Plans to rebuild Syria could be recipe for another war
Government strategy for rebuilding communities may set stage for another civil uprising
Outdoor parks, high-rise condos and an underground mall are just some of the luxuries pitched in a flashy, computer-generated video from the Syrian government. The dream being sold is crystal clear: Invest in a beautiful future for Damascus.
But some critics see it as a darker future engineered to force dissenters out of communities, paid for by wealthy foreign allies and contracted to regime-friendly businesses.
"What Assad needs in order to survive ... is, someday, the end of resistance," says Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Syria Institute. "The only way he can get that, in certain places — certainly strategic ones like Damascus — is by repopulating them with people who will not oppose him."
Syria's war is far from over, and any government talk of reconstruction right now involves only areas firmly under its control. The city of Raqqa, for example, recently taken back from ISIS, is not one of those places. Neither are vast swaths of the country's northwest and southeast.
"The beginning of the uprising was mostly situated in the suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo and other cities," says Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian academic and activist, who has studied the reconstruction efforts.
That dissent, so close to the seat of power, was quickly crushed. Basateen, a green part of Damascus — indeed, "Basateen" means "grove" — was accused of harbouring terrorists in its trees. So the regime came in with bulldozers.
Further sealing the neighbourhood's fate was Presidential Decree 66, a 2012 law by the Assad government allowing the city to develop over "unorganized and unauthorized settlements."
"And finally, for crony capitalist personalities, businessmen allied with the regime, to benefit from this reconstruction process financially. This whole framework is to strengthen the regime — politically and economically."
Daher says most of the people forced out either end up in other parts of Syria, or fleeing the country and living in exile as refugees.
The strategy of crush, rebuild and replace isn't unique to Basateen al-Razi.
"It is not alone. It is one of many," agrees Szybala, of The Syria Institute.
She points to Darayya and other nearby communities under regime control, where demographic engineering is leading to widespread human rights abuses.
"Even though these are hypothetically reconciled areas — and should be peaceful — people are continuing to be detained or forcibly disappeared," Szybala says. "Houses are being burned down by government and allied forces. People are being evicted, slowly but surely … what I see is a lot more human suffering to come."
Warlords in peacetime
Experts say another issue connected with the rebuilding is the patchwork of fighters and strongmen who helped Assad win back parts of the country. Militia leaders who, now, can't profit from an economy of war.
"With the number of battles being reduced, the warlords now are looking for different ways to make money," says Ibrahim al-Assil, a Syrian political analyst at the Middle East Institute.
To keep itself in power, Daher sees the regime giving those warlords and regime-friendly businesses a profitable stake in the rebuilding.
Second, it is encouraging public-private partnerships. The government passed laws allowing municipalities to create holding companies with tax-free incentives for its investors.
This takes money — and Syria doesn't have it.
"The regime cannot be the main driving force in the reconstruction process," says Daher. "[It has] high amounts of debt. Internal debts to state banks and foreign debts."
So the third thing it's doing is wooing investors in allied countries like China, Iran, Lebanon and Russia.
Foreign-funded development projects may keep the warlords on the Assad government's side, but where the reconstruction is being focused may ultimately lead Syria into further turmoil, critics say.
"The socio-economic problems that were present before the war will only be increased," Daher say about Syria. "The reasons why people started the uprising — whether it was the absence of democracy, the absence of social justice — are even more present. It will only nurture future problems for a new generation."
The practice of dividing people along class and sectarian lines, along with no room being left for a true democratic opposition, leaves Daher pessimistic. He sees the seeds of another civil war being planted by the Syrian government's careful demographic re-engineering of neighbourhoods.
"It's building a new crisis."
Read and watch more from The National and Adrienne Arsenault from Syria: