Help Assad or Leave Cities in Ruins? The Politics of Rebuilding Syria

Help Assad or Leave Cities in Ruins? The Politics of Rebuilding Syria


Western governments have a big stake in the outcome. Any hope of reversing the flow of refugees — a source of anxiety for many European politicians — rests partly on their ability to put Syria back together. Reconstruction contracts also could be lucrative for Western companies.

The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has said rebuilding Syria will cost at least $250 billion.

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Ravaged by War

Syria has been ravaged by years of war, but President Bashar al-Assad is still in power. In July, his portrait hung in Al Waer, once a well-to-do area of Homs, now a ghost of its former self.


By SOMINI SENGUPTA on Publish Date December 3, 2017.


Photo by Somini Sengupta/The New York Times.

In Al Waer, one of the latest places to be reclaimed by Mr. Assad’s forces, insurgent fighters were offered a deal to either surrender or leave, with their families, to rebel-held enclaves much farther north. Tens of thousands of people streamed out from March through May. As few as 30,000 remain, according to government authorities, holding onto apartments where windows have been blown out and roofs are crumbling.

I visited Al Waer in early November, accompanied by a government escort and a local military official.

Nearly a fifth of Syria’s residential housing is damaged, according to the World Bank. One in three schools is damaged or destroyed, and fewer than half the country’s health facilities are functioning, according to the United Nations.

In parts of Aleppo, the country’s second largest city, retaken by government forces a year ago, the municipal water supply is still broken, requiring the International Committee of the Red Cross to truck in water, an expensive process. The historic city center of Homs, which rebels gave up in 2014 after a crippling siege, is still an impassable maze of rubble.

For Mr. Assad, the siege strategy has proved the most effective way to wrest cities and neighborhoods from enemies by basically starving civilians living under their control, and even as the war winds down, he still uses it, often with dire humanitarian consequences.

In eastern Ghouta, a once agriculturally rich rebel holdout on the outskirts of Damascus, a government siege has led to what the United Nations recently called the highest rates of child hunger recorded during the conflict, with nearly 12 percent of children acutely malnourished.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has called reconstruction aid the last bit of leverage the West has over the political future of Syria, though what influence the West now has over Mr. Assad’s fate is uncertain at best. The political talks in Geneva this past week did not even include the subject of Mr. Assad’s fate.

“We are now ready to move to a next step,” Ms. Mogherini said in an email, expressing support for the idea of rebuilding Syria in the future. But she also said Western nations must make clear that their participation “will start only when the political transition will be agreed on in Geneva.”

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Al Waer residents prepared in May to be evacuated.

Credit
Mahmoud Taha/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Assad’s government, for its part, is eager to note that the goal posts of those political talks have moved away from what had been a central objective of the opposition: his exit from power.

“We’ve moved from the idea of replacing one team with another to a partnership concept to produce a new political structure,” Ali Haider, the minister for reconciliation, said in an interview in Damascus.

Nonetheless, he suggested, the government has enjoyed only a partial victory.

“On the battlefield we are in a better situation,” he said. “Politically we are in a real fight.”

In Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, reminders of Mr. Assad’s military triumph are everywhere, including at the entrance of a hotel that serves as the United Nations base. A giant billboard in its parking lot features a photo of Mr. Assad, smiling. “Hand in hand, we will rebuild,” the caption reads.

The siege of Al Waer was one of the longest in the country. During its toughest months, families burned their sofas to keep warm in winter.

Electricity stopped for hours, or days. The bread lines were so long, Al Waer residents recalled, that people fought one another to get enough for their families. In the twisted siege economy, the price of milk became so exorbitant that malnourished children began trickling in to the charity-run hospital, Al Birr, which still barely functioned. Medical supplies were so scarce that an enterprising nurse at Al Birr stashed away the basics, like bandages and scissors to cut gauze.

In the worst weeks, the staff helped women deliver their babies in the basement, the place safest from airstrikes. They used cellphones as flashlights, to save the generator for more complicated procedures.

On a recent afternoon, Abdulilah Barze, 11, sat on his bicycle, crunching loudly on sunflower seeds and recalling a deafening bomb that killed a friend and left him unable to hear for a few days. His friend, Sara, recalled hiding in a bathroom every time she heard mortar fire. His sister, Iman, 14, recalled another bombing that killed her uncle as he waited on a street corner for his daughter to come home from school.

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A roadblock on the frontier of Al Waer last year when it was held by rebels.

Credit
Louai Beshara/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Riyadh Hassan Kenan, owner of a ground-floor apartment, walked through the debris of what remained of his home, with wires and pieces of exploded artillery crunching under his shoes. All around was rubble. Part of his house seemed to have been used as a weapons depot.

The foreman of the construction team clearing the rubble, Hassane Hilal, picked up pieces of a homemade bomb. He led me through tunnels that had been dug underneath the high rises.

Battered water containers were strewn everywhere, used by armed factions to construct defensive positions. One nondescript apartment building distinguished itself from the others with a pile of sandbags on the ground floor. It had been used as a detention center by the Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, when it held a patch of Al Waer.

The siege ended with a stark deal offered to survivors, including anti-government fighters: Surrender to government rule, or board government buses to a rebel-held enclave farther north. Tens of thousands of people took the buses, streaming to areas near the Turkish border, where, as it turned out, conditions were sometimes even worse.

A recent Amnesty International report described this as “forced displacement” and said it violated international law. The group said any reconstruction aid should ensure that civilians can return voluntarily to their homes “in safety and dignity.”

I met a widowed mother of three who had stayed throughout the siege. As soon as it lifted, though, her 21-year-old son left for an opposition-held town near the Turkish border. He feared arrest if he stayed, she said.

The woman, who did not want her name to be published for the sake of her family’s security, looked down and ran her fingers through her prayer beads. “He is about to lose his future,” she said. Eventually, she said, she would have to leave her home and join him.

She was reluctant to speak further. A government escort was with us during the interview.

A corner of her apartment building’s roof was still broken, from the time a shell hit the building, killing an upstairs neighbor standing on the balcony, trying to get a cellphone signal.



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