More than 10 million Syrians who have fled the country’s raging war have been told to lay claim to their homes by early May or risk forfeiting them to the state.
A property law announced this month has raised widespread fears that Syrian citizens who have opposed Bashar al-Assad face permanent exile and that other people considered loyalists may be given access to their communities.
With the majority of internally displaced and overseas refugees unable or unwilling to return to prove ownership of properties, analysts and exiles say the law, known as article 10, and the tight timeframe surrounding it could serve as an instrument of demographic change and social engineering.
It 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.
“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.”
The effects of the proposed law were widely discussed at an EU-UN donor conference in Brussels this week. On the sidelines of the summit, which concluded with close to a $5bn shortfall in aid pledges, officials from both sides said there was an increasing understanding in Europe that many of the estimated 1.5 million Syrians now on the continent were not going home.
“This is the nail in the coffin for them,” said a senior EU official. “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. The war is still raging and metastasising. It’s not anywhere near over.”
A perception that the war is winding down, coupled with conflict fatigue, has dampened the appetite of potential donors and made a political settlement ever more elusive.
With robust backing from Russia and Iran, Assad has been manoeuvred into a winning position in key parts of the battlefield, including in Damascus, where Syrian and Russian forces continued an assault on the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on Thursday.
In response to the latest clashes, the UNRWA commissioner general, Pierre Krähenbühl, said: “Yarmouk and its inhabitants have endured indescribable pain and suffering over years of conflict. We are deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of civilians, including Palestine refugees, after more than a week of dramatically increased violence.”
In northern and southern Syria, regime offensives have yet to fully begin. The conflict in both areas has morphed numerous times and, even with bedrock support from Tehran and Moscow, regaining full control of the country any time soon is seen as an unlikely proposition.
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.”