After an October 2012 explosion in Aleppo
© Spetsnaz1991, Wiki Commons
After an October 2012 explosion in Aleppo
Last updated: January 4, 2016

As Syrian skies get crowded, an odd race for rebuilding the country seems about to start

Banner Icon By drawing parallels to the built environment in post-war Beirut, Giovanni Pagani explores the main challenges of physical and social recovery in the Syrian war's aftermath.

Post-war reconstruction is a juicy business. This has been well established since the times of the Marshall Plan – and today’s Syria is certainly no exception. While the Kremlin drops bombs on Syrian rebels and Daesh, and Tehran’s military advisors assist the Syrian army along with Hezbollah, it should come as no surprise to see Russian diplomats flirting with Assad over rebuilding contracts, or Iranian companies getting advantageous bids in the cement industry. Just as it wasn’t surprising to see Western and GCC countries eagerly hoping for a role in post-war recovery, when Assad seemed to go. 

But regardless of who will rebuild what, such competition poses at least two major challenges. One, dealing with the more manifest face of destruction, entails a religious commitment to memory and heritage conservation. The other, coping with the more gruesome and intimate scars of the war, imposes to carefully engage with trauma, displacement and identity. As explained by Scott Bollens, Professor of Planning, Policy and Design at the School of Social Ecology of Irvine, who has researched extensively on divided cities and post-war scenarios, ”In order for physical reconstruction to be effective, it must reconnect to the core issues of pain, loss and displacement. It includes much more than professionally trained planners and it encompasses a wide range of experts in psychology, mediation, social work and others”. And he warns: “Planners must thus be careful not to grasp on superficial, symbolic rebuilding, which attempts to build bridges while not really speaking to the people of the city and what they have lost.” 

Since the Syrian page of the Arab uprisings evolved into a civil war story, sorrow for the martyrdom of a nation has been going hand in hand with greed for post-war prizes. With diplomats and businessmen from all sides candidly looking at Syria as a not-to-be missed opportunity. Yet, as the conflict increasingly turns into a sectarian war, reconstruction is no longer just an issue of economic interests. And besides the obvious advantages of taking part in a business that according to World Bank estimates would exceed $170 billion, recovering the country’s built environment will inevitably mean to consolidate power socially and spatially.


To this regard, in order to grasp the political salience that urban planning would acquire in post-war Syria, it’s sufficient to drive two hours west of Damascus, cross the Bekaa Valley and head to Beirut. Theatre of a gruesome civil conflict over the 1980s (1975-89) and bombed again in July 2006, during Israel’s personal war against Hezbollah. In this last occasion, destruction remained mainly limited to the city’s southern suburbs - once a large informal area widely neglected by the state - where the Party of God had gradually managed to carve out its political and sectarian fief. When a ceasefire was eventually reached in a month, weak and corrupted state institutions, coupled with an unevenly liberal political economy, led to fully outsource planning works to Jihad al-Binaa, an Iranian-sponsored NGO, operating as Hezbollah’s building company and dramatically consolidating its hold on the area. 

If south Beirut is now commonly addressed as Hezbollah’s stronghold, it is also due to the fact that reconstruction in post-war Lebanon has been either used for pandering to real estate bubbles or as a means for pursuing political and sectarian goals. “The ability of Shiite Hezbollah to develop an urban homeland south of Beirut city”, professor Bollens notes, “can provide a useful lesson for post-war Damascus, where analogous episodes of segregation may occur if Sunni adherents will be similarly allowed to.”

"Recovering the country’s built environment will mean to consolidate power socially and spatially" 

But power consolidation through urban planning isn’t just a story of weak states as Lebanon. The Assad dynasty was for instance well aware of how spatial policies could craft and safeguard its political stability. The ’officers ghettoes’ of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo – now the regime’s strongholds – were wanted by Hafez al-Assad, who understood the importance of gathering mid-ranking officials from different sects in the same neighbourhood. This fostered both a cross-confessional loyalty within the military and created buffer zones in the urban landscape itself; where officers enjoyed privileged access to housing and shared a sense of belonging to the army that largely transcended their sectarian identity. Similarly, but following opposite patterns, the recruitment of the mukhabarat and the shabiha – the special units widely employed in the repression – occurred in the Alawite quarters, leveraging on people’s confession to ensure their loyalty. And while the Alawite community and the military remained tied to the regime, the poorer informal neighbourhoods – predominantly Sunni-inhabited – became more and more alienated. 

Finally, while the government’s urban policies until the uprising were somehow oriented to ameliorate life conditions in these areas, the outbreak of the uprising eventually turned urban planning into a powerful weapon in the hands of the regime. And it is commonly agreed that Decree N.° 40/2012 – due to which major demolitions were carried out – was instrumental to both smooth out space for military action and eradicate the uprising’s social support. These spatial policies and patterns of patronage had a deep impact on Syria’s built environment, getting eventually translated into the geography of war when the latter begun. 

From this perspective, understanding how Syria’s urban space was moulded and destroyed before and after 2011 will be crucial both for the country’s recovery and its future social stability. It certainly won’t be easy to take the country back to its pre-war socio-ethnic geography, if at all possible, but favouring the return of the displaced while preserving correspondence between urban and social fabrics can nevertheless foster re-integration in the main urban centres. 

“Most urgent action to this regard,” professor Bollens suggests, “would be to do things in Damascus, bringing it back as a vital seed for the redevelopment of a devastated country. Major international investment, political arrangement that shares power but can get things done, likely focus on building neighbourhoods that have clearly identified sectarian structure. In this way, members of each group will feel less threatened coming back to city, albeit at the cost of segregation”.


More importantly, along with this careful preliminary study and before starting to rebuild or demolish, a durable and reliable political solution will be needed. One that preserves Syria’s public institutions redressing power shares within them, without leading at the same time to political paralysis. Urban planning is profoundly reflective of the political and economic framework within which it unfolds. It alone obviously cannot pacify Syrian pathos, but it can certainly have an impact on post-war stability, or instability, setting favourable conditions for the social fabric to heal. 

The Syrian crisis has by now caused more than 300,000 dead among a population of 22 million before 2011. The country counts 10 million displaced, both internally and externally, while over a million buildings – including an invaluable historical heritage – have been torn apart. Hence, far more important than the nationality of the companies tasked to rebuild Syria will be the policy framework within which physical and social recovery will be destined to unfold; along with full awareness of how destruction and displacement got previously produced. 

If Syrian public institutions will be dismantled – rather than modified in their composition in order to absorb social divisions – and unconditional liberalisation is simultaneously preferred to a moderate state imprint in the economy, reconstruction will likely produce further segregation and communal hatred. The outsourcing of planning duties to non-state actors, often funded by and politically connected to foreign stakeholders, will consequently divide Syria into a myriad of cantons, crystallizing its society and paving the way for further divisions. Again, Lebanon can offer a good case study.

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Giovanni Pagani
Giovanni has an MSc in Middle East Politics from the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and also graduated in Architecture at the Politecnico of Milan. He recently spent time in Beirut, researching for his thesis on the relationship between urban reconstruction and sectarian cleavages in post-war Beirut.
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