► Mezzeh is a city with mixed character. On one hand there is a planned area inhabited by high-income and middle-income groups, and on the other hand, the rural immigration and refugees keep on constructing illegal housing around the planned area.
► In September 2012, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad issued a presidential decree authorising the creation of two urban planning zones within the governorate of Damascus as part of a “general plan for the city of Damascus to develop the areas of unauthorised residential housing [slums].”
► According to HRW’s satellite images, a total of 41.6 hectares of buildings was demolished around the Mazzeh military airport, mainly between December 2012 and July 2013.
Population in 2004
Although the old city of Mezzeh dates back to 6th century and some modern structures were planned and built during the French mandate, as the military airport and now closed Mezzeh prison, the real development of the now modernist suburb of Mezzeh started after Syria became independent and mainly under the socialist regime from 1958. During the presidency of Gamal Abdul Nasser (1958- 1961) in the United Arab Republic, a residential area was planned, called the “Nasser project” along Airport Road, which passes by the old Mezzeh and was one of the main roads leading to Beirut. Introducing a modernist plan the purpose was to make social housing, to be inhabited by low-income young people. This project was executed in the early 1960’s. The road now officially called Hafez Mansour road, the Mezzeh highway, was planned to be used as an emergency runway during the 67’ war. In the early 1970’s, it was transformed in a wide automobile road. The socialist Baath government of Assad developed military housing in Mezzeh. Government facilities are gradually located. Lands are distributed and sold to encourage cooperative housings. In the late 1970’s, the expansion of university and the frequent communication between Lebanon and Syria made Mezzeh a popular area. Today, Mezzeh is a city with mixed character. On one hand there is a planned area inhabited by high-income and middle-income groups, and on the other hand, the rural immigration and refugees keep on constructing illegal housing around the planned area.
In September 2012, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad issued a presidential decree authorising the creation of two urban planning zones within the governorate of Damascus as part of a “general plan for the city of Damascus to develop the areas of unauthorised residential housing [slums].”1 The first zone is situated in the south-east of al-Mazzeh, encompassing the real estate departments of al-Mazzeh and Kafarsouseh. The second stretches south of the Southern Highway, encompassing the departments of al-Mazzeh, Kafarsouseh, Qanawat, Basateen, Darayya and Qadam. The decree prohibited the trading in any property within these zones or authorising any new construction projects. It also required the City Council to put together a list of all the property owners in these areas within a month, and required all property owners in the area to publicly declare their ownership of their properties and gave them a choice of selling their stakes in the property. The decisions of the “committee of experts” created by the decree were to be “final and unappealable.” Commenting on the decree, the Minister of Local Administration Ibrahim Ghalawanji said Decree 66 “came as a response to the government’s priorities and its vision for overcoming the repercussions of the crisis that Syria is going through, and as a first step in the reconstruction of illegal housing areas, especially those targeted by armed terrorist groups, through rebuilding those areas to high development standards…” Daraya, Moadamiya and other towns in this part of the Damascus countryside were strong revolution hotbeds and, later, armed opposition strongholds. Like in other parts of Syria, initial peaceful protests turned into armed opposition and many Free Syrian Army fighters used bases in the area to stage attacks on government targets, including the Mazzeh military airport and regime checkpoints. In August 2012, regime forces launched a massive offensive against the two towns. The offensive was one of the deadliest regime attacks up until that point. This was followed by another offensive in December 2012, following an opposition attack on a regime checkpoint on 25 November.
Hectares of building demolished
The Mazzeh destruction and subsequent demolitions were therefore clearly linked to the armed conflict. Indeed, when asked by the Wall Street Journal about the motives behind the demolitions, Hussein Makhlouf, the governor of the Damascus Countryside and a relative of al-Assad, said they were “essential to drive out terrorists.” According to HRW’s satellite images, a total of 41.6 hectares of buildings was demolished around the Mazzeh military airport, mainly between December 2012 and July 2013. This is arguably widespread and systematic enough to satisfy the requirements of the war crime of unlawful destruction of civilian property. And it was clearly part of a state policy, as indicated by the presidential decree. However, to say that the Mazzeh demolitions may have been militarily justified by the armed opposition’s attacks on regime targets, even if the demolitions were excessive and disproportionate, seems to miss another, important part of the story, namely, that there had already been plans to ‘reconstruct’ the whole area well before the current conflict started. And the Iranian embassy in Damascus, which is located on al-Mazzeh Highway and is within the area designated by Decree 66, appears to be at the heart of this plan. The demolitions in al-Mazzeh appear to be a continuation of a long-standing plan of creating an ‘Iranian zone’ in al-Mazzeh similar to the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburb of Beirut (al-Dahiyyeh). The plan was simply accelerated because of or under the cover of the war. It is also worth noting that the strategic road going from southern Damascus to Lebanon (al-Mutahalleq al-Janoubi, the city’s southern motorway) goes right through the area designated by Decree 66.