The Damascus municipality recently announced that 50 additional hectares of land would be deducted from Harasta, a city just northeast of Damascus, and annexed to the new organisational plan of Qaboun, an adjacent suburb of Damascus, in accordance with the controversial Law 10.
Law 10 was enacted in 2018 and facilitates the expropriation of lands to build new real estate areas managed by private-sector companies.
This is only the latest in decades of expropriated land in Harasta, part of the Douma district, on behalf of the Syrian government. The history of some of these expropriations dates back to the 1960s, with most of the seized properties formerly serving as agricultural land. Civil and military facilities were built in their place, or they were annexed to organisational plans for different municipalities.
A history of expropriation
Harasta is the northern entryway to Damascus. Its expropriated land is home to military bases and security centres such as the Airforce Intelligence Directorate, the headquarters for the Fourth Division and 41st Special Forces Division, as well as the Military Vehicles Directorate. It is also home to military hospitals, housing complexes for the army and security forces and government complexes. The Harasta Military Hospital and the Police Hospital were built there, as well as the Al-Assad Suburb, police residences and a government complex that includes the Ministry of Irrigation, and the transportation and civil status directorates of the Damascus Countryside governorate. The Ministry of Health also set up the Bayrouni Hospital, which is specialised in cancer treatment, on land expropriated from Harasta.
Despite the loss of much of its land to expropriation, before the uprising Harasta had become one of the largest cities in East Ghouta, a low-lying basin of working-class suburbs just outside Damascus. Its population was then around 200,000, many of whom had moved there from Damascus and surrounding governorates due to the comparatively low price of real estate, and because of its location along the main Damascus-Homs highway. Harasta is also close to the meeting point of the two main beltways surrounding Damascus from north and south.
When the uprising broke out and gradually transformed into a violent conflict, many residents of the city were displaced to the town of Al-Tal in nearby Qalamoun, as well as to the cities and towns of Eastern Ghouta. Harasta became a front line for clashes between the opposition and the government before rebel forces seized control of large swathes of the city in 2012. In March 2018, thousands of fighters and residents began evacuating to northern Syria in a series of agreements between Russia and opposition factions. According to estimates from the city council, which took over the administration of Harasta after the government seized control, around 15,000 residents stayed behind in the city.
The issue of expropriation came to the fore in mid-2018 after the government retook control of Harasta and began carrying out reconstruction work. The government decided that the level of the damage was not high enough to justify a new zoning plan and therefore that reconstruction could begin. After it took control of the area, government forces demolished buildings that the Damascus Countryside governorate deemed were “likely to fall and posed a threat to public safety.” According to media reports, government forces removed buildings from an area 300 metres deep into the city’s western districts along the Damascus-Homs highway. The area has since been converted into a military zone, with residents forbidden from returning.
Two of the main projects that were built on land expropriated from Harasta are the Al-Assad Suburb and the Military Vehicles Directorate.
The Assad Suburb sits on a 250-hectare piece of land seized in accordance with Expropriation Decree No. 20 of 1983 to build a residential zone for military and security officers. It is also home to some military units, most notably the 41st Special Forces Division.
The Assad Suburb is the largest example of a state-backed home-buying program in Syria, which later became the target of commercial investment and speculation. The housing complex began construction in 1985, with officers and their families moving there in the early 1990s. By 2011, more than 100,000 people lived in the suburb.
The main contractors for the suburb were the Military Housing Establishment, which was later replaced by the Military Construction Implementation Corporation, also known as the Military Construction Establishment. Both companies are affiliated with the Ministry of Defence.
The construction of the project encountered many difficulties and most areas of the suburb still lack basic services such as bakeries and sanitation due to the lack of coordination between the contractors and official government institutions.
Expropriation of the land that became the Assad Suburb did not only involve changing the property’s legal ownership. Rather, the area’s entire administrative organisation changed, with the creation of a municipality separate from Harasta, named the Assad Suburb Municipality.
Military Vehicles Directorate
The Ministry of Defence also took control of four hectares of land from Harasta on the border with the neighbouring town of Arbin in Eastern Ghouta to be held by the government’s Military Vehicles Directorate, which has three departments: Vehicles Management, the Technical Institute and the Engineer Park “Al-Rahba” 446.
Vehicles Management is the main entity responsible for maintaining the regime’s military vehicles. It includes the main administrative buildings. Al-Rahba 446, meanwhile, is the largest department of the three in terms of area. It is responsible for repairing various military vehicles, including light and heavy vehicles, and is located between the cities of Harasta and Arbin. The Technical Institute holds training courses to certify vehicle repair technicians and distribute them to sub-military units within regime forces.
Opposition forces were able to surround the Military Vehicles Directorate in 2017, until regime forces broke the encirclement in January 2018. After heavy destruction caused by airstrikes and battles, it was evacuated in 2019, but the area is still under heavy military guard.