Bassel, a photojournalist from Homs, has documented what he calls the “intentional destruction” of his city, the third largest in Syria, over two years of siege and battles. He says he has noticed a pattern: Certain buildings with no military value have been targeted.
“I remember the large Rajoob mall [in the al-Khalidi neighborhood]. I was there when it was bombed and destroyed,” he says.
“If there was a military reason [for bombing it] I would have known, but there wasn’t any: Fighters did not occupy the building and it did not obstruct the movement of the regime’s military.”
With almost 50 percent of Homs now heavily damaged, many activists and local citizens such as Bassel fear the Syrian regime is using the war to advance its own hidden agenda. Namely, they believe the military has intentionally targeted civilian buildings to help implement a controversial urban planning scheme called “Homs Dream.”
Dream or Nightmare?
The Syrian uprising started in 2011, when local demonstrations in cities and villages spread throughout the country. In Homs, much of the protesters’ rage was directed at the city’s governor, Iyad Gazal, the man reportedly behind the “Homs Dream” urban planning project.
Gazal had announced the project in 2007 and said that parts of the city center were to be demolished and rebuilt with more modern buildings and high-rises. The project was presented as an opportunity to embrace modernization and urban improvement.
Few details were made available. Promotional flyers were distributed and some promotional videos posted online. But none of these allayed the fears of locals, who believed that the urban planning scheme was, at best, a manifestation of President Bashar al-Assad’s top-down planning policies that ignored local demand and prioritized the government’s own interests.
According to Waleed, a 33-year-old activist from the Old City of Homs, local shop owners who worked in areas covered by the urban planning scheme were told by the governor that they had three options: relocate to a replacement shop in another area; give up their shop and wait until the project is finalized to be given a new shop (with 15 percent revenue compensation in the meantime); or sell their shop to the municipality before the project commences.
“The regime wants to rob the people who live and work in the city center,” Waleed says.
“Richer owners were more likely to survive this change, but most of the middle class wouldn’t have. Five years is a very long time for someone to close their business or even to relocate it,” he explains.
Maria, a civil engineer from the city, says the authorities ignored public opinion and residents’ needs. Compensation proposed by the government at the time fell far below market value, she says. And while all existing shops were small, the new project proposed large shopping malls completely out of step with the current makeup of the city center, Maria adds.
For many others, the project seemed designed to steal the very heart of the city’s economic center.
“The project was never about improving the city. It was not intended to solve urban or transportation issues,” says Abu Jawad, an architect from the al-Waer neighborhood. “All the [government] wanted was to change the economic and social structure in the city center.”
Despite the objection of locals, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Qatari Diar real estate company and the Syrian government for the Homs project.
“It was the fastest memorandum to be made in the history of the company at the time,” says Qatari Diar CEO Nasser al-Ansari.
But, with the start of the Syrian conflict, the project was believed to have been scrapped, especially after Assad conceded to protesters’ demands and removed Gazal from his post as governor in 2011.
Military Action Revives Homs Dream
After protests turned violent in 2011, the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) engaged in a fierce competition over control of the central Syrian city. As part of the government’s crackdown on the opposition, the regime launched heavy airstrikes and artillery campaigns targeting opposition enclaves in the provincial capital.
However, some of the government’s targets did not correspond with the military objective of quashing the opposition, leading some residents to believe that the government was trying to force people out of areas that were to be dismantled and rebuilt according to the Homs Dream project.
“A lot of the areas that were included in the plans of the Homs Dream project were destroyed,” Abu Jawad says. “When the [government] could not achieve control with [urban planning] policies, they did it through military action and later through siege and deportation.”
Bassel also expresses similar skepticism over the real targets of the government’s military campaign.
He explains that the FSA forces fighting the regime did not take cover in the city center but in the surrounding areas. As such, the repeated bombing of the center and the main commercial areas did not correspond to a clear military objective, he says.
“The level of destruction shows that the buildings were not hit to be damaged; they were hit to collapse,” Bassel says.
Residents of the Old City also claim that the heavy-handed military operations went beyond what was needed to win the battle at the time. The only other reason for such a destructive campaign, they say, is the reshaping of the city to achieve the regime’s planning goals.
Heavy airstrikes and artillery attacks were not the only methods used to destroy the city’s infrastructure. Witnesses claim that residents of nearby Alawite informal settlements were mobilized into armed squads that attacked other neighborhoods.
In Karm al-Zaytoun, for example, an area that played an active part in the uprising, armed squads destroyed the staircases of every building. According to Bassel, this pattern was repeated in the city center after the siege had ended.
Aftermath, Reconstruction and the Role of the U.N.
The government’s siege of central Homs ended in 2014. After years of inaction, the U.N. entered the fray, helping evacuate rebels and citizens to rural areas still under rebel control to the north of Homs.
U.N.-Habitat, the U.N.’s agency for human settlement, subsequently began to operate in the city. It published a report on Homs and announced an architectural design competition for mass social housing in the Baba Amr neighborhood. On its website, it stressed the need for “a new approach to peace in Syria, one that begins with Syrians themselves.”
But residents’ mistrust of the regime extended to U.N. agencies, including U.N.-Habitat. Its approach – treating the problems as though they were the result of natural disasters rather than the war – failed to address the deeper roots of the problems, leading many to see the agency as an accomplice of the regime.
Although the regime announced its openness to work with the U.N. to reconstruct the city, it disregarded the project that won the U.N.-sponsored competition and presented an alternative that was more lucrative for the Syrian government.
The government-sponsored urban planning scheme for the Baba Amr neighborhood has given rise to the same concerns that residents had raised in objection to the Homs Dream. For example, the project does not guarantee current residents the right to remain in the traditionally middle-class district. Instead, the municipality suggested “alternative housing” in another neighborhood or “financial compensation,” leading to concerns that the urban planning scheme would result in gentrification and prevent residents from returning to their homes.
As the government pushes ahead with plans for the Baba Amr neighborhood, the idea that life would return to normal in the old city, as promoted through state-controlled media, has become unlikely.
Returning to the city center is restricted to those who still have the documents needed to access their destroyed property. Many formal property documents were destroyed during the fighting, and electronic copies of real estate documents may not exist. Even if they do, it’s the regime that decides whether to allow citizens to access them.
Even those who possess the necessary documents often have trouble accessing their properties. The process of entering government-held areas often requires obtaining entry permits from all security branches (12 in total) to cross regime checkpoints. This process involves blackmail, bribes and threats of detention.
If a resident is given security clearance to enter the city, another permit is necessary before reconstruction of a destroyed house can begin. Residents are also required to pay electricity, telephone and water bills for the past four years, equivalent to almost 50 percent of the cost of such property.
Worse still, the regime’s approach to reconstruction is not restricted to Homs. The government is also working on applying the model in the Damascus districts of Kafr Sousa, Mazzeh and Daraya. The urban planning scheme in Homs is a gloomy indication of what awaits other cities in Syria as reconstruction kicks off.
The Syrian Independent Media Group comprises six independent Arab media organizations working together to highlight untold stories from the war-torn country: AlJumhuria; Enab Baladi; Rozana Radio; Syria Deeply; Syrian Female Journalists Network; and Syria Untold. The project is supported by International Media Support.