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Syria's reconstruction plans take shape

Though an end to Syria’s conflict is not in sight, plans for reconstruction projects by the Syrian regime and international aid organizations are underway.
People stand in front of a damaged building in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria March 6, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RTS11OJ8

At some point, Syria will be rebuilt.

Whole cities and swaths of the country have been destroyed. Millions of civilians are displaced either within the country or outside its borders during six years of conflict. The World Bank estimates that postwar reconstruction will cost in the hundreds of billions of dollars and though the international community is treating the reconstruction of Syria as a pressing priority, questions remain about where the money will come from, when it will come and under what conditions.

In April, the international community met in Brussels for the annual Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region conference. In addition to discussions about increasing aid to refugees and host countries and rebuilding Palmyra, there were also talks on a reconstruction initiative that a post-conference declaration explained “will be successful only in the context of a genuine and inclusive transition that benefits all the Syrians.”

Aid organizations warned about the risks, and a joint statement by CARE International, the International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam and Save the Children argued that without international support for a political solution and respect for human rights, “a move towards reconstruction assistance risks doing more harm than good.”

There are signs of slow regeneration in Homs’ Old City. A UN-supported project to clear and rehabilitate the 13th-century market is underway to back commerce and life to a part of the city long quieted by war.

That work has brought together the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) with the local community as well as business-sector representatives and antiquities and municipality officials. “And that’s an inclusive early recovery model that could work in a number of locations,” UNDP country director Samuel Rizk told Al-Monitor via Skype from Damascus.

Though the Irish Times reported in March that UNDP had halted funding for the Homs project, Rizk said it had not. “The project continues, funding continues and it’s moving ahead,” he told Al-Monitor last week. “[In] these historical locations, there are a lot of people 'round the table that need to be included in the planning. Some concerns in a location like the Old Homs souq were not only about economic regeneration, but that this is a historical place that you can’t just rebuild without regard for its cultural and historical heritage … change its 300-, 400-, 500-year-old character and simply change it into brick and mortar that’s new.”

At the same time, the Syrian government has been laying the groundwork for its own reconstruction projects. Analysts warn that these plans are likely to follow political or strategic objectives.

Basateen al-Razi in southwest Damascus used to be one of the countless informal settlements — slums — that developed on the outskirts of Syria’s cities after the 1960s. In 2011-2012, protests against President Bashar al-Assad spread and eventually became armed clashes once the army stepped in. Thousands fled as a result.

Using legislative decree 66/2012, originally signed by Assad in September 2012 to “clear and redevelop unplanned housing and informal settlements,” Damascus province has begun work restoring farmland and demolishing homes in Basateen al-Razi to make way for comprehensive reconstruction of the area that will create housing for an estimated 60,000 people, shopping precincts, shiny office spaces and even a multistory mall complex, according to government plans.

Decree 66 will mandate construction projects in former opposition bastion Daraya and several satellite towns south of the southern ring road that marks the outer limits of southwest Damascus.

“It’s a good engine for the economy,” pro-government analyst Ammar Waqaf of the London-based Gnosos Institute told Al-Monitor. He said the model “facilitates reconstruction … [and] provides the legal ground for companies to come and have their share in reconstruction.”

This project was drawn up as part of an urban master plan for Damascus in the 2000s, but priorities and operational frameworks have changed. Government officials increasingly see this multimillion-dollar project as a model for postwar reconstruction in other parts of the country, and local residents are less of a concern.

Under the decree, civilians are promised compensation payments to rent homes elsewhere but refugees originally from there say that their vacant homes have already been demolished without compensation. Relatives of residents still in the area told Al-Monitor that compensation payments promised under the decree have often either come too late or weren’t paid at all. Resident Abu Majed recently told Syria Direct, “The demolitions are approaching the home where I live. When my turn comes, I don’t know where I will go.”

Oxford University student Nate Rosenblatt told Al-Monitor that Decree 66-style projects present problems for the international community in terms of reconstruction. “If you’re channeling money through the government of Syria, first of all you’re rewarding the country’s most violent actor with the most resources. But also you’re going to see the government employ methods by which they further ostracize and isolate these restive neighborhoods.”

Projects such as the one underway in Basateen al-Razi are funded through public-private investment companies such as the Damascus al-Sham Holding Joint Stock Company established by Damascus province in December. Thanks to a May 2015 presidential decree, local authorities from the province down to municipality level now have the power to establish their own investment companies. Damascus al-Sham was set up with some 60 billion Syrian pounds ($279.9 million) in capital to fund real estate projects such as Basateen al-Razi.

But government officials are pitching it as a model for reconstruction elsewhere. Homs Gov. Talal al-Barazi has recommended that the 66 model be used in Baba Amr and other devastated areas of the city. Homs has established its own holding company and Aleppo is expected to do the same soon.

“When we look to the war, we see it is a local war and that means reconstruction … will be local reconstruction too. We will never have national [reconstruction]; we will never have a Marshall Plan in Syria,” said Kheder Khaddour, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center.

“[The regime] created certain laws so that they are ready to reconstruct … and they are ready in terms of the law and they have enough people to work with,” Khadour told Al-Monitor. “They just need any kind of political agreement.”

The Syrian government is conducting reconstruction at the local level by creating opportunities for public-private financing within local authorities, selecting the local administrator as head of the reconstruction committee or mandating that local organizations work with the international community.

Since 2014, the Foreign Ministry has authorized a list of of some 100 nongovernmental organizations that are mandated to work with the UN and international NGOs on the ground. Last year, a Guardian investigation found that the UN was working alongside and funding openly regime-affiliated NGOs such as Al-Bustan, what was ostensibly started as a relief organization that has been linked to notorious regime-affiliated businessman and Assad cousin Rami Makhlouf, as well as funds headed to pro-government militias. But, Khaddour argued, “They are not funding Al-Bustan [per se]; they are funding the model that exists on the ground.”

He said, “The regime structured something in Damascus and then the UN or the INGOs have to go through this” by working with regime-approved intermediaries. “And who are those intermediaries? Most of them are regime backed or part of the regime network, like Al-Bustan.”

Rizk said the UN conducts due diligence and capacity assessments to make sure partners have “particular capacities that are important to us. One, do they have project management capacity, and do they have financial capacity? Are they mandated to work in this area? Are they experienced, have they done this before?”

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