On 2 April, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad signed Law 10/2018 that has triggered widespread concern because it allows the Syrian state to confiscate homes and other property if their owners are overseas.
Many have interpreted the law as a step by the regime to dispossess some 12 million Syrian refugees of their property and consequently of their right of return to Syria.
The new law gives local authorities the power to rezone any area, asking owners to prove their ownership of property within 30 days, failing which it will be confiscated.
According to commentators, the aim is to cause further divisions since it allows the regime to take over the property of the displaced who cannot prove their ownership.
Many of those who have fled the conflict in Syria did not take documents with them proving ownership of their property. This means they will not be able to prove this to the authorities, leading to its confiscation.
According to human rights activists, the decision is designed to put pressure on the displaced and refugees to force them to return by leveraging their property.
This violates Article 17 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, activists say, since this says that “no one shall be deprived of their property arbitrarily.”
The new law takes advantage of the inability of displaced property owners to defend their rights within the deadline and provide proof of ownership.
If they are outside Syria, they cannot give power of attorney to individuals back home, since the security agencies deny this right to those identified with the opposition even if they are only active on social media.
Power of attorney can take time, and those holding it could be harassed if the owner of the property is an opposition member. This means many will refuse to accept.
Such measures are usually taken during times of peace to address building violations. However, the new law takes advantage of the war conditions and the displacement of Syrian citizens.
The German Foreign Ministry described the law as aiming to change the demographics of Syria.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri said the law aimed to “prevent Syrian refugees from returning home” and told them to “stay in Lebanon”.
The international NGO Human Rights Watch said the law would result in “the forced evictions of those who cannot prove ownership”.
Syrian officials including Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim said the law had been amended to allow owners one year to prove their ownership.
However, lawyer Michel Shamas told Al-Ahram Weekly that “no amendment has been made to Law 10, and [Al-Muallim’s] statements have not been reported in the media.
Amending laws requires legislation by parliament or the president, and so far neither has happened.”
Commentator Thabet Malak said the move would fail. “Other countries have failed to implement similar measures. In 1916, Ottoman Turkey tried to confiscate Syriac property after the Turkish military had chased the Syriacs out of the country.
Forty years later, Turkey issued a law giving back the confiscated property if the owners had the relevant documents,” he said.
Syrian human rights groups have pointed to the possibility of demographic change as a result of
the law. It ignores the original ownership and allows the authorities to distribute real estate as rewards to loyalists and pro-regime militias who have been given Syrian citizenship, including tens of thousands of Lebanese and Iranians.
It coincides with the displacement of residents from the suburbs of Damascus and the regime’s preventing them from returning home even after it made the areas into what it has called “safe zones”.
Warlords, arms dealers, and others close to the regime are preparing to receive shares of the reconstruction cake, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, commentators say. They want to rebuild destroyed areas in different ways, side-stepping existing planning laws.
Many residents have fled as refugees to neighbouring or European countries, with statistics saying that half the Syrian population, or 12 million people, have fled. Some have been granted asylum abroad, and others cannot return for fear of being arrested, interrogated or killed.
During the seven years of the revolution, the regime has destroyed towns and villages around Damascus, often without any military pretext.
Claims that armed combatants were present among residents have been enough for the regime to pummel areas with air and artillery strikes, turning them into ghost towns without a single building standing.
Many in the opposition believe the regime has adopted a scorched-earth approach to reconstruction since the price of land can be very high.
Levelling and repossessing it by the state and then redistributing it to the influential could generate billions of dollars in profits.
This will represent a quick profit for profiteers and regime loyalists waiting to be rewarded by the regime.
The regime has displaced millions of Syrians outside the country and destroyed their homes. There are also hundreds of thousands of displaced people inside Syria and tens of thousands of detainees. A similar number of people are missing.
The regime has facilitated the theft of property everywhere it has retaken control, and the new law facilitates the further theft of assets including real estate.
“It would be naïve to think Law 10 is designed to regulate real-estate ownership while the war continues across Syria,” Mustafa Al-Wali, a Syrian-Palestinian commentator, told the Weekly.
“It is a veil to hide the true intention, which is the confiscation of private property under the veil of legitimacy. It is similar to the Israeli laws that usurp Palestinian property, dispossess their owners, and prevent them from returning home.”
The Carnegie Middle East Centre, a US NGO, has recently published a report on the policies of the Syrian regime aiming to change planning laws, create new demographic realities, bolster gains on the ground, and remap whole areas to serve its interests.
The report says the new law will confiscate the property of some and reward others, mostly regime loyalists.
Thousands of poorer people will be dispossessed, and prime real estate will be handed to the urban bourgeoisie in “an attempt at political and socio-economic cleansing”, the report said.
For many commentators, the new law has four aims. It will allow the state to begin reconstruction in areas under its control, help the regime to sift through the returning refugees and confiscate the property of political opponents, bolster regime influence by housing loyalists in strategic areas, and provide funding for regime activities and payouts for loyalists.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: The property of Syrian refugees