Bishr al-Sabban: out of spotlight after 12 years of governing Damascus

Governor of Damascus Bishr al-Sabban at “Al-Sham Btjmaana” (Al-Sham reunites us) Festival- May 2018 (Sanmar News)

Governor of Damascus Bishr al-Sabban at “Al-Sham Btjmaana” (Al-Sham reunites us) Festival- May 2018 (Sanmar News)


Enab Baladi – Hibaa Shehadeh | A year has passed since President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, dismissed the governor of Damascus, Bishr al-Sabban, after 12 years of service. His dismissal came amidst a cabinet reshuffle, which took place in November 2018. Since then, al-Sabban has not appeared in local and international news, except for an appearance in the bulletin of international sanctions update in last May.

During al-Sabban’s era, Damascus witnessed unprecedented events, such as the popular celebrations, which coincided with the bombing, displacement and expulsion of residents of the capital’s neighborhoods, as well as the destruction of other neighborhoods. He also worked on projects devoted to serving influential officials of the regime and its Iranian allies, and launched the reconstruction phase by implementing organizational plans and housing projects, which were never realized, causing him to face multiple lawsuits and ending his administrative career.

A doctor who never practiced medicine

Bishr al-Sabban, born in Damascus in 1966, assumed partisan and administrative positions, thanks to his connections with officials and his marriage to architect Maysa Ghazal, daughter of Major General Zuhair Ghazal, secretary-general of the presidency under Hafez al-Assad, and cousin of Iyad Ghazal, former director of the presidential palace in Aleppo and governor of Homs later, who has been dismissed following the 2011 popular protests.

A civil engineer, who previously held positions in Damascus and is currently working in the field of property rights and housing, told Enab Baladi on condition of anonymity, that al-Sabban also had a strong relationship with the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, Rami Makhlouf, who tasked him to carry out his projects in Damascus.

Al-Sabban, who graduated from the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Damascus, served as a member of the provincial council and vice president of the provincial council from 1999 to 2002, and headed the immigrants section of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, until he was appointed as a governor between 2006 and 2018.

Before the start of the popular protests, al-Sabban had notable achievements, while holding the position of the governor of Damascus, except for reports which have criticized his organizational policy, according to which he evacuated a road in the neighborhood of Kafr Sousa in 2007, causing the displacement of dozens of families, to build the Prime Minister’s office. Al-Sabban also threatened to demolish the Ancient City of Damascus, protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to build a road leading to the Council of Ministers headquarters, reported The New York Times in May 2007.

However, the leaked documents linking al-Sabban to harnessing 5,000 workers from gardening and public hygiene directorates to help the security forces crack down on peaceful protests since 2011, unveiled the truth about al-Sabban to the rest of the Syrian people.

EU: discrimination against Sunni society

Al-Sabban participated in maintaining the security of Damascus, through the formation of an operations room to coordinate between the workers of gardening and public hygiene directorates and the security forces that led the arrest campaigns against peaceful demonstrators in 2011, and through the formation of civil-protection units composed of residents from the capital, in order to “consolidate the security, stability and defense of the city,” end of 2015.

During the era of al-Sabban, Damascus witnessed celebrations, with the participation of youth, not minding the constant shelling on the outskirts of the capital, while raising the motto “I love Damascus” during a marathon launched on World Smile Day, on 7 October, 2016.

During the ceremony, the participants sprinkled colors and dyes, while dancing in the Umayyad Square, chanting that “the will of the people will not be broken,” al-Sabban told reporters, referring to the “the Syrian army coming victory”, before reproducing the slogan’s words in English in the centre of the square.

Al-Sabban’s celebration was followed by the imposition of European economic sanctions on him at the same month, stating that he “is supporting the regime and is responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population in Syria, including engaging in discriminatory practices against Sunni communities within the capital,” according to the European Union’s website.

The letters of “I Love Damascus” design soon became dirty after less than two months following floods which drowned the streets of the capital, when the rain started in December 2016. The governorate attributed this to “the accumulation of dust and leaves in the water drains” and not to the closure the drainage outlets since 2014 for fear of the infiltration of Free Syrian Army fighters to the city center.

Urban plans that satisfied no one

The Iranian interest in the Syrian capital preceded the start of the conflict, but their presence became clearer with the development of the Iranian role in supporting the Syrian regime. The role of the governor was represented in granting concessions and contracts, with the imposition of decrees curbing the rights of the population under the pretext of organization.

The most prominent of these decrees, was Legislative Decree No. 66 issued by al-Assad in 2012, announcing two organizational plans to develop the areas of irregularities and slums, the first in south-east of Mezzeh from “Mezzeh – Kafar Souseh” real estate areas, and the second in south of the southern road ring of the real estate areas of “Mezzeh- Kafar Souseh – Basatin channels- Daraya- Qadam.”

Al-Sabban took advantage of the decree to launch and head the Damascus Sham Holding Company at the end of 2016, to manage the governorate’s properties and invest them in the project of “Decree No. 66 organizational zones,” with a capital of 60 billion Syrian Pounds.

The governorate then announced Marotta City Project, which was launched in 2017, and the Basilia City project, which was announced mid-last year and has not gone beyond the planning stage so far.

Law No. (10) provides for the creation of one or more organizational zones within the general organizational chart of the administrative units in the western neighborhoods of Damascus, while allowing the acquisition of unproven-ownership  of real estate within a certain period of time. This caused local and human rights activists’ objections to its content, which was directed to the areas that were under the control of the armed opposition factions and subjected to extensive destruction before they returned to the control of the Syrian regime and their people were displaced.

Thousands of lawsuits were filed against al-Sabban following his start of the implementation of these projects. Traders and industrialists in the Qaboun district managed on December 27, 2018 to stop the organizational chart in their area, which threatened to expel about three thousands of them, after they filed lawsuits against him. The people of the regions that were evacuated to establish Marotta City also filed new lawsuits against the governorate after the lease contracts, under which they were relocated from their homes, ended before the suspension of the works of the residential city.

In addition, residents of Tadamon neighborhood in Damascus protested against the governorate’s assessment of the condition of their homes as uninhabitable and must be removed under Law No. (3), which was followed by the announcement of the start of returning them back to their homes in early October.

Al-Sabban’s “exploitation” of his position and the state of chaos in Syria led to the resentment of influential people in the Syrian regime as well. The civil engineer interviewed by Enab Baladi described the governor’s way of dealing with organizational projects as a “trading way”, pointing to al-Sabban’s attempt to attract foreign investment for them and work on serving the interests of Iranian allies, before the sanctions alienated investors and pushed the regime to get rid of him to move forward with the projects.

The civil engineer added that al-Sabban’s partnership in most of the governorate-managed contracts and deals with his cousin, former governor of Homs, Iyad Ghazal, led to the rivalry of businessmen and influential people on them and pushed forward towards his dismissal.

In an interview with the Russian agency Sputnik in November 2018, the political liaison officer of the Union of Syrian Forces, Ahmed Said, attributed the ministerial reshuffles and the replacement of the governor to Syria’s need for “different preparations with different leadership.” In addition, Russian news agency TASS quoted Yelena Suponina, an expert from the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, as saying that these changes “show that President Bashar al-Assad is working actively towards rebuilding the country.”

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