As if the horrors of Syria’s war weren’t already difficult to process, now there’s this: a group of archaeologists and urban planning experts in Germany say that President Bashar al-Assad is already seeing dollar signs in the ruins of his country’s cities.
In an article recently published by the German newspaper Die Welt, the group accused Assad of bombing parts of Aleppo not just for military purposes, but also to maximize their lucrative redevelopment potential. The walled Old City has already lost four fifths of its buildings, including the 900-year-old Umayyad Mosque.
“The moment that peace is concluded, international investors, especially from Saudi Arabia and the corrupt Syrian government, will fall upon the city and ensure that Aleppo loses its historic face forever,” Hilmar von Lojewski, a member of the German Association of Cities, said (translation via Google Translate).
Though the war is still raging, the government has already established a Ministry of Reconstruction in Damascus that has allegedly begun selling property. It has also burned land registry offices and deleted title entries, presumably to keep people from reclaiming their houses and businesses after the war ends (more than half of Syria’s citizens have fled the country).
Luckily, they’re not the only copies. Since the 1990s, a group of academics has been working to build up and digitize the Aleppo city archives and land registry offices, which means that a server owned by the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus in Germany also holds the records. Architect and urban designer Anette Gangler, who was involved in the project, never imagined the impact it might one day have. “In the beginning the war was far away, somewhere in Homs or Hama. I never thought that it would reach Aleppo,” she told Die Welt.
Gangler and von Lojewski are among many academics based in Germany who traveled to Syria in the decades before the war, often working in conjunction with the Aga Khan Foundation and the German Technical Cooperation Agency to help revive Aleppo’s old city center. In the wake of its destruction, they fear that Assad, if victorious, will reap the benefits of a rapid, lucrative, and historically and aesthetically indifferent reconstruction process. Von Lojewski has suggested a moratorium on construction after the war ends to prevent that from happening, but it’s highly unlikely the dictator would go along with such a plan.