In May 2023, numerous residents of the Yarmouk Camp, an informal Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus that was recaptured by the Syrian regime in 2018, were summoned by the General Intelligence Branch following notifications from local mukhtars, or district heads. One of the attendees, an aid worker during the opposition control period, said that each attendee underwent a 30-minute interrogation before receiving a judicial order from the Anti-Terrorism Court, resulting in the confiscation of all the respective individual’s movable and immovable assets. Similar cases have been reported in recent months in other parts of the country, including Homs and Eastern Ghouta. While estimating the total number or value of confiscated properties in an area like the Yarmouk Camp is challenging, the occurrence of at least 50 cases in a single day offers an indication of the scale. Paradoxically, these campaigns coincided with a conference, sponsored by Russia and organized by the Syrian regime in Damascus, focusing on the issue of refugee returns. While calls for the immediate return of Syrian refugees have increased at the regional and international levels, it is imperative to closely examine the direct link between property confiscation and the possibility of refugee returns. Indeed, property confiscation does not only impact the direct owners and their immediate families’ livelihoods but also hinders the ability of thousands of displaced Syrians to return while leading those who still reside under regime rule and have lost their property to consider migration.
Property confiscation has been a longstanding policy of the Syrian regime since the 1960s, often employed to achieve specific economic objectives or as a means of political control and punishment. During the present conflict, which exploded in 2011, this policy has been extensively used to dispossess Syrians of their lands and properties. In essence, confiscation strategies can be categorized as either selective or collective. Selective confiscation is primarily applied through the Anti-Terrorism Court, which targets individuals involved in political or civil society activities deemed by the state to be “terrorism.” For instance, in 2017 alone, the Anti-Terrorism Court oversaw at least 8,200 confiscation cases, with 24,000 individuals yet to be tried. Other individuals, such as military evaders or those accused of corruption or tax evasion, may also face asset freezes or seizures.
Collective confiscation occurs through urban development that specifically targets entire communities residing in informal or unregulated areas. These practices are often backed by a series of laws and regulations that empower the state to seize lands for urban planning and development purposes. Confiscation may also take place without a legal basis. For example, agricultural lands owned by displaced individuals in Hama, Homs, Idlib, and Deir ez-Zor have been subject to auctions for investment. These auctions overtly favor individuals connected to militia group leaders and the security apparatus, while relatives of displaced landowners, who are typically labeled as terrorists, are prohibited from participating. Moreover, the revenue generated from these sales is seized by the regime rather than being rightfully credited to the original owners.
In theory, properties confiscated through official channels are transformed into state-owned assets that can be left vacant, utilized by public institutions, or sold through public auctions. However, the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Law introduces a potential loophole whereby properties can be given as compensation to “individuals affected by terrorism,” creating an opportunity for the transfer of properties to regime loyalists. Furthermore, properties confiscated for urban development projects are ultimately incorporated into the capital accumulation process, leading to economic benefits for the regime’s cronies and inner circle. This allows the regime to exploit Syrians’ properties as a mechanism for consolidating power and a means to repay its business associates, external allies such as Iran and Russia, and its political, military, and security apparatuses.
The impact of property confiscation on refugee returns and economic recovery is profound. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have already been or are at risk of being stripped of their assets, including vital resources like farmland, factories, vehicles, and shops, while many individuals have been forced to transition from homeowners to tenants. This loss greatly hinders their ability to rebuild their livelihoods. The pervasive fear of confiscation has coerced others to sell their properties at significantly reduced prices to individuals allegedly connected to the regime or Iranian militia groups. The constant threat of asset seizure or property demolition discourages many Syrians from rehabilitating their properties or returning to their original neighborhoods. On a larger scale, collective confiscation policies predominantly target and seek to depopulate informal areas to include them in urban development plans, which are primarily inhabited by the working class. This is evident in the case of Aleppo City, where the decline of these laborers’ neighborhoods serves as a barrier to the recovery of the industrial sector.
The issue of property confiscation should not be treated as a purely domestic legal matter but must be recognized as a critical political factor in Syria’s future recovery. Countries advocating for safe refugee returns must prioritize addressing this issue during negotiations with Damascus. Reversing policies that undermine Syrians’ property rights and impede their ability to rebuild their lives upon return should be a fundamental requirement in any process involving refugee returns, early recovery, and reconstruction funding. The existing legal and economic framework imposed by the regime is highly detrimental to Syrians and their properties. Therefore, investing in Syria’s reconstruction without reforming these laws and curbing similar practices would only serve to reinforce the regime’s war economy. When it encountered enough political pressure in 2018, the Syrian regime was forced to revise certain terms of Law No. 10, which allows the regime to repossess properties of those who fail to claim their ownership within a month (later amended to a year) following the designation of an area for development. A similar level of pressure is urgently needed today to repeal laws and regulations that threaten Syrians’ property and livelihoods.
The international community can no longer afford to overlook this issue, as Syrians continue to lose their properties on a daily basis to a rapacious regime. This organized campaign of asset theft will not only deter Syrian refugees from returning, it will also prompt those who are still in Syria to desperately seek ways to leave, including trying to cross the Mediterranean in unsafe conditions. Tragedies like the one that took place last week off the coast of Greece will continue until the root causes of migration are addressed.
Munqeth Othman Agha is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Syria Program, a doctoral student at the School of International Studies, University of Trento, and a researcher at the Syrian Memory Institute (Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies). He has previously been published by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Institute of International Affairs (IAI).
Photo credit GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP via Getty Images
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