Informal settlements in Syria: What approach after the conflict?

Syrian residents return to the recently-seized Yarmouk Camp enclave to check on their houses and properties in south Damascus, Syria, 24 May 2018. According to media reports, a mass celebration was held at al-Najmeh Square in the adjacent al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood. © EPA-EFE/YOUSSEF BADAWI

Executive Summary

A large proportion of Syria’s population lives in informal housing, with estimates that informal housing represented 30 to 40% of total dwellings before the 2011 uprising. Such housing was particularly prevalent in the peri-urban areas that have suffered most of the destruction and displacement during the subsequent conflict. Despite its prevalence, informal housing and the rights of its residents have not received sufficient attention in recent policy discussions around Syria’s reconstruction or with respect to protecting the rights of Syrians to housing.
In recent years, the government has approved tens of regulatory master plans in different cities for ‘reconstruction’ and ‘development’. While little actual reconstruction has taken place because of the economic crisis, the economic sanctions, and the absence of international funds, these master plans have paved the way for the government to begin with deliberate mass-scale demolitions in many areas.
An examination of the few approved reconstruction projects that have proceeded shows some commonalities: most of the approved master plans are targeting areas of informal urban settlement, and the few projects that have advanced on the ground have tended to be in informal urban settlements. These patterns raise many questions about the government’s intentions and plans for reconstruction and make it clear that informality needs to be a core element in the reconstruction debate.
This policy research report aims at mapping and analysing the government’s approach towards informality. It starts by laying a pre-2011 historical background about the interlinks between the rise of informality in Syria and the Ba’ath government’s socialist approach towards housing provision and land management. It provides a critical reading of the trajectory of the legal framework, which underpinned the government policies on land management, arguing that informality was a natural product of the government’s chronic and systematic failure in coping with the increased needs for housing.
The report then examines the evolution of the government’s post-2011 approach to informality. It maps a series of planned and ongoing reconstruction projects in several neighbourhoods across different cities in Syria while closely observing the legal foundations underpinning each case, the official narratives around them, the implementations procedures, the progress made, and the impact of these projects on the population.
The research deepens this analysis through two detailed case studies: al-Qabun district in Damascus suburbs and al-Haydariyya district in east Aleppo. This selection is based on profound similarities between the two areas that were both opposition strongholds severely impacted by the military campaigns waged by the government to retake them but also the significant difference in the legal frameworks governing the reconstruction, the phase of implementation of the reconstruction project, and, most importantly, the type of land ownership, with al-Qabun existing on private land in contrast to al-Haydariyya where the authorities expropriated the land long before the conflict.
Drawing on the interlinks between the different case studies and the historical contexts of the conflict, the research concludes with observational patterns about the political, economic, and technical interests and motivations that might have shaped the government’s approach to informality. It finds that the government has found in the massive informal reality of Syrian cities — which predates the conflict — a loophole through which it can advance a major politically loaded gentrification process that would reconfigure the reality of post-conflict Syria in favour of capitalist cronies at the expense of the rights of local residents. This insight has not yet gained sufficient attention in the important work conducted by Syrian and international actors attempting to tackle the consequences of the government’s urban planning system and its legislative framework that is currently paving the ground for wider reconstruction. Addressing the situation is not just a matter of acknowledging some forms of informal land-tenure in the current legal frameworks. It requires reframing our understanding of informality beyond its mere articulation as a form of illegal tenure.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.