UN allowing Assad government to take lead in rebuilding Aleppo

The United Nations is rebuilding the devastated city of east Aleppo under the direction of the dictatorial Assad regime that destroyed it, according to U.N. planning documents examined by Fox News.

The plans, coordinated by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Syrian Government's Ministry of Local Administration and Environment, underline the extent of control the regime continues to exercise over the ostensibly neutral humanitarian program in the country.

They also stoke fears that the rebuilding program, part of the next phase of a multibillion-dollar humanitarian response plan for Syria, will entrench the displacement of tens of thousands of Syrians who fled Aleppo before it fell to Assad’s forces in December 2016.

An official working on the Syria response, who asked to remain anonymous, said the plans are “not practical and don't take into account the refugees from eastern Aleppo.” The official added the plan had the potential to “cause social problems due to its inequitable planning priorities.”

East Aleppo made headlines last year, as a months-long siege and savage military and air campaign by the Syrian Army, backed by Russian warplanes and Iranian-trained militias, led to a forced evacuation of the last supporters of the armed opposition.

The attacks included air assaults and poison gas attacks on hospitals, schools and food markets, as well as forced deportations.

The U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic stated that from July to December 2016, parties to the conflict committed “serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes.”

A view shows the damage in the Old City of Aleppo as seen from the city's ancient citadel, Syria January 31, 2017. Picture taken January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki - RC1329E7E500

That was only the crescendo of disaster for East Aleppo, which was bombed into ruins for the two previous years, and saw a huge drop in its population as a result. 

In planning to rebuild and repopulate the city, two parallel processes are now taking place: an internationally-supported humanitarian plan to deal with the needs of Syrians living in, and returning to, east Aleppo; and a much narrower development plan focused on reconstructing the historic Old City at the center of town.

A document outlining the broader, multi-agency humanitarian response, examined by Fox News, specifies suburbs that the Assad government and the local municipality have earmarked as priorities for returnees.

According to the internal document, the process for deciding on how to rebuild east Aleppo started with the government outlining 15 priority areas in the city for population returns. These were mapped over 10 U.N.-designated “Shelter Cluster” priority areas, chosen after the humanitarians assessed the security, practicality of allowing refugees to return, and needs, in each of the areas in the city. The mapping exercise then compared the lists and identified eight areas that appeared on both lists as the focus of rehabilitation resources.

A “multi-sector” pilot project is then identified within three of these neighborhoods, as a further initial target for rebuilding resources.

Matching up the planning documents with U.N. press releases issued throughout 2017 reveals that such projects as school refurbishment, health center repairs and new community centers in Aleppo fall almost exclusively within the priority areas of the city outlined by the government. 

In fact, even though 52 east Aleppo neighborhoods were returned to government control by the time east Aleppo fell, some of the eight identified neighborhoods defined as priority areas by the regime and included in the U.N.’s own plans are not in eastern Aleppo at all. They fall instead in the west and center of the city in neighborhoods that were not part of the months-long siege and military campaign in 2016.

Residents walk near damaged buildings in the rebel held area of Old Aleppo, Syria May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail/File Photo - RC1FE5D0C050

A leaked draft of the U.N.’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2018 outlines that risks within the shelter cluster include “the potential for aid diversion, corruption and empowerment of parties to the conflict, which should be addressed by all partners through their intervention design, management and monitoring systems.”

The draft goes on to say that rehabilitation plans “must include an understanding of context-specific Housing, Land and Property issues.” These risk assessments and mitigations, intended to ensure U.N. plans do not contribute to the possibility of displaced persons being permanently forced out of their homes, do not appear to have been factored into Aleppo plans.

The document examined by Fox News does not address expansive areas of improvised and unofficial housing further east in the devastated city, which tens of thousands of refugees fled to escape the violence inflicted on the area. In other words, those people may now face the very real prospect of permanent displacement.

During the conflict, more than 30,000 of Aleppo’s property records were destroyed, the majority of which related to properties in the east, and in the Old City. Without property records, residents may be unable to prove ownership of their home, or even access compensatory payments or services.

Aleppo’s historic Old City has been separated from the broader humanitarian planning process, and is under the supervision of a so-called “National Higher Steering Committee for the Restoration of the Old City of Aleppo.” The most recent meeting of that committee, publicized on Nov. 2 by the Syria Trust for Development, a non-government organization associated with Syria's first lady, Asma Assad, was hosted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Asma Assad, and the charity she founded, are longtime partners of the U.N. in Syria. They are undertaking a large amount of relief and development work throughout the country using U.N. funds.

The Old City reconstruction plan is led by the Syrian Government's Ministry of Culture, and works closely with the Ministry for Public Works and Housing, and the Ministry for Tourism, as well as UNESCO and the UNDP, along with other government bodies and NGOs.

The Old Aleppo program is similar in design to that used in the rehabilitation of the Old City portions of Homs, a city south of Aleppo, which began in 2015 and continues today. There, too, the neighborhoods chosen for rebuilding appeared to prioritize the government's plans for the city, rather than any form of neutrality. 

The Syria Institute and PAX for Peace, advocacy organizations that have worked together to monitor sieges and forcible displacements in Syria, heavily criticized the U.N.’s interventions in Homs. Their report, titled No Return to Homs, detailed a series of interventions by the U.N. and the Assad government which, the report charged, would prevent refugees from Homs who fled the city, and others forcibly displaced from the Old City in 2014, from returning -- in effect, a political form of social engineering. 

According to No Return to Homs, the process to establish priorities for Homs rehabilitation, and to decide which properties could be restored vs. which would require demolition, has been opaque, and has not included any persons not currently in the city itself. “None of the displaced participants reached for this study had been contacted by any organizations or agencies regarding the property they left behind,” the report noted.

Rather than acknowledge those failings, the Aleppo planning process uses Homs as an example of how best to proceed with assessing damage and reach out to the beneficiaries of rebuilding relief. And it states that the terms of reference for the Aleppo plan are “endorsed by Homs Governorate.”

The executive director of the Washington-based Syria Institute, Valerie Szybala, charges that “the U.N. agencies engaging in reconstruction work in areas like eastern Aleppo are -- at least publicly -- maintaining a willful 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," she says.

“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.”

- Kheder Khaddour, Friederich Ebert Foundation

UNHCR declined to answer questions from Fox News about the decision to put at the top of the list the Syrian government's priorities in Aleppo. But that hasn’t stopped them undertaking a heavily criticized social media campaign aimed at fundraising for their work in the city.

UNHCR also has press releases about its work in east Aleppo stating that “For those that have chosen to return to Aleppo since the fighting stopped, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners are providing assistance to help people get back on their feet.” They have backed this up with a supplementary funding request to donors for $156 million for the last quarter of 2017 

In an October report on Aleppo’s new political and social order sponsored by Germany’s Friederich Ebert Foundation, Kheder Khaddour, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, observed that many east Aleppo neighborhoods were previously populated by “poorer new migrants from the countryside” who continued to identify with their home villages or other parts of the country while working for factory owners, often independent of the regime, who lived in the wealthier western portions of the city.

Those communities have now been savagely disrupted, including their entrepreneurs and, as Khaddour puts it, the conflict “has reshaped the balance of power between Aleppo and the regime in Damascus.” 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,” he says.

If rehabilitation is truly intended to offer hope and recovery to the displaced populations who now face this social divide, Khaddour says, “reconstruction aid should be provided only on the condition that no security restrictions will be placed upon the return of refugees and IDPs, and that independent Syrian technocrats should be involved in the reconstruction process in an oversight function to its spending and management.”