Home Seizure in Northern Syria Highlights Potential Role of Turkish Foundation in Violation of Property Rights

The seizure of a Kurdish activist’s property in northern Syria highlights the complexity of the situation there and the competing roles of local councils, armed forces and Turkish institutions.

About a month ago, the Turkish aid organisation IHH — which stands for Humanitarian Relief Foundation in Turkish — opened a centre for Arabic language, orphan support and children’s Quran memorisation in the home of Kurdish-Syrian journalist Muhyedin Isso in Ras al-Ain, a town just across the border from Turkey. The governor of Turkey’s southern Urfa province unveiled the centre in a public ceremony on June 23.
 
Mr Isso shared a video on his Facebook page the same day that appears to show dozens of people receiving the Turkish governor inaugurating a children’s Quran memorisation centre.
 
Mr Isso, who now resides in Germany, told The Syria Report that the incident was the second time since 2012 that warring parties have seized the house owned by his family, who are now displaced between neighbouring Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
 
Ras Al-Ain is traditionally home to Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Chechens. A stretch of the more than 100-year-old defunct Berlin-Baghdad Railway passes by the city, which sits just across the border from the Turkish city of Ceylanpinar. Ras Al-Ain has been captured by different groups over the course of the war due to its strategic location on the border. 
 
The city changed hands several times after 2012 before it was eventually captured by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2013.
 
During its control over the city from 2013 to 2019, the YPG targeted some Arab residents, accusing them of belonging to armed opposition groups, and took over a number of their homes in the city’s northern neighbourhoods next to the border. Those areas were converted into military zones, with tunnels and barricades to counter any potential Turkish military incursion. Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the PKK, a separatist Kurdish group that has been waging an armed insurgency in Turkey for decades. 
 
Isso, a journalist and activist, fled to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012 amid threats to his safety from the Syrian intelligence apparatus after he was elected to the administrative body of the opposition-affiliated Syrian Journalists Association. He later sought refuge in Germany in 2014. Isso’s family members, on the other hand, were forced to flee in October 2019, when Turkish-backed National Army rebel factions captured the city as part of the so-called Peace Spring military incursion. 
 
More than 180,000 people were displaced from the border area between Ras al-Ain and the nearby Syrian city of Tal Abyad due to Peace Spring, according to the UN. Most of them were Kurds, and fled to the Washo Kani displacement camp near Hassakeh, as well as to Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Europe. 
 
According to Mr Isso, the deputy head of the local council, Issa Al-Bunni, reached out to his family to ask that they voluntarily give up the house to local authorities so that it could be reopened as a Quran memorisation centre. The family refused and has kept photos of their ownership documents in the hopes that they might return to the house soon. 
 
Isso published a scathing post last month on his Facebook account denouncing what he called the Turkish "occupation" of Ras al-Ain, and the seizure of his family’s house. 
 
Al-Bunni, who is also an IHH representative, painted a slightly different picture to The Syria Report. He said that the area is still a military zone under the authority of National Army factions and that the IHH had agreed with military factions to evacuate some of the houses within the zone, and then communicate with the owners to refurbish them and rent them under annual contracts for usage by organisations working for the public good. The costs of repairs would be deducted from the rent, Al-Bunni added, arguing that the arrangement would be beneficial for both sides: first, the homes would be converted from military to civilian use, and second, they would be restored. Homeowners would be allowed to return at any time, he said.
 
However, Mr Bunni could not communicate with the family until after local authorities finished renovating the house, indicating that the repairs took place without the homeowners’ permission. The owners eventually refused to rent out the home and instead asked the local council to protect it and prevent it from falling back into the hands of armed factions.
 
According to Al-Bunni, the local council is unable to protect the house and must return it to the factions if the owners refuse to lease it. As a civilian body, the council is only able to issue and record contracts.
 
The opening of the centre puts all sides in a difficult position: on one hand, Isso’s family is unable to evict the current occupants of the house, while on the other, the local council is unable to keep the house out of the hands of armed factions should the family continue to refuse to rent it out.