Since the beginning of the revolution, Osama, a married engineer and son of a former government official, chose to remain neutral in spite of the warnings and threats against his safety. Even when people talked of him, his brother, his father – the former minister – or his sect, he chose to remain silent. When having his ID inspected at a security checkpoint, Osama would turn the other cheek as the guards abused him for where he came from. For years, he resisted, even fearing the idea of escaping to Beirut, but one evening he went to his older brother and said, “I have sold my house in Qudsaya and decided to leave Syria.”
Mohammad, a university professor, had never travelled further than the coast. He took his wife and two children to the seaside two years ago, but now Mohammad cannot travel anywhere. Growing up in one of Syria’s “terrorist” areas, he was forced to show a measure of loyalty to the regime, whether at work or at home. He and his wife get could barely manage to put food on the table with the little money they earned. Without a house to sell, Mohammad and his family lived in a rented apartment in Mezze Orchards behind the Iranian Embassy. One day, he called a wealthy friend to ask for $10,000. He was surprised to hear of Mohammad’s decision to risk his family’s life voyaging across the sea. “If you give me the money, you would be giving me life. There is nothing left for me here but death,” he told his friend.
In his late forties, Ghaleb, a Sunni Muslim from Damascus, could be considered a regime sympathizer. His children fled abroad once the revolution mutated into violence, but he remained in the capital even though the planes shelled its neighborhoods, especially his largely Christian district of Bab Touma, behind the great Umayyad Mosque. One day, when visiting a friend, Ghaleb said, “I have decided to follow my children.” Afraid that regime informants – whose numbers were growing rapidly – might doubt his loyalty, Ghaleb told him, “I have chosen to be pro-regime, but does the regime know that?”
Names are not always a sign of political or sectarian affiliation, but Ali’s was. He graduated from a private university, established in the era of ‘development and modernization’ in the first years of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. According to his father, a member of the Syrian Baath Party and army officer, Ali had been exposed to strange curriculums that “corrupted his brain”. His loyalty to the regime was weak in comparison to his father’s. He chose to spend his weekends in Beirut, unlike his father, who would spend his time off in his village on the coast. Ali managed to evade military service because he did not want to kill or be killed, and he had no problem using his father’s connections to do avoid serving. “This is the situation here in Syria, and if they don’t like it they can leave, the door is wide open,” his father’s friend would say. Ali took his father’s savings, a few thousand dollars, and decided to leave Tartous for Lebanon, and then onwards to the safety of Europe.
The other day, an old man phoned his friend to tell him about his visit upcoming to the doctor. “That’s it,” he said, “in two days I’m blowing my al-basha!” The following day the old man disappeared. He came home hours later after state security agents solved the mystery of his “al-basha”. The Arabic word for kidney stones, al-Basha is also the name of an area in the middle of Damascus close to the Iranian Cultural Embassy. The agent tapping the phone call thought the old man intended to target the neighborhood.
Osama, Mohammad and Ghaleb met in one of the two tourism offices in the safety of the city’s “Green Zone”. These companies organize two daily trips of 40 people each from Damascus to Masnaa on the Syrian-Lebanese border, and then to Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast on the way to Turkey. In spite of the strict border procedures, travelers do not need to get off the bus to finish the trip. In Tripoli, migrants can choose to take a large ship or a smaller boat to Mersin in Turkey.
The port of Tripoli reported 27,000 Syrians had left in July and 30,000 others in August. The total number of Syrian migrants for the year 2013 numbered 30,000 and 50,000 2014. Two ships leave daily from Tripoli to Turkey – Mersin or Izmir – and about 15-18 fishing boats, totaling around 1,000 migrants who journey from Tripoli to Turkey daily. It is estimated that about 800 Syrians leave daily through the Masnaa border crossing, and around 100 others leave through the Areeda border crossing between Tartous and Lebanon. Other migrants already live in Lebanon, where about 1.2 million Syrians have already registered their refugee status with the UNHCR, and an estimated half a million remain unregistered. The UNHCR has ceased registering new refugees since last January, where about 58,000 were recorded to be unregistered at that time.
Iranian Engineering and Syrian Bleeding
Mohammad and Ghaleb are two Syrians who were affected by two projects that began in Damascus; one secret and one public. A few months ago, a legislative decree was issued to redevelop the area of Mezze Orchards, or “Eastern Mezze”, located behind the Iranian Embassy and al-Rrazi hospital on the highway linking Beirut to Umayyad Square. The government issued warnings to the residents – about 200,000 people – to evacuate the area. The project, supervised by a Damascus-based consultant, included the building of residential towers, medical centers, schools and a business district. The project will spread over the area between the town of Daria (now controlled by opposition forces), Mezze military airport, and the headquarters of the Council of Ministers, and between the Iranian Embassy and the headquarters of the city’s security agencies.
According to a statement posted on the project’s Facebook page, the plan has expanded due to the demands of the local people, adding that “The first zone, Alrazi Orchards, was the most expensive area the region prior to the legislative decree being issued. It is expected that once 50 percent of the organization and building is complete, this area will become the most expensive area in Syria, not just in Damascus.”
Human Rights Watch issued a report last year titles "Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013". The report noted seven areas, including Kafarsouseh and the parts in Mezze surrounding the military airport. It also mentioned the total space of the demolished areas in these districts (around 140 hectares) and accused authorities of “deliberately” destroying residential areas and displacing people. Syrian officials responded by claiming the displacement and destruction had occurred during fighting with opposition forces, pointing out that the area is considered a slum and lies outside the zoning of the capital. The opposition raised questions regarding the reasons for including the area in the slum rejuvenation project, while other areas like Mezze86, which is inhabited by pro-regime residents and families of army and security officials, are left neglected.
Beside the Iranian Embassy, a monstrous building sits on the borders of Damascus’ southern suburbs, an impregnable fortress swallowing almost half of Mezze highway. The building is larger than any other embassy in the capital, including the US Embassy, and has often been described as the “Embassy of the Iranian Empire”. In addition to this building, around 16 hectares of land in the district of Yafour were sold to Tehran in the early 1980s for providing Damascus with Iranian oil at low prices when the former Assad regime supported Iran in its war with Iraq. Real-estate agents moved into surrounding buildings, buying some and renting others. It is often said that Iranian Embassy officials know now everything about the residents of every apartment in the campus.
As one of those who were affected by the new Iranian expansion, Ghaleb left the area of Bab Touma. A well informed lawyer said that real-estate agents who work for Iran are buying most of the property in the area around the Sayyidah Ruqayya shrine, beside the Umayyad Mosque in old Damascus, claiming that real estate around the shrine is often marked for sale at unaffordable prices. Another lawyer said that one real-estate agent told the owner of a house located opposite the Central Bank of Syria, “They [the Iranians] want that building and they are ready to pay any price.” According to the lawyer, the “Iranian plan” includes establishing a complex similar to those that surround the Sayyidah Zaynab complexes in Southern Damascus, which includes hotels, restaurants, markets and shrines. This complex will spread from the area around the Umayyad Mosque to the middle of Damascus, like the areas of the Central Bank and the Parliament.
The story in Homs city is somewhat different. An Iranian official convinced Syrian security officials last year that it was important to finalized a deal that included forcing the armed opposition from the old city and regime forces into one of the most important neighborhoods in “the capital of revolution”. Now, all neighborhoods – except for the besieged Alwaar district – are under the control of regime forces and the National Defense Force militias that are empowered by Iran.
Remarkably, there are many projects underway to reconstruct Homs city, including the “Reconstructing and organizing Baba Amr neighborhood” initiative along with other neighborhoods – once battlefields before their fall to the regime and the displacement of their residents. The project will be built on 217 hectares and includes 465 residential areas, in addition to schools and hospitals. Opposition activists published a leaked document stating the regime had considered the areas of Baba Amr and Alabassya slums that need to be revived.
A local activist reported Talal Albarazi, Homs’ governor, as saying in a private meeting: “The project guarantees the owners and the occupants’ right of replacement housing or compensation.” It is important to note that most of the city’s residents are now abroad, while an office fire destroyed the real estate records headquarters in Homs two years ago. Many people claim their deeds were missing when they attempted to locate them in the city’s new department.
After a temporary truce in Zabadani and Fuaa, negotiations resumed even though previous effort could not reach the same results as negotiations in the old city of Homs, in which the Iranian official forced a settlement that was not previously accepted by the regime representative. No one could really tell the reason why the new deal had failed: was it because of the pressure from regime supporters due to accusations by the opposition of a “ethnic cleansing” campaign against the “Sunni Arabs”? Or was it because the Russians rejected the projects of the “social engineering” plan, whether from the Iranians or the opposition’s allies? Or maybe the regime itself was in a strong enough position allowing it to reject an Iranian suggestion.
One thing is for sure, the regime refused to release a number of detainees even though the Iranians agreed to the condition, indicating a new Iranian attempt to force a settlement.
Since last August, state security agencies have been entrusted to give written consent to all operations relating to the sale or purchase real-estate, whether a house or land, in areas under regime control. However, these agencies have refused authorizing contracts for some Iranians who had bought lands in Homs and in its countryside. It is expected that those who work for Iran will invest in the Syrian real-estate and urban renewal sectors after the nuclear agreement is finalized and the freezing of Iranian assets is lifted.
At the time of writing, images of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, and its flag compete with Iranian symbols inside the areas dominated by the regime, namely Damascus. In addition, artisans, doctors and engineers have started arriving in Damascus.
For Moscow, resisting the urban renewal campaign means refusing foreign interference and respecting the sovereignty of Syria and its institutions. Russia rejects foreign attempts to change the regime but at the same time, an attempt to change the social fabric of the country is taking place.
The number of Syrian migrants has increased the neighboring countries as people fled Syria escaping Assad’s barrel bombs, chemical weapons, ISIS and detention. However, an entire educated, middle class has recently begun to leave Syria in droves. The fear of abduction, the lack of hope, the lack of faith in the regime’s ability to govern, and the low standard of living has forced many people – who do not deal with politics – to leave regime-controlled areas.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer