In this report, The Syria Report summarises a selection of the housing, land, and property issues it covered in depth throughout the first six months of 2022. These issues, which were featured in dozens of articles, can be categorised into the following main themes:
- The obstacles preventing people from returning home to formerly opposition-held areas that witnessed forced displacement after regime forces retook control;
- The impact of Decree No. 7 of 2022, which served as a “terrorism” amnesty, on housing, land, and property rights;
- The impact of bombardment campaigns and resulting damages in areas under opposition control.
Theme One: Are displaced people and refugees returning to areas under regime control? Does the regime facilitate or impede their return? How do housing, land, and property policies impact their return?
Security and construction conditions and the large scale of destruction remain the main barriers preventing displaced people from returning home. These obstacles are especially true in formerly opposition-held areas that saw the forced expulsion of residents after regime recapture. Local municipal authorities tend to overstate the number of returnees, likely using these exaggerated numbers as evidence of political stability and security in government-held areas and as a way to encourage aid organisations to provide funding for reconstruction and early recovery projects. Meanwhile, public auctions for investment in displaced people’s properties have been held in former opposition-held areas. The auctions have become routine annual events, with some fearing that the appropriation of these properties will eventually be legalised.
1- Security clearances, public safety committee reports, and poor public services
It remains difficult for displaced people to return to some areas that saw forced expulsions, most of which also faced heavy wartime damage. Returnees must meet a set of requirements before obtaining final clearance to go home. Even when they receive clearance, however, returning depends on whether their home districts have been rehabilitated and provided with basic public services.
One of the requirements is to submit a file that includes a form and documents proving ownership of the house to which the applicant hopes to return, in addition to a familial civil registration extract and copies of each family member’s ID cards. Afterwards, the security services study the file and issue either an approval or rejection.
If the applicant is approved, they must also obtain an engineering report for their house from the public safety committee affiliated with their local administrative unit. This report states whether the house is safely inhabitable and structurally sound. If the public safety committee finds the house’s condition acceptable, the returnee must subsequently apply to the municipality for a permit to do any necessary restoration work.
There is neither a clear definition for these public safety committees, nor a consistent description of their tasks and the nature of their work. Additionally, the mechanisms through which these committees work raise doubts over their neutrality and engineering standards. Regime opponents also say that security services intervene in the committees. Nevertheless, the public safety committees are the bodies now responsible for determining the structural risk levels of buildings and providing recommendations for demolition, reinforcement work, or leaving the buildings as they are.
Among the most notable areas where returnees are required to obtain public safety committee reports were the city of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, and Al-Tadhamon neighbourhood, all of which are either in or around Damascus. Municipal authorities in these areas have said they assist those wishing to return, including accepting paid electricity or water bills instead of home ownership documents. Still, few hopeful returnees have been approved. Until mid-March 2022, only 300 families had been approved to return to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, out of a total 1,350 families who submitted applications. Of those 300 approved families, only 40 managed to actually return and resettle in the city due to poor public services and the difficult living situation there. By early August, these numbers increased to 2,100 families who submitted applications, 700 who were approved, and 90 who resettled.
Even after obtaining security approval, other roadblocks prevent many displaced people from returning home to areas damaged in the war, such as the demolition campaigns.
In March 2022, a demolition campaign began in the eastern part of Aleppo city to tear down properties of displaced residents in accordance with reports issued by the local public safety committees, which had claimed that the buildings were unlicensed or at risk of collapse. However, the campaign only targeted properties owned by “absentees,” raising complaints of political bias on the part of the public safety committees. The term “absentees” generally refers to property owners no longer residing in the area where their property is located. In this case it mainly includes people who had been forcibly displaced to opposition-held territories.
Such campaigns, though happening slowly, often target residential areas, such as Al-Tadhamon neighbourhood in Damascus. Widespread rubble also hinders access to many residential areas. In addition, there are still poor public services due to the wartime destruction of infrastructure, including water, sewage, and electricity networks, as well as a failure to rehabilitate and reopen schools. Finally, small groups affiliated with the intelligence services in charge of certain areas have carried out looting operations, demolishing the roofs of some homes to extract iron.
2- Manipulating the data on returnees
Local municipal authorities appear to exaggerate the number of displaced residents returning home, such as in Homs city and its northern countryside. One of the main reasons behind this exaggeration may be to prop up pro-regime propaganda. First, to spread the idea that the returns are evidence of political and security stability in regime-controlled areas, and second, to encourage international organisations to fund reconstruction and early recovery projects.
In some cases, the data manipulation means municipal authorities are only counting the number of displaced people who fled their homes during the period of opposition control. As such, authorities only account for regime loyalists, many of whom returned after the opposition was forcibly exiled from their hometowns.
The most prominent example of the above phenomenon is when the mayor of the city of Rastan, located north of Homs, said in May that around 16,000 displaced townspeople had returned to their homes of an original 20,000 who had been displaced. However, according to The Syria Report’s sources, about 85,000 people lived in Rastan in 2011. When the opposition controlled the town between 2012 and 2018, around 30,000 people were displaced, 20,000 of whom went to regime-held areas. After a reconciliation agreement in 2018, another 25,000 people were displaced to opposition-held areas in northern Syria. That meant that about 30,000 people remained in Rastan. So, in reality, 16,000 people returned home out of 55,000 displaced townspeople, not 20,000, as stated by the mayor.
Furthermore, many returnees did not settle down permanently in Rastan, instead simply visiting to check on their properties. The area is not yet equipped to handle the mass return of displaced residents, as most of the city’s neighbourhoods have been destroyed. The costs of repairs are also prohibitively expensive for most residents.
Similarly, in the city of Homs, the city council issued statements on the number of returnees to damaged neighbourhoods in February and March 2022. Those statements unusually relied on counting the number of families returning home rather than the total number of returnees. According to these statistics, one person returning home may be considered an entire “family.”
3- Investing in absentees’ properties
Four years have passed since the government started public auctions to allow investment in absentees’ properties, particularly in the rural parts of the Hama, Idlib, Deir-ez-Zor and Aleppo governorates. The process of investing in the properties of forcibly displaced people has become somewhat of an annual routine, raising fears that the properties may eventually be legally seized altogether.
Many of these properties were Amiri lands distributed to Syrian farmers under various agrarian reform laws. Of chief concern is the potential that Article 775 of the Civil Code, which stipulates the forfeiture of someone’s right to dispose of an Amiri land if they fail to plough or use the property for a period of five years, may be applied in these cases. This means the lands could revert to state property if the auctions continue in their current form for the next agricultural season.
In May, the Hama governorate launched a series of new auctions for people to invest in absentee-owned lands. Over the winter season, so-called “spatial technical committees” in the governorate had worked to tally absentee-owned properties in preparation for offering them up in the auctions. Based on these surveys, the Hama governorate then issued on April 26 charts of the lands to be auctioned for investment in the 2022 agricultural season.
In February 2022, the Hama governorate issued a final warning to investors who had not paid their dues. It called on them to visit the governorate general and make their payments by March. Notably, in May, the Ministry of Finance imposed its first precautionary seizure to target the movable and immovable assets of one investor who had failed to pay off their investment contract for pistachio farmland. The move served as a warning to other investors that they must fulfill their financial obligations.
Some investors who had been awarded farmland in public auctions ended up unable to cultivate it for several reasons. Many of them did not receive the fuel they needed to operate water pumps to irrigate the land. There are also high costs involved in ploughing the land, with some tractor owners refusing to adhere to the official prices. In numerous cases, investors could not obtain the seeds they needed due to high prices or unavailability. And on top of all this are the high costs of transportation, various bureaucratic and security complications for obtaining official documents, and the Agricultural Bank’s refusal to provide loans to some investors.
In addition, for the second consecutive year, there was an investment process for absentee-owned lands in the rural, regime-controlled areas of the Raqqa governorate. Most of these absentees are displaced to rural areas in Raqqa under the control of the majority-Kurdish Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES). Despite some similarities, the investment process in the two districts of Sabkheh and Maadan in rural Raqqa features minor differences from the process in Hama and Idlib. For example, in Raqqa the process is referred to as “renting” rather than investing. Additionally, the sole public announcement issued by the Farmer’s Union in Raqqa in March 2021 did not mention the topic of absentees at all. It also failed to mention the location of the lands up for lease and their type of crops. The leasing process for the current agricultural season, which happened in early 2022, occurred without a public auction but through the renewal of some previous contracts with the same tenants as the previous agricultural season. In some cases, previous tenants decided not to renew their contracts and so their land was instead leased to officers from pro-regime militias in the area. This lack of interest in the auction was due mainly to the strong tribal relationships, which make people frown on any social rifts between current residents and displaced persons, as they are all members of the area’s tribes.
Investment in absentee-owned properties has not been limited solely to agricultural lands. Such investment has also targeted fisheries in the Al-Ghab Plain region of rural Hama governorate. Regime military officers are currently investing in some of those fisheries for personal benefit.
In a move that appears similar to outright seizure of absentee-owned properties, the Damascus governorate in February called on occupants of shops in the Central Meat Souq in Al-Zablatani neighbourhood to visit the governorate’s Directorate of Property Affairs within a one month. During these visits, occupants would be expected to provide documentation of their occupancy. Shop owners who failed to do so would be considered to have abandoned their lease or investment contracts. Some business owners in the market who were opposition sympathisers had been displaced to northern Syria or fled the country and therefore could not submit any documentation. The Damascus governorate also recently requested identification documents from all merchants in the separate Al-Hal Souq.
Theme Two: What has been the effect of the recent amnesty decree on HLP rights?
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 7 of 2022 this year, which includes a general amnesty for what it describes as “terrorism crimes” committed before its issuance date. The amnesty excludes crimes that led to any human deaths but includes crimes stipulated in Antiterrorism Law No. 19 of 2012.
Essentially, the amnesty decree for crimes stipulated in Law No. 19 meant the release from detention of people who had been accused before the Antiterrorism Court. It also meant halting trials for detainees and releasing them. A subsequent circular issued by the Ministry of Justice also halted prosecution for some defendants who were wanted for arrest. The decree, however, did not appear to have a significant impact on housing, land, and property rights, as it did not include cancelling the confiscation of properties belonging to those convicted before the Antiterrorism Court who are now covered by the terms of the amnesty.
Article 12 of Antiterrorism Law No. 19 of 2012 states that the Antiterrorism Court may order confiscating movable and immovable assets of anyone convicted by its judges. Usually, it is a final ruling that leads to such confiscation. Law No. 19 gives the Antiterrorism Court the power to issue asset freezes for accused persons upon issuance of a conviction verdict and then confiscate the assets after the final ruling is issued. Under the Syrian Penal Code, confiscation is classified as a financial penalty through which a convicted person’s property is forcibly seized and becomes the state’s property without the possibility of return.
Decree No. 7, this year’s amnesty decree, did not cancel such confiscations, which means that any confiscated properties will remain under state ownership. Indeed, Decree No. 7 was limited to dropping other penalties and prosecution. Amnesty does not cover personal rights claims or requirements for compensating any victims of “terrorism crimes.” In other words, the amnesty decree dropped penalties related to fines but not those about confiscation or the payment of financial compensation to victims.
On the other hand, with thousands of people who have forcibly disappeared in Syria’s prisons, it is unclear how the recent amnesty decree may impact their housing, land, and property rights should they return or be found alive. The Personal Status Law defines a missing person as any individual whose location is unknown. They could also be someone for whom it is unknown whether they are alive or dead. Their “missing” status ends when they return, die, or are ruled dead. Suppose a missing person returns alive after being ruled dead, and their property has already been distributed to their heirs. In that case, they may recover their property and any inheritance they are owed from their deceased relatives on the condition that such properties still exist. Any property that the returnee’s heirs have disposed of or consumed in their absence may not be recovered. This is because the heirs did not seize the missing person’s properties by force but through a judicial ruling.
Theme Three: How have past bombings and other war remnants impacted housing, land, and property rights?
The damages caused by previous bombardment campaigns in opposition-held areas pose significant dangers to residents’ lives and housing, land, and property rights. Repeated attacks through missiles, shells, or barrel bombs have caused indirect damage to buildings. Some of the damages were not visible but affected the foundations of buildings, while others included cracks in the walls, columns, and ceilings. The scope of indirect damages depends on the strength of the bombing or a building’s proximity to the bombardments. Often, damages appear only after some time has passed. Indirect damages may also accumulate, causing buildings to collapse suddenly without a direct cause or due to rehabilitation work or other work to remove debris.
Current lines of contact between regime and opposition forces in the southern part of Idlib governorate are among the areas where buildings have seen indirect damage from bombing. This area is rural, with many homes built of stone and mud. Meanwhile, cement-constructed buildings before 2011 often failed to adhere to structural safety rules. Many of these buildings lack insulation for heat or moisture, which makes their foundations vulnerable to erosion and rust, increasing the likelihood that they could be indirectly damaged by bombardment. Still, many residents are forced to live in damaged homes despite knowing the risks, as they have no alternatives. Moving to safer homes means paying high rental costs, while renovation costs remain out of reach for many people.
However, indirect damage wrought by bombing exists beyond the current lines of contact in Syria, appearing in most formerly opposition-held areas. Regime forces recaptured these areas through intense military operations that led to widespread destruction and the mass displacement of residents.
A four-storey building collapsed in April 2022 in the Rural Damascus governorate city of Darayya, killing two people. The building had not been directly damaged in any previous fighting, rather incurring indirect damage by regime bombing on the area during the period of opposition control between 2012 and 2016. It apparently collapsed while the owners were working to remove rubble from the ground floor. The building has never been examined by the public safety committee of the municipality of Darayya.
Then, in May 2022, four rubble scavengers were killed when the roof of a building collapsed in the Jobar neighbourhood of Damascus. The people, known in Arabic as nabashoun, had been digging through rubble in the building to collect any sellable or recyclable materials. Usually, nabashoun use large hammers to extract iron rebar from concrete buildings, or break apart large piles of rubble to search beneath.
Meanwhile, the Aleppo City Council often organises campaigns to demolish buildings at risk of collapse. In March 2022, the council launched one such campaign in the Al-Saliheen neighbourhood in the eastern part of the city, subsequently expanding the campaign to include adjacent areas. Often, the public safety committees attribute dangerous cracks in buildings to various reasons unrelated to war or previous bombardment, such as rising groundwater after rain, or because the buildings are unlicensed and violate construction codes. According to the committees, such factors cause depressions in the ground soil beneath building foundations, leading to cracks and tilts. A source in the Aleppo City Council told The Syria Report that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of buildings that have begun to display cracks due to prior bombing. Among those buildings were some that the public safety committee had allowed owners to restore in 2017 and 2018. The source added that the foundations of most buildings in the city’s eastern neighbourhoods were severely damaged during the war, and it was only a matter of time before many would display cracks.
The Aleppo City Council demolished a five-storey residential building in the Masaken Hanano neighbourhood in the eastern part of the city in February 2022. The building was cracked and at risk of collapse. Residents of the building had previously submitted a complaint to the city council in early 2021, informing them of the cracks. But after examining the building, the council said that the foundation was solid and there was no danger. The building was not directly exposed to any previous bombing, but sat between other buildings that were partially damaged by regime and Russian airstrikes during the period of opposition control over the area.
It is worth noting here that there is a legal loophole in Decree No. 40 of 2012, which addresses the removal of unlicensed buildings. Under Decree No. 40, if a building without a licence collapses due to poor construction, the punishment could be prison time, hard labour, and fines. However, the decree does not provide any stipulations for unlicensed buildings that collapsed due to indirect damages from previous bombardments. Official statements and public safety committee reports that have been issued about the collapse of damaged, unlicensed buildings do not account for indirect damages and, instead, only cite poor construction. In other words, Decree No. 40 places the legal responsibility for resulting collapses or risks of collapse onto the people who constructed the buildings rather than those who were behind the bombardments.
Finally, war remnants, such as landmines and unexploded ordnance, pose serious dangers and limit people’s housing, land, and property rights. These dangers are present in opposition- and regime-held areas alike. For example, many people remain afraid to work on their farmland or live in homes hit by cluster munitions, which were heavily used by the regime. Cluster munitions, in particular, constitute a significant risk given that they have a low rate of immediate detonation upon hitting the ground. Some opposition factions also left unexploded ordnance in their vacated military barracks or operations areas, which also constitutes a public safety risk.