The Syrian crisis is about to enter a new phase with the increasing tension among the conflicting parties shaping the future of the country. The northern province of Idlib awaits a bleak fate, despite the deal that Russia and Turkey brokered; the city will inevitably be destroyed unless the international community stops Assad’s military. Although the armed conflict occupies the spotlight in the media, the war economy and managing the investments in Syria is equally important. Consequently, the relevance of the law to the recent events and changes on the international stage shows Russia’s intention to put an end to the war and to cooperate with neighboring countries to send refugees back to Syria and find a way to solve the situation in Idlib with minimum media coverage. Then Putin declares the end of the Syrian crises, the beginning of the reconstruction of cities and resettlement of Syrians not only from Idlib and neighboring countries but also from the EU.
Since the beginning of official Russian intervention in the Syrian uprising to assist Assad, regime forces have achieved significant victories over the armed opposition in many cities especially Aleppo and Damascus. Having recaptured the largest urban centers in the country after razing large parts of them to the ground with indiscriminate heavy bombardment, the Syrian regime issued a new decree to rebuild the ghost cities which the regime now controls. Law No.10 of the year 2018 enables the Ministry of Local Administration to declare any urban areas in the country as “development zones”. The law is framed as a new beginning, with the stated goal of reconstructing demolished neighborhoods after more than seven years of conflict in the country. Although the law may give hope to internally displaced people to return to their homes, the harsh conditions and stipulations imposed by the government raises suspicion that the purpose of such a law is in fact, the complete opposite. The governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey as well as Syrian refugees around the world are equally anxious about the uncertain outcomes of the law and its influence on the chances for refugees to return home one day.
Law 10 did not escape the attention of journalists and policy scholars, but while the text of the law is available to the public in Arabic, most debates and commentary has remained in English. A recent bilingual video analysis by the Syrian urbanist group Syrbanism offers a concise breakdown of the law, while pointing out some of its consequences. The problems addressed in different outlets remain within the legalese and barely scratch the surface of the threats the law poses on displaced communities, due to practical limitations. The law builds on statements that Assad had previously stated in a speech addressing his supporters, declaring that “Syria is for those who fight for it, not for those who carry its citizenship, which alerted activists who fear the regime intends to render millions of Syrians stateless if they deny them the citizenship.
When a local administrative body declares a certain region a “development zone,” the residents of that area have a one-year period to act and decide what they will do with their share of the property. Their options are limited to selling it within a year, registering it as an apportioned plot, or establishing a joint stock company within a period of six months of releasing the shares by the local administrative unit. Failing to fulfill any of the aforementioned options within the stipulated time period results in exorbitant fines on the value of their property. In the case of the apportioned plot, which is the decision to build a shopping mall or a residential area, if shareholders failed to build their project, then they will lose 40% of their shares in the form of fines, and after a certain period the entire property will be sold in public auction by the Ministry of Local Administration.
Many aspects are problematic about this law. First, it violates constitutional property rights ‘‘Private ownership shall not be removed except in the public interest by a decree and against fair compensation according to the law’’ as set forth in Article 15 of the 2012 constitution. Furthermore, aside from confiscating the property of the rightful owners, the law completely ignores the right of fair compensation. The law triggered a wave of responses on diverse social media platforms based out of the country for their support to the uprising, and many lawyers and activists responded to Syrians’ inquiries about the future of their properties. Both lawyers and activists have expressed their concerns about the implementation of the law and the consequences it will have on the social and demographic fabric of Syrian society.
Not only does this law violate the basic constitutional rights of property ownership, by restricting and depriving owners the right to act freely with their property, the law also acts as a legal tool to evict people from their property if they fail to sell it within the statutory time period. Specifically, the law states that failure to sell will result in confiscation of the property, or that it will be sold in auction, or that it will remain as shares belonging to the Ministry of Local Administration. For its part, the Ministry of Local Administration reports the confiscated property to the treasury, which is under full control of the Assad regime and its close circle of oligarchs such as the maternal cousin of the Syrian president Rami Makhlouf, who is popularly known among Syrians as “Mr. 10%” given his reputation for being corrupt and his intimidation tactics of forcing investors to pay him a certain amount of their profits. Makhlouf’s network of loyal small businessmen and relatives living abroad helped him operate under the guise of different names and through the partners he uses, and he is active in Eastern Europe through his father-in-law, who is the Syrian Ambassador in Romania.
Furthermore, the limited period of time helps the government to pretend as if they were playing by the law. However, one year is a limited time to act upon such a decision especially in light of the turmoil that the country has been living for the past seven years, not to mention that fact that that war has left many Syrians unable to obtain death certificates for their deceased family members, and it also means that many families need to go through inheritance issues before deciding what they will do with their shares in development zones. As for Syrians around the world, they have to go through an arduous legal procedure to obtain a letter of authorizing to enable one of their relatives to represent them in Syria. This procedure alone may take months to do. Ignoring these obstacles make the law an indirect way of confiscating the property of those who opposed the Assad regime after brutal military operations resulting in a demographic change that many experts predicted. Mahmoud, who is a student from Syria and had been studying in Istanbul for two years, told us about his encounter at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul:
I wanted to renew my passport, that’s why I went to the consulate to try my luck and it is a big hassle. You need to get an appointment to be allowed into the consulate, but how to get that appointment? If you get it from the website of the consulate they might not accept it. As it happened several times, they decided to stop using the online system, and then your appointment is worthless and you have to queue in front of the consulate where hundreds of Syrians are also waiting. That’s why now there is a black market for appointments at the consulate and people pay at least 200 Euro for it. Even if you enter the consulate, it is not that fast. One of my friends waited for 14 months to get a passport from the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, so imagine if 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey wanted to get any document from the consulate, this will take years to do.
Law No. 10 of 2018 builds upon several legal statutes in Syria. The Ministry of Local Administration used the City Planning Law of 1933, which is the first law of its kind in Syria at that time, the Counter Terrorism Law of 2012 and Decree 66 of 2012, which resulted in creating two development zones in Damascus and the eviction of thousands of families without fair compensation. The legality of such a law is established upon the interpretation of a vague definition of ‘‘Private property may be confiscated for necessities of war and disasters by a law and against fair compensation’’ cases that allow the government to seize the property of its citizens. However, it is clear that the regions soon to be declared as “development zones” are primarily located within territories under government control where there is no armed rebel presence. This means that these properties are not necessary for logistic or military purposes, which undermines the government’s stated purpose and does not exempt the government from paying fair compensation for those who will lose their property. The law might also be interpreted as a final attempt of the Syrian government to filter the Syrian diaspora while welcoming those who might be interested in returning after Assad’s victory and excluding those who can-not and would not return to the country.
In conclusion, such a law does not provide procedural guarantees for citizens, because it deprives the owners from the right to appeal. It also does not provide a fair trial, which is the scenario in the case of establishing an apportioned plot, where one judge and two elected citizens are to evaluate the value of land in predominantly emptied neighborhoods. Finally, it completely ignores the harsh reality of a country with 7 million internally displaced persons, more than six million refugees around the world, and thousands of forcibly disappeared people who lack the simplest identification documents, or cannot show up in person for many security related reasons. This law is nothing but an orchestrated plan to refashion the demography of the country, and deny those who opposed the regime their properties after threatening to deny them the citizenship earlier.