Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri
Omar from Idlib city, currently living in Aleppo, could not sell his house in Idlib despite obtaining a positive security check-up (security clearance). The security check-up was imposed by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib and its countryside as a prerequisite for residents to dispose of their real estates.
Omar (pseudonym for security reasons) decided to sell his house after it was illegally inhabited by someone from Jabal al-Zawiya in southern Idlib. The occupant refused to acknowledge Omar as the property owner and did not pay due rents, Omar told Enab Baladi.
Other people took over the olive groves and the farmhouse owned by Omar’s family. They stole pomegranates and other crops from the farm, Omar said.
“We did not mind them taking over the crops, but we wanted the olive harvest,” Omar added, noting that the occupants refused to give them the olive crop claiming that Omar and his family have no right to the properties unless they return to Idlib.
“I live in Aleppo, and I pay a very high rent. I cannot afford to buy a house to spare myself the high rental cost caused by the greed of those who occupied my house and the refusal of the government to sell it,” Omar said.
Omar noted that the SSG refused his request to assign an agent to sell his house, for Omar was living in an area controlled by the Syrian regime.
In 2015, the Syrian regime forces lost control of Idlib, and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) took over the city before the formation of the SSG in late 2017.
The SSG gradually controlled the city a year and a half after its formation. The SSG was formed following an agreement between the Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the National Front for Liberation (NFL), which placed the entire region under the SSG’s administrative influence.
The SSG extended its administrative authority over the entire city of Idlib and part of Aleppo’s western countryside. Civil and service entities linked to the SSG’s ministries run all aspects of civil life in the region.
These entities manage real estate transactions through the SSG’s Ministry of Local Administration and Services and the Ministry of Justice, which regulates powers of agency for the sell and purchase of properties of expatriates from Idlib city, whether they were displaced inside Syria or living abroad.
Security clearance as a prerequisite to property disposition
Over the past few months, the SSG issued several property-related decisions in Idlib city. It also worked on regulating provisions on real estate selling and leasing and issuance of construction permits.
Salvation Government’s security check-up
The SSG issued a decision requesting security clearance of people before allowing them to embark on real-estate transactions, including leasing, purchasing, or any property-related undertakings.
The SSG’s decision was to make sure that these people are not involved in criminal cases or suspected of having connections with the Syrian regime, the SSG’s media office director, Molham al-Ahmed, told Enab Baladi in a previous talk.
Al-Ahmed added that the SSG is requesting security clearance because the overwhelming majority of residents in northern Syrian regions lack identification documents and that the SSG needs to verify the security status of the tenant, lessor, property owner, and property occupier.
If the person in question was proven to have connections with the regime, the nature of this connection is investigated and referred to a civil judicial authority to review. However, if the connection involves a serious level of intelligence and exchange of information with the regime, the case would be referred to security authorities.
The security check-up required by the SSG before concluding real estate transactions is no different from the security clearance imposed by the regime’s government on citizens to finalize property-related undertakings such as selling, leasing, and leasehold assigning.
A constitutional violation
On 4 August 2020, the regime’s government issued a circular instructing the Local Administration Ministry to include property sell, lease, and leasehold assigning to the cases requiring security clearance from relevant authorities.
The regime’s government claimed that the circular was issued to prevent the purchase or rent of real estates by “terrorists” who would transform them to headquarters and to protect property ownership rights from loss or forgery.
The circular authorized the real estate registrar to require security clearance before registering any change to the property in the cadastre, even with the existence of a final judicial decision.
The security clearance decision violates stipulated individual property rights in the Syrian Constitution of 2012. Article 15 of the constitution acknowledges individuals’ rights to dispose of their properties freely and protects them against illegal confiscation.
Video agency allows Idlib’s expatriates’ property disposition
Various reasons have been pressing many Syrian expatriates from Idlib province into selling what is left of their real properties that were not bombed during active fighting. Some of these reasons include financial and security factors, the changeable political and military forces ruling the region, and the expatriates’ desire to settle permanently in a different region, inside Syria or abroad.
The SSG requires expatriates from Idlib to appoint Syria-based agents to represent them in the property selling transaction.
However, the SSG prevents those residing in the Syrian regime areas from appointing a legal agent to carry out property selling transactions in Idlib.
How expatriates sell their properties in Idlib
Assigning an agent to represent an expatriate wishing to sell a property in Idlib requires the property’s cadaster record, a copy of the expatriate and agent’s Syrian IDs, the expatriate’s document of identification from the country of residence or asylum, as well as a video recorded by the expatriate, declaring his/her personal information, two witnesses, and a direct video call between the public notary and the expatriate.
The Studies Office in Idlib city is responsible for granting security clearances, following security check-ups done by authorities on people wishing to sell their properties in the city.
The security check-ups take 10 to 15 days, when they come out positive, the expatriates are permitted to complete the selling procedures.
After paying the power of attorney’s fees to the public notary, the latter certifies it, writes down the information mentioned in the video, and then hands it over to the concerned person or his/her agent to proceed with the real estate transaction’s registration process in the cadastre.
Through a live video call, the public notary discusses matters related to the property, the selling procedure, and the price to ensure that the information provided in the power of attorney document and selling contract is correct.
The same procedures apply to the expatriate if he/she wishes to buy property in the city of Idlib. The only difference is that video calls are not involved in this case, according to lawyers from Idlib city interviewed previously by Enab Baladi.
An expatriate is not entitled to make a general power of attorney to manage all his/her real estate affairs in the case of owning more than one property.
The expatriate should have a special power of attorney for each property. However, he/she can assign the same person to manage the properties individually.
How displaced people in regime’s areas sell their properties in Idlib
A lawyer in Idlib city told Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity that properties of people from Idlib, who have been residing in the regime’s areas or working for it, are at the risk of being seized by the Spoils Committee of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The lawyer added that those who feel they have been wronged could file a complaint to the military court, the economic division, to claim ownership of their properties.
As for those who forcibly left their regions to regime-controlled areas, they can freely dispose of their real properties by appointing an agent through a recorded video, and two witnesses who could confirm the property owner’s identity, in addition to legal documents proving the ownership of the property in question.
Enab Baladi contacted the HTS to obtain more information on the Spoils Committee, its powers, and its confiscation of properties owned by people residing in the regime’s areas; however, it received no answers.
Enab Baladi also contacted the Salvation Government’s media office director, Molham al-Ahmed, to acquire details on the Spoils Committee’s work, but again it received no response.
On 7 September 2020, the SSG’s Ministry of Justice banned all courts and judicial and administrative services in the region from accepting the power of attorney, legal representation, or plea of any person, a lawyer or otherwise, proven to have been making money from the Syrian regime’s government or that he, his wife, or children have gone to regime-controlled areas after the date of 1 July 2019.
Al-Ahmed said previously to Enab Baladi that the only way possible to sell a property for someone from Idlib residing in regime’s areas is to appoint an agent living in northwestern Syria, or one of the property owner’s immediate relatives, who does not fall under the categories mentioned in the circular of the SSG’s Ministry of Justices in September 2020.
Al-Ahmed pointed out to Enab Baladi that the circular applies to agents proven to have connections with the Syrian regime and not property owners who have the right to dispose of their properties.
Idlib-based lawyer Ahmed Khabo explained to Enab Baladi that in case the security check-up result was positive, an application can be submitted to the Minister of Justice through the Head of the Public Notary Department. Once the application is approved, the legal representation can be accepted.
Proof elements needed to authenticate property transactions
A Damascus-based lawyer told Enab Baladi that preventing people from disposing of their real estates based on their areas of residence defies logic and should not be allowed. Just because a person is living in a specific area does not necessarily mean that he/she is an opponent to authority in other areas.
He pointed out that a State agent should officially manage the authentication of sale transactions. Nonetheless, de facto authorities, such as the SSG in Idlib, have their own laws and decisions that are deemed “appropriate” under the current circumstances, such as the SSG’s assigning of an agent through a live video call.
According to the lawyer, the video agency violates Syrian laws; the Syrian Code on Evidence recognizes specific proof elements, such as an authentic deed, a private deed, or individual evidence in certain circumstances. A video agency is not physical evidence in legal terms, but it is acknowledged by the judge viewing it.
The 2014 Syrian Code on Evidence regulates the proof elements by which any act or lawsuit before a court is proved or refuted.
According to the law, proof elements include written evidence, affidavits, oaths, presumptions, testimonies, witness statements, and expert appraisements.
Written evidence includes an authentic deed, private deed, unsigned papers, telex, fax, and e-mail.
Syria’s legal system does not recognize property selling transactions conducted in areas outside the regime’s control. The registration of property sale contracts has been suspended in the regime’s registries, and their documentation in the de facto authorities’ records will be the responsibility of people wishing to dispose of their real estates.
Property-related undertakings conducted in regions outside the regime’s control are at risk of annulment in case the Syrian regime regains control of these regions or if a political solution to the Syrian conflict is ever reached.
The northern Syrian regions are heading to a political agreement, the lawyer said, stressing the importance of including real estate sale transactions, authentication methods, or new organization mechanisms into any future agreement. Real estate issues are delicate matters and should not be limited to few texts within an agreement.
The lawyer also noted that not all property sale transactions carried out in de facto authorities’ areas should be acknowledged, as some are erroneous or illegal.
The SSG established the Real Estate Documentation Office in the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs of the SSG’s Local Administration and Services Ministry as a civic body that documents and archives property transactions in the region after it emerged from the regime’s control in 2015.
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