Plans to rebuild Syria could be recipe for another war

Syria's government is promoting what it bills as a beautiful future for Damascus, but critics see it as a future engineered to force out dissent, paid for by wealthy foreign allies and contracted out to regime-friendly businesses.

Government strategy for rebuilding communities may set stage for another civil uprising

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lays the first brick as part of an inaugural ceremony for a southern Damascus redevelopment project. (Syrian government video)

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.

A scene from the Syrian government video pitching an upscale rebuilding plan for a southern Damascus neighbourhood of Basateen al-Razi, where for decades working-class Syrians lived in slums. (Syrian government video)
Envisioned in the Syrian government's real estate video is a southern Damascus neighbourhood called Basateen al-Razi, where for decades working-class Syrians lived in slums and built unauthorized settlements. There have been plans to redevelop the area for years, but the Syrian uprising in 2011 served as a catalyst.

"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.

Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian academic and activist, has studied the reconstruction efforts of the Assad government in Syria. To keep itself in power, Daher sees the regime giving warlords and regime-friendly businesses a profitable stake in the rebuilding. (CBC)
"Basateen al-Razi was not an exception to this. People started to demonstrate, to oppose the state, the regime, from its early beginnings."

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."

Google Earth satellite imagery of Basateen al-Razi in 2011, left, compared with imagery from 2015. Much of the areas that were green in 2011 were destroyed by Syrian government bulldozers and show up as grey in the 2015 photo. (Google Earth)
"The dynamics are multiple," explains Daher, referring to the law and how it's being used to reshape the demographic makeup of the community. "First, to punish the former inhabitants of areas like Basateen al-Razi. Secondly, to rebuild for middle class, upper middle class, bourgeois Syrians.

"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."

Beyond Basateen

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.

In its fight against rebels entrenched in Syrian communities, Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has pursued a strategy of crush, rebuild and replace. (The Associated Press)
Daher says other communities are looking at Decree 66 as a model for how they can legally justify forced displacement of existing residents and the pursuit of reconstruction plans that favour the government's allies.

"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.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a group of businessmen watch a real estate simulation for a rebuilding project in the southern Damascus suburb of Basateen al-Razi. (Syrian government video)
"The regime needs to satisfy the warlords so they don't start fighting against each other. I think now they will be looking at different ideas and projects to work on where they can generate new income."

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.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Damascus on Nov 7. Syria has been soliciting investment from allied countries like Iran, China, Lebanon and Russia. (The Associated Press)
With big plans for Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, Daher says Syria could be making the same mistake Lebanon did after its civil war. There, money was poured into wealthy Beirut, and it widened the gap between the rich city and poorer neighbours.

"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:

Take a tour through the rubble of Raqqa and discover the secrets left behind after ISIS was driven out of the Syrian city

Surviving ISIS: Four people share their stories from Raqqa, Syria

Many Syrians are optimistic they can recover and rebuild their homes. There are many obstacles standing in the way however, whether it's the violence or the politics that have changed everything 3:16