LUX­URY CITY SHOWS BLUE­PRINT FOR SYRIA'S RE­BUILD­ING PLANS

Windsor Star - - WEEKEND REVIEW - ZEINA KARAM

At a build­ing site in Da­m­as­cus, trucks and bull­doz­ers zigzag back and forth fer­ry­ing sand and stones for a lux­ury devel­op­ment of res­i­den­tial high­rises and shop­ping cen­tres. The area was up un­til re­cently a work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood of in­for­mal set­tle­ments and ir­reg­u­lar hous­ing run­ning through or­chards and farm­land — one that early on in Syria’s con­flict was a hub for protests against the gov­ern­ment.

Over the past year, thou­sands of res­i­dents have been evicted and their prop­erty razed to make way for the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar project that prom­ises to be the new com­mer­cial cen­tre for the cap­i­tal. Marota City, as Syria’s largest in­vest­ment project is known, is seen as set­ting the blue­print for how the gov­ern­ment will un­der­take the am­bi­tious re­build­ing of areas dev­as­tated in the nearly eight-year civil war. The gov­ern­ment is us­ing con­tro­ver­sial new prop­erty laws to cre­ate zones where part­ner­ships of the gov­ern­ment and busi­ness­men take own­er­ship of neigh­bour­hoods and re­de­velop them. Of­fi­cials say the projects aim at re-plan­ning slums and de­stroyed areas and at­tract­ing pri­vate in­vestors to join the mas­sively ex­pen­sive task of re­con­struc­tion. Crit­ics say Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad is us­ing such projects to con­sol­i­date post­war power, ex­pro­pri­ate prop­erty and re­shape Syria’s de­mo­graph­ics by push­ing out im­pov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties seen as cen­tres of op­po­si­tion sup­port and re­plac­ing them with wealth­ier ones more likely to be loy­al­ists.

The 53-year old pres­i­dent has sur­vived the war, us­ing help from al­lies Rus­sia and Iran to crush an armed re­bel­lion that aimed to oust him. The Marota project lies at the heart of Syria’s tan­gled web of pol­i­tics and re­build­ing. Hav­ing re­cap­tured the coun­try’s key ci­ties from the op­po­si­tion, the gov­ern­ment says it is now time to fo­cus on re­build­ing. But West­ern coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, say they will not com­mit any funds to re­con­struc­tion with­out real progress on a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment.

The gov­ern­ment’s ur­ban plan­ning laws are of­ten used to con­fis­cate the prop­erty of res­i­dents ... and never pro­vide them with com­pen­sa­tion.

The plan for up­scale apart­ments and glossy malls in Da­m­as­cus can seem par­tic­u­larly jar­ring with the enor­mous destruc­tion in for­mer rebel-held areas just a few kilo­me­tres away and in the rest of the coun­try, where en­tire city blocks lie crumped, in scenes rem­i­nis­cent of the Sec­ond World War. Marota is be­ing built over a south­west­ern neigh­bour­hood called Basateen al-Razi that grew up on farm­lands over the past decades as poorer Syr­i­ans moved in from the coun­try­side and built un­li­censed hous­ing. The dis­trict saw antigov­ern­ment protests in 2012, but they were swiftly sup­pressed in a crack­down, and the area was rel­a­tively un­touched by the war’s destruc­tion.

The project was ap­proved in 2012 with a leg­isla­tive law known as De­cree No. 66, which au­tho­rized the gov­ern­ment to re­de­velop slum dwellings and il­le­gal hous­ing areas in the cap­i­tal. This al­lowed the Da­m­as­cus gover­norate to evict the pop­u­la­tion, which has largely dis­persed to other, in­ex­pen­sive parts of the cap­i­tal, and level the dis­trict. The project is man­aged chiefly by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, un­der a joint-stock com­pany called Cham Hold­ing, es­tab­lished in 2016 and owned by the Da­m­as­cus gover­norate. It has at­tracted in­vest­ments from busi­ness­men known to have close ties to the Syr­ian lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing Samer Foz, a wealthy en­tre­pre­neur whose name be­came well known dur­ing the war and who re­cently bought ma­jor­ity shares in the land­mark Four Sea­sons Ho­tel in the cap­i­tal. The com­pany is also said to be linked to Rami Makhlouf, As­sad’s cousin and one of Syria’s most pow­er­ful busi­ness­men.

“I ex­pect the com­mer­cial cen­tre to shift here,” says Na­souh Nabolsi, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer for Da­m­as­cus Cham hold­ing, the com­pany un­der­tak­ing the man­age­ment, con­struc­tion and in­vest­ment works. Speak­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press at the com­pany’s stylish head­quar­ters ad­ja­cent to the build­ing site, he said the com­pany has so far spent the equiv­a­lent of $91 mil­lion on in­fras­truc­tural works for the 2.14 mil­lion square me­tre devel­op­ment. Con­struc­tion is ex­pected to be­gin be­fore the end of the year. The project will pro­vide 12,000 hous­ing units for an es­ti­mated 60,000 res­i­dents. Marota will be fol­lowed by a sim­i­lar project fur­ther south on an area four times big­ger, called Basilia City, Nabolsi said, adding that plans to de­velop th­ese areas ex­isted be­fore the Syr­ian con­flict erupted in 2011.

In April, the gov­ern­ment passed con­tro­ver­sial prop­erty Law No. 10, which ex­panded the geo­graphic scope of de­cree 66 be­yond Da­m­as­cus to the rest of the coun­try and ex­tended it from in­for­mal set­tle­ments to reg­u­larly reg­is­tered prop­erty.

Un­der Law 10, res­i­dents ini­tially had just 30 days to prove that they own prop­erty in re­de­vel­op­ment zones in or­der to re­ceive shares in the projects or al­ter­na­tive plots of land; oth­er­wise, own­er­ship will be trans­ferred to the lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

The law cre­ated panic among refugees abroad, many of whom had lost prop­erty deeds or could not re­turn to prove own­er­ship. Af­ter an in­ter­na­tional out­cry, Syria’s for­eign min­is­ter an­nounced in June that the 30-day fil­ing pe­riod would be ex­tended to a year. Last month, a U.N. of­fi­cial said Syria’s gov­ern­ment has with­drawn the law, cit­ing Rus­sia for the in­for­ma­tion. How­ever, there is no sign that the law has been for­mally amended or con­fir­ma­tion that it has been with­drawn.

At least four for­mer-rebel held areas in and around the cap­i­tal are now be­ing con­sid­ered for re­de­vel­op­ment un­der Law 10. They in­clude Barzeh, Jo­bar, Daraya and Qaboun, where ma­jor de­mo­li­tions are al­ready un­der­way, ac­cord­ing to a Hu­man Rights Watch in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Sara Kayyali, Syria re­searcher at HRW, said the fact that the des­ig­nated areas are all for­mer rebel-held bas­tions and the lack of trans­parency around the prop­erty laws only ex­ac­er­bates sus­pi­cions.

“The gov­ern­ment’s ur­ban plan­ning laws are of­ten used to con­fis­cate the prop­erty of res­i­dents, leave them with­out any al­ter­na­tive hous­ing and never pro­vide them with com­pen­sa­tion, so vi­o­lat­ing their prop­erty rights on more than one level,” she told the AP.

Kayyali said there is con­cern that the laws will be used as a form of “col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment” against gov­ern­ment op­po­nents and dis­pos­sess the poor. “It’s go­ing to ex­ac­er­bate the so­cio-eco­nomic im­bal­ance that was ac­tu­ally one of the causes of the up­ris­ing,” she said.

A Syr­ian worker takes a rest as trucks and bull­doz­ers work at the build­ing site of Marota City.

AM­MAR/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TOS: HAS­SAN

Trucks and bull­doz­ers work at the build­ing site of Marota City, Syria’s largest in­vest­ment project, in south­west­ern Da­m­as­cus last month. Con­struc­tion is un­der­way on the lux­ury devel­op­ment of res­i­den­tial high-rises and shop­ping cen­tres — the blue­print for the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s re­build­ing of areas dev­as­tated by war.

PHO­TOS: HAS­SAN AM­MAR/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Crit­ics say Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad is us­ing Marota City to en­gi­neer de­mo­graphic change and con­sol­i­date power.

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