Since pro-opposition Syrian National Army factions seized Tal Abyad and its surrounding countryside along the Syrian-Turkish border in 2019, many Kurdish residents were forced to flee the area. They ended up in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Raqqa and Hassakeh governorates.
In their wake, SNA factions seized the properties of now-absent Kurdish residents working for the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) and the SDF. They have also taken properties belonging to displaced Arabs and Turkmen loyal to AANES.
Tal Abyad is located in the Raqqa governorate and sits along the Syrian-Turkish border. The city was established in the early 1900s and became a destination for Armenians fleeing the genocide in Turkey. Before 2011, Tal Abyad was home to around 120,000 people, including Arabs from various tribes and Kurds, Turkmen, and Armenians. Tal Abyad residents work mainly in agriculture and trade.
The city has also been known for its role in smuggling networks between Syria and Turkey. The Syrian government included the city in the provisions of Decree No. 41 of 2004, which regulates real estate ownership along the border. Under this decree and its amendments, people must obtain security approval before any legal disposal of their property in such areas. The Minister of Interior issues the approval based on a proposal from the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform and the Ministry of Defence.
After intense battles with the Islamic State, the SDF captured Tal Abyad and the surrounding countryside in 2014 and maintained control of the border strip until October 2019, when the Turkish-backed SNA took the area during Operation Euphrates Shield. The operation aimed to remove SDF from a 30-kilometre belt of territory along the Syrian side of the border.
Sheikh Hammad Al-Hammoud, a notable from one of the Arab tribes in Tal Abyad, told The Syria Report that he was displaced from the area during Operation Euphrates Shield. After he left in 2019, the SNA seized 100 hectares of his agricultural land in the village of Al-Ali Bajlih outside Tal Abyad under the pretext that he was loyal to AANES.
Sheikh Al-Hammoud worked in agriculture and trade before 2011, but his favourable reputation and success in mediating disputes between residents landed him an appointment as a member of the AANES reconciliation office during its control of Tal Abyad from 2014 to 2019. The office is an official entity that aims to solve disputes amicably before reaching the court.
According to Al-Hammoud, a group from the Ahrar Al-Sharqiyeh faction, which is part of the SNA, seized his land before the 2020 wheat harvest season without any prior warning or official charges against him, and without filing any actual case in court.
Seizing someone else’s property without consent and a legal ownership deed or legitimate reason is considered extortion. No act of force needs to have occurred for a seizure to be classified as extortion.
Such seizures did not stop at the properties of employees of the AANES and its military and security institutions. They also extended to their families and relatives.
AbdelMonaem is from the village of Sheriaan, south of Tal Abyad, and works as a traffic police officer for the AANES’ Asayish security forces. He was also displaced to Raqqa after Operation Euphrates Shield. According to AbdelMonaem, a group from the SNA-aligned Jabhat Al-Shamiyeh faction seized his 60-hectare agricultural land near the Al-Jallab River. However, the land is still registered in the name of AbdelMonaem’s father, who died in 2017. The heirs have not yet conducted the inheritance proceedings, so there are, in effect, multiple co-owners of the land, including seven sons and six daughters.
Jabhat Al-Shamiyeh expelled AbdelMonaem’s brothers from the land just before the wheat and barley harvest in 2020, he says, under the pretext that he works with the Asayish. His family members paid the price.
Meanwhile, Issa AbdulAziz is a Turkmen sheikh from the Al-Toubal clan who hails from the village of Hammam Al-Turkmen outside Tal Abyad. He was a political detainee in Syrian regime prisons from 1984 to 1996, charged with loyalty to the Iraqi Baath Party. Currently, AbdulAziz is a member of the Syrian Future Party, which supports AANES.
AbdulAziz told The Syria Report that a group from Ahrar Al-Sharqiyeh seized 40 hectares of his family’s land before the 2020 wheat harvest season under the pretext that he works with the SDF. His 83-year-old mother went to Ahrar Al-Sharqiyeh’s headquarters in the area with documents proving that she and her husband, not AbdulAziz, owned the land. The faction referred her to court but without any luck. One Ahrar Al-Sharqiyeh leader reportedly told her: “When your son returns, the land will return to you.” Members of the faction are still cultivating the farmland.
Meanwhile, AbdulRahman Al-Mohammad, who is from the village of Al-Jurn Al-Aswad outside Tal Abyad, bought three hectares of land from his neighbour in 2014. Due to the trust between the neighbours and because the local Cadastral Affairs directorates were not operating in the area during that period, Al-Mohammad did not formally register the purchase. The land’s previous owner was then displaced from the area during Operation Euphrates Shield.
A group from Ahrar Al-Sharqiyeh seized the land by force in 2020 on the pretext that the owner was pro-regime. AbdulRahman could not convince the faction that he, not his former neighbour, was the land’s current owner. He was also unable to document his ownership of the property in the Land Registry. Repeated harassment by Ahrar Al-Sharqiyeh pushed AbdulRahman to flee to Raqqa.