First, the debris needed to be cleared out. Then the streets were opened again, as well as some schools, bakeries and police stations. Aleppo is trying to rebuild itself, a year and a half after the end of the battle that devastated not only its infrastructure but, most crucially, its social fabric.
In its eastern part, where the jihadist rebels dug in, it is almost futile to try to find traces of the beauty the city once had and which UNESCO had tried to protect by putting it on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1986.
But for several years now, the world whose heritage it was has been lending a hand, passively or actively, in its destruction, with a disdain only sometimes punctuated by fleeting remorse. What is today the “gray city,” the capital of northern Syria and the heart of its economy, has served as a helpless backdrop for the flight of hundreds of thousands of its people. Today, 19 months after the central government’s victory, as families are slowly returning, the first and most immediate phase of its reconstruction has started: it took three to four months to remove the debris, clear the streets, and rebuild intersections and roundabouts. Then, public buildings were restored and reopened, and the water and sewage systems were patched up to allow the resumption of everyday life.
However, the most important rebuilding projects haven’t even started yet, except for the reconstruction of the al-Haj bridge, connecting the western part of the city to its eastern part and the airport. So far, everything has been done exclusively by government institutions—with extensive experience in rebuilding, as it was Syria that helped rebuild Beirut after its civil war—and the Syriac Orthodox Church (which has rebuilt some 1,200 houses in Aleppo), without the intervention of foreign companies. However, in order to breathe new life into the economic framework of the city, considerable time and investments will be needed.
This is not only the case for Aleppo, but also for Homs, Hama and Damascus itself. Likewise for the north, the Kurdish majority areas, where part of the territory still remains a battleground; and for the western part of the country, in the Idlib province, which is still controlled by jihadist groups forced to retreat there by the evacuation deals made by the Islamists and the government in Damascus; and also for the eastern part of Syria, on the border with Iraq, where ISIS still looms as a threat.
The war is not yet over, but people are already talking about the coming reconstruction, an affair that will be worth an estimated 400 to 500 billion dollars. Many are keeping a close eye on the situation—various regional and global powers, but also the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which is being accused by its opponents of planning to use the reconstruction to reshape the demographics of the country.
For instance, in Homs, “the capital of the revolution,” Damascus is said to be planning residential projects in the south of the city where they would relocate Alawite families, loyal to the government, in order to lessen the influence of the Sunni community. The Christian areas are seeing the most in terms of reconstruction, with works supervised by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate to restore churches and chapels, but also the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, a symbol of the initial popular protest, which later became a rallying point and a weapons stockpile for Islamist groups.
The risk of sectarian conflicts is very high: a reconstruction process that is too targeted to specific areas brings with it the danger of exacerbating the divisions that resulted in years of civil war. As a Member of Parliament for Homs, Sanaa Abu Zeid, has said, “Bashar Al Assad is personally driving the reconstruction” in the city—which also involves the removal of graffiti and slogans on the walls supporting the rebellion against the central government.
This rebellion, unlike many have claimed, does not have sectarian roots, or at least not only: the first protests, in the spring of 2011, started in the suburbs and not in the city centers, breaking out in neighborhoods built up almost overnight during the ‘70s, which are very different communities from those in the cities proper.
These neighborhoods were hit harder than most by the economic crisis and the partial privatization campaign launched by Assad: for instance, Eastern Ghouta and Basateen al Razi around Damascus, or Baba Amr near Homs—which has already been the object of an initial reconstruction together with Harasta (East Ghouta), for which the government has allocated $35 million after the conquest of these warn-torn areas from the Islamist groups that had controlled them since 2013.
Aleppo itself reflects a much more complex reality, made up of conflicting socio-economical demands as well as political ones, with a bourgeois urban fabric opposed to the development of areas for the informal housing of migrants from the countryside: as Giovanni Pagani explained in an article published in Jadaliyya in November 2016 , the population of Aleppo had quadrupled since the ‘70s, reaching 2.4 million in the pre-war years, due to the arrival of peasants searching for work, trying to escape from poor rural areas.
Their poverty contrasted sharply with the wealth of the Aleppo bourgeoisie, which was able to exploit the opportunities created by the Baath party in terms of business and real-estate speculation. The people of this social stratum have been supporting the government since 2011, against a segment of the population that championed the rebels, not because they were Sunnis (the majority group in Aleppo) but as a hope for their own social advancement.
These hopes were not to bear fruit, as they were stifled immediately by the higher priority given to groups sponsored and guided by foreign regimes, which were more interested in setting up new religion-based political entities than in accomplishing the reforms called for by those who took to the streets in 2011.
The Syrians’ legitimate ambitions were almost immediately hijacked by foreign interests, namely by the anti-Damascus front which was interested in dividing the country. It is no coincidence that already from 2011, the people’s demands were being heard less and less, and the war became nothing more than a political and strategic conflict.
The rebuilding process should proceed in the direction of allaying conflicts, both social, economic and political; it should not only restore the cities, but also revive the countryside areas, which had been marginalized during the last century and are today nearly uninhabited: with five million refugees and seven million internally displaced persons, entire communities have become ghost towns. While 21,000 families have returned to Homs so far in 2018, during the same period 900,000 Syrians have fled from Afrin in the north and Deraa in the south.
It was against this backdrop that the government passed “Law 10” this spring, which requires property owners to present documents proving the ownership of their houses within 30 days if these are classified by the authorities as lying within so-called “development areas” (i.e. intended for reconstruction). If the owner does not claim their property within that time limit, the government takes ownership of it, giving the original owner compensation in the form of cash or alternative housing.
Proving ownership is an utterly implausible prospect, with a total of 12 million people who are either internally displaced or refugees abroad, with their homes destroyed along with all their possessions, and with the 500,000 dead, including many heads of households who had ownership of the family assets. Amnesty International has called this law “a breathtakingly efficient feat of social engineering,” pointing to the fact that its first victims will be the residents of the areas that supported the opposition, who fled during the ensuing clashes.
The current political situation doesn’t help matters: there is no credible political opposition, and the government sees the rebuilding as an instrument to consolidate its power. Weighing heavily are also the interests of big business and of the states that are already making moves to get in on the multi-billion dollar deal, inasmuch as they can. At this point, Syria is still caught in a tight grip by international sanctions and by its inability to exploit its (limited) energy reserves. But Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates are all waiting at the door.
Assad has already promised the lion’s share to Moscow. Beijing has been careful to remain neutral in the conflict, in order to make inroads into the new economic landscape with its New Silk Road. Tehran has invested billions of dollars and provided military forces to prop up the Syrian president, and is seeking some gains in return, political but not only. Riyadh has already paid a visit to Raqqa, testing the waters for a deal, and Abu Dhabi is setting aside its provocative political role and attempting to build a fruitful rapprochement with Damascus. Meanwhile, the US and European countries are left on the outside looking in.
There is much to do—where before there was a stable country, there is now only rubble. Before 2011, Syria was growing at an average of 4 percent per year, offered free education and health care, and had an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent. The poverty rate was over 28 percent, but it was counterbalanced by well-rooted social and family networks: today it is above 80 percent. The first serious hit came from the international sanctions, which caused the GDP to shrink by a third in the months after the outbreak of the conflict.
Everything else was quick to follow: the destruction of farms, factories, a full third of all private homes and half the health and educational infrastructure. Exports fell by 92 percent, the foreign exchange reserves went from $21 billion in 2010 to $1 billion today, the national budget was cut down to the bone ($5 billion), and the GDP contracted from $60 billion before the conflict to $15 billion in 2016. Half a million jobs disappeared every year. The price of basic necessities such as rice and flour has doubled, and the price of fuel is ten times what it was in 2010.
In Syria, the clock has been turned back 50 years: the average life expectancy has plummeted from 76 years in 2011 to 56 years today. And one must not forget that an entire generation of young Syrians, the children born just before and during the conflict, have known nothing but war their entire lives.