Marx reminds us that the most basic conflicts in society are about property. Property for Marx was more than just ownership of things but rather a social relation with the political economy of a given period.[i] The way that the Syrian state reorganizes land ownership has been a crucial, if somewhat overlooked aspect of the war.[ii] In line with Marx, I will argue here that the state’s organized restructuring of property is also an attempt to reorganize the social realm. Jumping on the opportunity presented by the chaos of war, the regime follows a ‘shock doctrine’ whereby radical redistribution of land and wealth, underpinning the redistribution of power in the country, becomes possible.
Following such a line of argument also forces us to rethink how we envisage peacemaking and post-war reconstruction. People forced to leave their houses have become IDPs, refugees and asylum seekers in the common technical terminology of the aid industry and the Western policy debate. For the people involved, the status of their private property always determines their current and future condition. Whether or not they can come back to Syria is not just a question of political stability or the outcome of the war. Rather, as every person who had to leave their housing, business, and networks behind will know, their return eventually depends on the reconfiguration of their property status. Will they be able to reestablish their business? Will the state allow it? Is their house still there? Is someone else living in it? If it is gone, can they build a new house on the plot?
Until their successful reintegration, in political and sociological terms, the millions of displaced Syrians remain de-facto bereft of their property on a scale that needs considering if we are to understand the dynamics of conflict settlement and the emerging social order after the war. In this article, I review some of the disputes over the infamous Law no. 10 passed by the Syrian government in April 2018 and highlight its dynamics as well as its likely implications that Western policy makers should consider urgently and push to the top of the agenda in debates about Syria’s future.
Land ownership in Syria
Land in Syria is either privately (38 percent) or publicly (62) owned, according to pre-conflict figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.[iii] Before 2011, nearly one third of Syria’s urban population lived in semi-urban developments that we sometimes call slums. They are the result of migration from the rif over the last decades. Syria’s population doubled over the past twenty-five years, with a disproportionate majority occurring in its main cities.[iv] This growth has stretched Syria’s limited urban infrastructure, and has forced once-rural communities to take up residence in outskirts such as Hamuriya, Harasta and Sheba’a. Many of these areas became iconic centers for the uprising and later leveled by the regime and its allies’ air bombing campaigns.[v] In these areas, the ownership status of houses and businesses was mostly organized on an informal basis.
Similarly, in the countryside ownership status depended on various customs that often did not produce significant paper trail. Farmers organized renting and purchase of land through extended family relationships. In case of land dispute, local tribal elders and heads of family would engage in conflict resolution alongside official institutional arbitration of courts and municipalities. Effectively, all over Syria state and private owners restricted and controlled access to land in a number of ways, based on various overlapping, sometimes formal, sometimes informal legal systems and practices.[vi] Reconstructing such intricate and informal systems is invariably difficult. Rather, reconstruction should be understood as a process that more often than not empowers the political economy undergirding the system in place – in this case the Syrian regime and its cronies.[vii]
In the maelstrom of the war, violent military campaigns and large-scale population transfers have reconfigured this already precarious system of land ownership. Prior to the war, the state had only registered about 20 percent of its land, including state farms, leased agricultural land, and ‘commons’ such as forests and pasture land.[viii] Much of this land had been used for private purposes like farming. As conflict engulfed the countryside, a large proportion of its inhabitants and (informal) owners and tenants had to abandon their livelihood.
Complicating matters further, the Syrian state had only shortly before the war began to digitalize its records of transactions. Many of the paper-based property registers have perished in the conflict. As a result, today property registers for state-owned land are dispersed, unreliable, or missing completely. This creates a sharp discrepancy between refuged property owners from established urban, semi-urban and rural areas, disadvantaging the two latter categories.
The tabula rasa of a new social order
Mass expulsion and destruction of whole neighborhoods combined with precarious property status create something akin to a ground zero and a tabula rasa on which the winner – likely the Syrian state – can write a new social order. The new social order involves a new ownership order that will largely dictate the framework for reconstruction and reintegration into the economy and life in Syria after the war. For Syrians who are now abroad, the possibility of their reintegration will depend on their access to resources and networks. The Syrian state regime understands this very well and is doing what it can to make itself the arbiter of any process of reintegration. I believe that this is the proper context for understanding Law no. 10.
The effort to rewrite the social order has continued apace since the beginning of the war. Starting in 2011, Bashar al-Assad’s government has passed a number of laws that undermined the status of the displaced population, preventing many from claiming title to land that was once theirs. It has used accusations of terrorism to confiscate property from displaced communities, and it has appropriated large areas of land to the advantage of its political supporters. Militias in liberated areas have used similar tactics. As a whole, these procedures present a case of what some sociologists call ‘lawfare,’ the abuse of judicial systems to achieve strategic military or political ends.[ix]
Law no. 10 extends a legislative decree passed in 2012 (Decree 66) from Damascus to the entire country. Decree 66 legalized the bulldozing of the neighborhood Basateen al-Razi and other areas in the capital after the government retook them from rebels (based on Decree 63, which allowed the finance ministry to seize the assets of people who fell foul of the 2012 Counterterrorism Law) and identified them as zones for development.
Damascus municipality in December 2016 restructured the ownership of Basateen al-Razi in a 279-million-dollar private-public company, Damascus Sham, for reconstruction. Some former residents hold shares, but most have lost their ownership rights. New housing currently under construction mainly consists of large apartments aimed at upper middle-class tenants. Decree 66 effectively punished those previously living in the recaptured neighborhood, most of them Arab Sunni Muslims, for association with the uprising.
The mechanics of lawfare in Law no. 10
The war has destroyed around one-third of all Syria's pre-war housing and infrastructure, which will cost as much as $226 billion to rebuild according to World Bank estimates in 2017. Reconstruction is also a necessary condition for the return of the displaced. The government argues that Law no. 10 will facilitate this, by regulating and developing areas of informal settlements, enabling the government to undertake necessary expropriation for reconstruction, and offering fair compensation to those affected. However, as many commentators have pointed out in the past months, a closer examination of the mechanics of this process suggests likely problems.[x]
When the Ministry of Local Administration designates an area for reconstruction, all owners automatically lose their sole ownership status. They can no longer sell or build on the land (although they may use the building until demolition begins). Instead, they can become shareholders within a collective ownership scheme. To do so, they must submit a claim for ownership in person - originally within 30 days of the area being designated an area for reconstruction, although Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on June 2, 2018, said that the government is extending this deadline to one year.[xi] This change may have been a result of pressure from rights groups and from the German government, who have complained about the law.
If claimants cannot show up (as is the case for refugees), a close relative with no criminal record may represent them. Municipalities could interpret this vague clause to exclude anyone who has been associated with the opposition. Shareholders can sell their share partially or completely within a period of one year. A committee will then determine the share price based on market value. If shareholders eventually choose not to sell their share, they can apply for a joint building project on a select plot with other shareholders. If they fail to receive a building license from the municipality within four years, the authorities will sell the plot in a public auction.
It is questionable, to put it mildly, whether the strained local authorities possess the material and human resources to execute these complex legal and technical measures. A recent case from Hama rather suggests that they could choose to bypass legal processes.[xii] According to the Turkey and Lebanon-based Syrian activist media Souriatna, regime militias have obtained agricultural crops in a number of villages northwest of the city of Hama, including the villages of al-Safsafiyah and al-Tremseh, by invoking the framework of Law 10, after which they brought agricultural harvesters and began to harvest crops. Activists said that regime militias informed residents that they would impose Law no. 10, through which they will obtain all the land whose owners are absent, especially those who have fled the country. If larger scale invocations of Law no. 10 follow this pattern, anyone placing too much trust in the rule of law in Syria would either be deluded or uninformed.
Bureaucratic exclusion mechanisms
At a closer look, the law has several built-in bureaucratic exclusion mechanisms that the authorities could use for large-scale property expropriation. First and foremost, the majority of inhabitants of areas in Hama, Homs, Aleppo and Damascus considered for reconstruction under the law are opponents of the government who were forced to flee. The latest reports suggest that the two first areas of rezoning will be Jobar and al-Qabun in Damascus, two bastions of the uprising.
Another way in which the law excludes is its demand that claimants appear in person. Although the law allows representation by relatives, these are likely to fear reprisals if they interact with the government. Moreover, Law no. 10 also requires claimants to present documentation of ownership. As mentioned, in many semi-urban areas, such documentation either does not exist or has been lost in the destruction and flight. Recent surveys found that just 17% of Syrian refugees abroad had property documentation with them, while only 9% of those displaced inside Syria had managed to retain their property records.[xiii]
The government in 2011 was in the process of moving property titles from a paper-based to an electronic system, but the war halted this process, leaving the authorities dependent on physical contracts and property records. Many have likely been destroyed, leaving the original titleholders with no claim.
Many Syrians therefore fear Law no. 10 is simply an instrument to punish opposition supporters and change Syria's demography by repopulating mainly Arab Sunni areas with Assad loyalists from other parts of the country. The Syrians in Denmark, Germany and Sweden with whom I have discussed the law overwhelmingly view it as a blunt tool for the state to punish them. Even if they do not own property themselves, they worry about the property of family and friends. Many expressed deep concerns about sectarian engineering, including through rewards to foreign Shia militias. These concerns reflect demographic changes on the ground, where some neighbourhoods and villages, such as Madaya and Zabadani West of Damascus, have seen an influx Iranians and Shiite Syrians.
The time to act is now
Their fears seem justified. If the Syrian government designates areas in the four largest cities for reconstruction, starting with Jobar and al-Qabun, the coming year could see the start of a process that seizes property from many of the 6 million Syrians living abroad. This has serious consequences for the prospect of refugees returning. In the worst-case scenario, it could lead to their permanent exclusion, leaving host countries with a hard choice between leaving the refugees in permanent limbo (as is likely in Lebanon and Turkey) and granting them citizenship - a possibility in some European countries, but politically unpopular.
Although the UN and other international actors may be reluctant to add complexity to an already-overcrowded negotiation process, inclusion of property rights in the peace talks could therefore prove indispensable to facilitating refugee return. Now that Law no. 10 has been exposed in all its details, it is time for the international community to act before the execution of a new social order that excludes hundreds of thousands if not millions of Syrians from their rightful place in their country.
[i] George Brenkert, “Freedom and Private Property in Marx,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 8 (2), 1979.
[ii] For a discussion of property, class and the Syrian state, see Yassin al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution, London: Hurst, 2017, pp. 45-64.
[iii] Nadia Forni, Land Tenure Systems Structural Features and Polices, Food and Agricultural Association of the United Nations, 2001, http://agriportal.gov.sy/public/dwnld-files/policy_studies/en/08_land_tenure_en.pdf
[iv] Kilcullen, David, and Nate Rosenblat: “The Rise of Syria’s Urban Poor: Why the War for Syria’s Future Will Be Fought Over the Country’s New Urban Villages,” PRISM, National Defense University, Center for Complex Operations, Vol. 4, Syria Supplemental, (2014): pp. 33-41.
[v] Housing, Land and Property in the Syrian Arab republic, Norwegian Refugee Council, 2016. https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/housing-land-and-property-hlp-in-the-syrian-arab-republic.pdf
[vi] Nadia Forni, Land Tenure Systems Structural Features and Polices, Food and Agricultural Association of the United Nations, 2001, http://agriportal.gov.sy/public/dwnld-files/policy_studies/en/08_land_tenure_en.pdf
[vii] Steven Heydemann, ”Rules for Reconstruction in Syria,” Brookings Institution 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/08/24/rules-for-reconstruction-in-syria/
[viii] Jon D. Unruh, “Weaponization of the Land and Property Rights system in the Syrian civil war: facilitating restitution?” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 10 (4), 2016.
[ix] Charles Dunlap, ”Lawfare Today: A Perspective,” in Yale Journal of International Affairs, 2008.
[x] Some of the useful analyses of Law Nno. 10 include Human Rights Watch: “Q&A: Syria’s New Property Law,” https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/29/qa-syrias-new-property-law; Middle East Eye: “Assad’s land grab: refugees face losing the homes they fled under new law,” http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/displaced-syrians-ensnared-new-property-law-stand-lose-everything-1505403090.
[xi] Here, I rely on the Syrian network of architects and urban activists Syrbanism, see “Property Law Nno. 10 and its implications on Syrian cities,” Youtube video, published June 6 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxHXSmAH3Fo
[xii] “The Regime Begins to Reap the Rewards of Law No. 10,” The Syrian Observer, June 19 2018, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/34382/The_Regime_Begins_Reap_Rewards_Law_No/
[xiii] Norwegian Refugee Council: “Syrian refugees’ right to legal identity: implications for return.” January 2017. https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/briefing-notes/icla/final-syrian-refugees-civil-documentation-briefing-note-21-12-2016.pdf