BEIRUT In April 2018, Mona Khaity got on a green bus in the city of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, leaving behind five years of siege and her home, which remains empty to date. This 37-year-old laboratory doctor is one of the 12 million Syrians forced into displacement, inside Syria or abroad, many of whom have seen their Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights violated. 

Mona, currently living in Turkey, lost her home as a result of being displaced under a so-called ‘reconciliation agreement’, while others have been displaced because of the bombs. Further, thousands have seen their properties seized through counterterrorism legislation. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 3,970 seizures of property “of detained or forcibly displaced opponents” since 2012. Hundreds of homes have been looted and occupied and others have been expropriated by redevelopment plans or the owners simply blocked from returning by armed actors.

The first laws violating HLP rights were issued in 2012 but were overlooked given the military developments. Now, in the prelude of Syria’s reconstruction, addressing HLP rights are key to drawing the future of the country.

Displacement has become a tool to punish opponents and reward loyalists. HLP violations are part of a “wider strategy for demographic reengineering and for attaining political and economic interests,” Sawsan Abou Zainedin, a Syrian architect and urban development planner, told Syria Direct. 

Demographic changes are evident in Daraa, Hama, Homs suburbs, Yarmouk camp and the Damascus area, places where the revolution took hold, Haya Ataasi, spokesperson of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD), told Syria Direct. “There are whole neighborhoods of new people who are staying in the houses of other people,” added Ataasi, who has herself seen the house of a relative in the city of Homs occupied by an Iranian company.

Most of the parties involved in the Syrian conflict have perpetrated HLP violations. “The Syrian government is the most sophisticated actor in the sense that it puts into place laws that are seemingly banal but inflict severe restriction on the civilian population. But actors like the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and Kurdish-led groups to a certain extent have also had their fair share of HLP violations,” Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Syria Direct. 

Kurds and Palestinians, trapped in a different legal framework when it comes to property rights, are further marginalized. The same applies to women who are trapped in patriarchal norms and suffer structural discrimination in terms of inheritance, for instance. Women whose husbands have been forcibly disappeared and lack a death certificate are unable to sell their property.Most of the areas where the revolution was active were underprivileged or informal areas. This informality – that affects 50% of Syrian cities – makes it more challenging to prove ownership of a property and, consequently, fighting the “demolition and reconstruction” approach taken by the government, Abou Zainedin explained.

“The more HLP violations, the harder it is going to be for sustainable peace in the future. This is why we need to take into consideration these elements when talking about reconstruction,” said Krystel Bassil, Program Head of the Human Rights and Business Unit at the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP). 

 A poisoned reconstruction

In the last few years, the Syrian government has announced several ‘redevelopment plans’ and subsequently seized land and evicted dwellers; but the ‘rebuilding’ part seems stalled due to lack of funds.

“We haven’t seen large-scale investments (...) and this is likely to continue in the long run because there is no funding and the Syrian government is under severe economic pressure,” said Kayyali. In 2018, HRW identified 60 firms interested in the reconstruction, but Kayyali said that interest has decreased due to the Caesar Act sanctions, the global economic crisis and “the fact that Syria has not really stabilized as was expected two years ago.” Plus, the companies of Damascus’ allies, Russian and Iranian, “have focused their attention on oil, gas and electricity, less so on recovery projects,” she added.

While the International Community withholds the funds of ‘The Reconstruction’ until political reform is underway - as per UN Security Council Resolution 2254- the Syrian government is undertaking some ‘reconstruction steps’. Although the impact is limited, the ground is being set. “If there is a political transition tomorrow and reconstruction funds are released by the International Community, it is going to be implemented within this dangerous framework [built upon HLP violations],” alerted Abou Zainedin.

This Syrian architect explains that the government funds these steps in two ways: establishing joint companies at the governorate level, as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs provinces have already done; and through the early recovery and humanitarian interventions by international organizations (IOs). 

The moot role of the international community in the reconstruction

Operating in the government-held areas, UN agencies and IOs navigate the muddy waters of Damascus restrictions and risk being complicit with HLP violations. 

The UN Development Program (UNDP) rehabilitated areas “whose communities were forcibly evicted,” said Abou Zainedin. To “rehabilitate neighborhoods of entirely forcibly displaced communities” or areas where “people are prevented from accessing their properties” should be a ‘red line’ for her because they reinforce the eviction and prevent the return. But Abou Zainedin criticizes that some IOs “are definitively accountable for donors more than what they are towards communities.”

Furthermore, Damascus is co-opting aid by controlling where the IOs work, siphoning aid to benefit “its contractors, suppliers, cronies, businessmen connected with the regime, etc. to areas perceived as loyalists,” said Abou Zainedin. By limiting assistance to areas ‘approved’ by Damascus, “you are setting the ground for a very unbalanced development future for Syria,” she warned. 

Last year, HRW denounced the complicity of IOs with the Syrian government. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a significant change. UN agencies continue to partner with abusive actors, including the Ministry of Interior and they continue to support projects in areas that are inhabited or where residents aren’t allowed to return,” said Kayyali. 

Abou Zainedin argues that the dependence of the government on international assistance gives these IOs leverage, but she added that they “gave up on their leverage to challenge the government.” 

While in Yemen UN agencies have been “taking a stance, pulling out, closing programs in order to force the Houthis to adopt a more principled approach toward aid,” this challenging attitude “does not exist” in the Syria scenario, said Kayyali. 

What accountability for HLP perpetrators? 

European and US sanctions increasingly target HLP perpetrators. In January 2019, eleven businessmen were sanctioned for their involvement in Marota City – although some were unsanctioned last June for procedural reasons. “Reconstruction is still ongoing, it did not stop completely,” acknowledged Bassil but reminded that in the case of Marota City, it has “become more difficult for them to continue.” Advocating for sanctions to deter businesses from engaging in redevelopment plans, Ataasi urged taking action now given that “it is easier for the people to get their properties back if their properties still exist,” rather than after the redevelopment plan is implemented. 

The Syrian Legal Development Program has documented the involvement of businessmen profiteering from HLP violations: Rami Makhlouf was involved in Marota City with four of his companies; Muhmad Hamsho, who funded a militia with ties with the Fourth Division of the Syrian Army and was sold metal looted at a low price that he would then sell at a higher price; and Mohidddin Manfoush, who was awarded a contract to clear rubble in eastern Ghouta. 

Pillaging, destroying or seizing the property of an adversary could amount to a war crime according to the last Commission of Inquiry report. But so far, no court has tried HLP violations under international criminal law - as some courts in European countries have been doing in cases of other abuses such as torture. To build an HLP case, “you would need significant documentation, satellite imagery, and a visit to the site,” so the threshold is higher than building evidence of a torture case that is “mostly based on witnesses testimony,” Kayyali explained. That is why Ataasi called donors to “support Syrian initiatives that are documenting HLP violations and helping Syrians to document their property.” They hope that those records will be one day used in a restitution process where justice is served.

To walk this accountability path, Kayyali called “for the international community to apply diplomatic pressure through the UNSC and the UN General Assembly on Syria to amend abusive legislation.” She reminded that pressure against Law 10 led to amendments of the most problematic components of that law. She called on UN donors to ensure that UN agencies act “in a role that is protective towards HLP rights rather than undermines them.” 

Mona is uneasy because she got the news that INGOs are undertaking recovery projects in eastern Ghouta. “They might erase the evidence of war crimes that happened during the siege,” she said. This Syrian has not given up on seeking accountability for her city.

“I am not thinking of returning if we don’t have a political agreement to make sure that if we return we will be safe and can reclaim our rights, including HLP rights,” added Mona. For now, retracing the road she took on the green bus is not an option, but she has not given up on reclaiming her home. 

This report is part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy to Jordan's Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).