Updated on January 11, 2024: The original version of this article has been updated to include a UNDP clarification on their role in an early recovery project.
In late October, the Damascus governorate launched the “Participatory Planning for Early Recovery of Old Damascus City” project in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Syria, according to the official website of the Syrian Prime Ministry. Some ambiguity surrounds the nature of the project and its stages due to complexities related to private property ownership in the area and the lack of a clear definition of early recovery. Additionally, the overlapping roles of two international agencies, UNESCO and UNDP, in the same area could potentially lead to conflicting operations.
The project was launched during a meeting held on October 28, which included the governor of Damascus, officials from the governorate, and representatives from UNDP. The Syria Report contacted UNDP Syria several times over the last month to obtain more details. However, it did not receive any information about the project. Upon publication on December 19, UNDP sent a statement that was incorporated on the updated version published on January 11.
Damascus Governor Mohammad Tariq Krishati claimed that the project is a participatory process where the efforts of the governorate are integrated with those of the local community to develop an early recovery plan for the neighbourhoods of Old Damascus, as per the website of the Syrian Prime Ministry. Mr Krishati said that the recovery plan includes:
- Enhancing the capabilities of neighbourhood committees, volunteer committees, and individuals.
- Promoting dialogue between local authorities in Old Damascus and the local community.
- Stimulating community participation and supporting community initiatives.
- Expanding the involvement of youth and women in local decision-making.
- Enhancing the corporate social responsibility of the private sector and involving it in dialogue and action.
He also mentioned the formation of five committees for Old Damascus, comprising representatives from the local community, neighbourhood committees, the governorate council, and economic, commercial and religious entities. There are no more details on these committees, including the criteria to be used to select the members of these committees.
At the same meeting, Dr Hala Rizk, Local Governance and Basic Service Team Leader of the UNDP in Syria, spoke about the project’s importance in enhancing cooperation between UNDP, the governorate and civil society, as reported by state news agency SANA and the Prime Ministry’s website on October 28. She emphasised the development of integrated plans by all parties involved and the implementation of initiatives to develop Old Damascus and improve the quality of services in it, including through conducting training courses for participants.
The term “early recovery” has emerged in recent years as a key topic in the international discourse on post-conflict development during the Syrian crisis. There is no consensus on what constitutes early recovery, either in terms of policy or programmes. Generally, it is supposed to follow the phase of humanitarian emergency response and precede the reconstruction phase. Early recovery aims to restore essential services that enable those affected to sustainably rely on themselves.
The Damascus government views early recovery projects as a potential alternative to reconstruction following signs that international funding for humanitarian and relief aid is decreasing.
Sources within the Damascus governorate told The Syria Report that the government is considering pushing international organisations to cooperate in implementing early recovery projects as a first step. This could be followed by pressuring these organisations to widen the scope of early recovery and support more extensive and financially more considerable reconstruction programs.
The current phase of early recovery appears to serve the interests of the parties involved: it frees international organisations from the main donor stipulations, such as those from the United States and the European Union, which link reconstruction to a political transition per International Resolution 2254 of 2015. Simultaneously, it allows the Syrian authorities to direct funding towards projects for its social base, implemented by companies indirectly connected to regime officials on international sanctions lists, especially those issued by the E.U. and the U.S.A.
Old Damascus and the World Heritage List
Old Damascus has its directorate within the Damascus governorate and functions like a municipality. Its jurisdiction covers the area within the walls of Damascus, extending from the Damascus Citadel and Al-Hamidiyah Souq in the west to Bab Sharqi in the east. This area has been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979.
Currently, Old Damascus suffers from deteriorating services and delays in restoring and rehabilitating old buildings, endangering their structural integrity. Some ancient buildings are on the verge of collapse and do not receive appropriate restoration due to complications in issuing restoration permits (officially named “reinforcement and partial reconstruction permits”).
Because the area is ancient, sometimes the powers of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Awqaf intersect with the powers of Damascus Governorate regarding the ownership of some real estate.
Many properties in the area are subject to judicial disputes among generations of heirs over inheritance and old bequests, as well as conflicts between tenants and landlords under old residential lease agreements and commercial furoogh leases subject to compulsory extension. There are also complications due to overlap with Endowments properties. These complexities have resulted in many properties in the Old City being marked with Restraint on Disposal that prevents obtaining restoration permits.
Since 1993, the World Heritage Committee has been issuing reports detailing the risks to the urban and social fabric of Old Damascus. These include restoration and rehabilitation works not compliant with the criteria for World Heritage listing or changes in the functions of some markets. The Damascus governorate has attempted several times to transform the main streets of the Old City into tourist and commercial axes, pressuring for the removal of small craft workshops and traditional industries. In 2018, the committee warned that a recent construction project in Haret Al-Zeitoun might affect the social and historical fabric of the city.
The latest report from the World Heritage Committee, in 2023, highlighted the impact of fires on Old Damascus and the absence of rehabilitation after that. The report mentioned current restoration works funded by the World Heritage Fund in the Old City and a cooperation agreement between the World Heritage Committee and Damascus University to conduct studies in Old Damascus, including launching an urban design competition in Bab Touma Square. The report also listed some rehabilitation works by non-governmental organisations in the Old City, including a microfinance service launched by the Aga Khan Foundation to provide loans for housing restoration in the Old City.
These reports did not explicitly mention the term “early recovery”. The closest initiative found to the “Participatory Planning for Early Recovery of Old Damascus City” project is a UNESCO project launched in November 2022, with a duration of three years, for the digital transformation of Old Damascus. The aim is to transform it into a sustainable city considering the residents’ needs and enhancing the city’s economic, tourism, cultural and environmental dynamics. The first phase of this project includes creating a three-dimensional model of the city using advanced technology.
Participatory Planning for Early Recovery in Old Damascus
Tamima Abboud, the director of Old Damascus City Directorate in the Damascus governorate, told the official newspaper Al-Baath on November 14 that the directorate is following a phased action plan to remove the danger from Old Damascus and ensure it remains on the World Heritage List. She added that the directorate is working to transform Old Damascus into a “sustainable digital city” through digital transformation and smart management projects.
The UNDP Syria told The Syria Report that Ms Abboud was referring to the general activities of the directorate and not to the UNDP project in Old Damascus and added that “UNDP is not involved in or supporting the digital transformation and smart management initiative for the Old City.”
Ms Abboud mentioned that a community support centre will open at the Old Damascus City Directorate’s “Anbar Office” to offer vital development projects in coordination with civil society and the local community with funding from UNDP, without specifying a date for this. “UNDP is planning to support establishing community centres under Law 107 to enhance active civic engagement especially women, youth and persons with disabilities at community level,” UNDP Syria said.
Interestingly, despite being the knowledgeable and competent organisation for this area, UNESCO seems to have no role in the proposed early recovery project, which has not experienced any armed conflict or natural disaster.
The director explained to Al-Baath that the early recovery project consists of four components: establishing an office, including setting up a digital transformation unit, computer equipment, committees for study, topographical surveying and aerial photography. The second component is urban planning, the third relates to smart urban management, and the fourth includes smart implementation projects for infrastructure and services. The UNDP told The Syria Report that Ms Abboud was “describing the overall activities of the directorate rather than explaining the details of the UNDP project in old Damascus.”
According to information obtained by The Syria Report, the project’s first component is the simplest and most straightforward, requiring the setup of an office with computers, cameras, printers, drones and good electricity and internet connectivity. The third and fourth components actually aim to digitise water and electricity metres to improve revenue collection and increase the governorate’s income. Meanwhile, according to sources in the governorate that talked to The Syria Report, the governorate continues to delay implementing fire extinguishing and early fire warning networks despite repeated fires at important sites like the Sarouja and Al-Asrouniyah markets.
The second component, urban planning, faces major challenges, including a lack of clear distinction between it and zoning. Therefore, there is a possibility of imposing any of the problematic regulation laws issued after 2011, such as Decree No. 66 of 2012, Law No. 23 of 2015, and Law No. 10 of 2018, and their potential risks to private properties in Old Damascus.
According to The Syria Report sources, some property owners are concerned that urban replanning will increase restrictions on their property rights by including them in zoning plans and potentially expropriating them later. An insider familiar with the matter told The Syria Report that the situation is further complicated by the presence of Christian and Islamic Endowments and old properties belonging to Syrian Jews who have emigrated.
In a statement to The Syria Report, UNDP Syria County Office, said that their “approach commitment extends to a thorough context analysis, considering all pertinent issues related to the communities rights.”