The conflict in Syria has resulted in massive levels of displacement throughout the country, consequently leading to vast housing, land, and property (HLP) rights abuses. And with the various players controlling different parts of Syria, civilians’ HLP rights are being impacted in distinct ways. TIMEP is producing a series of explainers on HLP rights violations in the Syrian context. Looking at government-held areas, this first piece explores the various means through which the Syrian government is systematically violating HLP rights, including the confiscation and destruction of property, property seizures, forced sales of property, and the violation of Syrians’ right to access and enjoy their properties. Doing so, this piece also demonstrates how the government is using HLP violations as a method of punishment against civilians—especially those perceived as opponents—and as a tool to consolidate its power and control.
HLP rights under international law
HLP rights are a collection of rights articulated in international law through a number of international treaties and conventions. Each one articulates a distinct set of rights. The right to housing ensures one’s right to “obtain and occupy a safe and secure home.” The right to land refers to the right to entitlements to lands that are recognized legally and socially. Lastly, rights to property include the right to own property and the right to the full use and enjoyment of one’s property. International law has also articulated additional protections for the HLP rights of displaced persons. The UN Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons, or the Pinheiro Principles, include rights such as the right to restitution of property, protection from displacement, as well as the right of displaced persons “to return voluntarily to their former homes” of habitual residence.
History of HLP rights violations in Syria
Human rights violations committed by the Syrian regime started long before 2011. In the mid-1970s, the Syrian regime transferred thousands of locals—all Sunni Arabs—from the Tabqa region in the Raqqa governorate to Hasakah and Qamishli in northeast Syria. This transfer came after the construction of the Euphrates Dam in northwest Raqqa city which led to the creation of the Assad Lake—Syria’s largest water reservoir. In 1974, the lake flooded the nearby villages and farms of local residents. The majority of residents were from al-Walde tribe, an Arab Sunni tribe that resided in lands around the Euphrates River in Raqqa provinces and lost most of its lands to the flooding in 1974. The locals received neither financial compensation nor proper housing as they were promised; they were given instead lands that the government previously confiscated from the Kurdish minority in al-Hasakah province following the recommendation of the Baath 3rd General Assembly in 1966 that stated “the government should reconsider the ownership of the lands located on the Syrian-Turkish border, with a length of 350 km and a depth of 10-15 km, and transfer it to the property of the state.” The Kurds, like any non-Arab minority in Syria, were perceived as a threat. The regime thus confiscated their property in its efforts to change the demography of northeast Syria, a resource-rich region, and facilitate full control over the Kurdish community. Such HLP rights violations also continued after the 1982 Hama massacre, when the regime bulldozed entire neighborhoods—such as al-Kilanye, al-Zanbaqi, and al-Shamalye—in the city center. After recapturing the city from the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly took over the city in an armed rebellion, the regime started demolishing what was left of the neighborhoods without providing alternative housing for hundreds of families who already lost loved ones due to the regime’s military campaign that killed between ten and forty thousand people. These events demonstrate that the Syrian regime has for decades used property confiscations as a method of reprisal against civilians perceived as a threat.
Urban development projects
Since 2011, the Syrian government has found new ways to violate Syrians’ HLP rights. One method is the confiscation and destruction of property through urban development legislation. In 2012, the Syrian government enacted Decree No. 66, which was intended to redevelop informal settlements throughout Damascus. The decree required residents of areas zoned for rebuilding to prove ownership of their properties within a month of the law’s enactment. In April 2018, the Syrian government enacted Law No. 10, which expanded Decree No. 66 to all of Syria.
Marota City is the first zoned area being developed under Decree No. 66 in the Damascus neighborhood of Basateen al-Razi. Former residents of Basateen al-Razi, as well as other informal settlements selected for redevelopment under Decree No. 66, were among those who opposed the Assad regime in 2011. Through the decree, residents who lacked formal property documents and were unable to prove formal ownership of their properties were forced to give up their homes—often without receiving adequate compensation or alternative housing from the government. As a result, 50,000 Syrians have lost their homes. Many of the displaced were also unable to return to Syria to claim ownership of their properties, and as a result they too lost their properties to the project. Furthermore, many of the businesses involved in the construction of Marota City are owned by wealthy elites with close ties to the Syrian government. Because of this and the high-end nature of the development, only elites with close ties to the Syrian government are likely to benefit from Marota City. This enables the regime to alter the demographics of Basateen al-Razi as well as other neighborhoods impacted by Decree No. 66. The regime is doing so by replacing the original residents of Basateen al-Razi, primarily opponents of the Syrian government, with wealthy elites who are primarily regime loyalists. Through such demographics engineering, the Syrian government is not only consolidating power in central Damascus but also punishing those opposed to the government through confiscating their properties and violating their housing and property rights.
Another development project under Decree No. 66 is Basilia City, which will be located in the southern Damascus neighborhoods of Mezzeh, Kafr Sousa, Qanawat Basteen, Daraya, and al-Qadam. These informal properties, formerly populated by mainly opponents of the government, are now largely empty after their populations fled or were expelled by the regime during the war. The Damascus governorate gave residents only 30 days after the announcement of the project on July 12, 2018 to submit objections. Similarly, the Tadamon neighborhood south of Damascus—which previously was home to multiple informal settlements—is under consideration for development under Law No. 10. The Tadamon neighborhood was controlled by the Free Syrian Army until 2015, when it was taken by ISIS and eventually captured by the regime forces. Only 10 percent of housing in Tadamon is formalized, putting the other 90 percent of property rights carriers at risk of having their properties confiscated. Furthermore, in June 2020, the Damascus governorate announced an initial draft to renovate and reconstruct the Yarmouk camp through the framework of Law No. 10. The camp— which was subjected to a government siege and large-scale destruction—is the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees inside Syria, many of whom participated in the uprisings against Assad. It. The plan divides the camp into three parts and leaves Yarmouk residents without alternative housing.
The regime’s urban development projects, as these examples illustrate, are leading to the denial of Syrians’ HLP rights, confiscation of property, and greater displacement of Syrian populations. Moreover, this form of urban development serves the dual purpose of punishing opponents as well as consolidating power and wealth among elites close to the Syrian government.
Anti-terrorism law and counter terrorism court
The government also targets the properties of detainees, displaced persons, and human rights activists through various legal means, including anti-terrorism legislation. Law 19 of 2012, otherwise known as the Counter-Terrorism Law, defines “terrorist acts” quite broadly and is often used to punish political dissents and target human rights and opposition activists. Decree 63 allows the freezing of property of any person who commits offenses relating to financing or committing terrorist acts.
Furthermore, the government uses the Counter Terrorism Court (CTC)—where arbitrary detainees or those detained for opposing the Syrian government are frequently tried—to target detainees, human rights activists, and those involved in protests opposing the Syrian government. Decree 63 has even justified the precautionary seizure of property and assets of at least 10,000 people on trial in the CTC, as it allows for the freezing of assets of suspected terrorists on trial.
In a report from the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), which interviewed 400 former detainees from Sednaya, over a third reported that they had property confiscated, including homes, businesses, and movable assets such as taxi cars. Of those who had property seized, 62 percent claimed their property was seized without a ruling, 32 percent claimed it was expropriated by the courts, and one percent claimed it was confiscated by martial law. Often authorities do not inform individuals or their families of the whereabouts of the seized property or how to regain ownership.
This form of punishment not only results in reprisals against detainees but also serves as collective punishment against detainees’ families. The precautionary seizures also violate due process rights by punishing people before they are even charged or convicted of a crime.
Confiscation of property for military and militia use
In addition to property confiscations conducted under legal justification, the Syrian government is also denying detainees and opponents—including those who have been displaced to neighboring countries—of their property rights. The government does this through confiscating properties for military use and to sell to Iranian militia members.
For example, in Eastern Ghouta, a former rebel-held area that was heavily targeted by the Syrian government and placed under siege for over five years, the government has selected a number of properties—primarily of individuals who have been displaced to northern Syria or Turkey or who have defected from the military—to confiscate. These properties are given to military families or used as military headquarters or even vacation homes for military personnel and their families. Similarly, in Douma, the largest city in Eastern Ghouta and the site of a sarin gas attack perpetrated by the government in 2018, the government is targeting the properties of displaced persons and detainees for seizure. These properties are being appropriated for use as military facilities. Syrians who have attempted to retrieve their properties upon return have faced threats from those occupying their homes. Ensuring that properties in Eastern Ghouta and Douma are repopulated with members of the Syrian military and Iranian militias allows the Syrian government to consolidate power in those locations and serves as another method of attacking government opponents.
Property sales under duress
Syrian government agents have also acted as intermediaries to facilitate sales of Syrians’ properties to members of Iranian militias. The involvement of the Syrian government, and in many cases the Fourth Division of the Syrian military, creates an environment of duress. In Damascus, for example, officers of the Fourth Division are tasked with facilitating sales of commercial and residential properties to members of Hezbollah and Iranian militias. Similarly, in the Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus, residents have been blackmailed into selling their properties to Iranians. An anonymous Damascus land owner reported that he had originally refused to sell his property to Iranians, but under Syrian government pressure, he had no choice but to accept the offers. There have also been reports of Iran falsifying property transfer records to obtain properties through court decisions. Furthermore, the Syrian government is taking advantage of the economic crisis to pressure civilians into selling their properties for low prices. As basic goods become more inaccessible, selling property becomes a last resort for many Syrians.
Preventing access and enjoyment of property for IDPs and other Syrians
The Syrian government has also been violating HLP rights since the start of the conflict through a number of means that make it difficult for Syrians to access their properties. Throughout the conflict, there have been reports of airstrikes directly targeting civil registries, thereby destroying property documents and making it difficult for many to prove ownership of their properties. This also makes registration of property purchases in the future less accessible with fewer operating registries. The Syrian government has also made obtaining property documents more difficult for Syrians in opposition-held areas by preventing them from accessing civil registries online.
Furthermore, the Syrian government has been using checkpoints to prevent those living outside government-held areas from accessing their properties or property documents. Many Syrians in areas outside government control have not been able to gain access to civil registries or to their own properties because they have been targeted or prevented from moving forward at checkpoints. There have also been reports of property documents and other identification documents being confiscated at checkpoints, including marriage licenses. The confiscation of marriage licenses puts women at a particularly high risk of losing access to their properties as properties may be registered under their husband’s name—and without the proper documentation demonstrating the marriage, women are unable to prove their right to the property. Syrians owning property in areas outside of government control are also unable to make changes to their property records because Law 10 of 2016 allows the government to deem certain areas—particularly areas outside government control—as a “security risk” and therefore prevent changes in property records in those areas.
In February 2021, the Syrian government highlighted an amendment to the Syrian Military Conscription Law, which allows the government to immediately seize the assets of men who escaped military conscription and fail to pay the fee. The law allows seizure of property not only of men who haven’t served in the military, but also of any immediate family members including wives and children. The law also empowers the government to seize and sell an individual’s property without any prior notice. This amendment creates particular difficulties for men seeking to escape military conscription who are unable to pay the high fee of $8,000, as it puts their family members at risk. Moreover, this law ignores basic due process rights and creates greater barriers to Syrians seeking to return but fearing military conscription.
The Syrian government also prevents Syrians from enjoying their property rights through requiring security clearances for property transfer or rental contracts to be valid. This requires those interested in engaging in property transactions have their names run through a system which checks for “family members suspected of terrorist activities, if they have fled the country, or if the applicant is relocating from a rebel-held area.” Although individuals can engage in verbal agreements without contracts, this leaves them vulnerable and without the full range of property rights they would otherwise be entitled to. The government has also issued a number of laws which make it more difficult for refugees and IDPs to access their properties, including laws that require verification of property ownership for those living outside of Syria prior to allowing court proceedings.
Throughout the conflict, the Syrian government has systematically violated Syrians’ HLP rights through a number of different methods; the government have targeted the properties of a wide variety of civilians who are perceived as opponents to the Syrian government, including those engaged in anti-government protests, former detainees and their families, armed rebels, and those who have been displaced to neighboring countries. Property confiscations by the government have resulted in further displacements of Syrians throughout the country. It also prevents the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes. Not only is this a form of punishment of civilians who are perceived as opposed to the Syrian government, but it also allows the government to take advantage of confiscated property to consolidate power and control and to provide personal benefits to members of military forces and Iranian militias.
Special thanks to TIMEP Legal and Policy Intern Sana Sekkarie for her research support.