A Mall Victory

U.S. shopping malls have been disappearing for years, as commerce increasingly moves online. In Syria's northwest, though, new malls are thriving.

Idlib, which is both a city and a governorate, couldn't be more different from the suburban towns that sprouted American malls. More than two million internally displaced Syrians fled their homes to settle there, doubling the population. Many of the new residents live in substandard housing, if they have housing at all.

A Turkish aid agency first opened a shopping mall in Idlib in 2017 to distribute humanitarian assistance. Since then, local Syrian developers have gotten in on the action, building malls in neighborhoods around Idlib. Malls have even been springing up in smaller towns across the governorate.

Consumers say that the malls carry higher quality goods than traditional souks. Because shop owners in the malls regularly quote prices in a U.S. dollar equivalent—as opposed to the flagging Turkish lira—consumers feel less susceptible to dramatic price swings or fraud and manipulation . Shoppers also say the malls are just more convenient because they carry a wider variety of goods with a smaller footprint than an expansive open-air souk—and during bouts of fighting, some residents said they felt safer making a quick trip to the mall than wandering through a souk.

Still, others are skeptical of the malls' benefits. Peddlers and small shopkeepers complain that the malls jeopardize their livelihoods, especially when combined with newly implemented regulations that drive stalls further from streets and foot traffic.

There is also a lack of transparency around just who is funding all the new mall construction. Some critics claim they are money laundering schemes associated with the Hay`at Tahrir al-Sham (which the U.S. State Department designates a terrorist organization) or the closely allied Syrian Salvation Government, the governorate's de facto authority.

For many Idlib residents who have lived in limbo for years, the skeptics don't matter. The malls are more than monuments to normalcy. They are a sign of hope that Idlib is worth investing in.

This article is part of the series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

Max Levine

Former CSIS Middle East Program Intern