Despite years of calling for Assad’s removal from power, several European governments are now also looking to gain access to Damascus, diplomatically at least. Two sources close to the Syrian government told Syria Deeply that in the last few months some European states have opened channels with the Syrian government for talks on potentially reopening their embassies. At least one other E.U. state has had channels with Damascus open for roughly two years.
According to one European diplomat in neighboring Beirut, “the Germans, for example, have had a channel for intelligence-sharing and security with Damascus since at least 2015.”
But foreign involvement is not the only factor excluding average Syrians from the push to rebuild the economy. Since 2012, the government has passed legislation that largely favor deals with the ruling class – many of which are unrelated to rebuilding what was destroyed during the war.
In May 2015, Assad issued Presidential Decree 19 allowing all units within the state to form private investment companies. The following year, the government passed the Public Private Partnership (PPP) law, permitting private companies to make deals with the government to manage state assets.
While this legislation has been promoted as part of a reconstruction strategy, wealthy local businessmen – many with ties to the regime – are already cutting deals with the government for billion-dollar real estate projects that are unrelated to rebuilding efforts. Many of these lucrative development projects are planned for land that the government has expropriated under Presidential Decree 66, passed in 2012, which allows the state to “redevelop areas of unauthorized housing and informal settlements [slums].”
For example, the government expropriated land in the East Mezzeh district of Damascus – compensating owners very little – and is now selling it off to private companies to build luxury apartments, modern villas, public services and commercial space. The majority of the East Mezzeh project went to the Damascus Cham Private Joint Stock Company, a private company owned by the Damascus governorate, but wealthy businessmen have also recently been included. In August the Aman Group, led by Syrian businessman Samer Foz, announced that it had established Aman Damascus, with a capital of $18.9 million, to build several towers within the project.
“Reconstruction in Syria is going to breed a thousand Hariris,” said the former Syrian government employee, in reference to former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. After the Lebanese civil war, Hariri bought much of downtown Beirut though his company Solidere, forcing residents out to redevelop the land into high-rises and luxury apartment buildings.
“The concern is that they may rig the game in their favor, preventing small businesses and hardworking honest merchants and industrialists from also enjoying a share of the cake,” he said.