Despite an ostensibly warm welcome shown by pro-government media towards returnees in the Idlib governorate, government investment in lands belonging to displaced absentees is moving forward at full throttle.
According to pro-government media, 28 families – around 140 people – have returned to the Idlib governorate under renewed regime control. Their return follows the opening of a “settlement centre” in Khan Sheikhoun, the regime’s temporary administrative capital for the governorate, on September 5. The centre is meant to conduct security checks on returnees, including “settling the statuses of military deserters and those who have not completed mandatory military or reserve service,” according to the Idlib governorate’s official Facebook page.
Currently, there is no crossing point between areas of Idlib held by the opposition and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and those held by the regime. Instead, returnees must travel from northwest Idlib to areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Northeast Syria and cross through the Al-Hamran and Aoun Al-Dadat crossings in rural Aleppo governorate. From there, returnees follow a road through the Al-Tayheh crossing in northeastern Aleppo governorate, which takes them into regime-held territory.
Returnees to southern Idlib came in a convoy of 15 cars and buses, which was organised by various different forces on the ground. The trip went smoothly, with the passengers moving through various areas of control after paying the costs of their journey.
Most returnees are women, children, and men over the age of 45 years. They must pass through the Khan Sheikhoun settlement centre to undergo security checks. Because of this, the recent convoy did not include any young men, who feared being conscripted for mandatory regime military service or the reserves or being detained and prosecuted for “treachery,” “terrorism,” and other charges. The settlement process does not exempt people from having to visit the security services, which summon all returnees regularly.
According to a correspondent for The Syria Report in the area, only two families among the recent returnees returned to the southern Idlib village of Al-Deir Al-Sharqi, which in 2004 had a population of around 4,000. Around 20 families have returned to the village over the past two years, albeit all from regime-held areas. On September 11, Al-Deir Al-Sharqi held a public ceremony “thanking” the military and political leadership in Syria for facilitating the returns. The village’s Baath Party branch informed residents that they must attend the ceremony to ensure a large turnout and promote the government’s propaganda about returnees. After the ceremony, the Political Security branch in Hama summoned three people from Al-Deir Al-Sharqi who didn’t attended. The men were called into the branch more than once.
The main reason that displaced people are returning from opposition-held areas to their hometowns, which are now under regime control, is to preserve their properties, the correspondent reported. They also suffered poor living conditions in their host communities.
The timing of their return makes this reasoning evident. The Idlib governorate organised a new round of public auctions on September 14 for bidders to invest in agricultural lands of absentees for the 2022-2023 season. The convoy mentioned above arrived before the scheduled date of the auction, ensuring that returnees could prove their physical presence and prevent their lands from being auctioned.
In June, the Idlib governorate publicly auctioned pistachio farms owned by absentees.
The governorate also announced that it would soon auction olive groves owned by displaced farmers. Applications for participating in the auction opened on September 21 at the Idlib governorate’s main building in Khan Sheikhoun. This is the first time the governorate will hold an auction for olive groves since its administrative split with the Hama governorate in early 2022.