Hundreds of Syrian families in the countryside of Idlib and Hama are facing a new problem of selling and investing in their real estate through public auctions supervised by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. These regions have been under government control for nearly three years, following the withdrawal of the armed opposition from them in a large-scale ground military operation. The area was assaulted by Assad's forces with air support from Russia.
Although the owners of these properties refuse to sell them, the problem of confiscation began in the villages and towns located in the countryside of Idlib and Hama governorates after al-Assad forces took control of them in the summer of 2019 and early 2020, when the military operation was completed.
This came after Russian-Turkish understandings made in the Russian city of Sochi, but the properties, especially farms, orchards, and agricultural fields, are blown by the wind, after their owners were displaced from those areas as a result of military operations before the Assad forces and their allies took control of them. But what is new now?
Between May 8 and 14, the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment of the Syrian regime held a public auction to invest in orchards and agricultural fields in the countryside of Hama governorate, even though these properties actually belong to people who do not have access to them.
In this regard, the owner of an agricultural field from the town of Morek, located in the countryside of Hama, confirmed that "the authorities have seized agricultural lands owned by me and my brothers, and I was recently surprised by the offer of investment from the Hama Governorate Council."
The 69-year-old added to Majalla, "This land is all that my family owned and we used to depend on it to secure our daily food, but the regime took control of it and did not allow us to return to our town under the pretext of our support for the opposition."
The old man continued recounting his story, saying: "Today, I live as a displaced person in the countryside of Idlib, and I moved here about three years ago when Assad's forces were trying to control our town. I thought that I would only stay here for several months, but what happened was the opposite of my expectations."
He continued, “My children work here in the countryside of Idlib. My eldest son is a taxi driver and he suggested that I return to the town of Morek because I am old and this means that I will not be wanted by Assad's forces. However, when one of my relatives in the center of Hama city tried to obtain a document proving that I am not wanted by the authorities, it turned out that I am wanted by the Political Security branch, and this was the reason for my refusal to return to Morek.”
The elderly man's refusal to return to his town for fear of detention caused him to lose control of his agricultural land, which was his only source of income, before he left the town against his will and headed to the countryside of Idlib governorate, adjacent to his town.
When the Assad regime seizes the properties of the displaced, or offers them for sale or investment, it relies on a controversial law it issued in 2018, which is known as Law No. 10.
The regime says it allows the establishment of organizational areas throughout Syria, which are designated for reconstruction.
What is Law No. 10?
This law has been criticized by several prominent international bodies, such as Amnesty International and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, but the Assad regime continues to implement it since it was issued more than four years ago in early April 2018.
Three lawyers from the Syrian capital of Damascus, said that "this law has caused thousands to lose their real estate, especially refugees and displaced persons, who no longer possess anything that confirms their ownership of these properties, lands and agricultural fields."
Another lawyer confirmed to Majalla that "Law No. 10 is vague and is applied randomly, as if its goal is to take revenge on absentee real estate and land owners who either fled outside the country or moved between Syrian cities as a result of the war that Syria has been ongoing for more than 11 years."
According to Amnesty International, this law does not specify clear criteria for classifying the area in which real estate will be reserved or whose lands will be offered for investment - as a regulatory area - and it does not provide a timetable for defining the areas, but rather defines the areas according to decrees issued subsequently.
For example, within a week of the issuance of the decree to reconstruct an area, local authorities must request a list of property owners from government land registries operating in that area, and those registrars must submit the lists within 45 days of receiving the request from the local authorities.
If the property owner’s does not appear on the list, he will be notified, and the owner will have 30 days to provide proof of ownership. If he fails to do so, he will not be compensated and the ownership of the property will revert to the town, district or city in which the property is located.
But if the owner shows proof that he owns a property in the regulatory area within the specified period, he will obtain shares in the area, according to Law No. 10.
The deadline of thirty days is the biggest obstacle faced by the owners of land and real estate controlled by Assad's forces, especially with the presence of the largest number of owners outside or inside the country in areas where it is difficult to reach the regime's territory, as is the case in the Idlib countryside and other areas under the control of the armed opposition from Turkey.
This law also obliges every person whose real estate was seized by the authorities to be given in exchange an amount of financial compensation from the authorities equivalent to the rental of an adequate house for two years.
However, this provision was not applied in the countryside of Idlib and Hama, according to what four families confirmed to Majalla. The authorities seized their agricultural lands and orchards when their homes were located nearby.
INK ON PAPER
A real estate owner from the Hama countryside stressed to Majalla that "most of the provisions of this law, which seem to favor the property owners, have all remained ink on paper, and the authorities have not implemented any of them…Although I cannot secure a new home for my family after all my children migrated to Europe, the authorities have not yet provided me with financial compensation, even though they took control of my property about two years ago.”
Indeed, Law No. 10 does not specify how the victim may obtain financial compensation or alternative housing, which was indicated by the owner of a property located in the countryside of Morek, near Hama governorate.
A source from the European Union Mission to Syria, which is located in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, revealed to Majalla that "Brussels opposes the issue of reconstruction in Syria if the regime does not respond to a comprehensive political solution, such as confirming its commitment to UN Resolution 2254."
Although Law No. 10 authorizes the first degree relatives of the owners of these properties or their legal agents to pursue the issue of establishing their ownership of real estate offered by the authorities in a public auction, Majalla observed several cases in which the Hama Provincial Council refused to pursue relatives to establish the ownership of these properties on the pretext that the owners belong to terrorist organizations and reside in its areas of influence.
The Hama Provincial Council’s refusal to follow up on the affairs of the relatives of the owners of these properties led to them losing the properties that were then offered in a public auction from which the relatives of the owners were forbidden to benefit under the basis of the relationship between them.
Three people whose real estate and agricultural properties were offered in the town of Mhardeh, also in the countryside of Hama, in a public auction, appealed to the international committees to stand up for their problem and find a solution to it.
One of them said, "My family lost all of the evidence confirming its ownership of these properties during the war, and this is not our problem alone. There are dozens of families who suffer from the same problem in this area, but I think that the authorities do not want to help us, they have records which they can easily locate to find out all the owners of those properties and real estate, but they do not do that."
He added that "government employees of the regime do not want to solve our problem, and they follow a mechanism that complicates our problem," stressing that "civil society organizations must intervene to solve the problem of ownership and real estate that is offered in public auctions."
Although the war caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose their important paperwork, such as property documents, as a result of fleeing their homes during the military operations, the failure of the authorities to register about 50% of the land in their records further complicated this problem.
Government records of the Assad regime show that only 50% of the lands were registered to it before the country was subjected to a violent war more than 11 years ago, in which international and regional parties subsequently intervened.
According to international organizations, most notably Amnesty International, displaced people residing in opposition areas are the most likely to have their property confiscated, which is evident through Majalla’s communication with dozens of displaced Syrian families in the Idlib countryside, who come from the countryside of Hama governorate.
The displaced inside Syrian cities and refugees abroad lack basic documents confirming their ownership of their agricultural and residential properties.
The number of those who owned residential and agricultural properties before the Syrian war and cannot confirm their ownership today is estimated at about 70% of the total properties that the regime may seize successfully, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
* Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Syrian and Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]). He tweets at @JiwanSoz1