Regime forces allowed some displaced residents to return to the Rural Damascus town of Ayn Al-Fijeh in late 2022. Since then, dozens of residents have inspected their homes, but only a few have chosen to settle there permanently due to the extensive damage to their properties and essential infrastructure, especially the drinking water network, difficulties in restoration and lack of efforts to remove rubble.
Ayn Al-Fijeh belongs administratively to the Zabadani district. It is also the centre of a subdistrict that includes nine towns and villages known as the villages of Wadi Barada. The town is about 15 kilometres west of the centre of Damascus, and it’s spring is the primary source of drinking water for the capital city and part of its countryside. The population of Ayn Al-Fijeh was approximately 6,000 before 2011, according to local estimates. The local armed opposition took control of Ayn Al-Fijeh in February 2012, so it was subjected to a punishing siege, continuous bombardment and repeated invasions by the regime forces.
Opposition forces threatened to cut off water to Damascus to improve the conditions for civilians in the town. In December 2016, regime forces backed by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia launched a military operation against the opposition in the town, resulting in significant damage to the Fijeh spring due to artillery and air bombardment. The regime managed to enter Ayn Al-Fijeh on January 28, 2017. It took control of the spring after reaching an agreement that resulted in the forced displacement of 2,100 residents to northern Syria.
In 2018, Law No. 1 was issued, establishing two buffer zones around the Fijeh Spring. A direct zone includes the land immediately surrounding the water source, and an indirect zone surrounds the direct one. The law stipulates the expropriation of properties and parts of properties located within the direct zone. It also established two other buffer zones, direct and indirect, along the water delivery tunnels from the Fijeh spring to Damascus. The law stipulated amending the zoning plan for Ayn Al-Fijeh so that residential areas located within the direct zones would be removed.
Only property owners in the indirect zone around the spring and waterway could repair damaged homes. The law also stipulates that residential facilities built before the enactment of this law in the indirect zone can remain, albeit under a set of conditions. Many houses and residences of the old town of Ayn Al-Fijeh fall within the areas of the direct zone.
While implementing the law, regime forces demolished and bulldozed entire residential neighbourhoods in Ayn Al-Fijeh, whose share of the direct zone was 45 hectares. This area was subject to expropriation and removal of all property contents. Republican Guard forces salvaged what could be recycled and reused from the houses before demolishing them, including ceramics, doors, windows and electrical wiring. After detonating the homes, they also extracted iron rebar. Sources from The Syria Report stated that the Republican Guard sold the iron to a company with large presses to reshape the extracted metals into large cubes.
Afterwards, the salvaged metal cubes were weighed in a collection area at the entrance to Ayn Al-Fijeh, before loading them into trucks and transporting them to smelting furnaces. The Rural Damascus governorate then brought dozens of heavy construction vehicles to Ayn Al-Fijeh to bulldoze the two buffer zones. Local sources suggest that more than half of the buildings in the town have been destroyed. Only an area of open fields on the side adjacent to the town of Bseima remains habitable and survived the bulldozing operations.
The Rural Damascus governorate later contracted with the General Company for Engineering Studies, affiliated with the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, in August 2020 to prepare detailed zoning plans for a new Wadi Barada suburb east of Ayn Al-Fijeh. The governorate stated this suburb would serve as paid alternative housing for the owners of properties expropriated under Law No. 1 of 2018.
Then in late 2020, for the first time, regime forces allowed some of the town’s displaced residents to briefly visit their properties, though they weren’t allowed to stay permanently. After that, residents were allowed to submit return requests to the temporary building of Ayn Al-Fijeh’s local council in the town of Jdeidat Al-Wadi, as Ayn Al-Fijeh’s original council building had been destroyed. After obtaining security approval for a return request, residents can submit a home repair request only if their repairable home is located in the indirect zone.
A local correspondent for The Syria Report indicated that anyone wishing to repair their home must submit a request to the local council to obtain a repair permit, accompanied by documents proving their ownership of the property. Afterwards, they must obtain a report from the Construction Safety Committee in the Rural Damascus governorate specifying the percentage of damage in the building they wish to return to.
According to The Syria Report’s sources, repair permits were granted for some homes where the damage exceeded 60 percent. However, receiving a repair permit is also contingent on obtaining security approval. In Ayn Al-Fijeh, this approval is given by the Political Security Branch and the Republican Guard, the two forces controlling the town.
On May 5, 2023, the head of the local council in the town told the semi-official newspaper Al-Watan that only a few dozen people currently reside in the town, due to the lack of drinking water available. He added that the process of repairing the drinking water network has halted, while the process of repairing the sewage networks has not yet begun. This is due to the town being subject to Law No. 1 of 2018, which mandates the creation of the buffer zones around the Fijeh spring, and requires that the construction sewage networks in the town be done in a specific technical manner that prevents contamination. Meanwhile, the electricity network is in no better condition, and out of three transformers, only one has been installed, though has yet to be connected to the network.
According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, there are still more than 4,000 cubic metres of rubble in the town, which neither the Rural Damascus governorate’s Technical Services Directorate nor the public construction companies have begun to remove. Local council work crews, in cooperation with small private crews working under temporary contracts, have opened most of the main roads and moved the rubble to smaller side streets. Sometimes residents resort to manually moving the rubble from in front of their homes on the side roads, and placing it on the main roads instead. In any case, the rubble that still remains lacks metal or other recyclable materials, which could explain the lack of interest of the Republican Guard and the Fourth Division in removing it.
On January 10, 2023, the head of the Al-Fijeh local council, Mohammed Shibli, told the state-run news agency SANA that 500 families had submitted requests to repair their homes. The requests were approved after the governorate’s Construction Safety Committee concluded that the homes were sound and could be repaired. He added that the families had begun removing the rubble from the homes, and he vowed to work on rehabilitating local infrastructure in parallel with the rubble removal operations.
But local sources expressed doubts to The Syria Report about the municipality having granted 500 repair permits, adding that the number of houses in the town that could be repaired is much lower than that. A source from the town explained that the main dilemma is the difficulty in obtaining new permits for completely destroyed buildings, outside the buffer zone and waterway areas of the spring, and within the zoned area of the town. This is partly because most of the town’s homes were multi-storey buildings consisting of a number of apartments, and were commonly owned rather than subdivided. Each construction permit application must be accompanied by a subdivision plan, which lists each owner and their location, and this in turn requires an agreement between the owners and a subdivision of the property in question. If there are multiple owners for one property and a subdivision plan is available in accordance with their shares, each of the owners must obtain security approval to get a building permit. But because some of those owners have been forcibly displaced or are wanted by security forces, they are unable to obtain security approval, which prevents the issuance of a building permit. In other cases, the financial costs of building permits have prevented some owners from agreeing to share the burden.