Recent years have seen the majority-Kurdish Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) authorities seize many absentee-owned properties. When those absentees return home and demand their properties back, authorities have offered to lease them, without any compensation for the previous occupancy period.
Seizure of absentees’ real estate is a form of property extortion without the owners’ consent or knowledge, and without any legal ownership title or legitimate reason to do so.
Various entities within the AANES have taken possession of empty or absentee-owned real estate, including buildings, shops and homes. Most of the absentees are expatriates originally from the area whose properties have been seized by the AANES without their approval–sometimes without any notification. Many of these absentees were forced to return either permanently or temporarily, or appoint someone on their behalf, in order to sue the various AANES entities that had seized their properties. In most cases, they were able to reach a contractual agreement where the property-seizing entity would pay a monthly or annual rent. These contracts preserve the rights of the lessors and include terms on the time period for the lease, the eviction period and conditions to not modify the property.
A correspondent for The Syria Report spoke with K. R., who appointed a lawyer via a power of attorney through the Syrian Embassy in Sweden to recover a property she owns in Qamishli that the AANES’ Union of Engineers took to use as their headquarters in 2018. When K. R. requested that the union vacate the property, they instead offered for her to rent it and even drew up a lease contract. The lawyer rejected this offer, explaining that his client feared losing her property after four years of occupancy without compensation. The union ended up vacating the property in late 2022 without paying any compensation to K. R. for the years it had occupied the space.
However, the process isn’t always so simple. The Committee for Protecting Religions, which is affiliated with the AANES, occupied the home of Mr Al-Khatouni in the Al-Wasta neighbourhood of Qamishli without informing him. Mr Khatouni, who lives abroad, appointed his brother to recover the house. The committee agreed to vacate the property but requested a payment equal to the value of the improvements it had made to the home. Khatouni agreed to pay, but the committee returned and bargained over taking the water tanks and other equipment that they had installed, despite the fact that the payment included those items. When Mr Khatouni refused, the committee decided not to vacate the home and stayed on without paying rent.
AANES courts do not hear civil real estate disputes for zoned areas until after the Department of Real Estate Complaints (part of the Categories Union) has heard and mediated such cases for reconciliation between the two sides. The Categories Union is an AANES organisation aimed at regulating market professions. Should efforts at mediation fail, then the Department of Real Estate Complaints sends a report to a court called the Justice Diwan to settle the dispute.
Meanwhile, the AANES’ Committee for Protecting Absentee Syriac and Assyrian Properties began a new policy in early 2022 to collect rental payments from AANES institutions that have occupied Christian-owned properties in the cities of Qamishli, Deirik and Al-Qahtaniyeh in the Hassakeh governorate. In most cases, the committee negotiates with these AANES bodies without the authorisation or knowledge of the actual property owners. According to The Syria Report’s local correspondent, the committee takes a 35 percent cut of the occupants’ rental payments for itself, giving the remainder to the property owner. It is unclear what happens in cases where the property owner is deceased or has no heirs.
The AANES formed the Committee for Protecting Absentee Syriac and Assyrian Properties in 2014 as a civil body to intervene before AANES courts in disputes involving absentee Christians. The committee considers complaints about extortion or occupation of absentees’ properties, as well as requests by tenants of these properties related to rental payments, vacancies and eviction.
For example, the AANES’ Logistics Commission has occupied a building owned by A. Gh., an absentee, without payments since 2015. In October 2022, the Committee for Protecting Absentee Properties informed the Logistics Commission that it needed to either vacate the property or enter into a formal contract with payments calculated according to the property’s current market value. The two sides managed to reach an agreement and made a contract. However, A. Gh. had not appointed the committee to negotiate on his behalf or to lease out his property. In cases like this, any dispute or complaint from the original property owner about the contract must be directed to the committee, which drew up the lease agreement on their behalf.