[This piece was originally posted by Salon Syria on 11 June 2018]
Widespread criticism has followed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s issuance of Law 10, coinciding as it did with the regime regaining control of eastern Ghouta and the evacuation of the opposition. The law concerns the creation of one or more regulatory zones within the general regulatory plan for the administrative units. This law, which applies to the whole of Syria, completes and regulates several previous, more dangerous real estate decrees.
The law will provide a formal framework for the transfer of land ownership to the Syrian government, which has the power to award contracts for reconstruction and development to companies or investors, and to compensate citizens in the form of shares in regulatory zones.
Decentralization of regulatory zones may be normal in a country free from war, mass exodus, and conflicts between multiple occupational forces. However, the Syrian regime is using the decrees in Law 10 to exploit the absence of more than eight million Syrians displaced abroad, most of them in Turkey and Germany, who are residents of areas devastated by the regime. These residents include those wanted by and imprisoned by the regime. The law provides for a period of no more than two months to establish ownership. This is not sufficient for residents living abroad as embassies and consulates take a long time to approve the procedures for legal representation. Residents abroad also face other challenges such as financial costs and deliberate complications imposed by the security services on the accreditation of external legal representatives.
In Turkey, the legal agent cannot work without the owner’s passport. The cost of establishing a legal representative includes one hundred and fifty Turkish lira / thirty-six US dollars to book an appointment at the Syrian consulate, in addition to fees of up to one hundred and twenty-five dollars. Getting a passport issued at the consulate costs four hundred and twenty-five dollars and takes three months. There is a fast track service taking one month; however, this is only available for those over forty-two years old and costs nine hundred and twenty-five dollars! If the applicant is between eighteen and forty-two years old, he or she must bring a national service book or certificate of termination of service. If the applicant is wanted by the regime, he or she can still make the request, but there are no guarantees that the Syrian government in Damascus will accept it. A status adjustment requires a consular appointment of one hundred and fifty lira / thirty-six dollars, and the approval period is between three to six months (1).
The regime may still reject the claim despite the property owner paying all these sums to try to establish ownership. Given the large number of refugees, these fees will contribute a significant amount to the regime’s treasury. These payments alone may serve the goal of saving the regime’s eroded economy, whose primary source of income has become ever-increasing tax revenues. Any sale, proxy, proof of ownership, or registration of property in the Finance Directorate requires the owner to pay all outstanding dues, which include all invoices, traffic violations, or any unpaid taxes.
In Germany, Syrian refugees cannot enter the Syrian embassy or the German government will consider them as not wanted by the regime, and they may therefore have to return to Syria (2). According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, seventy percent of refugees lack basic identification documents.
The problem with Law 10 is not only its timing but also its details. The law is clearly top-down, as Article 1 allows the higher authorities to impose regulatory plans through the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment in the president’s appointed government (3). There is no role for the local councils or technical services directorates, and no reference to the essentials of urban planning. Previously, the local elected council, as the highest authority, was the one who proposed amendments to the regulatory chart of the region, often because of the need for expansion. The council presented the plan to the people of the region, and the residents could submit their objections to a committee of eleven members from several ministries and departments, who studied the appeals. This committee has not had full oversight of this law, which is therefore not in the interests of the population, and will also affect regime supporters.
Article 22/12 of the law turns original independent owners on the land registry into shareholders of common stock in the regulatory zone. In accordance with Article 29/17, they must register the sector in their names or form a joint-stock company to manage the investment and development of their shares. If the owners reject both of these options, the administrative unit will sell the shares in a public auction, and the beneficiary will, of course, be companies, the identity of which is as yet unknown.
The law deals with ownership on the basis of fixed ownership in the land registry (4). However, many properties are in informal areas, where the government has been failing for years to organize real estate, and the documents in the owners’ possession consist of personal contracts or electricity and water bills, so-called “hand-held documentation,” making verification of ownership difficult.
Article 21/11 of the law allows for the expropriation of private property for the public benefit without financial compensation. This is contrary to the Syrian constitution, which provides for fair financial compensation in case of expropriation of individual property for the public interest (5).
Decree No. 66 of 2012 targeted the areas of al-Razi and the organization of Kafarsousa, within the so-called “Marotta City.” The government is talking about a similar project in Baba Amr in Homs and in Eastern Aleppo. As for Darya, whose population has never been allowed to return, proposals suggest high-rise projects, and annexation to the province of Damascus while the heavy-weights in the Damascus Governorate Council suggest the entrance to the capital should begin in Qabun and the Tishreen district (6).
This new legislation and the previous decrees open doors to regime supporters to steal Syrians’ property. The law allows anonymous real estate development and joint-stock companies, regardless of their nature or nationality, to own shares in the regulatory zones, and establish themselves within these operational zones under the pretext of implementing public utilities and infrastructure projects.
Russian and Iranian allies are likely to come into conflict in the next four months regarding the quotas for each party, with the expectation that the Iranians’ share will decrease after the recent US-Israeli decision to remove it from Syria. The regime wants to strike at its opponents, and Russia wants to strike at the popular homogeneity in the opposition regions, so as to prevent objections to any future policies it may impose. Iran is looking to Yarmouk camp adjacent to the Sayyida Zeinab area to expand religious tourism and increase its influence in Syria through sectarianism.
The German government expressed its displeasure with the law, calling it “treacherous.” Germany is particularly concerned that these measures will reduce the chances of residents returning to Syria, as it is currently studying the return of two hundred thousand Syrian refugees as the first step in the process.
The United Nations has taken no steps to stop the massacres against the Syrian people. It also continues to recognize the legitimacy of the regime through allowing it to occupy its seat in the assembly and issue decrees and laws in its areas of concern. Some opposition lawyers believe that any steps taken by Syrian citizens to prove their ownership will mean recognizing the legitimacy of the law. They say that it is better to carry out international legal, human rights, and popular campaigns against these laws (7). International law protects the right of residents to adequate housing, and this must include guarantees of protection from forced eviction (8).
The official position of the regime in the face of widespread criticism is to defend the law. According to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an interview with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Law 10 aims to reorganize destroyed areas and slums, and the elected local administrations will implement the changes. At the same time, the regime denies the claims regarding the confiscation of its opponents’ property. However, this confiscation has already taken place through Legislative Decree No. 63 of 2012, which enables the Ministry of Finance to seize the assets and property of individuals subject to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2012 and transfer these assets to the Syrian government. This anti-terrorism law provides a broad interpretation of terrorism and criminalizes a large number of Syrians without a fair trial.
Ironically, Ahmed al-Shara, Abu al-Julani, the leader of al-Qa’ida in Syria, still owns a home in Mezzeh, Damascus, and his father’s grocery store there – which are apparently not covered by the anti-terrorism law now affecting peaceful dissidents and activists!
1 – According to an article by Qusay Abdul Bari on the Eqtsad website
2- According to Ahmad Kazem al-Hindawi, the head of immigration and asylum in Europe at the Arab Organization for Human Rights, on the Eqtsad website in the previous link.
3 – The text of the decree, as published in the Syrian news agency SANA.
4- According to a Human Rights Watch report, only fifty percent of property was officially registered even before the war.
5- According to an investigation by the Syrian newspaper Anab.
6 – The Minister of Local Administration of the Syrian government, Hussein Khallouf, made a statement about the preparation of studies to organize some areas in the provinces under the new law, including the Damascus entrance from the Panorama building to the suburb of Harasta. The Damascus Governorate is considering the inclusion of the industrial zone in Qaboun, in addition to Joubar, Tadamon and Mezah 86, to be reorganized within the law.
7 – According to Hindawi’s statement to the Eqtsad website mentioned above: “We must not be dragged behind the law issued by the regime; that will give it legitimacy. The survival of Assad is based on not restoring any of the stolen rights.”
8 – According to the above report by Human Rights Watch.
Translated by Katie Jackson. The Arabic article can be found here.
[This article is published jointly in partnership with Salon Syria.]