The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), affiliated with the hardline Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), is working to recover public properties (agricultural lands or buildings) that were taken over by individuals within its areas of control in northwest Syria.
One of the most significant infringements in opposition-held areas is the construction of unlicensed dwellings on public lands. There are two main reasons for these violations: the population growth in the opposition-controlled areas of northwest Syria due to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians from regime areas and the administrative and organisational chaos that accompanied the initial stages of the establishment of opposition authorities. This is coupled with a lack of planning and urban zoning based on population studies and housing needs.
In addition, other problems are related to de facto powers with influence in some of these unlicensed construction areas, making dealing with some informal settlements a political and security issue. Numerous encroachments on public properties are carried out by influential people and those close to HTS, as well as other Salafist groups associated with it, such as Ansar Al-Tawhid and the Turkistan Islamic Party.
According to the SSG’s Directorate of State Properties, since 2012, 3,852 occupants of public properties in Idlib have been compelled to pay rent, while in 153 cases, the illegal occupiers were removed. Adnan Al-Qasim, the director of State Properties, told The Syria Report correspondent in the area that between 2012 and 2020, some state properties were sold illegally by individuals claiming ownership, or usufruct contracts between public officials and individuals were signed.
In June 2020, the General Consultative Council in Idlib, which acts as the legislative authority, issued State Property Law No. 35, which includes 24 articles, most of which concern private state properties. The law is inspired by the State Property Law No. 252 of 1959, which was issued during the union between Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961. There is no available version of Law No. 35 on the official channels of the SSG. It appears that this absence is due to an attack the government faced by Salafists who rejected the law, demanding the application of Islamic Sharia only.
Law No. 35 obliges those infringing on such properties to rectify the violation or pay a fine twice the equivalent rent, to remove their possession, and to dismantle the unlicensed construction. The SSG considers that Syrian state properties have automatically become public properties under its control.
Regarding encroachments on public properties, the SSG applied the building violation law in force before 2011 to address violations occurring before the 2011 uprising.
Meanwhile, a specialised committee reviews unlicensed construction on public properties between 2012 and 2020, addressing them according to Sharia and legal principles and the public interest while considering the State Property Law and the Forestry Law. Those who have acquired a real right on these properties must register it. If anyone violates the conditions of ownership, their rights can be revoked. Moreover, according to Law No. 35, rights of easement, use, and usufruct on state properties can be revoked by a decision from the Minister of Agriculture.
In most cases, the violation is temporarily settled by categorising it as a rental, and the rent is collected from the occupant of the property, whether it is land or a dwelling. In this case, the occupant is not given any legal status as an owner, investor, or administrator of the property. They may be requested to vacate when necessary and hand over the property to the public or municipal authorities.
Many properties unlawfully occupied in this way have been recovered and allocated to the Ministry of Development to establish camps for displaced and evacuated persons. Mr Qasim said that requiring the occupant of the property to pay rent is a form of recovering the property. An official report of the incident is drawn up, including details of the violation, which the occupant signs, acknowledging that it concerns public property.
Unlicensed construction occurring after the enforcement of Law No. 35 will immediately be removed, and the possession of the occupant, who is considered an illegal occupier of the property, is revoked; they may be punished with imprisonment and a fine. If the provisions of this law conflict with another law, the provisions of the stricter law shall apply unless they contradict the provisions of Islamic Sharia, according to sources from the SSG.