New housing law heralds a re-engineered Syria

The new legislation — Law #10 — stipulates that ravaged parts of Syria are up for reorganisation, development and reconstruction.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Confiscated lives. An elderly Syrian man on a wheelchair makes his way in Douma, last October. (AFP)
Confiscated lives. An elderly Syrian man on a wheelchair makes his way in Douma, last October. (AFP)

BEIRUT- Syrians are fretting over a real estate development law, passed in April, that many say strips millions of their property, especially within flattened towns such as Darayya and Douma in the Damascus countryside. It certainly benefits the Syrian government, which wrote the law, given that all unclaimed property will be taken over by the state.

The new legislation — Law #10 — stipulates that ravaged parts of Syria are up for reorganisation, development and reconstruction. To prove one’s claim to the destroyed property, people must report in person with real estate documents within a period of 30 days. No anti-regime Syrian living abroad can do that nor can those evading the draft, given that all have arrest warrants awaiting them.

A small loophole exists, however, allowing fourth-degree relatives to deputise on their behalf but proxy authorisation requires a security clearance, which would be denied if any of the stakeholders involved are on the “wanted” list. Many ownership documents no longer exist, torched in homes or the basements of government agencies, often making it impossible to prove one’s right to land or real estate.

Many of the refugees left their homes in fear and haste, leaving documents behind. Property that remains unclaimed will be automatically taken by the government and used for official purposes or sold at public auction. Those who do prove their right to land or real estate should be compensated accordingly by private sector companies working on reconstruction.

The new legislation builds on a 1974 law that calls for compensation of citizens whose homes were destroyed by fire, earthquakes or other natural disasters. It is riddled with contradictions, lawmakers claim, and plenty of legal glitches.

“This law is both ambiguous and catastrophic,” Syrian lawyer Ahmad Mansour said. “If it aims to tackle illegal housing, then a 2008 law does that adequately. If it aims solely at reorganisation, then a 2015 law achieves that as well.

The law also doesn’t say whether it only applies to destroyed areas that require reorganisation, such as Al-Hajar al-Aswad, or destroyed ones where no reorganisation is required, as is the case with Harasta, or even to organised, inhabited and safe places, as describes the posh Malki district of central Damascus.

This gives legislators the right, in theory, to tear down and rebuild all cities and towns, even those unscratched by the violence. It imposes a reconstruction tariff and fee on those who suffered destruction of their property,

contradicting a 2015 law that exempts any such expenses.

Advocates of the law claim that it was written to rebuild illegal neighbourhoods, built over time in a chaotic and unorganised way, such as the Yarmouk Camp and the nearby district of Al-Hajar al-Aswad. If that is true, opponents ask, why hasn’t Law #10 applied to all illegal residential areas, including Mezzeh 86, which is inhabited by army soldiers and their families?

A widespread accusation claims the law enables Iranians to take over property of exiled Syrians. By law, Iranians cannot own land in Syria, no foreigner can, but Iranian companies are permitted to own property if they join the reconstruction process and, of course, so can Russian companies.

Property confiscation is not new to Syria. When the socialists rose to power under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1958-61 in the United Arab Republic (which included Egypt and Syria), they nationalised thousands of farms, fields and plantations, limiting agricultural ownership to 80 hectares per person, in addition to 23 private banks, factories and insurance companies.

The Ba’athists did the same in 1963-65, only on a much wider scale, overrunning over nearly 200 private sector companies. Most have since collapsed, plagued by corruption, bad management, over-hiring and government bureaucracy.

Confiscation of the property was a nightmare for the big feudal families but not that bad for farmers who owned small plots of land that were transformed into high-end real estate areas, such as Mezzeh and Kafarsuseh near Damascus. Although evicted from their simple and often rural homes, they were rewarded lavishly for their land, making them rich overnight.

However, that was many years ago, in small pockets around the Syrian capital and not in entire cities and towns, certainly with no similar strict measures of proving land ownership.