To conduct any real estate transaction in the border area of Hassakeh Governorate under de facto control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), an administrative process called “legal licensing” must be carried out that requires prior security approval. This process and its relevant security approval can only be obtained through the security services of the Syrian regime.
Though the AANES has controlled the Hassakeh governorate since 2014 and established directorates, institutions and courts, it has not established its own Directorate of Cadastral Affairs due to the lack of available Land registries. Therefore, the documentation of real estate occurrences in Hassakeh remains limited to real estate documentation offices under the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs in the Ministry of Local Administration of the Damascus government and the relevant courts under the Ministry of Justice.
The headquarters of these courts and real estate documentation offices are located in the “security squares” controlled by the regime’s forces in the cities of Hassakeh, Qamishli and Al-Malikiah. These courts and offices require those wishing to confirm their real estate occurrences on lands outside of zoning plans and in the border areas with Turkey and Iraq to obtain prior security approval issued by a decision of the Minister of Interior based on a proposal from the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, and approval from the Ministry of Defence. This is per the Law No. 41 of 2004 Determination of Border Areas, amended by Decree No. 43 of 2011. Law No. 41 of 2004 and its amendments aim to impose a security belt within the Syrian territories along the borders, limiting legal transactions in real estate ownership in border areas.
Practically, anyone wishing to conduct any real estate transaction in the border area must undertake the legal licensing’s administrative process. This involves submitting a request to the Directorate of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, accompanied by individual registration extracts for the parties involved in the real estate transaction, a copy of the legal contracts between them, a real estate registration statement, and a land area statement. The property details, parties involved in the real estate transaction, and the request for legal licensing are then sent to the Ministries of Interior and Defence, which contact the security services to conduct a security study on the contract parties. Based on this study, security approval or rejection is given.
Until 2011, parties involved in a real estate sale, for example, were required to present the legal licence during the progression of a lawsuit to confirm the property sale contract in the Civil Court of First Instance. If the legal licence was not presented, the lawsuit would later be dismissed in court. Buyers often resort to a court ruling to prove the purchase of a property. This is done for various reasons, including when the real estate is not subdivided, there is difficulty in obtaining prior security approval, or there are problems obtaining a construction permit, even if the land is ready for construction.
Often, lawyers would suffice with filing a lawsuit to confirm a real estate sale contract and registering it in court. If the legal licence was approved, they would continue with the lawsuit; if it was rejected, they would be satisfied with a copy of the session minutes, which the buyer would use as proof of their property ownership.
However, Law No. 43 of 2011, which amends Law No. 41 of 2004, abolished this possibility and mandated a legal licence before filing the lawsuit. The security apparatuses require that parties involved in real estate transactions in the border areas reside in Syria when requested for an investigation, or their departure from Syria must have been legal through official crossings and airports. This condition often deprives many refugees in neighbouring countries who left Syrian territories through irregular means of obtaining a legal licence. The security study to approve or reject the legal licence typically takes four months. In case of rejection, one must wait a year before reapplying for the legal licence to the Directorate of Agriculture.
In practice, obtaining security approval for the legal licence is difficult if one of the transaction parties is Kurdish. The Syria Report has not found any circular or decision from any official Syrian body prohibiting Kurds from receiving security approvals for legal licensing. This remains the case even after Decree No. 49 of 2011 issuance, which granted Syrian nationality to those registered as “foreigners” in Hassakeh. Security personnel meticulously investigate details about the parties involved in the real estate transaction, including their tribal and ethnic lineage, relatives, whereabouts and professions. They interview neighbours, work colleagues, mukhtars and others. Lists of names whose legal licensing applications have been rejected are displayed in the real estate documentation offices.
Kurdish farmers in border areas often resort to concluding informal sale contracts when purchasing land and informal sharecropping or agricultural investment contracts when leasing it. In both cases, these contracts are not documented with any official authority, which affects land prices.
Kamiran, who is Kurdish, told The Syria Report that in 2020, he bought agricultural land in the border area with Turkey and paid an SYP 150,000 (around USD 170 then) bribe to the security personnel who investigated him at his home. Despite this, his application for legal licensing was rejected, and he was forced to sell the land he had purchased under an informal contract.
Similarly, Hasni, who is also Kurdish, told The Syria Report that he obtained the legal licence to register agricultural land he bought outside the zoning plan in his name in the land registry after paying USD 2,000 to a security services intermediary.
On the other hand, Mohammad, an Arab, said his father bought a two-hectare plot of land 20 years ago in the countryside of Qamishli. However, he did not obtain the legal licence because the seller had been convicted in a separate case involving the Agricultural Cooperative Bank. Consequently, Mohammad’s father could not secure a court ruling affirming the validity of his purchase, and all he possesses is a document registering the lawsuit. A few years ago, the original seller of the land returned and claimed it, arguing that it was still in his name in the Land Registry. Therefore, Mohammad resorted to a court affiliated with the judicial apparatus of the AANES and filed a property extortion lawsuit. However, the court also rejected his case due to the absence of a court ruling or ownership deed in Mohammad’s family’s possession.