Amendments to Syria’s Law 10 provide a stay to property owners but no reprieve

Under the new law, Syrians have one year to prove their right to land or real estate.
Sunday 17/06/2018
A long way to go. Clothes are seen hanging on a balcony at an apartment of a family that returned to the heavily damaged Bab Dreib neighbourhood of Homs.  (AP)
A long way to go. Clothes are seen hanging on a balcony at an apartment of a family that returned to the heavily damaged Bab Dreib neighbourhood of Homs. (AP)

BEIRUT- Damascus has amended a highly controversial law, which many claimed was designed to strip Syrians abroad of their property.

Issued last April, Law 10 placed the entire country on the reorganisation map, both in territories damaged by the violence or those constructed in a wild and illegal manner. This applies to ghost towns such as Daraa in the Damascus countryside, Douma in East Ghouta, the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp and its adjacent Hajar al-Aswad neighbourhood in addition to Raqqa, which was pounded to dust by the US-led coalition in 2017.

Real estate developers are waiting for approval to march on abandoned cities and towns, to clear the debris, tear down illegal buildings and construct new ones from scratch.

Given that entire cities have been extensively damaged, many property documents have been destroyed. Under the new law, Syrians have one year days to prove their right to land or real estate.

This could be done either by showing up in person, which is close to impossible for millions, who are either wanted by the security services for dodging forced military service, or by proxy through relatives of the fourth degree. Citizens who fail to prove ownership of abandoned or destroyed real estate would lose their right to it and it would be transferred to government control or sold at a public auction.

The law created waves throughout Syria and beyond and was widely criticised as a constitutional violation given that the Syrian charter guarantees the right of private property. Legal experts appeared on state-run media trying — with little success — to explain the law, prompting Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to do it himself through a news conference.

In a rare case of the government responding positively to a public outcry, Muallem announced that the grace period had been changed from 30 days to one year and lawmakers are studying cancelling the security clearance citizens must obtain to lay claim to their property. He blamed the loss of property documents on the armed opposition in the Damascus countryside, saying they had torched government records before evacuating.

Muallem said no forced confiscation would happen, arguing that this was unconstitutional and denied that any demographic change was in the works, as has been claimed by the Syrian opposition.

So controversial was the law that it prompted Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to express “worry” that the 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon would have little reason to go back, even if the violence has stopped, if they are stripped of their property, via Law 10. Muallem tried to calm his Lebanese counterpart’s fears, addressing him at the news conference and sending a written explanation to his office the next day.

A tug-of-war is going on within Lebanon over what to do with the country’s Syrian refugees. Hezbollah wants them to return home, fearing that if they overstay their welcome, the refugees, who are mostly Sunnis, would tip the sectarian balance in Lebanon. Earlier this year, Lebanese authorities had Syrian students sign a paper pledging not to marry while in Lebanon because this would make it more difficult to force them to leave.

However, the Future Movement of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri wants the refugees to stay for the exact opposite reason but also because they have provided a steady income for the Lebanese state from the United Nations and other international aid agencies.

Officially, the Syrian government wants them back as well, with Muallem saying: “We are willing to facilitate their return.” That would be easier said than done, given the cost and complications of providing them with homes, running water, electricity and schools. Most of the refugees in Lebanon fled from the Damascus and Homs countryside in the 2012-15 period.

Nevertheless, legal problems remain.

“From the start, the 1-month grace period was very short,” said prominent lawyer Ahmad Mansour. “Although the foreign minister said it will be extended to one year, that doesn’t mean that the devastating loopholes in this law have been addressed. The law, in itself, is both controversial and confusing, even for those who issued it.

“The state ought to acknowledge that it made a mistake, rather than hold onto the law and amend its articles. I am sure that other amendments are yet to come, in a slow and shy manner, just because the state is unwilling to admit that it made a mistake.”