Nearly four years ago, in October 2019, factions from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) took control of a strip of borderland between Syria and Turkey, which includes the cities of Tal Abyad in the Raqqa governorate and Ras Al-Ayn in the Hassakeh governorate.
The region had been under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since 2013 and was governed by majority-Kurdish autonomous administration institutions, while some departments and institutions of the Damascus government remained present at that time.
After the SNA factions took over this strip of borderland, many residents – especially Kurds – fled towards the Kurdistan region of neighbouring Iraq and to areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) in Hassakeh and Raqqa.
Many of these displaced people are still reluctant to return, seeing the unstable security situation in their hometowns. This fear is reinforced by reports of violations by the opposition SNA factions toward displaced former residents’ housing, land and property rights. These factions have seized homes and businesses of the displaced Kurds, justifying their actions by accusing them of affiliating with the SDF or collaborating with the AANES.
Keljehan Harsan was displaced from Ras Al-Ayn and is currently staying in her sister’s house in Amouda. She told a correspondent for The Syria Report that since her forced displacement in 2019, she has been worried about what happened to the house she left behind. Harsan’s Arab neighbours who remained in Ras Al-Ayn told her that her house was looted and burnt. In that house, Keljehan left memories of her family and was only able to take the bare essentials with her, as she feared oncoming clashes. She left all the awards that her late musician husband had received and old possessions of her children who are now living scattered around the world.
Hendrin Eeso, who was forcibly displaced from Ras Al-Ayn to the city of Qamishli, told The Syria Report that her family left behind a two-storey building, which is now inhabited by a displaced family from Deir-ez-Zor without any legal basis or financial compensation. Eeso said that her family left behind all their furniture and personal necessities, and they are now living in a rented home in Qamishli.
The vast majority of the Kurds residents of Ras al-Ayn, were displaced after the SNA took control of the city. However, many Arabs were also forcibly displaced from the city, leaving their properties behind.
Khalid Al-Ahmad, who today resides in the Al-Twina camp in Hassakeh, said that his son used to work for an AANES institution. Fearing retribution and arbitrary detention by the SNA, the entire family left the city. Ahmad said he fears returning and would prefer to sell his house in Ras Al-Ayn to buy another one in Hassakeh. However, he added that he forgot to take the title deeds of the house when they left: “Even if I had the ownership papers with me, under the current circumstances, no one would buy the house.”
About 20,000 displaced people from Ras Al-Ayn live in the camps of Al-Talai, Al-Twina, and Tel Al-Samn in Hassakeh amid harsh conditions such as scarce water supply and desert temperature fluctuations, according to The Syria Report correspondent.
One resident, who is now living in a house left behind by someone displaced from Tel Abyad, told The Syria Report that an armed faction asked him to house another family with him in exchange for USD 2,000 and for an undetermined duration. This resident is not renting the house and does not even know the original owner; he simply occupied it. The resident said that a similar offer was made by the armed faction to many occupants of properties left vacant by the displaced.
The families they are often asked to house are usually forcibly displaced from opposition areas like the countryside of Damascus, and fight alongside the SNA.
In return, residents who agree to shelter such families receive a written unofficial guarantee from the armed faction stating that no entity can evict them from the property. This note aims to prevent the original property owner from reclaiming their home if they return to the area.
Meanwhile, some factions make returnees pay a “protection” fee of as much as USD 1,000 to assist them in reclaiming their vacant properties or evicting the current occupants. Unofficial and undocumented measures like this can lead to many disputes between the armed factions over residences in their zones of influence. Some returnees might even face monetary demands for protection from multiple factions at once.
According to a 2021 report prepared by lawyers from the PÊL- Civil Waves NGO operating in AANES areas, opposition factions have taken over more than 3,000 homes of those forcibly displaced from Ras Al-Ayn alone. Some of these homes are occupied by newly displaced people who have come to the region, including Iraqis. For instance, in the neighbourhoods of Al-Mahatta and Al-Kharabat in Ras Al-Ayn, more than 20 Iraqi families have resided in homes belonging to displaced individuals since 2019, without any legal documentation formally allowing them to do so.
Property ownership documents for all towns and rural areas of the Hassakeh governorate are preserved in the land registry located in the security square under the control of regime forces in the centre of Hassakeh city. Specialised rooms in the Hassakeh courthouse handle the tasks of the Ras Al-Ayn courts. This provides some reassurance to property owners displaced from Ras Al-Ayn, as no unlawful changes can be made in the property records.
However, on the flip side, this protection remains only theoretical for properties currently occupied and used by those other than the rightful owners. Harsan said that her family loses the annual agricultural yield from a piece of land spanning 200 hectares, as armed faction members control and exploit the area without any compensation.