The Syrian regime is waiting for economic benefits from its attempts to impose its influence on the Eastern Ghouta, first of which is supplying the capital with agriculture and animal products, and restoring the production which Damascus has lost over the years of the war, alongside vital economic routes that open the capital to northern Syria.
The area has witnessed a siege since the beginning of August 2013, and has been subjected to continuous assaults in an attempt to sieze control, the most recent of which began on Feb. 18 and is ongoing, and has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 citizens, according to United Nations and local statistics.
The “flowing, searching rivers and serene, gushing springs unlike any other on earth,” as Saraj al-Din Ibn al-Waradi describes in his book “Mu’jam al-Buldan,” have been turned into "hell on earth" through bombardment and battles, as the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it in February.
Despite this, the Syrian regime government aspires to make economic gains, alongside the political and military aims of evicting the opposition from the last of its strongholds near Damascus.
Breadbasket declines 85 percent
The Ghouta was the breadbasket of Damascus as a result of its wide agricultural land. The utilized agricultural land in 2008 was more than 5,665 hectares, according to statistics issued by the Agriculture Ministry.
It was also known for its livestock. In the Ghouta in 2011 there were about 120,000 heads of dairy cattle and 200,000 heads of sheep. However, with the siege it has recorded a decline of 85 percent, as in 2016 there were no more than 7,000 heads of cattle and 40,000 heads of sheep according to statistics issued by the opposition Veterinarians Syndicate in Ghouta.
Are the largest industrial cities recovering?
The narrow industrial areas in Damascus forced manufacturers to establish their projects in the countryside close to the capital, in particular the Ghouta, in which there were the necessary qualities for industrial projects to be successful.
Economic researcher Younes al-Karim confirmed this, saying that most of the traditional industries which Syria in general and Damascus specifically had been known for were present in the Ghouta, such as woodwork, furniture, food and canning. He pointed to the importance of the industrial area in Adra (Tel Kurdi) in manufacturing and trade.
The Syrian regime, after taking control of areas around the capital Damascus last year, moved to restore the wheel of the economy in the industrial facilities to refill the treasury, and invited Russian companies to support it and invest in them.
In areas close to the industrial zone, where factories were destroyed and part was transferred to the control of rebel groups, owners worked to prove their ownership of industrial facilities through papers from the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and to move them into the industrial zone, with the number of facilities reaching 437, according to the industrial city administration at the end of 2013.
The industrial zone in Adra is an important industrial center because it is the largest industrial city in Syria with an area of 3,000 hectares.
It includes 6,000 locations for industrial facilities of various types: engineering, textiles, chemicals, food, building materials, metals and crafts, with a total value of 30 billion Syrian pounds, according to the Syrian Investment Authority.
Karim said that the regime government had started to invite traders to return to the factories which had stopped in the industrial zone, saying that this “would show that the economy has begun to recover, the opposition has been defeated and that the matter is settled, and this will motivate the beginning of reconstruction projects in the area and to the invitation of foreign companies.”
Vital nerve north of Damascus
Control over the Ghouta area will have political and military significance for the Syrian regime and its allies, more so than it will economic, especially after the collapse of the livestock industry and the lack of suitable land for agriculture in the near future because of the policy of heavy bombardment (scorched earth) which the regime has pursued.
However, with the regime imposing its control over the Ghouta it will restore movement to the Harasta highway, which serves as the lungs of northern Damascus and its main route to Homs and the northern provinces. This means that it will ease entry and exit to central Damascus, especially for traders and farmers who are heading to the Al-Hal market after their route was altered over the past years to the side roads near the city of Al-Tell.
The closure of the route led to damage of a value of about 20 million Syria pounds, up to Dec. 31, 2012, and 1,577 facilities ended production out of an original 1,778 that were building in the Adra industrial city and 436 that were producing, which led to the loss of 39,976 jobs out of 47,220 according to the Ministry of Local Administration statistics.
Fear of regime owning land
The regime’s major interest in taking control of the Ghouta, according to Karim, lies in extending its hand over the properties of displaced residents and beginning to broker them for reconstruction by issuing laws that allow it to do this in the future.
He said that there was land in the Ghouta that was state property owned by a number of ministries, including the Awqaf and Agriculture ministries, and other entities. There was also farmland that was not allocated for building, which would be taken by the economic mafia backed by the Economic Chamber in the Republican Palace under the pretext of establishing large projects on them.
For that purpose, the economic researcher believes that the government may issue legal decrees that authorize it to take possession of broad areas of land under the pretext of zoning it, as happened with parts of the city of Daraya when the local administration's deputy minister, Louay Khareeta, announced the formation of a committee to study the zoning of Daraya and placing it within the organizational areas of Damascus city, which is not far from the scenario of the Khalaf al-Razi areas to which Decree 66 applied.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.