Between 2000 and 2010, the Rural Damascus governorate worked on zoning an area stretching from the city of Ayn Tarma to the Eastern Ring Road along the administrative boundaries with the Damascus governorate. This became known as the Ayn Tarma zoning area, or Aswaq Al-Khair (Al-Khair Markets), named after the modern commercial market that was built to its south.
Ayn Tarma is one of the closest cities in East Ghouta to Damascus city proper. It is home to large informal settlements, the most significant of which are Al-Zainiyeh, Al-Tabbaleh, and Wadi Ayn Tarma. Meanwhile, the zoning area was primarily agricultural land where construction was technically prohibited. Its designated purpose was amended in 200 from agricultural to residential and zoned as a residential neighbourhood within Ayn Tarma.
Consequently, in collaboration with some local landowners, builders and contractors from Damascus constructed modern housing complexes using advanced engineering techniques based on the Syrian Arab Code and its earthquake annexe. Some of these housing complexes became known by the names of the companies that built them, such as Al-Shimiland, Al-Taqa and Al-Salam.
The area witnessed active home buying before 2011. The most prominent buyers were from the Damascene middle class, residing in the neighbouring areas, such as Al-Qassaa, Bab Touma, and Al-Abbasiyeen, and were predominantly Christian. Rumours about the Damascus governorate potentially annexing the Eastern Ring Road area and its eastern outskirts into the capital’s master zoning plan helped to stimulate this buying activity. There were also rumours, before 2011, that the Damascus governorate was on the verge of annexing parts of the towns of Ayn Tarma and Zamalka to form the East Jobar district of Damascus. If this were to happen, municipal services were expected to improve, and property prices would increase.
However, Ayn Tarma residents did not look favourably upon the expected increase in “outsider” owners in the newly rezoned neighbourhood of a city where other districts were suffering poor municipal services and unlicensed construction due to the continued classification of the land as agricultural (where building is prohibited).
Additionally, the cultural changes brought by the new residents to the area, such as unveiled women and new restaurants selling alcoholic beverages, unsettled the largely conservative social environment of Ayn Tarma. Overall, however, the economic benefits arising from rezoning the area outweighed the cultural concerns of the hardliners.
As the 2011 revolution transitioned to armed conflict and the opposition took control over many towns in Rural Damascus, residents fled the Ayn Tarma zoned real estate area, hoping for a quick return. In 2012, however, militants (some affiliated with regime forces) looted the area, plundered and damaged homes, dug up roads to extract the copper electrical wiring underneath, and disrupted the water and sewage networks.
In 2013, the opposition took complete control of Ayn Tarma after several back-and-forth military operations. Parts of the zoned real estate area were devastated as they became a frontline between regime forces and the opposition. The area faced repeated bombardment, especially from the regime forces controlling Wadi Ayn Tarma, while the opposition dug tunnels beneath the zoned area. Overall, buildings on the southern and western edges of the neighbourhood sustained significant damage from air and artillery strikes. In contrast, buildings in the centre of the district were less affected, but many were no longer habitable.
Four years later, in 2017, regime forces launched a military campaign to separate Ayn Tarma from the neighbouring Jobar district of Damascus. The battles lasted for about eight months, during which the area faced intense bombardment from “elephant bombs” and air raids, causing widespread destruction. After a prolonged siege, the opposition in East Ghouta surrendered in 2018 and were forcibly displaced to northwest Syria. However, residents of the zoned real estate area could not return to their homes.
Many of them had migrated outside of Syria during the war, especially since many homeowners were originally expatriates. Others got entangled in proving their property rights in the area, with many losing their ownership documents. Moreover, the regime’s security and military grip on the site remained tight, making entry and exit difficult for everyone. Neither the Rural Damascus governorate nor the Ayn Tarma municipality managed to restore services to the zoned real estate area, leaving debris on the streets and water, electricity, and sewage networks in disrepair.
Meanwhile, one unusual property-selling trend appears to be dominating the area. Michel, an apartment owner in an undamaged building in the Ayn Tarma zoned area, says he has been receiving anxious calls for years from brokers offering to buy his empty flat for $7,000, which is only about a quarter of its actual value. Suleiman, who owns an apartment in the Shimiland complex, recently received a threat that he must sell his apartment to one of the building’s brokers at a reduced price, or else a municipal committee would produce a false structural safety report claiming the entire building is at risk of collapse due to a tunnel beneath it. And Hani, who owns several flats in the zoned area, says he will not sell any of them until the situation becomes clearer, especially given the stagnant property market across Syria.
On the other hand, even construction businesspeople who previously worked in the area have not yet taken any apparent steps to rebuild. The private Tamouz company has only carried out groundwork beneath the two towers for which it obtained a building permit in the district in 2021. The company recently opened a petrol station in the neighbourhood, cleared the debris from several dilapidated buildings adjacent to the roundabout, and levelled the ground, but has yet to initiate the construction of any new buildings other than the petrol station.
Since the zoned real estate area has become virtually deserted, some Ayn Tarma residents have opted to live in buildings that are less damaged, based on rental agreements with the original owners or with their consent, after securing the necessary security approvals to return. These individuals have extended the electrical network lines at their own expense, using private generators and relying on water tanks for their drinking water.
The status of the zoned real estate area remains shrouded in mystery. Rumours abound on the possibility of its demolition and reconstruction or its rehabilitation and allowing residents to return. There are also whispers about the potential integration of the district into Zoning Plan No. 106 for the Jobar district of Damascus, zoning it according to Urban Planning and Development Law No. 23 of 2015.