Mass expropriation in Syria

How Assad is preventing the return of refugees

The Syrian war has moved through many phases and included a number of changing actors. But one aspect has remained constant throughout: the Assad regime is using the conflict to rid the nation once and for all of what it considers to be undesirable demographic groups. By Stefan Buchen and Sulaiman Tadmory

Since 2014, Syrians have consistently topped the table of refugees arriving in Germany. This is a consequence of the war that grew from the civil uprising ten years ago. The worst of the fighting may be in the past, but the war is not yet over. During this period, almost one million Syrian refugees came to Germany.

"Refugee protection is temporary protection, also in the case of Syria," said CDU parliamentarian Stephan Harbarth, now President of the Federal Constitutional Court, in a parliamentary debate in November 2017. His comment spells out an expectation prevalent within his party: the refugees from Syria should return to their homeland as soon as the war is over.

This expectation flies in the face of a development that has thus far received little publicity. The regime led by ruler Bashar al-Assad is seizing and expropriating the homes of those who have fled on a massive scale. The move appears to be linked to a targeted demographic policy. The regime clearly wants to be rid of a substantial segment of its population for good.  A glimpse at the affected cities and districts shows that the intention is obviously that above all Sunnis – or members of the majority population – will lose their property. President Assad is a member of the Alawite religious minority.

Aiman ad-Darwish fled to Germany in 2015 with his wife and four children. He comes from the world-famous desert city of Palmyra whose ruins were partly destroyed by IS. Aiman ad-Darwish now lives in a cramped refugee flat in the town of Osterode am Harz.

In Palmyra, the family owned an impressive house: "312 square metres of living space and an Arabian courtyard with a pool and pomegranate trees," says Aiman ad-Darwish. He shows photos of the inside and outside of the property and a video of his children splashing about in the pool. "I worked and saved a long time for it," reports the interior decorator, "we moved there in 2009. In 2015, we had to leave this little fatherland."

The old market in Damascus (photo: private)
Location is everything (pictured here: the old market in Damascus). The Assad regime issued "Decree Number 10" in April 2018. According to the decree, home owners lose their property if they do not report to the Syrian authorities within a short period of time. This makes it virtually impossible for refugees to assert their ownership claims. According to Stefan Buchen and Sulaiman Tadmory, the Assad regime has plans for the seized land, including the construction of prime residential quarters for loyal citizens

Targeting Sunnis

Aiman ad-Darwish is under no illusions. As he sees it, his house in Palmyra is lost forever, seized by the regime, essentially expropriated. "I'm in contact with my former neighbours, who fled to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They're all saying the same thing: access to the entire neighbourhood is blocked for former residents," he says. Aiman ad-Darwish, his neighbours and the overwhelming majority of the residents of Palmyra are Sunnis. "This expulsion policy is aimed at the Sunnis. Everyone knows that," says ad-Darwish.

The first signs that the Assad regime planned to use the war for its demographic new order came in 2012. Even then, refugees were already being prevented from returning to their homes. When Assad recaptured the strategically important and predominantly Sunni rebel-held city of Al-Qusayr close to the Lebanese border with the help of the Shia Hezbollah in 2013, the Sunnis were banished from the city.

Assad has made no secret of his long-term goal to permanently marginalise undesirable ethnic groups as a key outcome of the war. He made his intentions especially clear in a speech to parliament on 20 August 2017. For sure, the country had lost many of its "best sons" and suffered the destruction of infrastructure, he said, adding: "but we have gained something in return: a healthier and more homogenous society." Speaking in the same place back in 2015, he emphasised: "Living in a country or holding a passport does not entitle anyone to the fatherland." According to Assad, the way to earn the right to participate in the Syrian fatherland is to fight for it. Those who don't: "don't deserve any fatherland at all."

Changing demographics by expropriation

Whenever he makes any statements on demographic policy, the dictator is always careful to avoid using the word "Sunnis". The regime continues to describe itself as "non-denominational" and committed to religious pluralism. It is indeed true that many Sunnis populate the middle and upper social strata, for example wealthy businessmen in Damascus and Aleppo who are loyal to the regime. And yet it is clear that the dictator's aim is to reduce the Sunnis' majority share in the population. Of Syria's population of over 20 million, some three quarters are Sunnis. The proportion of Sunni Syrians fleeing the country is even higher.

More than 10 million Syrians are no longer living where they did in 2011, at the start of the conflict. Around half of all those displaced have found refuge in the few areas of Syria that the regime has not been able to recapture to date, primarily in the northwestern province of Idlib. The other half – around five million people – fled abroad. The regime wants to prevent their return.

As well as strategically important smaller places such as Palmyra and Qusair, the expulsion and expropriation policies are affecting densely populated neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the large cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. These districts were home to a concentrated number of poorer Sunnis who moved to the cities' peripheries from rural areas before 2011. Over the years, neighbourhoods such as Goutha to the east of the capital Damascus grew to become strongholds of the rebellion against the Assad regime. Now that the regime has recaptured these areas, it plans to distribute the real estate among its supporters: officers, soldiers, militiamen, loyal members of the business community.

The German government is aware of the Assad regime's purging policies. Several confidential Foreign Ministry reports on Syria from the years 2018 to 2020 provide evidence of this. Each of these reports has a separate section titled "expropriations". The Foreign Ministry refers to "credible reports" from returned refugees who were prevented from repossessing their property. Some were even "detained" as they attempted to do so.

The reports claim that the expropriations took place "on a large scale". The Foreign Ministry also quotes a report by the Syrian Finance Ministry which states that in 2016 and 2017 alone, "70,000 properties were seized". According to the German Foreign Ministry's confidential reports, this policy increases the risk that refugees will "lose their property" and no longer return to Syria.

Law Number 10

The Foreign Ministry explicitly names "Law Number 10", issued by the Assad regime in April 2018. According to the legislation, home owners will lose their property if they do not report to the Syrian authorities within a short time period. This makes it impossible for refugees to assert their ownership claims.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) addressed the issue in May 2018 during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Speaking at a press conference in Sochi, Merkel said that "Concern" is raised in particular by "Law Number 10 in Syria, which means that people not reporting to the authorities within a certain period of time lose their homes". The decree, she went on, is "bad news for all those wanting to return to Syria one day," Merkel emphasised that she would "ask Russia to do what it could to prevent Assad doing this."

At the time, Putin was unmoved. He countered with the telling suggestion that the Syrian question should be viewed from "humanitarian standpoints". It was clear that Putin was demanding a price before exerting any pressure on his ally Assad. To date, there has been no progress. Putin is standing firmly by the Syrian leader and wants Europe to pay for the reconstruction of Syria. Europe is demanding that Assad surrender power as a precondition. 

"The Foreign Ministry believes that property rights play a key role in the Syria conflict," is the ministry's response to a request for a statement. "With some 40 targeted laws since the start of the conflict, the regime has adopted a systematic approach to influence local social and economic population structures. These policies are to the principal detriment of the informal neighbourhoods of displaced communities who were for the most part sympathetic to the opposition. From a distance, these individuals have little opportunity to assert their ownership rights."

Although the Foreign Ministry statement sidesteps the question as to whether the policies mainly affect Sunnis, in a joint letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in autumn 2018, the German and Turkish ambassadors underlined that "Law Number 10" is part of a "comprehensive policy" to change the composition of Syria's population also "along confessional lines". "Millions" are affected, said the letter.

The Assad regime has plans for the seized plots of land – some of them grandiose in nature. Luxury residential quarters are to be built there, for loyal citizens of course. Whether this Syrian form of gentrification will succeed remains to be seen. The real-estate grab and the effective expatriation of millions in all likelihood will.

Stefan Buchen and Sulaiman Tadmory

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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