This explainer is the second in TIMEP’s series on HLP rights violations in the Syrian context. It highlights the systematic abuses perpetrated by nongovernment actors in Syria, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkish forces and Turkish-affiliated Syrian opposition forces, and other militant groups such as Hayyet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Syrian Democratic Forces
The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish political party and the backbone of the SDF, has controlled the regions of northeastern Syria since 2012. The forces’ control has expanded to Aleppo, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor provinces after allying with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. In November 2013, YPG announced the formation of autonomy in the regions of northern and eastern Syria and established in 2014 the Autonomous Administration—which was restructured in 2018 under the name of “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.”
During the SDF’s battles against ISIS between 2015 and 2018, international human rights organizations documented violation of property rights in the SDF’s areas of control, many of which were accompanied by forced displacement and property demolition and seizures. A report published by Amnesty International shows that in February 2015, the SDF destroyed and demolished civilian homes in al-Husseiniya town in the al-Hasakah governorate. According to the report and residents’ testimonies, the SDF claimed they were searching for ISIS operatives inside the village as they forced civilians out of their homes and prevented them from even taking their belongings. The SDF then began demolishing homes after entering the town following the withdrawal of ISIS. According to satellite images, the number of buildings in the town decreased from about 225 in 2014 to only 14 in 2015. Amnesty International has also documented home demolitions in the village of Asaylem, south of Suluk, in the Raqqa governorate. According to the testimonies of residents, the SDF entered the village in June 2015 and asked residents to leave for their safety, promising that it would allow them to return to their homes after three days. The witnesses added that about two weeks later, they saw bulldozers bearing the SDF flags entering the village and demolishing about 100 out of the town’s 103 homes. Residents of both al-Husseiniya town and Asaylem villages said that the SDF did not pay them compensation or provide adequate alternative housing.
The SDF has also turned civilian homes and public buildings into military headquarters—representing another aspect of property rights violations. Several human rights reports, including that of the Justice for Life Organization, indicate that the SDF seized homes and converted some of them into military headquarters using flimsy justifications such as links to ISIS or revenge against residents associated with the Syrian opposition. The SDF also refused to return seized houses to their original owners or even pay compensation. Most of these violations took place in the Deir Ezzor countryside and included civilian houses and public buildings such as schools and service institutions. These seizures and diversions led to fears among the population that establishing military headquarters in civilian neighborhoods would lead to targeting civilians and causing civilian casualties.
A report of the Syrian newspaper Enab Baladi shows that the SDF committed similar HLP rights violations in the city of Tabqa, where they seized the homes of many civilians, some of whom live outside Syria and some are still living inside Syria. These seizures deprived many civilians of their property rights, even as they made numerous attempts to prove their ownership through the judiciary institutions of the Autonomous Administration. The SDF confiscations in the city also included commercial shops and agricultural lands for investment. Furthermore, a report published by Syrian for Truth and Justice exposes systematic and wide-scale confiscation of civilian houses in Raqqa by the Democratic Northern Brigade, an Arab-majority militia part of the SDF. The report shows that since February 2020, the militia confiscated more than 80 houses in Masaken al-Sherta neighborhood in Raqqa city and gave it to the brigade’s fighters and their families. The report also indicates that despite pleas from residents, the militia didn’t evacuate the confiscated houses and threatened locals not to come back to claim their houses. The same report also mentioned that at least 1200 houses in Raqqa city alone were confiscated by the SDF and its aligned militias since 2019.
Law of Protection and Management of Absentee Property
At the beginning of August 2020, the General Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria—which is the highest legislative authority in the SDF-controlled areas—issued the “Law on the Protection and Management of Absentee Property,” which enabled the SDF to manage the property of everyone who had left Syria for a year or more. The implementation of the law was halted a week later for further study after causing public outrage.
Though the law’s implementation is currently suspended, it continues to potentially threaten the realization of property rights in the SDF-controlled areas. The current version of the law contradicts several local and international laws, as well as the Charter of the Social Contract for Democratic Autonomous Administration, which was issued in 2014 as a constitution for the regions under the SDF control. The Charter stipulates in Article 22 that the Administration relies on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which preserve the right of ownership and prevent property expropriation except for the public benefit on the condition that property owners are compensated.
Unless the law is repealed, any new versions of the existing law to be re-introduced would likely allow local authorities to invest in the property of thousands of refugees outside Syria without their full consent.
The United Nations estimates that about 5 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries and Europe, the majority of whom cannot return to their areas to claim their property due to the dangerous security situation and asylum laws. Furthermore, many refugees and IDPs are unable to authorize their relatives due to the difficulty of completing government transactions that require official documents such as passports, which many refugees cannot obtain. Even if the Autonomous Administration changes the law in the future, it may not change the content of the law that allows it to control and invest in the property of hundreds of thousands of refugees outside Syria, leading to a continued violation of property rights.
Turkish forces and Turkish-affiliated opposition forces
In addition to the SDF violations of HLP rights, Turkish forces and Syrian opposition groups affiliated with them have also perpetrated extensive HLP rights violations, including forced displacement and confiscation of property.
In 2018, Turkey carried out another military operation in the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin in northern Syria. After 58 days of the offensive, YPG forces withdrew, resulting in the evacuation and forced displacement of civilians in Afrin. Following Operation Olive Branch, there have been reports of widespread HLP rights abuses at the hands of both Turkish forces as well as Syrian forces affiliated with Turkey. There were also reports of Operation Olive Branch attacking nonmilitary targets, including civilian areas and public buildings, which led to the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes in Afrin to neighboring areas such as Tel Rafaat, Nubl and Zahra, and even Kobane and Hassakeh.
Most striking, however, is the widespread confiscation of properties throughout Afrin. In March 2018, it was reported that Turkish-affiliated Syrian opposition, including Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham, made an agreement with Russia to allow civilians in rebel-held Ghouta, Jobar, and other neighborhoods to evacuate and relocate to Afrin. This deal resulted in the evacuation of around 1,500 opposition fighters and 3,500 family members to Afrin. While it is unclear whether or not they took over the homes of those displaced from Afrin, there have been reports of at least 150 Syrian opposition commanders and their families being housed in the homes of Kurds who were forced to flee. Additionally, there have been reports of Syrian opposition factions associated with Turkish forces taking over properties of displaced civilians in Afrin and looting the property of Kurds, including cars and other motor vehicles, electricity generators, and olive tree harvests.
The aforementioned agreement with Russia resulted in the forced displacement of both the original residents of Afrin, whose homes have been appropriated for use by those displaced from Ghouta, as well as the evacuation of civilians from Ghouta as part of the agreement. This has resulted in widespread confiscation and pillage of civilian houses in Afrin and the violation of their right to enjoyment of their properties, as well as any rights civilians had in those properties, including ownership or tenancy rights. Moreover, the appropriation of civilian homes in Afrin for displaced Syrians from Ghouta violates the right of return for displaced Kurds.
It is estimated that 137,070 people were displaced from Afrin as a result of Turkey’s military campaigns since 2017. Moreover, entire villages were emptied and later appropriated into military bases for use by Turkish forces.
HTS violations in Idlib
Similar HLP rights violations of property rights were carried out by Hayyet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) against Christian properties in Idlib. After the Salvation Government of HTS took control over all opposition-held areas in Idlib governorate in 2018, the so-called General Directorate of Real Estate in Idlib began to seize most of the Christian properties and invest and rent them without the consent of the original owners. According to Syrians for Truth and Justice report, between late 2018 and October 2019, HTS confiscated about 550 houses and shops in addition to three historic markets, Kabbad al-Hboub, Khan Fahdi and Khan Ghanum, owned by Christians in Idlib. The report also lays out several cases in which the HTS seized property for investment or to accommodate the families of its fighters, in addition to the cancellation of official lease contracts signed between the property owners and tenants. Another report by Syrians for Truth and Justice shows that other militant groups, such as the Hurras al-Din and the Turkistan Islamic Party, have also seized the properties of Christians in Jisr al-Shughour to house their fighters and seized lands for investment. These groups harassed local Christians by threatening them or preventing them from practicing their religious rights in order to push them to leave their cities and villages and seize their property.
Due to the divided territorial control in Syria, Syrians’ HLP rights are subjected to a wide range of violations depending on who’s controlling their area. The first piece in this series looked at HLP rights abuses by the Syrian government, which include property confiscations as a means to punish opponents and the use of civilian properties for the regime’s own purposes. This piece highlights similar HLP rights violations—including the confiscation, seizure, and demolition of property—committed by nongovernment actors against civilians and minorities, particularly Syria’s Kurds and Christians. Confiscation and demolition of property in all cases are likely to amount to pillaging war crime, as they result in the prevention of the former inhabitants’ right to return to their homes. Moreover, the destruction of civilians’ properties based on religious, ethnic, or other discriminatory grounds could amount to collective punishment, which is a violation of international humanitarian law.
This is the second of three parts of TIMEP’s series on HLP rights violations. The third piece will focus on recommendations and analyze the impact of HLP violations on civilians and refugees.