A new investigation has revealed that the UN is allowing the Assad regime to take the lead in rebuilding the city of Aleppo, despite the role it played in its destruction.
The findings by Fox News, based on an in-depth examination of UN planning documents, underscore the extent to which the government of president Bashar Al Assad continues to exercise control over Syria, even when it comes to ostensibly neutral humanitarian efforts.
They also raise fears that, rather than facilitating the return of the thousands of Syrians who fled Aleppo during the years of civil war, the rebuilding programme will actually entrench their displacement.
Aleppo fell to Mr Al Assad’s forces in December 2016 after a four-year campaign in which hundreds were killed and tens of thousands displaced. Air attacks were launched against civilian areas, coupled with poison gas attacks on hospitals and schools.
Two parallel efforts are now taking place to try and reconstruct the devastated city. One is an international humanitarian project focusing on the needs of civilians from east Aleppo, and the other is a development plan which aims specifically to rebuild the historic Old City.
The latter campaign, focusing on Old Aleppo, is being led by the Syrian Government's Ministry of Culture. It also works closely with UNESCO and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
It is being supervised by a ‘National Higher Steering Committee for the Restoration of the Old City of Aleppo’.
On November 2, the committee’s latest meeting was publicised by the Syria Trust for Development, an NGO linked to Syria's first lady, Asma Assad.
Ms Assad and the Syria Trust have long been aligned with the UN in Syria. The meeting was hosted by the UNDP.
The Fox News study draws parallels between the Old Aleppo reconstruction programme and that used in the rehabilitation of the Old City of Homs, a city south of Aleppo, which began in 2015.
Groups such as the Syria Institute and PAX for Peace have been very critical of the UN’s interventions in Homs.
In a report entitled ‘No Return to Homs’, they assert that refugees from the city were prevented from returning due to a string of interventions by the UN and the Assad regime. Displaced residents were also not contacted about the homes they had left behind.
The study also indicated that, as in Aleppo, the areas chosen for rebuilding appeared to prioritise the Assad government’s own plans for the city, rather than any sort of neutrality.
The executive director of the Syria Institute, Valerie Szybala, claims that “the UN agencies engaging in reconstruction work in areas like eastern Aleppo are - at least publicly - maintaining a wilful ignorance, putting on blinders to the fact that the Syrian regime is taking very real steps to prevent many civilians from returning to their homes”.
The wider UN plan for east Aleppo is being been coordinated by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Syrian Government's Ministry of Local Administration and Environment.
According to an unnamed official working on the Syria response, cited by Fox News, the plan could “cause social problems due to its inequitable planning priorities”. The official added the plans are “not practical and don't take into account the refugees from eastern Aleppo”.
Fox News has seen an internal document belonging to the humanitarian response, which identifies suburbs that the Assad regime pinpointed as priorities for returning civilians.
The document says that the government first outlined 15 such priority areas. Then a mapping exercise took place, comparing the government’s list with 10 UN-designated “Shelter Cluster” priority areas.
The areas that appeared on both lists were supposed to be the focus of rehabilitation resources.
But Fox News reveals that when matching up the planning documents with UN press releases this year, projects such as health centre repairs and school refurbishment in Aleppo fall practically entirely within the government’s earmarked priority areas of the city.
Around eight of the identified neighbourhoods highlighted by the regime and also included in the UN’s plans were not even in east Aleppo, but rather, in the west and centre of the city in neighborhoods that were not part of the military campaign in 2016.
Fox News also saw a leaked draft of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2018, which insists that all rehabilitation plans “must include an understanding of context-specific Housing, Land and Property issues”. In general, the aim of these assessments is to ensure UN plans do not contribute to the possibility of civilians being permanently displaced from their homes. However, in the case of the UN’s Aleppo plans, such risk assessments do not appear to have been carried out.
According to Fox News, the UN documents do not take into account vast areas of unofficial housing further east in Aleppo, which became home to thousands of refugees during the civil war. The risk, therefore, is that those civilians may now be permanently displaced – and given the loss of property records during the conflict, many will be unable to prove ownership of their houses or access compensation.
UNHCR declined to respond to questions from Fox News about their work in east Aleppo. Meanwhile, it continues to solicit fundraising for its efforts in the city, including a request to donors for $156 million for the last quarter of 2017.
Kheder Khaddour, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, who wrote a recent report on Aleppo’s new political and social order, said a “new class of war profiteers are the new power network Damascus is using to dominate Aleppo today, and the regime intends to use this network in ruling post-conflict Syria”.
In Khaddour’s view, for the reconstruction effort to offer any real hope for a new start to those tens of thousands of displaced people in the city, “reconstruction aid should be provided only on the condition that no security restrictions will be placed upon the return of refugees”.
He added that “independent Syrian technocrats should be involved in the reconstruction process in an oversight function to its spending and management”.