A new Syrian property law known as article 10 announced this month has drawn parallels with laws enacted in Lebanon after the civil war to seize land in central Beirut, and the absentee property law in Israel in 1950 that legalised seizures from Palestinians driven from their lands.
The Syrian law empowers local administrations to re-register property ownership within their areas, a move that requires landowners to be present. Syrian legal experts say the law focuses on war-damaged areas around Damascus and does not include areas unscathed by the fighting. However, critics and exiled landowners say the regulation has a clear political dimension and carries implications that extend well beyond selective re-zoning.
A senior EU official explained “This is blatant power consolidation by Assad. It is punitive, not regulatory. Make no mistake. On the one hand, it is normal to do something like this after a natural disaster like an earthquake. But not now. And not like this."
“For millions of internally displaced and refugees, such proof of ownership will most likely be mission impossible,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. “Many left without title deeds, some lived in informal settlements, therefore without legally recognised proof of ownership and for others – mainly refugees – going back to Syria to provide such proof is tantamount to a suicide mission. From the regime’s perspective, the law will serve three purposes: it gives them an additional vetting instrument over returnees and a way to strip political opponents of their assets. For refugees, largely perceived by the regime as traitors, this increases their risk of permanent exile. It will allow the regime to consolidate its power base by repopulating strategic areas with regime loyalists. This places the residents of informal settlements in major cities at risk of further dispossession. This may remove any potential source of future resistance for good.”
Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Fares Centre for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University in the US, said the full effect of the property law remained unclear. “Much will depend on implementation. This could be ethnic cleansing by stealth, not dissimilar to absentee laws we have seen before,” he said. “In Lebanon we had a similar law in the rebuilding of the Nahr al-Bared camp, which was destroyed in 2007 by the Lebanese army in a fight with a terrorist group called Fath al-Islam. There were illegal constructions in contravention to zoning and building regulations and unclear property rights with complicated compensation regimes.”