well as one of the most prominent features of the city” (Mumford, 1961, p. 63). The fence/wall/frontier is now everywhere, forcing us to think urbanism where the “paradigm is not the city —not even the exclusionary neo-liberal city— but rather the state of exception” (AlSayaad & Roy, 2006:18).

AlSayaad, N., Roy, A. (2006). Medieval modernity: On citizenship and urbanism in a global era. Space and Polity , 10 (1), 1-20.
Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller‐Roazen, Stanford, CA Stanford University Press.
Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception. K. Attell, Trans. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. New York: Continuum.
Foucault, M. (2007) Security, Territory and Population, Lectures at the College de France, 1977‐1978. Trans. Graham Burchell, ed Michael Senellart, New York: Palgrave McMillan.
Gazit N. (2010) Boundaries in Interaction: The Cultural Fabrication of Social Boundaries in West Jerusalem, City & Community , Vol.9(4), pp: 390-413.
Hardt, M., Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge: Har­vard University Press.
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