Displace and Dispossess: How Property Laws Ensure Those Displaced by War Can’t Return

The past several years have seen Syrian regime forces recapture pocket after pocket of former opposition-held territory, usually by besieging and bombing those areas in an all-out blitzkrieg — an intense military campaign intended to bring about a swift victory — to force rebels to surrender.  Afterwards, most residents are displaced, leaving behind vast city blocks of homes and businesses damaged by the fighting. Some areas are little more than rubble. ِAnd now, how is the Syrian government ensuring that those bussed out from former rebel-held districts don’t return?

The answer lies largely in a series of government decrees released since 2011. These measures are designed to legally — ostensibly legally, at least — drive out Syrians perceived to be pro-opposition, ensuring the government’s survival, scholars Emily Stubblefield and Sandra Joireman argue in an article published late last year in Land, the open access journal.

"It is not a forcible displacement of one ethnic group or a singular episode of expropriation, "the authors argue. "Instead, the Syrian regime has carefully and bureaucratically enacted a series of legislative decrees over the course of the conflict, each of which undermines the property rights of certain Syrian citizens." Adding further harm, average Syrians lack secure access to their property documents, as they may have lost such papers while fleeing violence, or civil registry offices containing important files have been damaged or destroyed. Digitised copies do not exist. As a result, people are vulnerable to measures directly aimed at dispossessing them.

Among the most widely-cited such laws in recent years are the Anti-Terrorism Act (Law No. 19) of 2012, which set a broad definition of terrorism and established punitive measures such as freezing assets and seizing property. "Critics of the Anti-Terrorism Act have noted that the Counterterrorism Court (CTC), created under Article 2, is a poorly masked attempt at imprisoning members of the opposition and confiscating their property," Stubblefield and Joireman write.

Also in 2012 came Decree No. 66, a measure ostensibly intended to "redevelop areas of unauthorised housing and informal settlements [slums]" — areas that in general have been opposition-held strongholds during the war. The decree effectively allowed for large-scale legal eviction of residents after the dust had settled in battles to recapture rebel-controlled districts.

Thegovernment passed Law No. 10 in 2018, which expanded on Decree No. 66 and allows re-zoning of properties damaged in the war for reconstruction purposes. According to the authors, among the most "troubling" aspects of the law is the stipulation that owners or their relatives must appear in person to provide proof of ownership. They write: "Reports indicate that roughly 17% of refugees have brought property documents with them after displacement, and the number who have civil documents, which are also required, is much lower. With Syria’s reliance on informal and customary transfer of property, it is also plausible that documents confirming property ownership simply may not exist." Requiring security clearance in order to register property could also deter those who fled Syria due to fears of political persecution, whether for perceived or actual opposition ties.

Former opposition-held districts, such as Qaboun in Damascus, have already been slated for redevelopment under the law.

Ordinary Syrians have few avenues to resist dispossession. Ownership and civil status documents are difficult to obtain or keep safe for those who have fled abroad. Women are particularly at risk, including married women who may be widowed or separated from their husbands due to conscription, imprisonment and other reasons, and whose homes and other properties are registered in the husband’s names.

Comparisons can be made between Syria and Iraq, where various decrees put in place before 2003 deliberately legalised the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kurds — seen as opposed to the Baathist state — from their homes.

However, the authors argue, Syria’s usage of legislation and bureaucracy is less blatant than Baathist-era Iraq, in its targeting of certain social groups for dispossession. "Syria's Law 10 uses the premise of urban planning," for example.

The result, write Stubblefield and Joireman, is long-term demographic change in the government’s favor: "Property losses will negatively affect the economic well-being of those who return after the conflict and may prevent some people from returning at all."