Enab Baladi’s Investigations Team
“The homeland does not belong to those who populate it or hold its passports or nationality. Homeland belongs to those who defend and protect it.” This statement, which has been made by the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, is to be considered as the most accurate description of the “suspicious” official law policies that his government is working to implement. Architects and lawyers believe that the aim behind these policies is to seize the property of the Syrian displaced and dissidents.
This statement was made on July 26, 2015, during a meeting held by al-Assad with the heads and members of the popular organizations, trade unions and chambers of commerce and industry, a year before reaching an agreement to evacuate the city of Darayya and displace its population. This was the first out of mass migrations series from areas which are beyond regime control such as Aleppo, Qalamoun, Damascus Capital Belt, and the latest of which is Eastern Ghouta.
This statement has been followed by a set of laws the most recent of which was Act No. 10 issued on April 2, 2018. The law provides for “the creation of one or more regulatory zones within the general organizational chart of the administrative units.” Its articles triggered an unprecedented controversy between jurists, lawyers, and architects and were the main issue of debate in local and international media sources.
The law has two aspects, legal and architectural. Through meeting up with Law and architecture specialists, Enab Baladi is trying to highlight the main gaps in the articles, which could enable political parties to “rob” the citizens and acquire real estate properties.
Widening the circle… From Damascus to the rest of Syria
In 2012, the President of the Syrian regime issued Decree 66, which provided for the regulation of two areas in the capital Damascus. The first is located behind al-Razi Hospital and the slum area of Basateen al-Mezzeh, while the second is based in southern Almotahalik Aljanobi to Qadam, al-Asali neighborhoods and the 30th Street.
The current Law No. 10 complements Decree 66. However, it includes all of the Syrian territory, for it provides for the establishment of one or more regulatory zones within the overall organizational chart of the administrative units commissioned by the Ministry of Local Administration. These units are able to choose any area and impose a new organizational chart for it, without consulting local councils.
The new law has been criticized for the time of it promulgation since it is issued at a time when more than half of the Syrians fled their homes, according to UN statistics. This means that the government may take their absence and loss of ownership papers as a pretext to lay claim of their property through what they consider as “legal” ways.
The citizens fear that the law enforcement mechanisms will not take into account their circumstances, in terms of notifying them of the new regulations, and the short period of time allocated to establishing the ownership of their property. They are also afraid that they will not have the opportunity to do so especially when hundreds of thousands of them are wanted by the Syrian regime.
The new regulations are expected to target areas which are beyond the control of the Syrian regime and which have suffered extensive destruction, forcing their inhabitants to flee. The Council of Ministers hinted at the adoption of a “comprehensive plan” for the reconstruction of eastern Ghouta, coinciding with the evacuation of its population last March.
The Law consists of general articles and expressions that could be interpreted and explained, said Ghazwan Qurunful, the head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association to Enab Baladi. Qurunful stressed that the law did not provide any executive instructions, thus allowing the regime to apply its texts anywhere, which constitutes a real danger.
|“There is a sense of confusion in the legal terms, “the decree” and “legislative decree”. Although they are generally defined as laws, they vary according to the issuing authority.
The law is passed by the People’s Assembly after discussion.
However, the legislative decree is issued by the President of the Republic in special cases, when the People’s Assembly is out of session. The legislative decree and the law are equally important, for the decree can amend the laws, and the laws can amend the legislative decrees.
The decree is issued by the Presidency and concerns administrative affairs.”
A too limited period to prove the ownership
Article 2/6 of the law stipulated that “within one month of the issuance of the decree of setting up the organizational area, the administrative unit shall call the owners and real rights holders to publish one announcement on at least one local newspaper or one of the audio-visual media outlet and its website… to (personally) declare their rights or through relatives up to the fourth degree or under a legal agency.” In case of absence of declaration during the authorized period, their properties will become state properties.
However, the announcement of the organizational area is limited to local media outlets and a billboard in the region, while millions of displaced Syrians outside Syria cannot have access to these outlets, which deprives them of the right to prove their properties.
The granted 30-day deadline to the property owner to prove his ownership is insufficient, according to Judge Hussein Bakri, who previously served as an adviser to the State Council.
Bakri confirmed to Enab Baladi that the law did not take into account the fact that many owners are outside Syria as a result of displacement, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dead and detained people, which means that the law does not take into account the least requirements of justice in preserving the Syrian people’s rights in their properties.
According to Legislative Decree No. 107, issued in 2011, the Administrative Unit is defined as the governorate, city, town, or municipality and has a corporate personality.
Security prosecution may deprive citizens of their rights
Even if property owners outside Syria manage to see the organization announcement, they will be unable to access the relevant committees to prove their ownership, object or register for security reasons. Therefore, they must assign their relatives until the fourth degree or appoint a lawyer at a legal agency as stated in the article.
However, Qurunful confirmed that sending the attorneyship to Syria may take months to be approved by the embassies, in light of the complexities imposed by the security authorities on the approval of procurations from abroad. This means that the provided one-month period may elapse before the end of the attorneyship procedures. In addition, those who are wanted by the regime for security reasons will be unable to assign their relatives or any person for fear of being subjected to security prosecution by the intelligence authorities. This deprives them of their rights, knowing that there are one million and a half wanted people by the Syrian regime’s authorities, according to leaks that were published, with no clear reasons at that specific time, by Zaman Al Wasl news website on March, 2018.
One of the biggest problems raised by Law No. 10 is article 12/22, which states: “All the zones of the organizational area that is reserved for owners and holders of rights are jointly owned between them.” This means that the real owner is turned from an independent owner in the real estate register to an owner of common regulatory stock shares within a new organizational area, with shares redistributed according to plans that are developed by real estate companies and investors.
The owner will find himself in front of three options according to Article 17/29, either specialization in a joint, or being part of a joint-stock company as a common partner, and if he rejects these options, the Administrative Unit would sell his shares in public auction, which is the third option in this case. This will pave the way to specialized legal institutions and companies (still not currently known) to buy and own these shares.
Article 19 of Decree No. 66 stipulates that “In partnership with the specialized institutions and companies, Damascus Governorate shall implement public facilities and infrastructure.” However, the article did not specify the nationality of these anonymous shareholding companies, which can own shares of the organization and establish their entities inside these organizational areas, according to Judge Hussein Bakri.
Bakri also stressed on the riskiness of Article 10/20, which provides for “the creation of a special fund for each organizational area to cover and finance all of the area’s expenses.” The Fund is financed by loans or incomes from swap or participation contracts that are concluded by the Board of Administrative Unit to subsidize the Fund with specialized legal persons in exchange for ownership of shares in the organizational divisions belonging of the Administrative Unit. This will open the door to foreign persons, companies, and institutions (might be Iranian or Russian) to own the divisions, thus facilitating the replacement of the original residents of the area to be organized.
Acquisition without compensation under the pretext of “public interest”
Law No. 10 allows the appropriation of private property for the public benefit without financial compensation, as stated in Article 11/21, stating that “all the needed lands for the establishment of roads, yards and gardens… shall be deducted free of charge according to the general organizational plan and detailed plan without any compensations.” This contravenes Article No. 15 of the Syrian Constitution, which stipulates that “individual property shall only be disposed of for the public interest and for just compensation in accordance with the law.”
According to a study conducted by the Secretary-General of the Syrian Interim Government, Counsellor Fakhreddin al-Arian, the law has dealt with the property on the basis of fixed ownership in the real estate register. However, there are buildings that infringe the owners’ properties and are not registered in the permanent and temporary real estate register. Some owners of the buildings only hold personal contracts from the building contractor and the electricity and water subscription bills, and will not therefore be able to object to the assertion of their ownership rights in these circumstances and limited deadlines.
Toppling the local councils for the benefits of political parties
The new law has granted the Ministry of Local Administration in the government the authority to create a new organizational plan in order to impose the higher authorities’ plans.
Engineer Mohamad Mazhar Sharbaji, a government and capacity building official at Local Administration Councils Unit (LACU), who had previously served as the head of the Engineers Syndicate’s branch of Rif Dimashq, said that “the law is not clear and raises many questions about the responsible parties for issuing the regulatory plan.”
Sharbaji explained that it is supposed that the Local Council, which is elected by the residents of the area to be organized and is the highest authority, would propose an amendment to the organizational plan for its area in two cases. The first condition stipulates that 80 percent of the plan would be implemented, which makes the Council entitled to request its expansion. The second condition stipulates that the plan has to be implemented for three years in order to review it and expand it to a larger scale if needed. In both cases, suggesting a new plan of building or expansion has to be issued by a decision of the Local Council of the Administrative Unit.
The current law has withdrawn the powers of the Local Council and provided them to the Minister of Local Administration and Environment in the government. This is stated in the first article of the law: “A decree is issued based on the proposal of the Minister of Local Administration to create one or more organizational zones within the general organizational plan of the Administrative Units.” Therefore, the organizational decision of any area has not been issued by the grassroots or the Local Council representing the people of the area, according to Sharbaji. The plan is rather issued by the Minister of Local Administration who is appointed by the political administrative party. This minister would implement the decision of higher parties, which implies that administrative and political parties would intervene to impose an organizational plan to demographically and geographically change a certain area. This would open the door for the intervention of parties and states in any area as well as the establishment of religious and tourist areas for the benefits of specific groups rather than the area and its residents.
Previously, the organizational plan used to be presented to the people of the area to probe. It was also studied by experts and then rejected or approved, before the residents’ submission of their objections to a committee called the Regional Committee which consisted of 11 members and several ministries and departments (Agriculture, Transport, Services, Housing, the Mayor, and the Governor). The citizens’ appeals on the plan are considered and they also have the right to resort to any legal authority to follow up their objection.
However, under this law, reference to this committee has utterly been obscured and there has been no noticeable role of Decree No.5 and its organizational and administrative consequences. Instead, a three-member committee has been formed by the governor. In addition, the experts who are supposed to be elected by the owners have not been appointed following the Article 8/3, as the law mentioned other requirements in their selection, namely the experience in the field.
Sharbaji also pointed out that under the new law, there is totally no Directorate of Technical Services, which is considered as the strongest authority that issues the plans in each governorate. In addition, there is no principles of urban planning that control and regulate the city planning and executive instructions. There are also no reports, decisions and books from the ministry or governorate, that should be used in the discussion of the organizational plan, which reach about 15 decisions, circulars or reports in Syria. The current law has not specified the urban planning principles that can be adhered to. It has rather directly meant the creation of sub-organizational plans within the general organizational plan. This means the existence of a certain party that seeks to change the area by forcing its municipality to implement its plan, especially as the law allows the entry of real estate developing companies and marginal “anonymous” joint stock companies may consequently acquire percentages and shares.
Sharbaji stressed that the planning principles that are to be implemented are supposed to be clear, especially with regard to the property distribution system, as in Syria there is the so-called “compulsory distribution” which provides for the allotment of lands from the owner’s share in favor of public property at fair rates. He pointed out that a lot of people will find the implementation of other principles rather than the compulsory distribution as dangerous and unjust.
According to Sharbaji, “legally,” there is an approved general organizational plan for each administrative unit, and it includes detailed plans that are approved in parts. However, the current law is about creating organizational plans for any administrative unit within the general plan that may include state parks and properties. Thus, under this law, the regime will take advantage of the areas that are not organized in details, and will organize them in a way that transgresses the adopted and approved way in the general plan.
Areas that may be included in the organizational law
Following the enactment of Law No.10, real estate owners have rushed to the Directorate General of real estate services in Damascus and its countryside to ask about the details of the law and the proving of their ownerships. This led the director of the Directorate in Rif Dimashq, Salem Othman to clarify that “submitting demands to the Directorate to obtain documents of ownership proof is untimely as it is currently not possible to take advantage of these documents and it constitutes a burden on the Directorate and the citizens.”
There have been many questions about the areas that might be included in the law. Although there has been no article which indicates this or any circular by the local administration, experts who were interviewed by Enab Baladi pointed out to areas that could be the starting point of the law enforcement.
The first of these areas is Eastern Ghouta, since the law was issued days after al-Assad forces’ announcement of taking control over large areas of the region, on 31 March, and the displacement of thousands of opposition combatants and their families to the north of Syria, in addition to the existence of large destroyed areas in the region as a result of the bombings and the battles that took place for years.
The other area is
district in Homs, which is the first district that witnessed an armed conflict in 2012 and was trapped for more than 25 days. Al-Assad forces had completely taken control of the district after the destruction of large parts of it, and the exit of all civilians in February 2012.
According to the statements of the Administration Minister in the government of the Syrian regime, Hussein Makhlouf, to the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper, on 9 April, the ministry is preparing studies to organize some areas in the Syrian governorates, including Damascus entrance from the Panorama building to the suburb of Harasta, in addition to the existence of an organizational plan for the area of Baba Amr district in Homs, similar to the area of Marota City, which is organized behind Basateen El-Razi in Damascus, according to Decree No. 66, as he put it.
The law may also include the organization of eastern neighborhoods in Aleppo, which al-Assad forces took control over on December 22, 2016, as well as neighborhoods in Southern Damascus in case al-Assad forces took control over them, as they are witnessing battles between al-Assad forces, ISIS, and the fighting factions in the region.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on April 16 that an appointed technical committee had discussed the development of new planning solutions for some areas in Darayya within the city’s organizational plan, while in September 2017, the assistant minister of the Local Administration in the government of the Syrian regime, Louay Kharitah, announced the formation of a committee to study the organization of Darayya so as to include it within the city of Damascus.
Darayya has witnessed battles between the Free Syrian Army and al-Assad forces for four years before a representative committee of the city’s factions and activists reached an agreement with the regime to vacate the city on 26 August 2016. The city’s plan has then been reviewed, under the pretext that a part of it could not be rehabilitated due to the destruction and devastation it has witnessed. Therefore, this will be dealt with in the same manner as the organizational project number 66 of Basateen El-Razi region, according to what Makhlouf stated in September 2017.
Law No. 10 has not been the first law through which the regime has sought to achieve political goals. Despite its severity and large media coverage, the head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, Ghazwan Qurunful, believes that the current law is part of a long series of decrees and laws that have been issued during the past years and that are related to the issue of real estate properties and real rights in real estate for Syrian citizens, in order to restore the demographic map in Syria through legal means.
Qurunful said that “the current law has been over-highlighted. Its adoption by lawyers and human rights activists, hides what is more serious, such as Legislative Decree No. 12 of 2016, which is about the issuance of a digital copy of real estate records, and then the issuance of another printed copy based on the digital one, as well as the permission of objections to what is mentioned in the digital copy for four months, which is a limited deadline since nearly half of the Syrian people are outside their country either displaced or refugees. This will also pave the way and draw a road map for all looters and thieves who are brought by the regime to fight the Syrian people.
Qurunful said that “Decree No. 12 is a first step for the regime and foreign militias’ supporters to take over the Syrians’ property through legal means by taking advantage of the absence of property owners and making objections where they claim ownership of these properties that are transferred to their ownership without the knowledge of real property owners.”
Qurunful also referred to the seriousness of Act No. 33 of 2017, “which regulates the mechanism of work for the recreation of wholly or partially damaged real estate documents found to have been lost as a result of emergency incidents.” This act drew up an administrative or judicial map to re-enable real estate documents, allegedly damaged or missing. This means that every plaintiff is entitled to the right to own property and to object to the right under the pretext of a damaged ownership document which can simply be restored on the basis of his claim after bringing witnesses. This may be done, in the absence of the real property owner (who might be outside Syria) to object. Thus, the ownership is transferred through a new real estate document to a new owner.
Is a move to stop these laws possible?
Many questions have been raised about the legitimacy of these laws and decrees, especially when al-Assad regime is still recognized internationally, still occupying the Syrian seat in the United Nations, and still issuing all the documents required by the Syrians in various areas of their presence.
Director of the Law, Politics and Society, Hussam al-Hafez, said on the recognition of the validity of the laws issued in Syria that the United Nations has no authority to say that the laws issued are true or not, or that the regime is legitimate or not. However, there are international legal mechanisms (International human rights law), that can be used by the victims to complain about the specific policies of any regime that commits crimes against its citizens such as the Syrian regime. There are also human rights mechanisms within the United Nations (the Human Rights Council).
He pointed out that the two mechanisms are different, but can be used to alert the world about violations against Syrian citizens under the laws issued by an illegal regime.
In order to abolish these laws, there are many procedures that need to be followed, according to al-Hafez. On the political side, the regime’s illegitimacy and its illegal presence in international organizations must be permanently highlighted. Also, there should be attempts to encourage all states to sever their relationship with this illegitimate regime and to withdraw recognition of it.
On the legal side, steps should be taken with regard to popular, human rights, and international legal campaigns against the laws, because those affected are the Syrians of all categories. Even the supporting side should know that admitting it was seemingly issued during stability conditions and the existence of a legitimate government, Law No. 10 has a lot of loopholes and restrictions that need to be revised so that it becomes legally in the interest of the people.
Al-Hafez called for large-scale campaigns inside and outside Syria in all parts of the world, because a large part of the Syrians are linked to their land through their property and land inherited by successive future generations.
The political opposition’s international move
The seriousness of the current law and the previous laws prompted the political opposition forces to move in order to prove its illegitimacy. To discuss the articles of the law, a technical legal workshop was held at the invitation of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, in cooperation with “The Day After” (TDA) organization, with the participation of a number of real estate, administrative, and constitutional judges, lawyers, and professionals in Istanbul, on 17 and 18 April.
A member of the coalition, Yasser al-Farhan, explained to Enab Baladi that the coalition sent a memorandum to the Security Council and the member states after the law was issued. They were informed that the law is a completion of the forced displacement project, which is classified as a “war crime,” and that the Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy, and therefore the laws it issues are illegal and constitute a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which preserves the right of property and prevents its removal only in accordance with clear procedures and public interest. In addition, the coalition provided all the facts and evidence that prove that Iran is trying to expand in the region, which poses a danger not only to Syria but to the entire region.
One of the outcomes of the workshop is the formation of a technical legal committee whose membership includes a number of specialized jurists and technical experts, by the National Coalition to prepare a comprehensive legal and technical file on the actions and measures taken by the regime since 2011.
The workshop also called on the coalition to move politically and legally to preserve property rights of the Syrians in the international arena. In addition, it asked the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) to include the file in the negotiating files in Geneva so as to be included in the final political agreement to solve all thorny issues related to the rights of citizens, which prevents the introduction of other groups politicized in favor of Iran and Russia, according to al-Farhan.
On the international side, the law was met with strong opposition in Europe. The German government expressed its opposition to the law and described it as “treachery,” according to German newspaper Süddeutshe Zeitung on April 27. The newspaper referred to data from the German Foreign Ministry, which confirmed that “The German government is following with great concern al-Assad regime’s attempts to question, through dubious legal rules, the property rights of many fleeing Syrians.”
The German government is consulting with EU partners on “countering these treacherous plans.” It also urged the United Nations to adopt this issue to prevent such laws from being implemented.
Tips to protect property ownership
During the past weeks, there have been debates between rights activists and opposition jurists about the Syrian opposition which issued recommendations to the Syrians urging them to protect their property and real estate through the declaration of their ownership documents. Some considered that the issuance of recommendations is evidence of recognition of the law and recognition of its legitimacy, but the other party stressed that alerting the Syrians to protect their rights does not mean recognizing the defendability of the law.
In order to preserve the owner’s right to his property, Judge Hussein Bakri advised property owners, whether inside or outside the regime-controlled areas or outside Syria, who owned their properties either under title deeds, court rulings, notary agencies or even written contracts, to prove their ownership through the mentioned means that should be valid for proof.
Also, whoever has a written sale contract, but not registered at the Land Registry, the judge advised him to, at least, certify it at the Directorate of Finance; thus, he would have a fixed date that gives validity to the official bond.
Bakri also asked citizens to quickly access a lawyer or a relative to follow the procedures imposed by Law No. 10, and pointed out that it would be better to access a lawyer because the submission of appeal, if any, would necessitate a lawyer professor under the authority of the response form.
Survey question: Did the Syrians respond to Law No. 10?
Despite the uproar caused by “Law No. 10” in its current form, this confusion was not reflected in the response of most Syrians to the law, by taking measures to preserve their property and ensure ownership of their homes, at the very least.
“Enab Baladi has conducted an opinion poll on its website to monitor the actions taken by citizens, especially those who left Syria, to prove ownership of their property. The question came in the form of “after the issuance of Law No. 10… Have you taken any action to preserve your property in Syria? “
81% of the respondents, 550, said they did not take any action in this regard for various reasons, most notably their refusal to recognize the law and their lack of understanding of its content and items. Zia al-Haq commented on the survey and said that he has not fully absorbed the law yet. He added “All laws issued in wars are invalid.”
Abu Jihad al-Kurdi referred to the problem faced by many Syrians, who do not have ownership documents which guarantee their right to real property and wondered “What action can I take while I am displaced and do not have any document which prove my ownership?”
On the other hand, 19% of the respondents said that they have taken measures to preserve their property, the most important of which is the confirmation of ownership contracts at the Real Estate Interests’ Directorate (stamp) or to file a claim to the notary public.
Yet, the issue of measuring the response remains subject to the Syrians’ awareness of the negative and positive aspects of the law.