The past three years have seen rapid real estate purchasing in the Rural Damascus governorate city of Moadamiyat Al-Sham driven by contractors and builders who have good relations with the Fourth Division officials, which control the area. Among these contractors are representatives of a family in Deir-ez-Zor. While the process does not directly threaten housing, land, and property rights, because it is conducted legally, it carries risks as it is systematic and concentrated, taking advantage of the difficult economic conditions of the area’s residents to buy their properties.
Administratively, Moadamiyat Al-Sham falls under the jurisdiction of the Daraya district, west of the capital, and borders the Damascus neighbourhood of Mazzeh. It used to be known for olive cultivation and seasonal crops, but lost its agricultural character in the 1950s when the state acquired most of its lands for the Ministry of Defence and the Damascus governorate. Expropriations increased in the mid-1970s to establish a security-military belt west of Damascus. The total expropriated land in Moadamiyat Al-Sham amounts to about 80 percent of its area (around 3,377 hectares out of a total area of 4,210 hectares), affecting approximately 35,000 individuals.
Moadamiyat Al-Sham was home to around 70,000 people before 2011. The city’s eastern neighbourhood was predominantly populated by Alawite families of officers working at the Mazzeh military airport and for Air Force Intelligence. The opposition took control of large parts of the city at the end of 2012, forming a single military zone with the adjacent Darayya until the end of 2015. Reconciliation took place there in September 2016, under Russian sponsorship, after the displacement of 500 activists and fighters who rejected the reconciliation and their families. However, the city is still effectively besieged with checkpoints and is controlled by the Fourth Division and Air Force Intelligence through a network of loyal local militias.
The opposition news site Sowt Al-Asima reported in November 2022 that representatives of Sheikh Farhan Al-Marsouma have been purchasing dozens of properties and agricultural lands since 2018 in cooperation with the Fourth Division and local militia leaders. In addition, they have brought in 250 families from the Al-Marsouma clan to reside there.
According to The Syria Report’s sources, Al-Marsouma is a small family, not a clan, originally from Al-Harri in the Al-Bokamel area of Deir-ez-Zor governorate’s eastern countryside. The family is Sunni, but, like many families and tribes in the region, they associate themselves with Ahl Al-Bait, representing the prophet Mohammad’s lineage. Due to the location of the town of Al-Harri in the desert between Syria and Iraq, the family has historically been known for smuggling goods across the borders, especially cigarettes.
The head of the family is Sheikh Farhan Al-Marsoumi, who is active in real estate contracts in different areas of Syria and invests money for family notables and others who have worked in contracting in the Gulf. Sheikh Farhan is known for his work in the illicit oil trade and smuggling between the areas of the majority-Kurdish Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) and regime-controlled areas of Deir-ez-Zor. In addition, he has good relations with the Iranian militias that control the Syrian-Iraqi border area. In 2020, he had an unsuccessful run for a seat in the parliament.
According to a correspondent for The Syria Report, there is no evidence to prove that Al-Marsoumi, his family or his work directly serve the interests of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. However, there are rumours of him buying properties in Moadamiyat Al-Sham as part of an Iranian plan for social engineering and changing the demographic fabric of the Damascus region. According to these rumours, Al-Marsouma seeks to establish a home base for his family in Moadamiyat Al-Sham because it is close to the capital. However, The Syria Report was unable to confirm these rumours.
The correspondent added that people from Deir-ez-Zor have resided in Moadamiyat Al-Sham and the neighbouring Daraya since before 2011, and many of them own the properties where they live. According to real estate contractors in the city, this phenomenon is currently not limited to Al-Marsouma representatives, any contractor with financial liquidity can purchase any property. However, what distinguishes the Al-Marsouma family is their financial capability and the good prices they offer to buy properties in an area suffering financial hardship and an effective siege.
Al-Marsouma family reportedly do not focus on properties owned by regime opponents or forcibly displaced individuals from the city. Instead, they buy properties available for sale regardless of the owners. In addition, al-Marsouma representatives prefer buying properties that do not have any transfer of ownership restraints, such as seizures and mortgages, meaning properties whose owners do not have security issues with the Syrian security services.
This buying and selling process is carried out legally. However, most sellers are forced to sell due to difficult economic conditions. Contractors have set a standardised price for properties and land in Moadamiyat Al-Sham: one qasba of land (23.75 square metres) ranges from SYP 2 to 5 million, depending on the location. The price per square metre for new, uncompleted construction ranges from SYP 400,000 to 1.5 million, while the price per square metre for old “Arab-style” houses is no more than SYP 150,000. These prices are considered unfair and are 10 percent lower than those in surrounding areas like Jdeidet Artouz, Sahnaya, and Jdeidet Artouz al-Balad.
As for the properties of regime opponents that have undergone precautionary asset seizure by the Ministry of Finance under Anti-Terrorism Law No. 19 of 2012, Al-Marsouma representatives have purchased these properties through mutual agreement with the owners, most outside Syria. They sign sales contracts with old dates and at low prices. The seizure mark on the property remains in the Land Record in such cases. Al-Marsouma family representatives sometimes target these properties due to their low prices. This has caused intense competition between Al-Marsouma representatives and other contractors, leading in at least one case of kidnapping and threats involving the security services. In most of these cases, a negotiated settlement was reached in favour of the Al-Marsouma family, in exchange for financial sums to the other party to be withdrawn from the purchasing process.
Notable here is the exploitation by Al-Marsouma of a contentious issue in Moadamiyat Al-Sham: Due to the historical expropriation of properties in the area, most of the remaining properties in the city still have common ownership among their inheritors. Consequently, the process of terminating the common ownership and transferring the resulting shares to each inheritor in has not yet been carried out for these properties. After the issuance of precautionary seizure orders on regime opponents’ properties in 2011, their shares were seized from properties jointly owned with others. Legally, the seizure should be limited to the share of the property that is subject to the seizure. However, in practice, precautionary seizure prevents the remaining inheritors from conducting any transaction or transfer of ownership without obtaining prior security approval.
According to the regulations, obtaining a construction permit on commonly owned land within the zoning areas is not permissible. However, it appears that Al-Marsouma representatives, through their security connections, have obtained such permits on land with common ownership if the seized share of one of the partners is relatively small. In such cases, the family representatives submit a “common ownership license” application for construction to the Moadamiyat Al-Sham municipality, whereby construction is authorised on the un-seized shares per the building codes. Meanwhile, the seized share is left as a setback or a jardin. If the seized share is significant, construction is carried out in violation of the building codes.