Away from the fighting and humanitarian disasters pummelling Syria, another tragedy that may have deep socio-economic consequences for generations is unfolding.
As residents of opposition-held districts and towns have been forced from their homes by the violence that encompassed Syria, an illegal, state-sponsored mass redistribution of property has been taking place.
A report published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation stated that authorities in Damascus were systematically destroying property owned by communities that opposed it during the war. The regime has also “erased and falsified property records with the aim to prevent the population from returning and from claiming any rights,” and “has passed many laws and regulations to formalise the transfer of public assets to regime cronies,” the report said.
The Syrian regime is attempting to reshape the country’s societal map by stealing and redistributing private property.
The document, written by Jihad Yazigi, a former resident of the Syrian capital and editor of the Syria Report, recognises that many claims are subject to broad interpretation or based on circumstantial evidence. Much of this is due to the absence of transparent or formal government procedures or the lack of independent media outlets to report on individual cases of the state allegedly stealing from people.
Nonetheless, Syrian authorities’ efforts suggest the destruction of homes and businesses is a central strategy of its war effort. It is an enterprise that will allow the regime to fund itself for years.
The destruction of residential and commercial buildings, properties rendered uninhabitable or unusable, forces the owners to leave. Government authorities can then claim ownership and hand the properties to influential individuals to secure their allegiance.
In the words of one World Bank analyst writing on the subject: “For now, Syria’s disparate reconstruction efforts appear to be cementing divisions rather than building bridges.”
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation report said the regime was readying itself for the massive reconstruction work needed ahead. It has established a council to oversee the metal and steel sector and two regime cronies have joined forces to run a major steel melting plant.
An entire district in Hama, once controlled by rebel groups and reduced to ruins, has been declared open to investment by a state development commission without the approval or consent of the people who lived and worked there.
With reports suggesting the post-war rebuilding of Syria could cost $200 billion, the regime and its backers clearly plan on being front and centre when the awarding of contracts begins in earnest.
There was also, the report stated, growing evidence that Iranian elements were buying or being given property in and around Damascus and Homs. Iran has invested heavily in propping up the Assad regime and would, once the guns have fallen silent, exact a heavy price for this. Given that the Syrian regime is essentially broke, the ability to confiscate privately owned land to pass off to its supporters, including influential Iranians, is crucial to its survival.
The Assad dictatorship has prior record in this regard. Starting in 1973 under President Hafez Assad, Syrian authorities moved thousands of people to the predominantly Kurdish north-eastern region of the country, where it built 41 villages for settlers. The intention was to establish an Arab belt that would ensure that corner of the country would have a pro-government population. In that case, Kurdish-owned land was expropriated by the state.
What are the long-term consequences of the regime’s current actions? Undoubtedly, we are seeing the redistribution of entire local populations because of their loose opposition to the regime. Broadly, it has been Sunni Syrians who make up the majority of those opposed to the regime. This is not a consequence of sectarian loyalties but simply because most of the Syrian population are Sunni Muslims. As such, this systematic cleansing of mostly Sunni communities may constitute crimes against humanity.
When Israel began the forced removal of Palestinian communities and settling Palestinian territory in the West Bank, the Arab world was enraged. Now that Damascus’ tactics mirror that same occupation, the Arab world cannot ignore the Assad regime’s actions. That is something to be remembered when the task of rebuilding Syria finally comes into view.
Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).
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