After successful auctions for farmlands belonging to absentees from the forcibly displaced people, the Syrian government is seeking to replicate the process in other areas under its control.
Meanwhile, the Council of Ministers says it is managing and regulating investment contracts for lands cultivated with fruit-bearing trees, especially pistachios and olives. Such decisions often neglect to mention the owners of those lands or describe the owners as “absent” and their properties as “vacant.”
In Decision No. 12011, issued in October, the Council of Ministers allowed first-degree relatives of displaced people to invest in their vacant lands should those properties be put up for public auction. These relatives are exempted from participating in the auctions. However, the decision did not specify the areas included in these auctions.
Based on Ministry of Agriculture Resolution No. 291 o 2022, the decision states that first-degree relatives, such as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, may announce which of their relatives’ properties they wish to invest in 15 days before the start date of the public auction for those properties.
It is unclear why the Council of Ministers limited its decision to first-degree relatives when similar priority was given to first-, second-, and third-degree relatives in auctions in the Hama governorate. Second-degree relatives include grandparents, siblings and grandchildren. Third-degree relatives include aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. In all these cases, relatives only have priority when investing in the lands going up for auction but for not entering the auction itself.
It appears that the Council of Ministers assumed that absentee owners of vacant lands are deceased, meaning that their relative who is investing in the property must conduct an inventory of the inheritance. This document applies to someone whose death has been proven factually or de jure, per Personal Status Law No. 59 of 1953 and its executive instructions. The inheritance inventory aims to determine heirs entitled to the inheritance and their degree of kinship to the deceased person. It also shows the shares given to each heir.
The purpose of this strange request, i.e. conducting an inheritance inventory for someone who isn’t proven dead, is to identify those closest to the absentee landowners. The inheritance inventory document has no relation to a deceased person’s properties and does not include a list of their assets or real estate. Decision No. 12011 also did not specify which kind of inheritance inventory is required in this case: legal or compatible with Islamic law. For example, legal inheritance inventory is used only for Amiri lands owned by the state, where the beneficiary has only the right to dispose of such properties.
According to the decision, the Council of Ministers has approved the formation of local committees in all relevant administrative units tasked with ensuring property ownership for people who lost their title deeds. Each committee comprises the administrative unit head, the local party branch leader, the head of the extension unit, the mokhtar, the farmer’s society head and a local community representative over 50 years of age.
The decision also stipulates that the committees are responsible for the results of their work. Their results are limited to real estate investment in the 2022-2023 agricultural season. The decision affirms that these results have no impact on the future ownership of the real estate in question.
These committees are similar in form and mission to the so-called “spatial-technical” committees in Hama and Idlib governorates. These bodies are tasked with determining ownership of agricultural lands and writing inventories of properties belonging to people who have been displaced to opposition-held areas.
However, the newly announced local committees differ because they include a community representative over 50 years of age. According to a local correspondent for The Syria Report, the measure aims to legitimise the committees to a certain degree. The correspondent added that there are some security requirements for appointing this representative. These conditions include that the representative is a permanent resident of regime-held territory and has no oppositional political views.
These strict requirements limit the representative’s knowledge regarding real estate operations during any period of opposition control over a given area or among opposition groups. This includes any purchases, sales, transfer of ownership via inheritance or heir disposing of their ownership of properties.
There are also fears of corruption and favouritism on the part of the local committees, similar to what happened with the spatial-technical committees in Sinjar and Hawa east of Maarat Al-Numan in Idlib governorate during past agricultural seasons. Members of those committees used their influence and relationships with security officials to form private companies to invest in absentee-owned farmlands. They also blocked the granting of priority to relatives of the landowners.
In cases where there is more than one first-degree relative who wishes to invest in a piece of land, they must visit the relevant local committee to register a record of their agreement over who will invest. Then they must register that document with their governorate’s contracts department and obtain approval to begin investing.
Other miscellaneous provisions
Under Decision No. 12011, investors who are relatives of the landowners must return the lands to their owners should they return. They must also cultivate the land per the Ministry of Agriculture’s production plan or face revocation of their property investment rights.
The decision also requires that investors who are relatives obtain security approval issued by whichever security service controls the area. These approvals are based on security reports and intelligence evaluations by local informants, municipality members, and farmers’ societies affiliated with the Farmers’ Union.
So-called “investor-relatives” must also submit a civil extract record for first- and second-degree relatives of the property owners and those who have invested in the land.
If there are no first-degree relatives identified with the landowner or the relatives fail to prove their kinship, the absentee-owned lands are automatically put up for public auction.