As early as 2012, as the Syrian regime and its allies destroyed Syrian cities and towns in its quest to vanquish the growing opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule, the government began outlining a “reconstruction” plan. The plan included a number of laws designed to rebuild parts of the country destroyed by the war, as well as remove informal settlements and unauthorized housing across Syria. This occurred under the framework of developing and reconstructing the country along “modern” lines.
Since then, the regime has essentially instrumentalized those laws to expropriate private property and displace the residents of areas controlled by opposition groups. The regime also used them to achieve its vision of a national economy centred around a socio-economic class loyal to the regime and influential people, ignoring the catastrophic situation of the Syrian population as a whole.
Joud Al-Hassan is a Berlin-based Syrian-Palestinian journalist.
Translated by Sulafah Al-Shami.
In 2019, a survey conducted by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) indicated that the destruction wrought by the civil war affected at least 16 Syrian cities and towns. By January 2021, the UN estimated that the number of Syrians inside Syria in need of humanitarian assistance was around 13.4 million individuals, including an estimated 6 million in acute need. More than 12 million people struggle to secure food on a daily basis, while half-a-million children suffer from chronic malnutrition. Yet none of them seem to figure in the official reconstruction plan.
Displacement by Decree
The regime’s reconstruction campaign framework includes Decree 66, which dictates the creation of two new regulatory zones in the Damascus Governorate (Syria’s 14 provinces are officially referred to as “governates”) for the purpose of redeveloping unauthorized housing and informal settlements. The first phase in the implementation of this decree was the Marota City project implemented by the Syrian company Damascus Cham Holding, with construction taking place on top of an informal settlement in western Damascus known as Basateen al-Razi. Approximately 50,000 residents were displaced as a result.
Construction licenses in Marota City continue to be granted despite ongoing American and European sanctions on the project. In January 2019, the European Union imposed sanctions on 11 Syrian businessmen and five commercial entities, most of which are connected to Marota City. The US Department of Treasury also sanctioned 16 entities and individuals close to the Syrian regime with links to the project.
After Decree 66 came Law No. 10 in 2018, providing the legislative foundation for the previous decree, extending across all Syrian governates and authorizing the regime to freely seize the property of anyone standing in its way. The law stipulates “the creation of one or more regulatory zones within the general regulatory plan of the administrative units, as mandated by the Ministry of Local Administration, which may impose a new regulatory plan for any area it chooses”, meaning the regime can now decide which areas will be designated for reconstruction — a clear threat to all Syrian citizens opposing the regime.
The danger of Law No. 10 lies not only in its granting the regime complete freedom to designate any area it chooses, but also in its centralized decision-making authority. Furthermore, the law neglects the identity, history, and memory of local cities and ties reconstruction exclusively to its economic return for the regime. It also strips citizens of their status as property owners by turning their property into common stocks in the newly assigned regulatory zones, and oversees the displacement of a large number of residents of informal settlements.
Yet the law’s impact goes even further: it also represents a threat to the ownership rights of millions of refugees and migrants due to the difficulty of obtaining documents required for proving ownership.
Expropriation for Assad
At first, the law gave property owners a one-month timeframe to present documentation proving ownership of their properties, which sparked an outcry domestically and internationally. The regime in turn extended the deadline to one year. The amendment stipulates that “property owners, and anyone who has a relationship with real estate in the regulatory zone either by being the original owner, or a custodian or a holder of a power of attorney, should present a request to the administrative unit within one year specifying the chosen place of residence within the administrative unit by attaching supporting documents that validate their rights or copies in the absence of the original documents. The applicants should indicate in their request the location, boundaries, shares and legal or religious type of the property, or the rights claimed, and any lawsuits filed by or against them.”
Law No. 10 fails to provide even a minimum level of justice in safeguarding the property and civil rights of Syrian citizens. The regime knows very well that passing a decision like this would serve to pave the way towards redrawing Syrian cities and redistributing the population according to what serves its vision and interests. It does not take into consideration the large numbers of those who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and cities due to airstrikes and the resultant destruction. Many lost important documents in the rubble, including their identification cards, property, and land deeds, and continue to face difficulties in issuing or replacing lost documents — not to mention the hundreds of thousands who were killed or detained.
The current reconstruction schemes are part of the Assad regime’s plan to use the war to expel unwanted citizens from the country. Indeed, many besieged Syrian cities witnessed numerous evictions and displacement campaigns after falling to regime forces and affiliated militias. In a report titled “We Leave or We Die”, Amnesty International concluded that the regime’s practice of forcing residents to evacuate following local agreements with the opposition amounted to a crime against humanity.
The displacement of Syrians to areas outside the regime’s control or their seeking refuge in other countries further complicated the challenge of proving possession or ownership of real estate, as owners were unable to prove their rights after they lost access to their property. Should those in exile decide to grant power of attorney to relatives inside Syria, the whole process can take several months due to security complications. The deadline to present documentation often expires before the process is even completed.
Another factor precluding their ability to do so is the fact that the majority of exiled individuals are wanted by the Syrian intelligence services, meaning their relatives or representatives would not dare take on the task of proving ownership out of fear of becoming a regime target themselves. As a result, the reconstruction laws issued by the regime can be accurately described as a legal cover for unjustified land theft.
Even if some people wanted to return, Law No. 10 will be a big obstacle in their way. For an “overwhelming majority” of Syrians surveyed by the Carnegie Middle East Center in focus group discussions, going back to their area of origin was unlikely without a home or property to return to, as a “a return to Syria was synonymous with going back to their homes and areas of origin. However, they were scared of what they would find.” This was also confirmed by Human Rights Watch, which pointed out that the expropriation of property was not limited to residential property, but also included commercial property like pharmacies, which further limited the economic opportunities available to those thinking of coming home.
The cases of properties seized based on the political affiliation of their owners under Decree 63 and the Counterterrorism Law No. 19 passed in 2012 send a clear message to property owners who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch: they are not welcome in Syria. They can expect persecution, arbitrary detention, or mistreatment by the security agencies.
If a property owner succeeds in proving their ownership, they will have four options: consensual sale, registering in an apportioned plot, forming a joint stock company, or the administrative unit will forecloses on their property and sell it in a public auction. The first option would mean that the property owner would have to sell their shares partially or in full and then exit the project completely. The second option necessitates that the shareholder enters an agreement with a group of other shareholders to register for an apportioned plot in proportion to the total number of shares they collectively own. Once an agreement is reached, a group application must be submitted to the local administration to register the apportioned plot in their names. Once that application is approved, they then become co-owners of this apportioned plot.
The third option is to enter a joint stock company within six months of the issuance date of the stock certificate. The rights of the shareholder in this company are limited to selling shares, receiving annual dividends, reviewing the company’s financial records, and attending and voting during the company’s general assembly meetings. If owners do not wish to willingly sell their property or register in an apportioned plot or contribute to the establishment of a closed joint stock company, the administrative unit will sell their shares in a public auction. The fourth and final option facilitates the sale of those shares to institutions and private companies cooperating with the Syrian regime.
In any case, if a city is brought under a regulatory zone, the property owners in this area will automatically lose their right to sell the property or build anything on it, and their rights will be limited to using or renting the property until an eviction notice is issued to demolish and raze it to the ground. This also nullifies any property claim by the property owner themselves.
The large-scale exile and displacement that the Syrian people underwent as a result of the brutality of the regime, its allies, and various extremist militias both foreign and domestic had a devastating impact on the country. Now, this is becoming evident in the new demographic distribution inside Syrian itself, reinforced by Decree 66 and Law No. 10, which in turn were the culmination of a series of laws and decrees issued by the Assad regime since 2011.
In this context, a source in the land registry department told the news website Al-Modon that, since 2015, the ownership of more than 8,000 properties in Damascus and its vicinity was transferred to “Shi’ite Iraqi and Iranian foreigners”.
Homogenizing the Homeland
Whether Article 11 of Counterterrorism Law No. 19, which gives the attorney general the right to freeze movable and immovable assets of people guilty of “terrorism”, Decree 66, Law No. 10, or Law No. 11, which lifted restrictions preventing foreigners from owning more than one residential apartment per family and gave foreign property owners the freedom to build on or sell the property before two years had passed from the date of acquiring ownership, all of these measures have one goal: to ensure that Syrians who refuse to support Assad never return to their homeland.
The “reconstruction” of post-war Syria cannot be discussed in isolation from the shifting political and socio-economic context in the country. Looking at the current reality, the reconstruction process is nothing more than a continuation of the destruction, displacement, radical demographic engineering, and erasure of the Syrian urban fabric, supported by the systemic political and economic fortification of the Assad regime and the domestic capitalists associated with it.
After getting rid of all those who opposed it or whose social class or economic situation did not help them maintain a place in the country, the regime has effectively achieved what Assad announced in a speech a few years ago, when he claimed that Syria had “won a healthier and more homogeneous society”. This is “post-war Syria,” or the “new Syria” he wants to reconstruct.