Q and A: Can Displaced Farmers in Syria’s Northwest Ever Regain Their Lands?

For much of 2019 and early 2020, northern Hama and southern Idlib governorates were under a barrage of near daily airstrikes and artillery fire, as pro-regime forces sought to recapture the area from rebels.

They succeeded, and today much of this agricultural zone is under government control. The government--coordinating with affiliated “Peasants’ Unions”--has since worked to systematically confiscate and auction off remaining farmland in the area. It has been a relatively easy task, as the owners fled for safety from the airstrikes long ago, and largely remain in displacement, afraid of reentering their now regime-controlled properties.

“They don’t know that it’s safe for them to return”, says Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, which published a report earlier this month on the farmland confiscations.

The Syria Reportspoke with Mrs Kayyali about her findings, and how the farmland confiscations are impacting displaced landowners.

Can you talk briefly about the personal situations of the landowners affected by these property confiscations, and why they are unable to access their lands? 

Many of these farmers were displaced following the Syrian-Russian military offensive in northwestern Syria that started in 2019. As the Syrian government progressively took more of these areas under its control, using unlawful airstrikes and shelling, a lot of these people had to flee their farmlands and their homes to safer places in Idlib.

And then a few months after the ceasefire in March 2020, the Peasants Union, which is basically a government-supported farmers coalition that operates across government-held Syria, started posting announcements on their Facebook pages saying that they were confiscating the lands of individuals who live outside the Syrian Arab Republic, or those who live in “terrorist” land, which is taken to mean northwestern Syria. These lists include the names of many of these displaced farmers, who are unable to return to those areas because they themselves are wanted by the Syrian government. They are also no longer able to access their lands because they have been taken and resold to others.

Is there anything that these people can do to visit their properties or get them back? Is that even a realistic possibility?

Unfortunately not. For the people we interviewed, all of them were individuals who were wanted by the Syrian government, either for participating in protests or for expressing political dissent. Many of them had relatives who had already been detained or disappeared by the Syrian government.

What about farm owners who aren’t wanted by the government? What’s going against them?

They don’t know that it’s safe for them to return. I think a lot of them do not want to be living under the Syrian government, so that’s not a viable option for them. Often this land is being taken by a pro-government militia or by individuals who have proven political and economic loyalty to the Syrian government. So I don’t know that, if someone was able to successfully return, whether they would be able to prevent confiscation of their farmland without paying a significant amount of money in bribes to local authorities.

How are these Peasants’ Unions identifying farm owners who are anti-government?

My understanding is that it’s through other members of the community, or through traders, intermediaries and the pro-government militias. In one interview, a Syrian farmer told us that his relative was there when one of the pistachio traders came around and very randomly started pointing at land and saying: ‘This person is against the Syrian government,’ ‘This person has fled’. And so they collected all of those lands and confiscated them.

Can you talk more about these Peasants’ Unions--what they are ostensibly set up to do, and what exactly have their roles been in auctioning off peoples' lands?

The Peasants’ Union has actually played a significant role in this. They are the ones who basically tallied the lands, posted the announcements and auctioned them off. Historically, and until today, these Peasants’ Unions have been considered an extension of the Syrian government. They mostly are affiliated with the Baath Party and cooperate with the Syrian security services extensively.

Can you talk about what legal basis the government has been using to seize these lands? Beyond claiming that the owners owe debt to the Agricultural Cooperative Bank, is there anything else?

No, from the people we interviewed and the documents we reviewed--with the confiscation they usually provide some legal excuse--this was the primary reason given. I’m not excluding that there may have been usage of the Anti-Terrorism Law, but I haven’t seen it cited explicitly.

The individuals who we interviewed all denied having owed money to the bank. The other thing that really sheds doubt is that the lists of individuals who reportedly owed money were in the hundreds, a significantly large number.

And a lot of the operations of the ACB and support from the Peasants’ Union actually stopped several years ago in northwestern Syria. So there’s no indication that they actually provide any support to these farmers. Finally, let’s say all of this is true and they do owe money--there has to be due process. You have to provide notice and opportunity to challenge the decision. All of these elements have to be fulfilled, and there’s no indication that any of these processes were initiated.

Do you think that the importance of wheat cultivation in this particular part of northwestern Syria is playing some sort of role?

I think this is exactly right, and we did include this in the report. We had done a report previously on the bread crisis and wheat shortages. These kinds of auctions and land seizures started in earnest as the Syrian government was facing severe wheat shortages, and as the Ministry of Agriculture announced the ‘Year of Wheat’ in 2020. It’s an unpleasant coincidence that confiscations of these lands, most of which are used for wheat, pistachios and olives, happened at the same time that the Syrian government is facing wheat shortages. It’s a very pragmatic, if unlawful, solution to the wheat shortage problem, and reflects the Syrian government’s desperation.

Looking much more broadly, what do property confiscations like this across Syria say about the potential of return for refugees or displaced people? After all, it seems these farms were a big part of these people’s livelihoods.

Putting the political opposition aside, it really makes return very difficult. Most people return when they have a home to return to, or they have a guaranteed livelihood--when they know that their situation in the area that they’re returning to is better than the situation they are coming from.

When you have these widespread land confiscations, destruction of property, demolitions, restrictions on access, they all point to the fact that Syrian refugees and displaced people are unlikely to return because there is nothing to return to--even if the violence has receded and there are no more airstrikes. There are no guarantees that they will be able to retake their land, that they will be able to go back safely. The processes aren’t to be trusted.