Franklin Lamb Correspondent
A few days remain until the 5/11/2018 deadline for 12-13 million Syrian refugees fleeing the continuing carnage in their country to prove property ownership and hopefully avoid the current regime auctioning it.
These millions, the majority of whom are Sunni and many suspected of wanting a new government, stand to lose their homes and property under a new property registration law signed by President al-Assad on 4/2/2018.
Law Number 10 sets in motion a massive political and legal overhaul of the government land registry and gives Syrian refugees, whether inside the country or abroad, just 30 days to prove ownership of their houses and property. All Syrian refugees must present their deeds to local council offices in the country. By last week, they had one week and if they failed to do so the state will liquidate their titles and seize their holdings. Once the registration window closes, “the remaining plots will be sold at auction,” according to Article 31 of the law.
An estimated 5,7 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees, and a further 6.8 million people are displaced inside Syria. Consequently, more than 12 million Syrians risk losing their homes. The UN estimates that only approximately 9 percent of Syrians who fled the slaughter even have in their possession access to documentation showing ownership.
Most Syrian refugees lost them Deri during the war before fleeing. Various UN and human rights organisations have urged Syrian refugees not to try to return to their homes at this time given the high security risks of doing so and likely having to repeat, countless near-death experiences and perhaps not being as lucky this time. Between 2015-2018, volunteers with the Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) conducted an unscientific poll of Syrian refugees we became friends with in Lebanon. We asked why they left Syria and what dangers forced them to leave. Below is a list of reasons that MSRCL were given by fleeing Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon.
Some refugees forced to flee Syria experienced more than one war crime or crime against humanity from the list below. But all experienced at least one.
*Among the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria against refugees seeking safety in Lebanon, and which Syrian refugees risk re-experiencing if they return to their country before a just political settlement is achieved, include but are not limited to the following:
- Attacks on medical personnel and rescue workers
- “Double Tap” bombings and shillings of family and neighbours engaged in rescuing victims
- Conscription of child soldiers
- Government attacks on civilians
- Starve or surrender sieges
- Theft of civilian’s property and homes
- Kidnapping of civilians for ransom
- Indiscriminate use of weapons against civilian housing
- Arbitrary arrests,
- Enforced disappearances,
- Deaths while in the custody of Government forces
- Sexual violence and slavery
- Ethnic cleansings
- Sectarian population transfers based on force
- Kidnappings ad executions
- Deportations and other forcible transfers of population
- Use of chemical weapons
- Poisonous substances including Sarin, Chlorine and Mustard gas
- Violence against civilian activists
- Use of captives as human shields
- Attacks on media and journalists
- Attacks on local Christians, Yazid, and other minorities
- Use of cluster munitions in violation of United Nations resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014,
- Use of white phosphorus against targets in Raqqa. Idlib, and elsewhere causing civilian casualties
- Shelling of civilian area
- Air strikes on densely populated civilian areas
- Dropping of barrel bombs on civilian neighbourhoods
- Indiscriminate bombings of Schools, Churches, Mosques, markets and public gatherings. What will become of the property of millions of Syrian refugees who cannot and will not be able to meet next week’s deadline set by Law Number 10 or who may be wanted by the regime or have a relative who might be? Several million former homes and properties will almost certainly be sold by the Syrian authorities.
But to whom?
The buyers will be among the most trusted family members and business associates of the Assad and Rami Makhlouf families who are not on the US Treasury Departments, Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC) Terrorism and Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) lists which would render them radioactive for foreign banks and business given their US and often EU sanctioned status.
A new clique of businessmen has been forming under Bashar Assad’s control and are benefiting from the regime’s crony capitalism, while maintaining close family, political or social ties to the al-Assad’s.
This select group has begun concentrating ownership of major telecommunications, energy and Construction industries and according to the Financial Times they number fewer than 170 businessmen led by President Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who the FT estimates owns more than sixty percent of Syria’s national economy with other members of the al-Assad family owning approximately fifteen percent of the kleptocracy.
Reported to now be part of this group is Mr Samer Foz, until recently a largely unknown businessman in Syria and who so far has ducked under the radar of the US Treasury Departments OFAC sanctioning juggernaut. Mr Foz has also to date avoided various SDN and “terrorist” designations while working on maintaining a ‘clean’ image away from politics.
To date he has not been stung by targeted sanctions, asset freezes and a travel ban by the United States and European Union on the Assad regime’s business partners who are leveraging financial assets to assist the regime in perpetrating violence against civilian protesters.
According to sources inside Syria, the regime plan is for Mr Foz to buy up hundreds of millions of dollars from Baath Party controlled Property Registry Offices “undocumented” property belonging to millions of Syrian refugees who could not meet the 30-day deadline to prove their ownership or are suspected of being sympathetic to rebel groups. Samer Foz has become one of Syria’s most powerful economic players, to the extent he is now dubbed the “new Rami Makhlouf”.
In the last couple of years, Mr Foz’s business interests have rapidly expanded beyond importing and trading grains and building materials. His ascendancy into the upper echelons of Syria’s business elite is attributed to his close ties to the Syrian president, He specialises in the acquisition of distressed assets of Syrian businessmen that are no longer in favour with the regime. Mr Foz also owes his rise to the new business activities and networks that have risen with the war such as the “forfeited” property of Syrian citizens who cannot return with acceptable documentation to claim it. If there is serious competition on the horizon for Mr Foz and other regime allies to vacuum up hundreds of millions if not billions of real estate dollars in Syria which is rightfully owned by Syrian refugees, it is Iran.
Since 2013 the Islamic Republic has been ravenously buying up high end real estate and buildings in Damascus as well as farm land in certain rural areas, since 2014 giving Tehran a considerable amount of power over its neighbours in the long term.
These investments appear to be done not only with regime loyalists but also with many Shiite militia groups. Portions of the real estate are located near Shiite religious sites, such as the Sayyidah Zaynab and Ruqayyah shrines in Damascus.
Tehran is also reportedly changing Syria’s demographics by repopulating some areas with Shiite families from Hezbollah and other militia groups to consolidate its influence in Syria for the long term, as well as to bolster Assad’s rule.
With respect to Iran ‘legally’ buying up Syrian real estate, it can do so freely under the terms of Syria’s Companies Law established by Legislative Decree 29/2011. This law permits the
establishment of certain business entities without foreign ownership restrictions. They can be 100 percent owned by foreign nationals.
Iranian companies formed in Syria possess Syrian nationality and can buy as much real estate as they desire regardless of the nationalities of their shareholders. And Tehran has been doing so for several years.
The Iranian Embassy is currently buying a fair bit real estate in the Old City of Damascus, specifically in the area extending from behind the Umayyad Mosque to the Bab Touma area, and in the western region of al-Maryamiyah neighborhood. One chagrined fellow from Tehran who works at al Alam TV near his embassy, advised this observer that the real estate profits might help payback the more than $ 125 Billion Dollars his country has, as of the first of the year, lent the Assad regime to keep it in power.
Normally the money is transferred in 20-30 million-dollar monthly allotments.
Many hotels – including the Caldah, Iwan, Asia, Damascus International, Venice and Petra – are now owned by the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, in addition to holding shares in the Samiramis Hotel.
This observer has often stayed at the Venice (Venetia) hotel in central Damascus and was struck by the number of Iranian men who seem to inhabit most of the rooms. At breakfast they introduce themselves as “Pilgrims” visiting religious sites and I kid them about forgetting their Korans and Wives back in Iran but not their weapons.
Anyhow, being the only American frequenting the Ottoman era hotel they always give me a discount and they love to talk politics. Often with views that differ from their Al Quds Force leadership in Tehran.
While it is accurate to argue that the Iranian regime is hemorrhaging billions of dollars on the Syrian regime, Iranian leaders’ calculated measures and policies are, in fact, making Tehran profit from the conflict in both the short and long term. Tehran’s political opportunism in Syria continues to serve the Iranian regime ideologically, economically, geopolitically and strategically.
Tehran is also reportedly changing the demographics, for instance by repopulating some areas with Shiite families from Hezbollah and other militia groups to consolidate its influence in Syria for the long term, as well as to bolster Assad’s rule. Among its central Damascus embassy neighbors as well as locals in the North West of Syria and elsewhere it is buying up real estate, Iran is accused of wanting to facilitate its “Shia Crescent” route from Tehran to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Many Syrian businessmen resent Iran’s land grab partly because they believe that Iran has no intension of ever leaving Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen.
The Syrian regime is not the only one transferring people inside the country for political purposes and military purposes although the scope of their ethnic cleansing and forced transfers dwarf’s others involved in the civil war.
Another offender is Turkey and various militia. The UN and other human rights organizations regularly reports cases of Kurdish residents not being allowed to return to Afrin. They are being blocked amid ongoing home thefts and property redistribution to Arabs and Turks have sparked fears of demographic engineering and reignited bitter memories of the Kurdish people’s troubled history in Syria. Forced population transfers were a legacy of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez, who as President settled thousands of Arab families onto confiscated Kurdish lands in the 1970s.
The local council estimates that approximately 50,000 people have taken refuge in Afrin from other parts of Syria, and they expect these numbers to increase in coming weeks amid renewed violence and evacuation negotiations of Sunnis in north Homs and Yarmouk Palestinian camp. This will result in more pressure to distribute empty Kurdish houses throughout Afrin.
How to recoup Syrian refugee’s property wrongfully confiscated
Historical cases reflect a now discredited acceptances of population transfers may serve as an option for resolving various types of conflict, within a country or between countries. For the transfer to comply with human rights standards as developed, prospective transferees must have an option to remain in their homes if they prefer.
The tide started to turn when the Charter of the Nuremberg Trials of German Nazi leaders declared forced deportation of civilian populations to be both a war crime and a crime against humanity. That opinion was progressively adopted and extended through the remainder of the century.
There is now little debate about the legal status of involuntary population transfers. Where population transfers used to be accepted to settle ethnic conflicts, today, forced population transfers are considered violations of international law. No legal distinction is made between one-way and two-way transfers since the rights of everyone are regarded as independent of the experience of others.
Article 49 of Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949 and now part of customary international law, prohibits mass movement of people out of or into of occupied territory under belligerent military occupation.
There are to be two possibilities for Syria’s refugees, Kurds and others caught up in the maelstrom that engulfs Syria to retrieve their confiscated properties. Both depend on a political solution to Syria’s civil war.
One is for the achievement of a new democratic inclusive government that will cancel Property Law Number 10, return all the refugees property and pay them compensation.
Another is that the Special Tribunal for Syria (STS), once it begins deliberations, will doubtless follow the lead of the Nuremberg Tribunal and return seized property to the rightful owners.
Until then, the global community must apply economic and political pressure to the current regime in Syria to comply with international law and end the crimes against humanity that underpin Property Law Number Ten. Unfortunately, the UN Security Council has been neutered by vetoes and can do little more than remonstrate objections to what is happening to Syrian refugee’s real estate and personal property.- Counterpunch