Fate of opposition-era property records uncertain as East Ghouta transitions back to government authority

AMMAN: Nearly 10,000 property sale contracts drawn up during years of opposition rule in East Ghouta are at risk of being nullified, in the latest documentation-related challenge to emerge as Syria’s formerly rebel-held regions transition to the control of a resurgent government and its civil institutions.

“There is no validity to any real estate transaction [completed] during the period of terrorist control over Douma,” Hussein Makhlouf, Syria’s Minister of Local Administration, told pro-government daily al-Watan in late April, referring to the de facto opposition capital of East Ghouta.

The return of government control to the eastern suburbs of Damascus last month following one of the deadliest offensives of Syria’s seven-year war not only meant the expulsion of a longstanding rebel presence near the capital but also an array of local opposition bodies that took on roles ranging from dispute resolution and legal proceedings to aid distribution and civil documentation.

One such body—the Douma Local Council’s Land Registry—was tasked with documenting new property contracts as well as safeguarding thousands of government records that remained in East Ghouta when opposition forces took control.

Records kept by the Douma Land Registry are reportedly recovered by state authorities from the city in April. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Between the land registry’s founding in 2013 and the East Ghouta rebel surrender last month, the opposition-affiliated body documented approximately 9,200 property sales, its former president, Adnan Taha, tells Syria Direct.

“All of our work was in line with Syrian law,” says Taha. During opposition control of East Ghouta, each property transaction was conducted using the original, government-issued deeds and carried out in the presence of the property owner or a legal representative and two witnesses.

And, despite waves of bombardment that left aid warehouses, hospitals and civil society offices across East Ghouta damaged or destroyed, land registry staff were able to preserve the reams of crucial documents in their care, even hiding the most important files several meters underground as violence peaked earlier this year.

Before departing last month on an evacuation convoy headed for rebel-held territory in northern Aleppo province—with digital copies of the registry’s files in hand—Taha says he shared the location of the buried physical records with a colleague who directed incoming government authorities to the site.

The records were later recovered by the government’s General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs “in excellent condition,” state media reported last month, and are now undergoing verification processes, according to an official cited in the report.  

“The necessary measures to inventory the property documents will be taken,” Minister of Local Administration Makhlouf told al-Watan in April. “No property rights will be affected,” he added.

A land registry employee processes documents in 2016. Photo courtesy of Umayya Press.

But while government-issued records are now secure, the fate of documents validated by opposition authorities remains uncertain.

Makhlouf’s late April statement that transactions completed during rebel control in East Ghouta were invalid—and a similar comment by Douma security chief Colonel Muhammad al-Khalil—have raised concerns among property owners and opposition officials regarding the future of those deals.  

Among those concerned is former registry president Taha, who acknowledges that without official recognition from a state court or directorate, any agreement approved by opposition authorities—even with the appropriate signatures and witnesses—“loses its true value” in government-held territory.

Because state registries in Douma and nearby Arbin were officially closed when armed factions seized control of the area, any property sales completed thereafter by actors not employed by the state’s General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs, are considered “illegal” in accordance with Legislative Decree 11 of 2016, a spokesperson for the government directorate told Syria Direct this week via its official Facebook page.

Decree 11 states that there is “no validity to any record or registration recorded in the land registries during the period in which registration filings are suspended.”

Nonetheless, the directorate spokesperson noted that Douma residents who entered into contracts during opposition control can “visit the court to establish the actual sale between the two parties.”

Under Syrian law, in order to register property sales with the government, both the buyer and seller must bring copies of the contract to state bodies and confirm that land was sold and payment received, Khaled Mahmoud, a lawyer and displaced Douma resident, tells Syria Direct. The parties must also pay all related, government-imposed fees.  

Property records reportedly recovered by the state-run Ministry of Local Administration from Douma in April. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Local Administration.

For some signatories, the procedure will require the appointment of a legal proxy, since more than 60,000 East Ghouta residents were displaced to the rebel-held northwest in a series of surrender and evacuation deals since March.

But while recent government urban planning legislation—such as Law 10—has raised concerns of attempts by the state to seize property and enact demographic change, fears regarding Douma’s property records focus on the possibility for individuals to renege on sales and contracts.

“In this period, we fear thieves and crooks more than a lack of regime recognition,” says Mahmoud. He points to the possibility of ownership disputes in which one party to the agreement refuses to participate in a visit to state institutions, or rejects the validity of a sale outright. Some people may seek to “benefit from the chaos,” he adds.

Mahmoud, along with all current Douma residents who spoke to Syria Direct for this report, asked to be identified by a pseudonym, fearing government repercussions for speaking to the media.

“Our biggest worry is that one side will not recognize [the transaction],” says Hasaan a-Dimashqi, 34, a current Douma resident whose family purchased a number of properties in recent years.

A-Dimashqi says he has consulted a lawyer about his fears, and was reassured that even if a seller disputes a purchase, legal action can be taken to verify the exchange—although at a price and with the potential for significant delays.

But for Douma resident Zahr al-Amr, 42, the need to confirm property sales with the state provides an opportunity for some fellow residents to reclaim properties that they sold due to exceptional circumstances during the siege, including food scarcity, inflated market prices and high unemployment.

“Poverty motivated many to sell their possessions in order to buy food,” he says, adding that in 2016 he tried to sell his own home due to financial difficulties.

For the moment, however, residents and opposition officials who spoke to Syria Direct say they are waiting for further details as the government audits the registries recovered last month.

“The matter remains unclear,” says Iyad Abdul Aziz, the president of the opposition-affiliated Douma Local Council and a displaced Douma resident. “The regime took all of the records and they’re now in Damascus.”

“We don’t know what’s happening.”

 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.