What Would Reconstruction Really Mean in Syria?
By Frederick DeknatelAugust 6, 2019
“Hayy Sakhour, al-Sha’ar, al-Muasalat, al-Hanano — all of them I know now as I know my own desk,” he said, listing the names of vanished neighborhoods. They were all parts of eastern Aleppo, the half of the city that fell under rebel control for four years and became the world’s worst urban battlefield since Sarajevo 1992, if not Berlin 1945, until Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian allies forced the rebels out under a blitz in late 2016.
Like so many Syrians who escaped the war, Sirees watched it all on a screen, following streams of social media posts, YouTube videos, and other desperate documentation from Syrians who couldn’t escape the suffering in places like eastern Aleppo: barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters, mortars and improvised explosives fired by Islamist rebels, thunderous airstrikes by Russian jets, the static of gunfire, dead silence.
Before the war, the neighborhoods of Aleppo that became synonymous with the conflict’s brutality and destruction were the city’s working-class areas, neglected by the government. That same government, back in control of Aleppo, is unlikely to rebuild them.
Bashar al-Assad probably had eastern Aleppo and its residents in mind when he strode confidently to a stage in Damascus two years ago and told an audience of his supporters what Syria, in his words, had “won” in the war — which wasn’t over at the time and still isn’t, even though the regime has steadily retaken territory from its opponents. “We lost the best of our youth and our infrastructure,” Assad said. “It cost us a lot of money and a lot of sweat, for generations. But in exchange, we won a healthier and more homogeneous society in the true sense.”
A general who runs one of Syria’s many security branches reportedly echoed that sinister triumphalism last year, telling other officers, “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.”
According to the regime’s rhetoric, it has been fighting “terrorists” and “foreign aggressors” since Syrians took to the streets to protest decades of Assad family rule in 2011. Assad’s forces have bombed hospitals and whole neighborhoods, claiming terrorists had taken over. When Russia’s air force joined in, it justified airstrikes on Aleppo and other cities as a form of counterterrorism. Bashar inherited this strategy from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who razed much of the city of Hama in 1982 to suppress a rebellion led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sirees knows the regime, not least because his home city of Aleppo was also part of that earlier uprising in the 1980s and was punished for it. He knows it hasn’t changed. There is a mantra that Syrian soldiers and pro-Assad militias have scrawled on the skeletons of buildings across the country over the past eight years: “Assad, or we burn the country.” Sirees knows what will come out of the ashes.
It won’t be reconstruction. How does a country rebuild after it has been torched? After its economy has cratered, and when its cities and towns are strewn with millions of tons of rubble? Where nearly two-thirds of all residential and light industrial areas are either heavily damaged or destroyed? And where the still-rising death toll no longer makes the news, even though more than half a million people have died, and more than six million have fled as refugees?
Rebuilding Syria, after nearly eight years of war, is estimated to cost some $388 billion, according to the latest estimate by the United Nations — a number that seems both strangely precise and staggeringly large, and also keeps rising. But it won’t happen, at least not yet. Even if and when it does, the regime’s goal won’t really be reconstructing the country that existed before the war. Instead, keen to declare victory on its terms, at all costs, Assad’s regime is eyeing reconstruction as a chance to consolidate what is left of Syria today — and if it can, to cash in.
“The regime is so corrupted, and surrounded with corrupted people,” Sirees told me of the prospects for reconstruction and lucrative rebuilding contracts, shaking his head of cloud-white hair. “Rebuilding is like a golden egg. Everyone sits and is waiting to get it, or to get a good part of it.”
An engineer by training, Sirees ran his own engineering office in Aleppo before he turned to writing. “Rebuilding is now theories, plans, papers, and charts,” he said. “No one knows when they will start.” The Assad regime would like the world to think otherwise. It has been declaring Syria ready to be rebuilt for years, hosting so-called reconstruction fairs on the outskirts of Damascus even as the war raged around them. A former rebel stronghold lies in ruins nearby, and wrecked buildings line the highway running from the fairground to the center of the capital. In 2017, a mortar attack on the fair reportedly killed six people. But the regime has remained on-message. “The process of eradicating terrorism has reached its final stages, and the reconstruction phase is knocking on the doors,” Hussein Arnous, the minister of housing and public works, proclaimed in opening the fair last year.
Sirees is the author of seven novels and a play, but it was his screenplays that really made him famous in the Arab world. Before Syria was synonymous with civil war, it was known for better things — including its hugely popular soap operas, called musalsalat, the best of which were broadcast across the region, where everyone seems to have a satellite TV, or at least access to one at a café or the barber’s. In 1998, his series The Silk Market, a period piece set in Aleppo’s celebrated Old City, premiered on Syrian television. It was an immediate hit. But it was also sly, with a subversive story line about Syria’s political and social upheaval in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how the Ba’ath Party had exploited it to seize power.
The government censors somehow didn’t catch all this until after the show had aired, so fame for Sirees came with something else: a very public backlash from a cruel, authoritarian regime. He was condemned as a traitor by that same Ba’ath Party, still in power years later in the twilight of Hafez al-Assad’s rule. Smeared by state media, Sirees was driven from public life in his own county. His books were banned. But he stayed in Aleppo, maintaining a low profile and shielded, as much as he could be, by his popularity. His books, published in Beirut, kept selling.
Then, in 2011, the protests against Bashar al-Assad began. Sirees fled the next year, before the popular uprising really reached Aleppo, but after the regime had tortured and shot protesters in the streets of other Syrian cities and towns, provoking armed resistance that erupted into full-blown civil war. He first went to Cairo and then all the way to Rhode Island for a visiting writer position at Brown University. He later made his way to Berlin. His daughter still lives in Aleppo, with her two children, but he knows he can’t go back. “I will go to prison,” he told me, “because my name is on their blacklist over what I wrote.”
The return of complete government control in his hometown has prompted some token projects with symbolic value, most of all at the heavily damaged Umayyad Mosque, in the heart of Aleppo’s battered Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before the war, the Old City was famous for its well-preserved medieval urban fabric — narrow, meandering alleyways, miles of markets under vaulted stone roofs, and a unique density of other historic mosques, madrasas, and palaces going back as far as the 12th and 13th centuries. The Old City marked the frontline in the battle over Aleppo, and it shows it today. The medieval souq is mostly a burned-out husk. Some of those mosques and madrasas, including one complex designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, are nothing but craters. UNESCO estimates that 60 percent of the Old City’s buildings were severely damaged in the war, and 30 percent completely destroyed.
That includes the Umayyad Mosque’s iconic minaret, which was toppled in 2013 — by the regime’s own artillery, according to most accounts. The minaret, though, is now being put back together. But is this really reconstruction? Sirees doesn’t think so. “I don’t think that to fix an arch somewhere in the Old City, or a minaret — it is not rebuilding.”
Yet that is exactly why the work underway at the Great Mosque is the story of Aleppo’s reconstruction so far: it is shrouded in propaganda and triumphalism, only the authorities in Damascus and their allies are involved, and it’s hard to know what’s actually happening on the ground. Military engineers are running the restoration — rather than the Ministry of Culture, the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, or the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which otherwise administers the mosque. The main engineer in charge of managing the Great Mosque’s restoration told a Western journalist in Aleppo last year: “I have no idea why I was chosen for this job. Before this project, I built Aleppo airport.”
Aleppo is, in turn, the story of Syria’s wider reconstruction in all its ambiguities. The Assad regime is prioritizing what to rebuild and what not to. It will restore symbolic sites that are considered useful for propaganda purposes but neglect the devastated stretches of the city that made the mistake of supporting the opposition — and were once home to so many of the refugees who have fled Syria. “The regime has two possible areas of interest in reconstruction,” Amr al-Azm, a Syrian archeologist from Damascus and a professor of history and anthropology at Shawnee State University, in Ohio, told me. “One, as a means to reward those areas and individuals that were loyal to it. Two, for the regime’s coterie to enrich itself.”
Any postwar reconstruction has contingencies, but in addition to what the Assad regime really wants, ambiguity exists on a more practical and even technical level. Does anyone agree on what reconstruction means in Syria, and what it should entail?
“The question that always comes up is, well, what is reconstruction?” Moises Venancio, a senior program advisor for the United Nations Development Program in Syria and neighboring countries, told me in a recent interview in New York. “One thing is, it has never been defined, which is good and bad, and has allowed everybody to kind of move.” When the UNDP talks about reconstruction, he said, “we’re really talking normally about significant multi-year programs that look at the rehabilitation and/or construction of significant infrastructure in a particular country. And that’s not what we’re involved in in Syria — and frankly nobody is at this point in time. It just requires funding sources that certainly are not available right now.”
In addition to imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime, the United States and most European governments say they won’t help fund major reconstruction as long as Assad is entrenched in power, but he’s not going anywhere as an endgame nears after eight years of war. The official position of the United Nations is that it won’t support physical reconstruction in Syria until there is a viable political transition underway, and the war has not ended. (This is why UNESCO isn’t involved in the Great Mosque’s reconstruction in Aleppo, or other projects to restore the many cultural heritage sites damaged across Syria.) Political talks to resolve the fighting have been dragging on in various forms since the civil war began. There have been four rounds in Geneva, all unsuccessful; since 2016, following Russia’s intervention in Syria, talks moved to Astana, in Kazakhstan, and Sochi. They’re all like Waiting for Godot. Assad didn’t survive for all these years, destroying much of the country in the process, to step aside in a negotiated settlement.
But despite the lack of definition about reconstruction and the lack of money, the UN is still actively involved in Syria, including in projects that might sound a lot like efforts to rebuild. “We don’t do reconstruction; no one does reconstruction in Syria,” as Venancio put the current situation. Yet the UNDP does fund smaller projects — all classified as humanitarian assistance and described by the UN as “rehabilitation,” “recovery,” and “community resilience,” in 13 of Syria’s 14 governorates. That means local-level assistance to restore basic essential services, like sewage networks, water lines, or electricity, as well as repairing schools and hospitals. In 2018, the UNDP says that this work directly benefited some 111,000 Syrians, with more than two and a half million more benefiting indirectly from improved infrastructure and services. The UNDP’s funding goal for this year, to continue that assistance in Syria, is $45 million; as of March, though, it was still $17 million short. This is important, life-saving work, but it still only represents about .01 percent of the overall reconstruction needed in Syria, based on those latest staggering estimates.
There are strict protocols to distinguish this activity from actual reconstruction, and a grim calculus determines what the UNDP and other UN agencies can do. Take a school in eastern Aleppo. The UNDP, in coordination with UNICEF, can repair a school whose structure is only partially damaged. But it cannot help rebuild a school destroyed down to its foundation. As one official at the UNDP’s office in Damascus explained to me: “The red line is 30 to 40 percent of the initial level. So if damage goes beyond 30 to maximum 40 percent of the initial volume of the building, then we consider it reconstruction and we don’t intervene,” given the limitations on the UN’s activities in Syria for what might be considered reconstruction.
This official, who has visited Aleppo many times, recalled having to turn down a request from a neighborhood committee in one eastern Aleppo neighborhood whose school was too destroyed to be rebuilt, even though they and their UNICEF colleagues had the resources to help them. The official, like those colleagues, wished the policy were different. “There should be a clear distinction between reconstructing something that will benefit the war economy — that would benefit the regime — and rehabilitating a service that would be essential for providing the minimum assistance to people,” such as a school, this official added. Rebuilding more schools would also help avoid what they called “the potential perfect ground for another future ISIS to arise.” UNICEF estimates that there have been more than 4,000 attacks on schools during the war; today, 1.75 million Syrian children are still out of school, mostly because they don’t have one to go to.
Syria’s Ministry of Tourism has a surprisingly active YouTube account, given the state of affairs. In quick promotional reels, many no more than a minute long, it shares glossy snapshots of Syria meant to remind viewers of better days — or to distract from the current reality. Increasingly, though, the ministry has been looking ahead.
A video uploaded to its account last November presented an optimistic view of Aleppo, “between history and the future.” What we don’t see is the fighting that had consumed the city for four years, often street-to-street combat, with snipers everywhere and explosives tunneled under the ancient heart of the city. Other times, it was death from above, usually in the form of the crude barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters, designed to maximize civilian punishment.
You wouldn’t know any of this from the ministry’s video, which opens with the sun rising over Aleppo’s skyline. It quickly cuts to an aerial shot of the Citadel, the massive medieval fortress built of limestone over a steep hill that lords over the city. In the battle for Aleppo, this medieval military site became a modern military target, as Syrian soldiers set up positions high atop the Citadel to fire on rebel positions below. The battle over, it has the damage to show for it today, with pockmarked parapets and its huge walls blasted by artillery. In the tourism ministry’s YouTube reel, you can’t see much of this damage from on high, but you can make out a giant banner of a beaming Bashar al-Assad, draped over a section of the Citadel’s wall.
Drone footage then pans over the ravaged streets of central Aleppo below, where excavators and trucks move piles of rubble, kicking up clouds of dust in the sun, and where workers in yellow vests stand on scaffolding that surrounds an Ottoman-era clock tower, another city landmark and bright spot among all the debris. Before returning to the Citadel — whose stout, imposing entrance, built to repel Crusaders, is also draped in an enormous Assad banner and Syrian flag — the video then hovers over a huge crane standing over the Umayyad Mosque.
UNESCO considers the mosque, also known as Aleppo’s Great Mosque, “one of the architectural masterpieces of the Muslim world.” The crane is roughly where the mosque’s 1,000-year-old minaret once stood, in its northwest corner. Built when Aleppo was ruled by a dynasty of Seljuk Turks, the square minaret was adorned with Kufic inscriptions and intricate carvings. Since Aleppo’s Old City had retained its medieval-era skyline for centuries, the 150-foot minaret dominated the views around it for more than 900 years.
It collapsed on April 24, 2013. The Assad regime said “terrorists” blew it up. The rebels blamed the regime. Months earlier, the minaret had been damaged by shelling fired from the Citadel — the direction of regime forces. A city was being destroyed around it, with all the accompanying human suffering, but the ancient minaret seemed to singularly capture the war’s toll, at least in news reports. Architecture has a way of doing that in war, from the Bamiyan Buddhas, dynamited by the Taliban in Afghanistan, to St. Paul’s Cathedral, standing amid the smoke and rubble of London during the Blitz. But while London’s intact cathedral had symbolized something about the resilience of Britons despite their suffering under German bombs, Aleppo’s ruined mosque had a bleaker message, expressing the scale of devastation of Syria’s civil war.
But things look more optimistic in the tourism ministry’s video. The ancient minaret in no longer reduced to a jumbled pile of limestone spilling out into the mosque’s crumbling courtyard. You can see that workers have collected those stones into neat piles. Some catalog them, and others are shown cutting and stacking new stones.
The minaret and the rest of the Great Mosque are being rebuilt, and the work is being paid for by Aleppo’s newest patron: Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman of Chechnya and one of Vladimir Putin’s protégés. In 2017, an opaque quasi-charity that is named after Kadyrov’s father — a former Chechen rebel commander turned Putin ally who was killed in a bombing in Grozny 2004 — announced via Russia’s state news agency, TASS, that it had donated $14 million to reconstruct the Great Mosque. The Akhmad Kadyrov Regional Public Foundation was also funding the reconstruction of the badly damaged, late Ottoman-era Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in the ruins of Homs.
The TASS story that trumpeted Kadyrov’s donation quoted the mufti of Aleppo, the city’s highest religious authority, who stuck to the regime line that the destruction of the Great Mosque “was all done by militants and terrorists.” Kadyrov, the mufti said, had “vowed to fully restore the building even if more money will be needed.” In promoting Kadyrov and his charity, official Russian media added a pointed message about who, it claimed, was helping rebuild Aleppo, and who wasn’t: “No other international foundation or organization, including UNESCO, has so far offered any assistance.”
A year ago, Diana Darke, a British writer who lived in Damascus for several years before the war and has written two recent books on Syria, visited Aleppo, having snuck her way on to a pro-government tour. She spoke with the main engineer in charge of managing the Great Mosque’s restoration, a man named Misbah Baqi. According to Darke, he works for a construction company controlled by the Syrian military, “and takes orders directly from the president’s office, not, as would be usual, from the Ministry of Religious Affairs,” which otherwise oversees sites like the Great Mosque.
The regime may be in charge there now, but other Syrians had helped protect the mosque any way they could during the worst days of the war. Dodging snipers’ bullets, young Syrians, many of them architects and archeologists in training from Aleppo University, built a barrier of bricks to shield the decoratively tiled Tomb of Zechariah, where worshippers pray to the father of John the Baptist. Others constructed a protective, padlocked case around the 14th-century sundial in the mosque’s large marbled courtyard, with sandbags and masonry. The secured sundial was still standing there last year, according to Darke, “seals intact, somehow overlooked by engineers and propagandists, a small and solitary but defiant reminder of who protected what in this seven-year war.”
The UNDP official in Damascus told me recently that military engineers remain at work in the Great Mosque, rather than experts from the Ministry of Culture or the Syrian government’s antiquities authority, the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums. “What they have done is make a very detailed inventory of every stone that is on the ground and compare it with photographs of the minaret before the war, in order to try to rebuild it,” the official said. But, they added, the real work “hasn’t started,” and the military is directing everything.
The mosque sits in the center of Aleppo’s Old City, which UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 1986. Today, given the scale of destruction around the Great Mosque, it looks like the worst part of the Old City, according to this UNDP official. “So even this reconstruction of the mosque and the minaret, although it’s symbolic, at the end of the day it’s paradoxical, because nobody lives around there,” they added.
And even then, “We are only talking about the Old City.” The damage is much worse in the neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo that are seared into Sirees’s mind. Not far from the Old City, and sometimes described as slums, these neighborhoods expanded rapidly in the years before the war, absorbing an influx of poorer people from Aleppo’s rural and mostly Sunni outskirts, who moved into the city to work in factories and live in cheaply built, densely packed apartments. It was a trend throughout Syria in the immediate years before the war — urban populations boomed, in large part because of an extreme drought across the Syrian countryside that drove people into the cities. Many of those buildings in eastern Aleppo that had been hastily built to take in this influx of people are now flattened, reduced to gnarled piles of concrete and rebar — among the more than 35,000 homes estimated to have been destroyed or damaged in the battle over Aleppo, according to satellite imagery analysis by the United Nations.
The fighting may have ended, but eastern Aleppo still looks like no-man’s land. On a UN visit last year, the official from Damascus remembers driving for kilometers through neighborhoods like al-Hanano and al-Sha’ar, where they saw only two things: destruction and looting. “Even the frames from the windows have been stolen,” they said. “And there’s no sign whatsoever of investment in reconstruction.”
If reconstruction is the next stage of Syria’s war, it will unfold like the others — as a grinding stalemate. Emboldened by its near-victory amid the ashes, Assad’s government insists it will only award contracts for reconstruction to “friendly countries.” “We welcome any assistance with reconstruction from those countries that were not part of the aggression on Syria,” Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem declared at last year’s UN General Assembly, putting the uprising and civil war in the regime’s usual terms. “The countries that offer only conditional assistance or continue to support terrorism, they are neither invited nor welcome to help.”
The regime’s goals are already evident where it has re-established control. Last year, it passed a controversial measure, known simply as Law 10, to seize abandoned properties and redevelop the devastated land in the name of reconstruction. Critics allege it is a way to make the war’s demographic shifts permanent while enriching Assad’s cronies, since the areas it targets were poor, informally developed, and Sunni-majority before the war, like the neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo. Developments involving a crew of businessmen tied to the regime are underway. The most prominent, called Marota City, promises glittering high-rises and blocks of modernist mid-rises over expropriated and razed land in a Damascus suburb. It is currently Syria’s largest investment project.
But most of the world is still withholding money. Especially in Washington, policymakers argue that aid money for Syria, even for humanitarian purposes or what is generally called “stabilization” — which might cover the kind of recovery work the UNDP does, as well as things like removing land mines — could inadvertently go to supporting the war economy, profiteers, and Assad’s own interests. Government forces in Syria have a long track record of blocking international aid convoys from entering opposition areas or seizing them outright, and many fear funds for reconstruction — or recovery or rehabilitation, depending on the definition — could be co-opted too. “The U.S. is funding the UN inside Syria, while the Syrian government plays dirty politics with the aid we pay for,” Robert Ford, the last American ambassador in Damascus, wrote in an op-ed last year.
The House of Representatives also passed a bill last year, the No Assistance for Assad Act, that would have banned any American funding in government-controlled parts of Syria, with the exception of basic humanitarian aid — essentially codifying in law the position of not aiding reconstruction as long as Assad is in power. It never got past the Senate, but a new effort is making its way through Congress that would impose harsh additional sanctions on countries and third parties involved in Syrian reconstruction.
Will this official US line against funding reconstruction hold? There is little sign that Europe is thinking otherwise, though some countries, like Italy, are considering reopening their embassies in Damascus as the reality of Assad’s position sets in. Earlier this year, the European Union expanded its sanctions against financial supporters of the regime to cover 11 additional Syrian businessmen and five companies. One of them, Samer Foz, has pitched himself as the middleman for reconstruction and is behind the Marota City project in Damascus. He got rich throughout the war as many businessmen fled, selling everything from wheat to cement, and owns a steel plant in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where new rebar is being forged from melted-down scrap metal. In a rare interview with The Wall Street Journal last year, he said European countries should work with him to help rebuild Syria “to draw refugees back.” As the Journal wrote, Foz “wants the furnaces of his Homs steel plant to be a cornerstone of Syrian reconstruction even before a political settlement.”
Other Arab states might get involved, most of all Syria’s neighbor Lebanon, which has its own recent history with rebuilding a country — and especially a city, in Beirut — ripped apart by its own civil war. But those with the most financial resources — like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have both cultivated close ties with President Donald Trump — also funded the armed opposition to Assad. They have their own interests at stake. “They’re not going to want to throw money in so the Iranians jump in, or the Russians jump in, or Rami Makhlouf or some other Syrian regime leech jumps in and enriches themselves,” as Amr al-Azm put it. Makhlouf is Assad’s cousin, a telecom tycoon who seemed to have a stake in everything in Syria before the war and has been under US and European sanctions for years.
The biggest obstacle to any reconstruction, and why any efforts greater than humanitarian aid are talk for now, are sanctions. How do you get the money in? No matter how many billions might be pledged, there are still sanctions. “And most countries, unless you’re Russia or China, are not going to sanctions-bust,” Azm said. International funds for Syria must go through its Central Bank, which is exactly what sanctions are designed to block. Otherwise, “you’re essentially giving the Syrian regime hard currency.”
“The regime knows it,” Azm added, which explains its current thinking about reconstruction and why it “insists that any work — any reconstruction, any activity — has to be done through it or its own agencies.” That way, “it gets its hands on the hard currency,” but more importantly, “it claims legitimacy.”
By broadcasting cheery propaganda about the supposedly busy pace of rebuilding underway in Aleppo, while most of the city in fact lies neglected in ruins, Syria’s Ministry of Tourism is doing its own small part.
Whenever the minaret of the Great Mosque is reconstructed, Aleppo might end up looking more and more like Homs.
Syrian rebels proclaimed Homs the “capital of the revolution” in the early days of the uprising. It then became the regime’s model for how it would prevail in the civil war: Homs was besieged, bombarded, and its residents starved into surrender. Nearly two-thirds of the city has been razed. “We basically don’t have a cityscape anymore,” Marwa al-Sabouni, an architect in Homs, told Architectural Digest.
The city’s main landmark is the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque, which was built in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and dedicated to the Arab military commander, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who led the seventh-century conquest of Syria and later died in Homs. The mosque was caught in many crossfires in the war’s earliest fighting, and the neighborhood around it all but obliterated by the time a group of ragged rebels evacuated the city in 2014.
Homs has also been left in ruins, with a few exceptions. The Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque, with Kadyrov’s funding, has been hastily rebuilt, its signature domes, once riddled with huge holes, reconstructed by military engineers, just like Aleppo’s minaret. A reporter for The National who toured Homs in April 2018 noted that the government was “keen to show off” the mosque’s restoration. Indeed, the Ministry of Tourism features it in another one of its YouTube videos, with aerial footage of the mosque standing desolate in a ghostly city, over a triumphant soundtrack. As one man in Homs told The National’s reporter, “There is no one here to pray in it.”
The limited rebuilding efforts in Homs have otherwise been confined to the city’s Christian neighborhoods, to buttress Assad’s claims of protecting Syria’s religious minorities, including the Alawite sect to which he belongs. The flattened former rebel districts, largely Sunni, have been ignored and left empty. It’s hard not to see those stretches of urban wreckage, emptied of people, as the embodiment of what Assad says was “won” in the war: a society without any of his opponents.
Areas of Aleppo could fit Assad’s vision of victory. Some 450,000 people have returned to the city since early 2017, but the city is paralyzed when it comes to any kind of formal reconstruction. I’ve heard various mentions of a vague, government master plan for the city’s “restoration,” but like most things in Syria, it’s a black box. Instead of planning, there is only propaganda, like the banners around Aleppo that show Assad’s face hovering over an image of the Citadel and promise, “Aleppo in Our Eyes.”
To someone in eastern Aleppo, the question of who can or will fund what — and the more immediate distinction between what the UN defines as rehabilitation, rather than reconstruction — may determine whether or not a neighborhood can get aid money to rebuild their school. In such an uncertain situation, many people are taking matters into their own hands. The first time the UNDP official in Damascus I spoke with went to Aleppo, in August 2017 — some nine months after the government retook the city — all the shops were closed on one war-weary main street. “It was really spectral,” they said. When they went back three months later, after more refugees had returned to Aleppo, “all those shops had opened, and they were all selling cement, iron, other construction materials.”
This is what Syrian reconstruction really looks like for now. Yet the material in those stores wasn’t “for big companies, but for people,” this UNDP official explained. “It’s somebody who is buying two or three bags of cement to rebuild part of the wall of his house, in order to be able to have his family, who returned to Aleppo with him, survive.” Syrians have been left to fend for themselves — to rebuild their homes, or what remains of them, however they can.
To Moises Venancio, the UNDP advisor in New York, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations still have jobs to do in Syria, despite the frozen political dialogue, the stasis around reconstruction, and all the unknowns about how the civil war might finally end. “When we look at Syria, we have to move beyond that fact of the political process with the authorities in Damascus and think about people, 17 million people, that need assistance,” he said, referring to the country’s diminished population.
Eight years of sanctions haven’t forced Assad to embrace reform, or stop laying siege to rebel areas, or release thousands of prisoners. What is left of Syria’s economy today is more dependent than ever on Iran and Russia. But even if foreign money could flow in, how would the regime spend it? Again, Aleppo and Homs offer some clues. As Azm told me, “The areas that have been most damaged, that most need reconstruction, the areas that were bombed by the regime that produced the refugees in the first place — the regime is not about to go and take all this money and rebuild their homes. It’s going to take the money and reward the areas that were loyal to it.”
The regime is hardly hiding this agenda. From Assad’s recent speeches and statements to the way formerly besieged areas are presented as vanquished on state television, everything exults in conquest. It is, as Azm said, “totally and utterly triumphalist. There’s no disguising it. Not even a fig leaf of an effort to try and somehow suggest post-conflict reconciliation, stabilization, unity. Nothing. ‘We won. We won everything.’”
It may be projection, but it carries a message. If the authorities in Damascus don’t actually foresee a full-fledged reconstruction process, how much leverage over Assad do Western governments really have through sanctions? In the regime’s rhetoric, everything is “post-crisis,” not postwar, and the promise of huge amounts of money from the West to rebuild may not appeal if rebuilding all of Syria isn’t really the goal. Assad has other priorities: consolidating control and territory, and ensuring the diplomatic and military support of his allies. If anything, Russia may be more interested in the benefits of reconstruction, in order to add to the optics about its intervention and proclaim that it — not Washington — is stabilizing Syria. Then it can justify pulling more of its forces out of the country.
The patronage from Putin’s Chechen protégé to pay for the hasty restoration of two cherished mosques in Aleppo and Homs fits right in. “Even the minaret has a political background,” Nihad Sirees said of the work in the heart of Aleppo’s Old City. It has its soft-power potential. “The Russians, they want to tell the Syrian people: Look, we respect Islam and Islamic heritage.” For Kadyrov, Islamic charity has its own propaganda purposes at home. “The Chechen government participates because they want to tell their people that they care about Islam, and about Islamic heritage.” But that still leaves the rest of Aleppo, like so much of Syria, in a state of ruin.
Frederick Deknatel is the managing editor of World Politics Review.
Feature image: "Syria: two years of tragedy" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office is licensed under CC BY-ND. 2.0.
Banner image: "Great Mosque of Aleppo in 2013, after destruction of the minaret" by Gabriele Fangi, Wissam Wahbeh is licensed under CC BY 3.0.
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