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Millions of Syrians fear losing their homes with the Assad regime's new confiscation law Open in fullscreen

Paul McLoughlin

Millions of Syrians fear losing their homes with the Assad regime's new confiscation law

Bashar al-Assad's regime now controls most urban centres in Syria [AFP]

Date of publication: 5 January, 2018

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Syrians have less than a month to register their property with Damascus, but many of the 13 million displaced are unable to reach government-controlled areas, reports Paul McLoughlin.
Millions of Syrians are at risk of losing their homes, land and businesses after a controversial new law was passed by Bashar al-Assad's regime earlier this month.

Law Number 10 was introduced at the start of April and gives Syrians just 30 days to register their properties with the government or face confiscation by the state.

With the vast majority of Syria's 13 million internally and externally displaced people unable to access government areas due to safety fears or more practical reasons, the law appears targeted at anyone who has not displayed unfettered loyalty to the Assad regime during the seven-year war.

"This law isn't necessarily a new approach, it's just widening the confiscation of property that has been taking place for some time now," Leila al-Shami, co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, told The New Arab.

"Law 66 was heading in this direction, by removing property from dissidents and handing them to loyalists."

Shami was referring to a law put forward at the beginning of the war, which envisioned slum areas in Damascus being redeveloped into prime real estate. But Law 10 expands on previous legislation dramatically.

Critics fear the law will see the lower-income homes  replaced with luxury apartment blocks, shopping centres and tower blocks for businesses and the wealthy.

Buying loyalty

The relationship between Syria's business elite and the ruling Assad family - along with the army and intelligence agencies - has been the backbone of the regime's control of the country for many decades. 

Loyalists - Sunni, Christian and Alawite - have long benefited from the Baath Party's patronage system, with the regime distributing lucrative land, government contracts, dealership rights, or business licenses to powerful allies.

It has allowed a small clique to expand its reach across the country through these loose networks. 

Hafez al-Assad's decision to seize lands belonging to those connected to former regimes, only to hand them over to supporters or landless peasants when he took power in 1970, was one early sign of politically motivated redistribution. 

 


The latest law might reflect the changing power dynamics brought up by the war with the government paying off new powerful new actors - including foreign agents - and loyalists, at the expense of those who fled the country.

Law Number 10 also coincides with the potential break-up of Syria that could see loyalists occupying the prime urban and rural lands in the country, while opponents and others are pushed out to the less valuable periphery.

One indication was the release of a datebase containing 1.5 million names of people wanted by the regime, by Syrian website Zamn al-Wasl

As the list dates back to 2015, many, many more are likely to have been added to this list since then, while family members and friends of the wanted will also likely be in danger if they return to Syria.

Law Number 10 could also provide the regime with the legal basis to seize lands and homes of some of the 500,000 victims of Syria's war. 

Many relatives of the deceased would not have the physical deeds to these properties - or fear pursuing their rights due to the regime's notorious security services. 

Land lost

Since the Syrian regime's recovery after Russia entered the war in September 2015, its military and allied militias have been focusing on capturing key urban, rural and resource-rich areas. 

Many of the residents - whose homes were bombed by Russian and regime shells - have either been uprooted to rebel areas or abroad, or kept a low profile when the regime took over their neighbourhoods.

"For refugees it means for them there is nowhere for them to go home to. It is demographic engineering by the regime to ensure oppositional communities are permanently displaced," said Shami.

"This is despite the international community now accepting that Assad will remain in power, and the future Syria will be his rump state."

Many Syrians who remained in regime areas will also be unable to prove physical ownership of their properties, with some deeds dating back to Ottoman times.

"The problem is that many owners don't have records - either because they are in slum areas that never went through legal processes when they were built or the offices that hold the records were destroyed in areas like Homs and Damascus."

Rump state

The area Assad now controls includes the key economic areas of Syria vital for the future control of the country. It will also likely be the focus of an unprecedented post-war boom in reconstruction at the end of the conflict.

"There are concerns that the reconstruction will benefit the regime's power base," said Shami.

More than a quarter of Syria's homes have been destroyed or damaged during the war, and rebuilding the country has been estimated at $226 billion - four times Syria's GDP, according to the World Bank.
 

 
Assad's regime is also heavily indebted to his foreign backers - including Iran and Russia - both financially and politically. 

Lands have already been handed out to commanders of foreign militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who have been the vanguard of the regime's unexpected fight back against the rebels.

Reports have suggested that urban areas - including Eastern Ghouta - captured from the regime during the so-called "evacuation deals" with the rebels could be given to foreign backers and domestic loyalists.

Lucrative projects in oil and gas, infrastructure re-development, utilities, and telecoms have already been given to Iranian and Russian businesses. 

Other countries which have shown less hostility to Assad's regime during the seven-year war are also expected to win big when reconstruction contracts are handed out. 

Oman is believed to be among those who will benefit from the post-war boom. Muscat and Damascus signed a memorandum of understanding last year, which will see Omani companies win lucrative energy contracts.

Syrian Prime Minster Imad Khamis told an Omani delegation that the "priority of investments in Syria will be given to the businessmen from the friendly and brotherly countries which stood by Syria in its war against terrorism".

Redevelopment will likely be for the benefit of the regime and its patrons - those who helped Assad destroy the country, or governments that did not vocally oppose Damascus' scorched earth tactics.

Those Syrians who opposed or stood on the sidelines are likely to be the losers in the new Syria, including the some ten million now homeless. ​

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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