Statements made several days ago by Brigadier-General Elias al-Bitar, head of the army’s Exemption and Reserve branch, have sown chaos and confusion among Syrians. Syrian men living outside the country and above the age of conscription have been threatened with the seizure of their property, as well as the property of their relatives, if they have not performed compulsory military service or paid the exemption fee. Following its amendment in 2017, the Military Service Law stipulates that those who are over the age of 42 and have not completed their military service must pay an exemption fee totaling $8,000, on top of a late fee of $200 for every year that they fail to do so.
Brigadier-General Elias al-Bitar, head of the Exemption and Reserve branch
The law states that such cases “shall be referred to the General Commission for Taxes and Fees. An executive seizure will be placed on the movable and immovable assets of the draftee, with the amount of the exemption and late fees being collected in accordance with the Public Funds Collection Law.”
In 2019, the Syrian parliament had approved an amendment to Article 97 of the Military Service Law that allowed for exemption fees to be collected through executive seizure of the assets of evaders without any need for prior warning. According to Sana News, and contrary to al-Bitar’s statements, the laws in force clearly prohibit the seizure of assets of the relatives of those who evaded conscription.
Both the amendment and the general’s statements are extremely serious and direct violations of property rights that aim to squeeze Syrians living outside the country. Among these Syrians are the hundreds of thousands of young men who did not perform mandatory military service out of fear of the certain dangers and possible death that conscription entails, or because they were unwilling to be involved in human rights violations. Most are living in dire economic conditions in the countries where they found asylum and do not possess the means needed to pay the exemption fee. And, although the law makes no mention of the assets of conscripts’ relatives along the lines al-Bitar suggested, it is plausible that there will be an executive order or amendment to this effect—in direct violation of the principle of personal punishment enshrined in Article 51 of the Syrian constitution.
This is not the first time that the Syrian government has targeted the assets and property rights of Syrians. The government has employed a variety of mechanisms to confiscate the property of its opponents, such as the Anti-Terrorism Court, while a series of laws issued after 2011 (like Law No. 10) also targeted the properties of Syrians. Now, with the Syrian government struggling to finance itself amid a severe shortage of foreign exchange and a massive devaluation of the Syrian lira, it is trying to wring foreign currency out of Syrians abroad. According to al-Bitar, under the amended law the Syrian government is now able to place an executive seizure on the property of the conscript or his relatives, immediately and without warning. That it now also claims the authority to sell these assets in a public auction suggests that what is important to the government is obtaining the $8000 payments or the actual value of the real estate.
Hence it appears that the Syrian government means to intimidate Syrians by threatening to seize their properties, and those of their loved ones, and then auction them off. The hope is that this will compel these populations, ideally including the families of men under the age of 42, to quickly proceed with transactions in which they would pay $8000 from abroad for exemption from military service. The government also aims to supplement the treasury’s foreign currency reserves at a time when the country is suffering from a severe economic crisis. The main drivers of this crisis, of course, have been the policies of the Syrian government, corruption, and the depletion of the country’s wealth and resources to finance weapons purchases and pro-government militias.
Resentment toward this law and the recent statements by al-Bitar has even extended to those loyal to the government. Many of their children evaded conscription and fled the country, and as such the government may end up seizing the assets of its own supporters.
It should be noted that this authorization of executive seizure follows a series of attempts by all parties to the Syrian conflict to exploit the control over property for the purposes of economic enrichment and demographic engineering. Last August, for example, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria approved the confiscation of the properties of absentee property-owners, most of whom are Arab. In the Northwest, likewise, Turkish-backed armed groups are confiscating Kurdish-owned properties and distributing them among those displaced from other regions or among their own members. These groups are also harvesting privately-owned olive trees and selling the produce in foreign markets.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre reiterates the need to implement a program for the restitution of movable and immovable assets. Not only do the practices described above violate Syrian law, they also violate international law, including the prohibition on the arbitrary deprivation of property in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, the new penalties imposed by the Syrian government on draft evaders contravene the principle of conscientious objection guaranteed by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This principle holds even more importance in this case given the likelihood that those conscripted would, as soldiers in the Syrian army, be involved in serious human rights violations.
The Syrian government must put a stop to this policy, which is only adding to the fear and anxiety of Syrians whether they reside in the country or are refugees. The latter now face additional hurdles to returning to Syria given the increased likelihood that they would have no properties to which to return. SJAC stresses that the international community must not accept the idea that particular places in the country are safe enough to warrant returning Syrian refugees currently living abroad. These circumstances must be taken into consideration, in accordance with international standards for refugee status determination and resettlement.