On August 5, the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria issued law no: 7/2020, which concerns the protection and management of property belonging to absentee landowners in the region, through a specialized committee. The Autonomous Administration claims that this law aims to preserve and protect property and legalize this process. However, they suspended the law just a few days after it was originally issued. According to the decision issued on August 12th, the suspension was a result of media hype and confusion among activists, journalists, and civil society. The Autonomous Administration plans to reconsider the law and reformulate it. Considering the importance of any attempts to protect or change the property rights of absentee landowners, it is important to analyze and understand the law, even though it is not going into effect immediately. A close reading of the text shows that the law and its purpose are completely different than what the Autonomous Administration claims.
This law risks depriving absentee landowners in Northeast Syria of their property rights. Since many of the people from areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration have migrated to or sought refuge in neighboring countries or Europe, they have been forced to leave their property and possessions behind. The law provides for the formation of a committee to protect the property of these absentee landowners, and it includes everyone who has left Syria for a period of one year or more “with the intention of permanent residency” and who has no first or second-degree relatives residing in Syria.
The committee manages these properties for the duration of the landowners’ absence, and the absentee landowner loses their right to lease their property “without prejudice to the original right.” Seizing expatriates’ property for the purpose of protection and investment, and also depriving them of the proceeds, in the case of their failure or the failure of their family to attend to the issue within a short period, violates basic provisions of Syrian civil and family law as well as international law.
In order for the absent landowner to regain their property, the law stipulates that they submit a request to the committee and express their desire to “receive his property, administer it, and reside permanently in Syria.” The law also stipulates that the absent landowner can object to the committee’s decisions within 30 days of announcing the decision or informing him of it.
The Autonomous Administration deals with absentee property owners as if it is a state recognized in international, complete with diplomatic representation abroad, including embassies and consulates. It assumes that people are able to go to these embassies and make the necessary mandates for their legal representatives inside Syria to follow up on their legal affairs.
However, the law is more like a military order issued by a de facto authority. It permits the Autonomous Administration to profit from the appropriation of civilian lands by targeting Arab communities in Northeast Syria specifically. In fact, under Article 19, Syriacs, Assyrians, and Armenians were excluded from this law. It is unclear why the law was not directed against all people of the region, an oversight that could lead to more rift and fragmentation of the social fabric of the region, which will lead to continued conflict and tension. It will affect any future reconciliation and peace processes in the region.
The law does not acknowledge missing persons or distinguish between missing persons and absent migrants. There are thousands of people missing from Northeast Syria, due to both the Syrian government and ISIS. If these missing people do not have first- and second-degree relatives living in the country, which is very likely as a result of mass displacement and asylum, will their properties be subject to seizure? There are still many questions remaining. For example, in the case of establishing long-term investment contracts on these properties, how will they be recovered or these disputes resolved in the future? And how will the potential legal consequences be dealt with later?
An SJAC staff member has conducted several interviews with families of the missing outside Syria about this law and practice. All families reported their concern about making any rights and obligations on the properties of their beloved missing, which could lead to major conflicts in the future. Mr. Mutasim Ezzou, who is residing in Jordan, said that this law does not differ from the real estate laws issued by the Syrian government with the aim of controlling and expropriating property. Abdul Hakim, who lives in Dubai, said that his wife cried and told him that the exhaustion and misery of their life has been wasted, and every Syrian knows that owning a house in Syria is a dream for every Syrian after great fatigue and trouble.
The Autonomous Administration should recall that it is obligated to comply with international law and Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, under which the appropriation or destruction of property is a grave breach. Article 8, paragraph 2 of the Rome statute of the ICC defines ‘war crimes’ as: “Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, namely, any of the following acts against persons or property protected under the provisions of the relevant Geneva Convention,” specifying, “(iv) Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”
Property appropriation has become a major feature of the Syrian conflict pursued by most of the parties to the conflict, for multiple purposes, the most important of which is demographic change and benefit. The Syrian government has pursued this matter by seizing the properties of those who oppose it through notes issued by the National Security Bureau addressed to the Minister of Finance for implementation or through real estate legislation like Law No. 10. The recent law by the Autonomous Administration is similar to Law No. 10 as both laws threaten Syrians’ property and rights with loss and further legal complications. They also both provide a grace period to the concerned parties to object and submit documents. However, this procedure in many cases is practically impossible. Armed groups loyal to Turkey in northern Syria have also done this when they seized many properties belonging to the Kurds in the city of Afrin and distributed them to their members or to the displaced. If it carries out the new law, the Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria would follow the same practice by seeking to appropriate and invest the proceeds from civilian property.
The Autonomous Administration was correct to temporarily suspend the law. It should not be reformulated, but rather completely canceled. The Autonomous Administration has a legitimate interest in helping those in Northeast Syria to rebuild. But instead of depriving absent property owners of their rights, the Administration should move towards more effective dialogue and discussion with civilians in and from the region, and the families of missing persons or their representatives must be included in these dialogues. The issue of property, its preservation and the right of restitution and return should remain a central topic in any UN-led peace talks, and the UN special envoy to Syria should monitor and assess violations against property and refer directly to it through his briefings and periodic reports. The resolution of property concerns in Syria will have great importance in building peace, returning refugees, and preserving the diverse, demographic composition of Syria.