Despite the ongoing conflict, the Assad government has been pushing for Syria’s reconstruction. But the government’s reconstruction plan—which is designed to reward its allies and punish Syrian communities—is likely to lead to vast housing, land, and property (HLP) rights abuses and serve as an additional weapon of war. This is already becoming clear through the government’s implementation of reconstruction projects like Marota City, a luxury development that is being constructed in southwest Damascus. The Marota City model, however, is not new. It bears a strikingly close resemblance to the “Solidere” model—a Lebanese joint-stock company that was granted the reconstruction of Beirut’s Central District following its civil war—which led to the systematic violation of property rights, the exclusion of communities, and the profiteering of war criminals. Although the Syrian context is different in that the conflict is still ongoing, drawing comparisons between Beirut’s Solidere and Syria’s Marota City sheds light on the politics of reconstruction and how reconstruction projects can result in further harm to civilians.
The role of Solidere in Beirut’s reconstruction
In 1975, Beirut was the epicenter of a civil war that would last for the next 15 years. The multifaceted war turned the heart of Beirut into a battlefield. Solidere is the French acronym for the private company that was granted by the Lebanese government the exclusive right to develop and rebuild Beirut’s Central District, and that consequently violated the HLP rights of a significant number of former residents.
Orchestrated by then prime minister Rafik Hariri, the project was intended to be the catalyst for economic growth, yet it turned into the poster child of a privatized post-war reconstruction plan that empowered the elites and promoted cooperation among competing factions. The politics of reconstruction was therefore driven by financial profitability and tactical opportunities to push for a share in the reconstruction business.
As early as 2012, the Syrian government began adopting legislation that would shape the reconstruction process. But instead of benefiting Syrians, these laws have served largely to consolidate power among elites. Moreover, the implementation of reconstruction projects under these laws has resulted in further human rights violations against Syrians, whose properties have been impacted. The primary laws responsible for such violations are Decree 66, which was enacted in 2012 under the guise of rebuilding informal settlements throughout Damascus, and Law 10, which expands Decree 66 to all of Syria. One infamous construction project mandated by Decree 66 is the Marota City project in the Damascus neighborhood of Basateen al-Razi.
Forced evictions and expropriation of property
Due to a combination of rapid urban growth and inadequate urban planning laws, by 2004, roughly 40 percent of Damascus’s population was residing in informal settlements. Informal settlements in Syria, such as Basateen al-Razi, are often close to urban centers and are therefore valuable. Due to the informality of property ownership, it is also much easier for the Syrian government to confiscate property in informal residential areas than in locations of legal properties. In doing so, the government adopted Decree 66 as a tool of exploitation and expulsion.
Decree 66 requires property owners to provide proof of ownership within 30 days of the enactment of the law or otherwise forfeit their property rights. Proof of property ownership is particularly difficult to provide for informal settlements, since there are no formal records and inheritance of property is difficult to prove. Moreover, displaced Syrians and those who sought refuge in other countries are unable to return to claim their property rights. As a result, many former Basateen al-Razi residents were unable to prove ownership of their properties and were forcibly evicted from their homes.
Those who are able to prove ownership of their properties receive shares in Marota City developments. There are however, many problems with the way shares are distributed, including providing former residents with shares worth a fraction of the value of their original properties. Additionally, most shares are not enough to pay for alternative housing in the same area, forcing roughly 50,000 former residents from their homes and outside of central Damascus.
Through this process, the Syrian government has violated the HLP rights of former Basateen al-Razi residents. As such, projects under Decree 66, and in particular Marota City, have led to further forced and entrenched displacements of those who were unable to claim ownership of their properties because they were already displaced. Additionally, through the expropriation of the properties of former refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), projects like Marota City and other Decree 66 projects create further obstacles for Syrians to return, and thereby violate the voluntary right of refugees to return.
Similarly, in post-civil war Lebanon, the government adopted strategies to expropriate and tear down the properties of former owners, either by physically destroying their property or by eliminating any possible financial benefit from returning to their property—namely making it financially inviable for owners to rebuild or obtain capital gains from renting or selling their property.
Beirut’s Central District was densely populated with small businesses and offices which were displaced and relocated during the war. Many more displacements took place as a result of the unofficial demolitions—that occurred under the pretext of cleaning up the destruction—and whose perpetrators remain unidentified. Consequently, properties that were originally owned by a single investor or family were now fragmented between countless individuals and therefore subjected to inheritance disputes (estimate numbers range between 90,000 and 250,000 rights holders). Moreover, during the same period, notably after the Israeli invasion of 1982, many families from the South became refugees and settled in Beirut’s Central District, squatting in properties that had been vacated by their owners (estimated to be more than 30,000) and by the end of the civil war, it was necessary to relocate them before reconstruction could resume.
Claims about the difficulty of coordinating between stakeholders brought forth the idea of having the city center’s property expropriated by the private real estate firm Solidere during the reconstruction process. In that respect, property holders had two choices: either to swap their property in exchange for shares in Solidere or to sell for a value less than that of their property. Consequently, many expropriations took place, some voluntary, others forced. But in both cases, compensation was undeserving and valued less than the original estates. Few owners had the option to keep their properties, but only if they had sufficient funds to restore their buildings in line with Solidere’s strict and onerous standards. This led to HLP rights violations and the displacement and exclusion of previous residents.
Destructing to reconstruct
In Syria, the regime is using urban development as a weapon of war to punish and exclude opposition communities. Decree 66 was presented as a way to organize and clean up informal settlements throughout Damascus. However, areas designated under Decree 66, including Basateen al-Razi, are chosen strategically to punish communities opposed to the Syrian government as well as to benefit elites with close ties to Assad. Residents of informal settlements are among those who participated in protests against the Syrian government in 2011. In tearing down their properties and replacing them with luxury high rises, the Syrian government is intentionally displacing these residents and forcing them to move farther outside Damascus. This is seen as a form of demographic engineering, through which the Syrian government is pushing certain populations out of strategic locations. Moreover, the unfair and inadequate compensation provided to former residents of Basateen al-Razi prevents them from affording properties nearby and are therefore forced further out of the urban sphere. The Syrian government’s “reconstruction” plan thus involves the intentional destruction of Syrians’ properties to be replaced with luxury estates that only elites and Assad loyalists can benefit from.
While the reconstruction situation in Beirut did not involve an ongoing conflict as in Syria, urban development in Lebanon was used as a tool by various political parties to exert control on certain areas and keep some communities out. Beirut’s Central District became a violent meeting point between Muslim-held West Beirut and Christian-held East Beirut, forcing the owners of properties to relocate. However, many of the owners, the properties of which were not completely damaged, applied for reconstruction permits, which would allow owners to rebuild and reconstruct the damages, in hopes of returning to their properties. Their requests were all denied by the government under the pretext that the reconstruction plans were “still under study.”
But in the meantime, a series of unofficial demolitions were carried out, allegedly as part of a “cleaning up” project. In fact, more buildings were torn down in the city’s center during reconstruction than during the war itself. Later on, Solidere’s master plan called for the destruction of most of the remaining structures even though there were still no officially approved reconstruction plans to create space for luxury developments—and to raze entire historic neighborhoods such as Zeitouni, Wadi Abou Jamil, Safi, and the Souks.
Allowing wealthy elites to profit
In 2016, the Syrian government enacted the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) law, which would allow private entities to invest in, manage, and control public infrastructure projects through holding companies created by governorates. This model creates more space for business elites with close ties to the Syrian government and allows them to become the primary beneficiaries of reconstruction projects. One example of this is Damascus Cham Holding, which was the holding company created by the Damascus governorate. It paved the way for a number of Syrian businesses to invest in the Marota City project including businesses owned by Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, and Samer Foz—two of Syria’s most notorious businesspersons who, through their businesses, have financed pro-government militia groups and provided significant financial support to the Syrian government.
Moreover, the fact that these projects are being implemented during a conflict raises additional human rights concerns. Many of the businesses involved in the construction of Marota City are owned by businesspersons who are themselves responsible for human rights abuses in Syria— and who have been able to profit financially from their involvement in the conflict and from supporting the Syrian regime, such as Makhlouf and Foz.
Similarly, in the Lebanese context, the separation between the government and Solidere was just a façade, as different political factions controlled reconstruction projects in various parts of the country. Both the Solidere deal and the rebuilding project in Beirut’s Central District were primarily orchestrated by then prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was the majority shareholder in Solidere and who placed his allies in all of the key positions.
Additionally, reconstruction plans were executed by Oger, a construction giant owned by Hariri himself, while the Council for Development and Reconstruction—the governmental agency meant to supervise reconstruction projects in Lebanon—was also entirely staffed by people appointed by Hariri.
Moreover, public funds intended for reconstruction were redistributed to former warlords, militia leaders, and elites through Solidere. Thus, the reconstruction model was one in which the public sector was funding the reconstruction projects, and the private sector was profiteering.
Although both Solidere and Marota City projects were implemented under the guise of reconstruction, they both served to benefit wealthy elites while further abusing the rights of civilians. These projects have caused and contributed to violations of property rights and functioned as a tool to exclude certain communities and further empower the wealthy and corrupt. The Lebanese model highlights that such reconstruction projects can have long-term impacts and do nothing to mitigate the needs of those impacted by conflict.
Reconstruction efforts in Syria thus have to abide by existing international law standards, the avoidance of which will only lead to human rights abuses. And because of the heightened risk of human rights abuses in conflict-affected areas, businesses interested in Syria’s reconstruction are especially obligated to respect human rights. To assume this responsibility, businesses should undertake careful due diligence to detect any adverse human rights impact that their operations might have. Awareness of the context around reconstruction projects will be an essential element of any due diligence process. In other words, businesses should take necessary measures to ensure they are not linked, contributing, or complicit—whether directly or indirectly—in past, current, or future abuses. The failure of the Syrian state and Syrian businesses to abide by human rights standards in Syria’s reconstruction will result in long-term disruptions to demographics, further consolidation of power, and further displacement and repression of communities. Reviewing the Syrian and Lebanese reconstruction models is particularly important in the wake of the Beirut port explosion, which destroyed large parts of Beirut. Keeping a close eye on reconstruction efforts will be essential to ensuring history does not repeat itself.