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Dispossession or development? The tug of war over Syria’s ruined slum dwellings

The government has chosen formerly besieged rebel areas as the first for reconstruction

Marota City

With about a third of Syria’s housing and half its medical facilities damaged or destroyed, rebuilding is sorely needed. But major international donors refuse to fund reconstruction as long as President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. After losing 80 percent of its GDP between 2010 and 2016, the Syrian government now hopes to attract outside investment.

A new law, introduced in April but not yet put into effect, has become the subject of fierce controversy as it would allow the government to expropriate and redevelop areas it deems fit.

The opposition and international human rights groups warn it is a fig leaf for mass confiscation of refugee property, perhaps preventing their eventual return. But to the government, Law 10 is a way to attract private capital by offering up valuable urban real estate. Supporters of the law present it as an apolitical piece of reconstruction legislation that is the innocent target of a disinformation campaign.

The row took on more urgency this week as al-Assad’s cabinet announced what seem likely to be the first areas set for redevelopment under Law 10: Barzeh, Jobar, Qaboun, and Yarmouk. All are formerly besieged rebel-held areas in Damascus, most of whose residents have been displaced, which adds grist to the mill for those who believe the legislation is targeted at the government’s opponents.

How Law 10 works

In theory, it is fairly simple. The Ministry of Local Administration and the Environment – led by Hussein Makhlouf, a relative of the president – will recommend areas that could be expropriated and redeveloped under Law 10. The final choice is left to al-Assad.

These areas do not necessarily have to have been damaged by the past seven years of fighting. The original purpose of the legislation amended by Law 10 was to redevelop slum housing – more on this below – though it is now most likely to be used in a reconstruction context.

Once a zone is declared publicly, Syrian citizens who want to receive compensation for property within that zone must make sure their ownership is recorded in the national land registry or file property deeds with the government within 30 days, either in person or through a relative or legal representative.

A committee will determine the value of property slated for expropriation, and the amount will be translated into new plots of land or financial shares in the new development project. Property owners will have five days to contest the evaluation, and can be provided with rent compensation and alternative housing.

While all of this seems clear cut, opposition groups say internally displaced Syrians and refugees are unlikely to be able to file the necessary papers, especially in a month’s time.

Human Rights Watch has termed the law “a major obstacle to returning home for displaced residents”, warning that even if they have the papers, refugees will not realistically be able to file claims from abroad and may be deterred from even trying, for fear of endangering themselves or their relatives.

Jihad Yazigi, who edits the economic newsletter The Syria Report, told IRIN the law is a warning to refugees and the nations hosting them that unless they agree to al-Assad’s terms the path to return will be blocked. “The regime has started reaping the benefits from this with calls by the German, Greek, and Lebanese governments for the Syrians to repeal the law,” said Yazigi, who added that Law 10 would also entice businessmen in the Gulf to invest in confiscated land. The message is simple, Yazigi said: “push your government to reconcile with us and bring your cash.”

Many dissidents take this a step further, insisting that al-Assad wants to re-engineer Syria’s religious demography by dispossessing Sunni Muslims, who formed the majority in areas slated for redevelopment and are also the majority of Syria's six million refugees.

The government rejects such allegations, and its supporters have staunchly defended the new legislation. Law 10 “is not about dispossessing anyone”, al-Assad told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini in May, blaming the criticism on “misinterpretation” or an attempt to “create a new narrative about the Syrian government in order to rekindle the fire of public opinion in the West.”

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem recently announced the 30-day filing period had been extended to a year. He insisted procedures are “easy and simple” and can be sorted out in 48 hours.

Despite al-Moallem’s remarks, neither al-Assad nor the Syrian parliament – which is a rubber-stamp body – have actually amended the text of Law 10.

Opposition activists insist whatever the law ends up saying on paper, there are no impartial institutions or independent courts in Syria, which ensures the process can be bent for political ends.

Marota City

Illegal housing

Even if the time limit is extended, many Syrians in areas targeted by Law 10 will not be able to file their land deeds. The reason is simple: they don’t have any such documents.

Millions of Syrians have lived in unregistered homes all their lives, in a legal grey zone born out of traditional informality, chaotic urbanisation, and dysfunctional governance. This is particularly the case in the Syrian countryside and in slums created through poverty-driven rural migration to the cities. These areas are what the government terms manateq al-mukhalafat al-jemaiyya, “areas of collective transgression”; more widely known as ashwaiyat, or “informals”.

The legal status of the dwellings that make up the ashwaiyat is not clear cut. Some are indisputably illegal, squatting on land owned by others, like many of the neighbourhoods that cling to the slopes of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus from the north.

But other ashwaiyat were built on legally purchased land, though the builders failed to abide by unenforced zoning regulations that designate an area as agricultural or industrial land. Such semi-legal suburbs make up most of the urban sprawl that has consumed the farmland of the Ghouta region around Damascus, in places like Darayya, Qaboun, or Jobar – areas now slated for redevelopment.

Historically, illegal building was “the social response to the increase in demand and lack of supply in housing,” explained Marwa al-Sabouni, a Syrian architect and author of The Battle for Home, a memoir that speaks to the relationship between conflict and urban planning.

Ideology and favouritism also played a part, as the ruling Baath Party promoted rural interests through the 1960s and 1970s. “Masses from the countryside were granted the socialist ’right’ to build over the land of ex-feudals, which is the cheaper solution than in-housing all of them and solving the land problems,” al-Sabouni told IRIN.

Although the Baaths’ agrarian socialism had mutated into crony capitalism by the 1990s, the state remained unwilling to roll back illegal housing, largely due to bureaucratic inertia and a fear of social unrest. Authorities chose the path of least resistance, connecting informal areas to basic public services while turning a blind eye to the problem of ownership. By 2004, nearly all ashwaiyat in Damascus had running water, rubbish-collection, and paved roads, though many were still visibly poor, with irregular building styles, narrow streets, tangled electric wiring, and overcrowded schools.

After a drought in 2006 sent hundreds of thousands of rural Syrians fleeing to the cities, economists began to warn that the housing issue was a “time bomb”. But the government did little to address the problem. 

By the end of al-Assad’s first decade in power, an estimated 40 percent of Syria’s housing stock was in informal areas, which could mean that as many as eight or 10 million people lived in illegal or undocumented homes.

The past seven years have only made the problem worse. As soon as state control weakened in 2011, there was an immediate surge in illegal building. Cement sales more than doubled in the month following the start of the uprising.

Since then, Syria has seen massive civilian displacement, destruction of housing, and loss of documentation, particularly in poor, Sunni ashwaiyat areas that sided with the opposition and were shelled and bombed during the war.

The four areas now considered for redevelopment under Law 10 are illustrative examples, all laid in ruins as the government recaptured them from insurgents.

Barzeh and Qaboun were retaken in early 2017, while Jobar was captured by loyalist forces in March 2018, during the battle for the Eastern Ghouta rebel enclave.

Yarmouk was historically a refugee camp run by UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, but had melted into a cluster of informal neighbourhoods in southern Damascus. After years of siege, shelling, and fighting, it was retaken in April. Formerly home to 160,000 Syrians and Palestinians, Yarmouk is now mostly rubble.

“The scale of the destruction in Yarmouk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl on a 3 July visit to Damascus.

The paperwork problem, multiplied by war

With large areas outside of state control and half the Syrian population driven from their homes, gaps in property documentation are now even more widespread than they were before the war.

“Houses and land have been changing hands throughout the conflict,” Rachel Sider, policy and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN.

“Transactions are not always formally recorded, documents including property deeds have been lost or destroyed, and disputes over ownership are common. Many Syrians are excluded from even claiming their housing, land, and property rights in the first place because they lack the proper identity documents.”

The problem is particularly acute for women, since poor and conservative families would often deal with authorities exclusively through the male head of the family. It has left women without any obvious way to claim their property if their father or husband has disappeared in jail or died.

In a Norwegian Refugee Council survey of Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2016, the organisation found that only about a fifth owned property documents. Some never had written deeds to begin with, while others were forced to flee their homes too quickly to bring them, lost documents to fire, rain, or family separation, or had them confiscated at checkpoints.

In cases where refugees did have paperwork, it was often “incomplete, inaccurate, not-recorded or improperly recorded, and of uncertain legal standing”.

Decree 66: the test run

In trying to divine the effects of Law 10, both detractors and supporters look to Decree 66 of 2012, an area-specific forerunner that was used to redevelop two areas in Damascus. (Law 10 is a detailed amendment to Decree 66, extending it nationally.)

Though Decree 66, in an article that remains in effect under Law 10, notes that provincial authorities may choose to give “surplus” housing to inhabitants without legal claims, it also specifies that “offenders” who are found to have built illegally on public or private land have no rights beyond “collecting the rubble of their buildings”.

In many ashwaiyat slated for development under Law 10, that could apply to most inhabitants, or even all of them.

The best-known result of Decree 66 is Marota City, Syria’s largest investment project. Although major construction has yet to start, the project aims to build high-rise housing units for some 25,000 people, plus offices and malls, in the Basatin al-Razi area of western Damascus. The president himself visited the site in 2016 to inaugurate the project.

Although Damascus Governor Bishr al-Sabban is formally responsible for Marota City, the leading players in this Central Bank of Syria-funded investment scheme are believed to be regime-linked financiers who have set up joint ventures with al-Sabban’s provincial authorities.

They include the president’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, who hails from the same family as the minister of local administration and is known to sponsor loyalist militias, and a wealthy Kuwait-based Syrian investor named Mazen Tarazi.

Chief among Marota City’s future landlords is the mysterious Syrian-Turkish-Lebanese businessman Samer Foz, who emerged out of relative obscurity in 2016-2017 to suddenly gobble up enormous commercial holdings in Syria. Foz is widely assumed to be fronting for more senior political figures, with rumours centring on al-Assad’s cousin, Lieutenant-General Dhu al-Himma Shalish, or even the president himself.

Marota City’s ownership structures are opaque, and the same goes for the results of the expropriation process.

Syrian authorities present the Decree 66 redevelopment projects as an unmitigated success story, but even pro-government media has noted the absence of alternative housing for people evicted from Basatin al-Razi. Former residents were recently told they may get new apartments in the coming three years.

In other words, if the Decree 66 pilot project is anything to go by, the implementation of Law 10 will likely be sluggish, under-resourced, socially abrasive, tailored to the interests of ruling elites, and politically controversial. But it was always hard to imagine that a wartime campaign to raze slums for new construction could be anything else.

War by regulation?

In theory, something like Law 10 was long overdue. If reconstruction is ever to begin, the state must find a way to smash through Syria’s legal thicket of undefined property rights – a legacy of economic mismanagement that long predates the war.

To the government, the law’s primary function is to cut the Gordian knot of planning and property claims in the ashwaiyat, allowing authorities to move forward with construction in “a mixture of destroyed and illegal suburbs”. The urgency is hard to overstate, since Syria must quickly produce massive amounts of cheap urban housing for its millions of homeless and displaced citizens.

But if, in practice, it is mainly former rebel-held ashwaiyat that will be redeveloped – which makes sense on its own terms, given the destruction there – Law 10 could end up having a devastatingly disproportionate political and social impact, depending on how land right issues are handled. All the more so, if the bulldozers are used to pave the way for upscale apartments and malls instead of low-cost housing.

As the Syrian state moves to rebuild its cities, al-Assad’s government can decide to show leniency toward displaced civilians from the slums that rose up against him in 2011, or it can decide to wield the law as a weapon against them. For many hundreds of thousands of Syrians, their future hangs in this balance.

(TOP PHOTO: A publicity shot shows new buildings at Marota City. CREDIT: Maroty City)

This work was supported in part by a research grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


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