Syrian government has social engineering plans for after the war

DAMASCUS, Simon Kremer (dpa)- There is no end in sight for the conflict in Syria, which has displaced more than half the population. Yet, President Bashar al-Assad's government is planning for the post-war era. Population shifts are already under way to create a new society.
As night falls, the Aleppo quarter under the ancient citadel still resembles a ghost town, with scarcely a light showing from the bombed-out and windowless buildings. But the rattle as Abu Adel lets down the roller blind of his kiosk is a sign of life returning.

The elderly shopkeeper then ascends to his new home two floors up.
"At the beginning I felt like an animal. There was no water and no electricity," he says, describing how conditions have improved since the Syrian army drove the rebels out of the eastern sector of the ancient city.
"I opened my kiosk here, so that people could see that life is possible here once more," Adel says.
A few months ago, the frontline ran just behind the building. Large parts of the famous covered market now lie in ruin.
Adel and his family fled from their home in the countryside near the northern city of Aleppo as Islamic State moved into the region to find this part of the city virtually empty.
According to the United Nations, he is one of more than 200,000 who have moved into East Aleppo since the rebels left in December, many of them returning residents, but others newcomers. Adel's family simply moved into a deserted home they found in the Old City.
Syrian society has been devastated by the six-year civil war. More than half the population has been driven from their homes, with millions fleeing abroad.
Entire cities and regions are being reordered. Even as the war rages, the government is making plans for reconstruction. Non-governmental organizations accuse President Bashar al-Assad of deliberately manipulating the ethnic composition of the country.
This vision of a new Syria is shown on a screen in a futuristic building in the centre of the capital, Damascus. Modern high-rises to house more than 65,000 residents are to rise from the desert, with cycle paths winding through parks and shopping malls to lure consumers.
"Here we are constructing a region that will look very different from the way it did in the past," says Jamal Youssef, head of Project 66. The name refers to the redevelopment decree 66 issued by al-Assad in 2012 soon after the unrest began.
It was billed officially as developing informal settlements. Part of the Damascus municipality of Mezzeh was to have been included, although it was a major centre of opposition to the government in the initial stages of the war.
Dutch non-government group Pax and The Syria Institute, a think tank based in Washington, have investigated social change in Syria in a study.
It came to the conclusion that the Syrian government, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, had expelled hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
"This strategy includes besieging, starving, killing and transferring people in a number of cities and neighbourhoods associated with resistance to his government," they say.
"This will only exacerbate social divisions and undermine future reconciliation efforts," they add.
With respect to the central city of Homs in particular, they charge the al-Assad government with the deliberate expulsion of the civilian population through bombing, massacres and denying medical assistance.
Sunni parts of the city were targeted, the NGOs say, with the military action going well beyond combating the rebels. "Homs was the blueprint for other cities like [Damascus suburb] Darayya and Aleppo 2016," they say.
These are cities also mentioned by the project leader of al-Assad's reconstruction programme. "We will rebuild Syria completely," Youssef says. "Darayya and Homs for example."
Where residents are able to demonstrate through documentation that they were the legal owners of a house, they will be paid out accordingly, but providing this proof is often not possible.
Following recent military successes, al-Assad has begun to enforce population exchanges, through agreement with the rebel forces.
Government supporters in the north-western cities of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, which were under siege by rebel forces, were allowed to leave.
In exchange, largely Sunni residents of two localities near Damascus were resettled in Idlib. Tens of thousands have been resettled in this way as a result of agreements between the Syrian government or its allies with rebel forces.
Idlib is now the base for a bigger number of rebels, while the large cities of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus are almost completely under government control once more.
Aleppo kiosk owner Adel may be seen as part of this planned population shift. Relocated refugees are only too happy to be able to move into abandoned houses, with the government well aware of the situation.
Adel hopes that he can stay permanently in his new home in Aleppo, where he opened his kiosk just three months ago. He sings the praises of the Syrian army, which also provides his best customers.
There are now few anti-government voices in these former rebel areas.

Wednesday, August 16th 2017
Simon Kremer

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