x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

In protest-gripped Syria, respect for the law goes out the (illegally built) window

With anti-government demonstrations now in their third month, Syrians are now ignoring the law in everything from driving through red lights to erecting unlicensed new buildings.

Syrian citizens are paying less and less attention to the rule of law. Muzaffar Salman / AP Photo
Syrian citizens are paying less and less attention to the rule of law. Muzaffar Salman / AP Photo

DAMASCUS // On the main highway running south from Damascus, ramshackle buildings are being built with remarkable speed. New workshops, homes and garages, all made of ubiquitous grey cinderblocks, are appearing seemingly overnight.

The buildings already in place are being extended, built upwards with additional storeys. The new layers seem designed with speed in mind, rather than durability.

Here, on the outskirts of Damascus, is a very different kind of building boom: all of the new properties - and most of the old - are illegal.

While major, government authorised building projects in other suburbs have now halted, in the overcrowded, working class districts construction is picking up steam, in open defiance of the authorities. No building permits are sought, no taxes paid, and there is no quality control.

"Every time I come down this road, there is another new building," said Abu Yasser, a delivery driver who works in the area. "It's not just here. All of the normal neighbourhoods are expanding now because people can get away with it."

Gripped by political crisis, with anti-government demonstrations now in their third month, much of Syria's private sector economy is grinding to a halt, including a number of prestigious building projects in the centre of Damascus and up-market suburbs.

The turmoil has left authorities occupied with the near-daily protests, giving Syrians the chance to flout various laws, including building codes. Traffic lights are increasingly ignored by drivers who see no point in waiting for red to become green, unless there happens to be a traffic policeman standing there.

For a time, mandatory seat belt laws were zealously enforced by traffic officers with the threat of significant fines. Now, fewer are bothering to buckle up.

Street vendors, once ever-ready to pack up their wares and flee approaching police, now hardly bother to look up when patrolling officers pass by.

Like the illegal buildings, the number of people hawking mobile phones, appliances, clothes, cigarettes - almost anything imaginable - has multiplied dramatically in recent months.

The vendors line the pavement of major thoroughfares, where their ad hoc stalls undercut the prices of established shops, which have to pay rent, taxes, utility bills and wages. Local businessmen are not amused.

Some Damascus residents see it as a testament to the high rate of unemployment, and a new-found willingness to defy the law. Others insist that many of the new street sellers are really working for the security services, spying on would-be protesters and ready to break up any nearby demonstration.

Taleb Kadi Amin, a former Syrian government official, admitted there was a new problem with laws being flouted. "Some people are ignoring traffic lights. They are building homes illegally. They are taking matters into their own hands rather than going through the legal route," he said. "It's essential for society that people respect the law."

Mr Amin said he expected the recently appointed new government to soon take corrective steps and enforce the letter of the law. One independent political analyst in Damascus, however, said authorities were deliberately turning a blind eye to minor legal infringements to avoid antagonising the populace.

"With the rapid economic slowdown, increasing poverty and the political tensions, the last thing the government wants is to upset the ordinary people who are not protesting," the analyst said, on condition of anonymity. "They don't need any extra enemies."

Town planning regulations have long been treated with disdain by ordinary Syrians. Builders admit that they would simply slip a small bribe to local officials to go ahead with illegal construction.

Before the first anti-government demonstrations broke out in March, however, officials had been moving to enforce building rules for the first time in a generation.

New city plans had been drawn up and regulators were hoping to recapture some of Damascus' historical lustre, worn away by decades of intense, uncoordinated development. The outpouring of civil disobedience has now brushed much of that aside.

A construction worker in a working-class north-eastern suburb of Damascus said he and his crew of 30 labourers were booked solid for a month to build illegal homes - all in areas that have seen anti-government demonstrations.

"The police come around and take photos of the work and they tell us they'll demolish it in a few months," he said. "We just joke with them and say, 'Only if you're still running the neighbourhood by then'. We don't even bother paying them a bribe anymore."

The builder, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said residents who could never afford a formal planning permission request - or who already lived in areas that had been built illegally - are gambling that the government will eventually issue an amnesty, rather than knock down the new properties.

Similar de facto approvals have been given in the past, with entire illegally built neighbourhoods accepted as legitimate and added to the government's electricity, telephone, sewage and water networks.

According to industry experts, as much as 70 per cent of the buildings in greater Damascus are technically illegal. Even in wealthy neighbourhoods, properties are often extended vertically without municipal permission.

"Most of the people we work for are poor," said the builder. "They're not building villas or palaces. They're having a room or two and a toilet [built]. The government will not want to give them a reason to be angry by coming along and demolishing that."

In another Damascus suburb, to the south of the capital, a major construction project is underway on a piece of land that has long been disputed between members of a family as a result of a contested inheritance. According to residents, one of the claimants took advantage of the political crisis, and began to build. Complaints were made to authorities by his rivals, who insisted the work be stopped and demolished. Yet this never happened because the complainant was told there were not enough police officers available to secure the site and knock down the building.

"When the government wants to demolish illegal properties, it's not a small matter," said the independent analyst. "In the past, they have had to send in security units and even the army to make sure there is no trouble with residents. Now they do not have the manpower to spare."

The rising disregard for laws has caused concern among some dissidents.

"When there is an uprising in any country, there will be people looking to exploit chaos for their own ends," said an opposition member on condition of anonymity.

"There is massive illegal construction happening now, which is a part of that, and it will make problems"

Existing unplanned neighbourhoods in Damascus are often blighted by a lack of schools and medical centres, basic water and sewage services. Safety precautions, such as proper electric wiring and fire protection measures, are rare. In the past urban planners in Syria had stressed the importance of formal control over development. They claimed that without oversight, ghettos would spring up that could be breeding grounds for social problems such as unemployment, drug abuse, street crime and domestic violence.

The delivery driver working the teeming suburbs dismissed such worries and, smiling, said he viewed the illegal construction boom as a sign ordinary people were taking control of their country.

"I'm happy to see every new building and every new floor," he said. "It's a sign that normal Syrians are taking their rights."