IDLIB — In an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in northern Syria, Ahmad al-Hassan (pseudonym) struggles to secure a living. Simultaneously, the income generated by his nine-dunum plot of land in the city of Kafr Zita in the northern countryside of Hama goes to another person following an auction held by the regime-affiliated Farmers’ Union.
Al-Hassan was forced to flee Kafr Zita, his hometown, to the Atme IDP camps on the border with Turkey due to the Assad regime’s military operation in August 2019. Last October, his land – planted with 150 pistachio trees and used to generate a $2,500 annual income – fell victim to a decision by the military and security committee in Hama province. According to the committee’s announcement seen by Syria Direct, “lands owned by people living outside the jurisdiction of the Syrian national state and living in areas under the control of armed groups” are to be put up in a public auction for investment for one season.
Al-Hassan was “unable to do anything” about losing his land. “I can neither return to the city nor object to the decision,” he told Syria Direct. While al-Hassan used to support his family of eight from the revenue of the land he inherited from his father, he now lives on “the monthly food basket that I receive in the camp.”
Violations of property rights
Fayyad al-Rajab (pseudonym) is one of the tens of forcibly displaced Syrian farmers who lost their farmlands through what he called “arbitrary auctions” that resemble “a theft by the powerful of what belongs to a helpless displaced person.”
Al-Rajab and his family of eight were displaced from the city of Halfaya in the northern countryside of Aleppo in 2018 to the Khalil camp in Atme. While he now works in a thrift shop, his 15-dunum plot of land that is “suitable for irrigated farming that used to generate an income of $4,000 annually,” al-Rajab told Syria Direct, is now exploited by another person through the security-committee-sponsored auctions.
A report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) on February 11 documented more than “22 announcements of public auctions issued in order for the regime to seize control” of farmlands producing diverse crops including wheat, barley, potato and olives, “around 134 villages and towns in Hama governorate, and 88 villages and towns in Idlib governorate, with a total area of these lands being approximately 400,000 dunums.”
The SNHR also pointed out that the auctions announced by the regime’s security agencies constitute a violation of the property rights stipulated by articles 768 and 770 of the Syrian Civil Law. The former stipulates that “the owner of an object alone, within the limits of the law, has the right to use, exploit and dispose of it.” The latter article states that “the owner of an object has the right to all its fruits, products and appendices unless there is a text or agreement to the contrary.”
“These auctions are fundamentally unconstitutional and illegal,” Abdulnasser Houshan, a member of the opposition-leaning Syrian Legalists Committee, told Syria Direct, as the constitution “protects private property or the right to the fruits of one’s lands and it is inadmissible to seize it except in public interest by a decree and for fair compensation; otherwise it is considered a flagrant violation of property rights.”
Although some of these public auctions of agricultural lands in Idlib and Hama countrysides were justified by collecting debts the owners owe to the Agricultural Cooperative Bank, according to Houshan, nobody except the lender has the right to request foreclosure or compulsory execution. This means that these auctions are void as they violate Article 15 of the Agricultural Cooperative Bank Law, which has specified the mechanism by which the bank can collect a debt according to the Public Funds Collection Law. Article 9 of the same law exclusively authorizes the Minister of Finance to issue a regulatory decision to identify decision-making assets to seize, execute and sell the object subject to foreclosure.
In addition to the pretext of debt collection, the revenue from other lands planted with pistachio trees was allocated to the Martyrs Support Fund in the province, according to a post by the Baath Party’s office in Hama.
The agrarian reform lands
Ahmad al-Hassan inherited his land in Kafr Zita from his father, who gained ownership over it according to the Agrarian Reform Law No. 161 of 1958. The law set a limit for the ownership of irrigated and rain-fed lands so “each farmer is entitled to a small property not exceeding eight dunums of irrigated lands and woodlands and 30 dunums of rain-fed lands that receive more than an average rainfall of 350 millimeters.”
Despite al-Hassan having a document proving his ownership of the land that is “a part of my life, I inherited it and grew up in it,” he is worried that his right over the land will be violated. He told Syria Direct, “I would never consider selling it under these circumstances as I wouldn’t get half of its real value.”
According to lawyer Muhammad al-Abdo, a resident of Idlib, “the rights of beneficiaries of the agrarian reform lands are safeguarded by the Agrarian Reform Law and the Syrian Civil Law as a right to use protected under the provisions of possession.”
“Law 61 of 2004 protects establishment of title,” al-Abdo told Syria Direct. Article 1 of the law stipulates that “the beneficiary of the state’s lands (agrarian reform, property owned by the state) is considered the owner of the land allocated to them from the day of distribution” and “after the death of the beneficiary, the ownership of the land is transferred to their heirs under the general laws of inheritance, and its ownership is transferred to their names in real estate records as per the share of each of them in the inheritance.”
Thus, any infringement on the ownership rights of the owners of the agrarian reform lands or any dispossession of the lands’ beneficiaries “is a confiscation of rights that dates back to 1963 when the agrarian reform institution was established as per the Agrarian Reform Law of 1958,” according to al-Abdo.
As such, beneficiaries of the Agrarian Reform Law face danger, especially that “the law provides the Ministry of Agriculture with the right to seize and redistribute lands,” Houshan said. This provides grounds for the auctioning of agricultural lands without the permission of their owners in a flagrant violation of ownership rights.
Like many other farmers in the countrysides of Idlib and Hama, Jamal al-Bakri’s (pseudonym) 30-dunum land planted with pistachio trees in the town of al-Tamanah in Idlib province was auctioned.
Although the Assad forces and their allied militias captured al-Tamanah in August 2019, al-Bakri continued to benefit from his land through a person whom he paid SYP 80,000 ($24.5 according to the current exchange rate in the parallel market) per dunum.
However, after the lands of the displaced from northwestern Syria were being auctioned, and in an attempt to incur the least loss possible, al-Bakri “took part in the auction through people residing in the areas under the regime.” This is also happening in “the town of Morek and the villages of Sukayk, Sukayat and Tell Tari which are famous for growing pistachio,” he told Syria Direct.
The regime requires that any bidder provides a copy of a clean criminal record certificate, a photocopy of their identity card and an advance payment of SYP 500 for every dunum they wish to bid on.
Accordingly, al-Bakri agreed with a person residing in an area controlled by the regime to bid in the auction and split the payment with him. This also means receiving “less than half of what I used to make in previous years working on the land.”
Since 2019, government forces, with Russian and Iranian support, have gained control of around 60% of the area that was under the control of the Syrian opposition, of which around 2,300 square kilometers is agricultural land.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Ahmad Elamine.