Screenshot showing the demolition of a building in a Damascus suburb.
Despite the ongoing civil war, Syrian authorities have started razing buildings in the capital’s suburbs, allegedly as part of a massive urban planning program. Our Observer wonders: Is it just a coincidence that the pro-rebellion suburbs are the first ones being targeted?
This video shows a building several stories high being blown up and reduced to rubble in Al Zahira, a suburb of Damascus:
Demolitions like this one are being carried out under Law Number 66, adopted in September. The law’s official objective is to demolish the buildings that were built in southern Damascus without state approval. The Syrian authorities maintain that the inhabitants of these buildings will be relocated in legally built buildings.
Opposition activists don’t believe a word of this – they claim that this is only a pretext to punish the neighbourhoods that rose up against the regime.
Illegal construction has been widespread in Syria since the 1960s, and the practice became even more common after Palestinian refugees started arriving in droves in 1967. According to the Syrian Ministry of Local Administration, 35% of buildings in large cities were built illegally. The Damascus region alone includes 20 neighbourhoods that were entirely built without authorization.
“The authorities would have us believe this is urban planning when we are in the middle of a war”
Ahmad Mannaa is a member of the Al Zahira revolutionary committee. Al Zahira is one of the neighbourhoods most affected by the state-sanctioned demolitions and is located at the center of the zone targeted by Law 66.
Of all the components of Law 66, only the strategy of demolishing buildings has been implemented. Nothing has been done to relocate the families, or even warn them about the impending demolition of their buildings. In some neighbourhoods, the military announced planned demolitions only a couple days prior, by broadcasting a message from the mosque loudspeakers. In my neighborhood, they came two days before the planned date and went door to door telling residents they had 48 hours to leave the premises. Some of the buildings that were destroyed had already been partially abandoned, because the simple presence of the military caused residents to flee.On demolition day, soldiers arrive with armoured vehicles or tanks and block the street on which the targeted building is located. “Chabbihas” (pro-Assad militiamen) and local officials accompany the soldiers, in an attempt to imbue the operation with a sense of legality. They allow people to watch so long as nobody is filming aside from them [the videos show uniformed men filming the demolition]. They plant sticks of dynamite on the ground floor. Once the building is destroyed, bulldozers come pick up the debris. Then everybody leaves, as if nothing had happened.I am convinced that this operation is just thinly-disguised collective punishment, to which the government is trying to add a veneer of legality. This “reform” is not affecting all of the suburbs of greater Damascus that violate the construction standards [indeed, the law specifies that the policy will for the time being only focus on neighbourhoods in the southern suburbs of Damascus]. For instance, the Al Maydane or Attadhamon neighborhoods, which became well known for being the site of numerous battles between the regular army and the Free Syrian Army, were targeted right away. The same goes for Al Zahira neighbourhood, which saw many protests and is located right by a state security bureau. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood known as neighbourhood 86, which is technically part of the zone affected by the law, has remained untouched because the majority of those who live there are Alawites [like the president].This is a shocking display of cynicism from the authorities: they would have us believe this is urban planning when we are in the middle of a war.
Another demolition operation in Al Zahira.
A bulldozer in the middle of the rubble in the Al-Qaboun neighborhood.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.