After it took control of Raqqa in 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized residential areas and private real estate properties. Most of these properties belonged to residents who had been displaced to regime-held territory. These sites were converted into military and security offices and housing for the families of some SDF members and leaders.
According to The Syria Report correspondent, SDF security and military forces seized around 400 properties, most owned by people displaced from Raqqa and now living in regime areas. Most of those displaced people had left the city when opposition forces seized control of Raqqa in 2013, while others left when the Islamic State came to power in 2014. The SDF justified its seizure of these properties by claiming that the owners were regime collaborators. However, in most cases, the properties are owned by employees of Syrian state institutions such as the Electricity and Water Establishment or by members of professional syndicates like the Bar Association.
The SDF has so far failed to return these homes to their owners for several reasons, according to a senior official in Raqqa who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak with the media. First, the owners of these properties, or their close family members, are seen as affiliated with parties that are hostile to the SDF. Second, the official said some of the property owners had financed or spread rumours against the SDF, its members or Kurds in general. He added that the decision to seize those properties could be discussed with local leaders in the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) or the SDF, as the matter belongs to specific “cadres.” According to a local correspondent for The Syria Report, cadres include advisors provided to Democratic Union Party (PYD) leadership from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) ranks.
Among the seized properties are entire housing communities, which the SDF has said belong to Syrian state institutions rather than to individuals. However, contrary to those claims, these communities are projects implemented as part of social or cooperative housing programmes, in which applicants are allocated homes after paying for them in instalments.
For example, the SDF seized the 160-apartment Youth Housing complex in the northeast part of Raqqa city. Work to finish constructing the complex halted in 2011. There are completed apartments that owners received and moved into, while other apartments remained uncompleted. The recipients of these homes are young, low-income employees in the public sector institutions or ministries. However, most residents of the youth housing complex were displaced during the war to regime-held areas, where they kept working with the same institutions. The SDF expelled remaining residents from the complex by force, afterwards converting part of the complex for military use and another part into housing for SDF members and their families.
The SDF also took over the Police Housing complex, among the social housing programmes completed and inhabited before 2011. Because some residents of the complex were still employed as police officers when opposition forces seized Raqqa, they and their families fled to regime areas. The SDF forced other residents who had already retired from their apartments. The homes are currently inhabited by family members of SDF members from outside Raqqa.
The SDF also seized homes from the Euphrates Basin housing complex in the city’s Al-Deraiyeh neighbourhood, in the western part of Raqqa. The 80 apartments in the complex were built in the 1980s to house employees of the Ministry of Irrigation’s Euphrates Basin Establishment. The SDF now uses the apartments to house the families of its North Brigade.
According to a human rights source from the Justice Authority, which is part of the AANES judicial system, owners of the seized homes have filed around 350 lawsuits in the hopes of recovering their properties. These cases were referred to the AANES Office of Military Relations, a military body responsible for some civilian cases, such as civilian arrests and detention centres. It is unclear why the seized property lawsuits were referred to this body, as it is not part of the judiciary and is known for top-down control over its decisions by the PKK’s caders. In any case, the Office of Military Relations issued verbal accusations against the complainants before the court, saying they had collaborated and communicated with anti-SDF parties. These accusations temporarily halted the cases.
However, the problem doesn’t stop at residents of the social housing complexes. Owners of large houses have complained of the SDF converting their homes into officers’ housing or security and military headquarters. One such homeowner, whose accommodate in a higher-income part of Raqqa had been seized and now houses an SDF commander, told The Syria Report that the court referred his case to the Office of Military Relations. He was accused of collaborating with Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces when he visited the office.
Abu Riyad owns a large house that overlooks the main street in Raqqa. He described himself to The Syria Report as a politically neutral and has never been affiliated with any political party. Abu Riyad and his family fled the city when IS took control, seeking safety in the regime-held territory. After IS’ defeat and withdrawal from Raqqa in 2017, the SDF seized Abu Riyad’s house and converted it into a security office. He attempted to take back the house through legal means, but to no avail. Through a connection, he recovered his home by paying several thousand dollars to an influential figure; the payment was officially registered as a donation to AANES.
However, not everyone seeking to recover their seized homes can pay those sums. Meanwhile, the SDF’s continued control of these properties prevents their displaced owners from returning. Some displaced residents who return end up paying rent to live in other parts of the city close to their seized homes.
One lawyer has been defending property rights for residents in Raqqa told The Syria Report that the SDF’s seizure of civilian properties through threats has no basis in any law. He stressed the necessity of forming a special committee to discuss the seized properties issue. However, the lawyer also pointed out that the issue has been raised through mediators and activists with top AANES officials in Raqqa on more than one previous occasion, to no avail.