Since a wide-scale campaign of arrests in 2013 and the mass displacement of political dissidents outside Syria, some regime security and military services have begun extorting detainees’ and refugees’ unattended properties. What sets many of these properties apart is that they were not subject to seizure orders issued by the Anti-Terrorism Court. Rather, they were simply extorted after their owners fled elsewhere or were arrested.
Such property seizures are commonly referred to as “istilaa,” but the Civil Code defines “istilaa” as taking possession of something that has no owner. Furthermore, “istilaa” can become one of the reasons for someone gaining ownership, if that was their intention. In short, “istilaa” is a seizure that occurs when the property in question has no owner, and is therefore not understood to constitute a crime.
Meanwhile, the Criminal Code defines property extortion (or “ghasab” in Arabic) as taking possession of another person’s property without their consent, without a legal ownership deed or without a valid reason.
Sometimes that extortion is systematic, such as when security apparatus’ seize specific homes in a certain area then distribute those homes to pre-selected people. In other instances, extortion appears to be random, as military and security personnel act on their own to seize properties.
Abou Safi, who now works as a senior economic advisor, previously formed a pro-regime militia that fought against opposition forces in East Ghouta. In 2013, one security apparatus deemed Abou Safi’s house, which was located in a Damascus suburb, to be unsafe, so they gave him a luxurious home near the headquarters of one security apparatus in Damascus. That new home had been extorted in 2012, but it was unclear whether the original owners had been detained or were living as refugees outside Syria. The property had not been subject to either executive or precautionary seizures, sources told The Syria Report.
Another man, Abou Mohammad, is a volunteer in the regime’s security services. He also led a pro-regime militia, though his original job was as a driver to escort “guests from outside the country,” that is, members of pro-regime Lebanese and Iraqi militias. Abou Mohammad, who is an Alawite from Homs, does not own his house. Rather, he lives in a home that the Airforce Intelligence extorted in a residential complex in a Damascus suburb.
These extortions appear not to be purely chaotic, but rather adhere to the security and military apparatus’ special set of criteria. For example, one security agency officer told a correspondent for The Syria Report that extortions do not usually occur in areas known to support the opposition, as it wouldn’t be safe for the new, pro-regime, residents of extorted homes to live in these areas. Rather, houses are often chosen for extortion in politically mixed areas such as Mazzeh and Baghdad Street in Damascus, as well as Qudsaya and Dhahiyat Al-Assad in the Damascus suburbs.
Sometimes, however, the extortions do appear less organised, such as when security and military personnel take advantage of their positions and sow fear by seizing properties for themselves. One real estate office owner, Abou Ali, told the correspondent for The Syria Report that the flat he currently has on the market won’t sell for a decent price because of its location one storey above a flat that was extorted by a member of the pro-regime National Defence Forces (NDF) militia. The militia member has a motorcycle, is rowdy, and often frightens those around him, Abou Ali said. The extorted flat is large, with a surface area of more than 200 square metres and a private garden. It costs no less than SYP 400 million, by Abou Ali’s estimate. The flat’s original owner is reportedly a man from Idlib who fled the area after that member of the NDF accused him of being a member of the Islamic State (ISIS). According to Abou Ali, who is originally from the Syrian coast, the original owner was not, in fact, an ISIS member, but instead was simply a religious person and now lives in the Gulf.