A worker picks pistachios on land in the southern Idlib countryside town of al-Tamanah, 8/10/2017 (Syria Direct)
IDLIB — For years, Zuhair al-Sweid has lost all the profits of his farmland in the northern Hama countryside city of Kafr Zita, which he is displaced from, to his cousin who “took advantage of our displacement to illegally appropriate the land.” Last month, he was surprised to learn that his cousin invested “officially” in the same land through a public auction offered by the Damascus government on May 8.
In May, the regime’s Hama Provincial Council decided to give relatives of landowners—up to the fourth degree—priority for investment in land for a single agricultural season. The announcement came days after the Hama General Secretariat announced it was accepting applications to participate in a public investment auction of land cultivated with pistachios in several areas of the province. These areas included al-Latamna, Kafr Zita, Morek and Taybat al-Imam, according to the announcement, which Syria Direct obtained a copy of.
Syrian state institutions have offered public auctions of land belonging to displaced people since 2020 for investment by residents of regime-controlled areas. While the recent move to prioritize relatives for investment is supposed to preserve the original owners’ rights, it could pose a greater threat to Syria’s social cohesion.
Al-Sweid, 43, fled his home in Kafr Zita in 2015. After he left, his cousin—a police officer in Hama city—took over his four hectares of land. Ever since, he has held al-Sweid’s one-and-a-half hectares of pistachio trees and two-and-a-half hectares of land for seasonal irrigated crops “without recognizing my ownership or compensating me for the harvest, despite my repeated demands every year,” al-Sweid told Syria Direct.
The process of putting displaced people’s agricultural land up for public auction has gone through several stages. Starting in 2019, the Soran city division of the ruling Baath Party sent a letter about the matter to the Hama party branch. In turn, the Hama branch referred it to the National Security Office, which gave the green light for regime forces “to take control of the displaced farmers’ harvests,” Abdulnasser Houshan, a member of the opposition Hama Free Bar Association, told Syria Direct.
Accordingly, Damascus began offering auctions through the Hama Security and Military Committee, which “ordered the formation of a main committee in Hama province and sub-committees in the regions and districts to prepare lists of targeted land,” Houshan explained.
In the 2021-2022 season, responsibility for the auctions was transferred from the Security Committee to the Hama governor. Houshan described the move as an attempt “to portray the operation in a civil capacity.” The provincial council based its auctions on Law No. 51 of 2005, regarding government contracting, and two letters by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, No. (169/s-g) and No. (588/m-f) about the plan for ensuring investment in vacant land.
Then on May 12, the Hama Provincial Council’s main committee announced that it was granting priority in the public auctions to landowners’ relatives residing in regime areas. The move left some displaced landowners relieved, “since the decision guarantees us some kind of safeguard over our lands that we cannot access,” as Naji al-Bakri (a pseudonym) told Syria Direct.
Al-Bakri was displaced from the regime-held southern Idlib countryside town of al-Tamanah in 2018 and now lives in Idlib city. He said giving priority to relatives could “ignite a dispute between members of the same family over investment rights,” but in his view it is still “a better solution than people from outside the town or the family investing in the land.”
He held Damascus “primarily” responsible for the auctions, which threaten the property of internally displaced people and refugees, and dispossess them of their rights. But local regime-affiliated institutions played a supporting role, he added. The Farmers’ Union in al-Tamanah “surveyed the displaced farmers’ land that was not on the auction lists, and submitted it to the regime to be offered at the recent auctions,” according to al-Bakri, whose land was put up for auction.
In lawyer Houshan’s view, any possible repercussions of regime land auction policies for social and family cohesion are outside of its consideration. “Its only concern is making money,” he said.
Social and familial rift
Al-Sweid works as a driver at a health center in the northern Idlib countryside for $250 per month, or $3,000 a year. That sum is half of the $6,000 he estimates his cousin makes in a single season from his “appropriated” land.
Hani al-Qatini, displaced from the Idlib city of Khan Sheikhoun since 2019, said a “social rift” between people of the same town or family due to the auctions is “inevitable.” The practice “produces a new class disparity at the financial level, caused by investment in displaced people’s land by people living under the regime’s control, who are under its umbrella and benefit from its institutions’ decisions.”
Lawyer Houshan warned that “relatives entering the auctions without consent of the landowners causes problems and grudges that could reach the point of fighting over these rights.” He accused those applying to take part in the auctions of being “affiliated with the regime, and their concern is to appropriate and loot [people’s] livelihoods.”
The public auctions have caused “divorces and threats of killing and revenge among relatives,” according to Houshan. They have also created “antagonism and estrangement between co-owners, whether they are co-owners of the land or heirs to it,” he said.
Fadel Abdul Ghani, the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), said land investment auctions “fall within the context of looting the property of displaced people and refugees, and amount to a form of collective punishment imposed by the regime against those outside areas it controls, since it considers them opponents.”
The auctions lead to “the disintegration of the social fabric,” Abdul Ghani said. He referenced people from different sects acquiring displaced people’s land “through investment,” which affects the “composition of the community, and lays the foundation for hatreds that are added to the grudges of the killing and torture practiced by the regime.”
Muhannad al-Muhaimid, who fled the western Hama village of Hayalin for the Atma displacement camps on the border between Idlib province and Turkey in 2017, accused Damascus of “creating a support base loyal to it from the Alawite sect, exploiting the diverse demographic and sectarian composition of the northern Hama countryside.”
After the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, “the regime used Alawites to repress the popular movement through the local committees and National Defense [Forces], and then made way to benefit from agricultural land in the western Hama countryside through investment,” al-Muhaimid said.
At the public auction for the 2021-2022 season in October 2021, “a person from the Alawite sect in the Nahr al-Bared town west of Hama acquired my land, which covers an area of 10 hectares,” he added.
Ahmad Sabah, a displaced person from the Hama town of Qamhana who currently lives in Idlib, also said the regime played on sectarianism and that Alawites had invested in some of the auctioned land. But he stressed that personal interest is what drives these violations, regardless of the perpetrator’s sect.
Sabah told Syria Direct his brother and nephews, who are Sunnis and loyal to the Assad regime, “were the cause of my brother’s detention, and he has been disappeared ever since.” They also “appropriated my land and openly took control of my house,” he said.
Al-Sweid is angry at being robbed of his rights by his cousin, who he says “blew up the ties of kinship and blood.” Beyond that, he feels ashamed to speak “about what he did, in front of people,” he said.
“While our need increases, he gets richer at our expense.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.