Lebanese officials have warned Syria that a new law allowing for the confiscation of homes left by fleeing civilians could prevent refugees from the war ever returning home.
Law 10, passed in April, has yet to be implemented. As it is written, it allows the Syrian government to confiscate property in areas slated for post-war reconstruction if owners are unable to file a satisfactory claim to the property within a 30-day period.
For many in Syria’s millions-strong diaspora in Lebanon and elsewhere, proving such a claim is virtually impossible. Some fled without documents, while others cannot renew expired documents at Syrian embassies for fear they are wanted by the government.
“This is a robbery of the property of the people,” said Abu Nora, a Syrian man now living in Turkey. “All those who left Syria are exposed to this theft.”
Law 10 has also stoked fears in countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees that it will make it difficult for Syrians to return home.
The law has prompted objections from Lebanese politicians, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose parliamentary bloc adopted an official stance against it this week, calling it "dangerous".
Lebanon officially hosts just under 1 million Syrians registered with the UN refugees agency, although the government places the real figure at closer to 1.5 million.
Foreign minister Gebran Bassil has appealed to the United Nations and asked the Syrian government to revise the law.
Mr Bassil has previously accused international agencies and western countries of seeking to permanently settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Officials are particularly wary at the prospect of permanently hosting another refugee population given the tens of thousands of Palestinians who remain living in Lebanon 70 years after fleeing their homes.
On Wednesday, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party and a critic of Damascus, tweeted his own opposition to the law, comparing it to other difficulties faced by Syrians.
“The Syrian people journey to death amid shelling, destruction, chemicals, torture, disappearance in prisons … Law Number 10 and racism from Lebanon to the West,” Mr Jumblatt said after writing on Tuesday that Law 10 “completes the destruction of Syria by the regime and by ISIS, two sides of the same coin.”
In 2012, the Syrian government laid the groundwork for Law 10 by enacting Decree 66, which enabled it to confiscate property in a similar manner. Law 10 is effectively an extension of the previous edict, which has so far been used once: to begin a housing project in Damascus. That project, known as Marota City, envisions the complete rebuilding of an area located in south-west Damascus that had mostly been covered by “illegal” housing, or homes built without permission of the Syrian government.
Human Rights Watch, which has referred to Law 10 as “forced eviction”, said the government had failed to make good on promises of compensation for property owners affected by Decree 66.
"People were also promised under Decree 66 that they would receive alternative housing and compensation," said Human Rights Watch Syria researcher Sara Kayyali. "That doesn’t materialise in real life, and residents are still evicted."
A representative of Sham Holding, the company responsible for the construction, agreed to an interview with The National earlier this week, but had not responded in time for publication on Wednesday.
The Syrian government is adopting a “public private partnership” model for its rebuilding efforts, whereby the government provides support for projects along with the investment of private corporations. Sham Holding was created specifically for the Marota City project.
Newly formed corporations like Sham Holding, however, are still effectively an arm of the Syrian government, and PPPs can also be used to hide who actually owns an interest in a project. “They can be used as a guise for officials or companies that are sanctioned internationally, a lot of due diligence has to be done in these areas,” Ms Kayyali said.
This could later become an issue if the European Union and western nations that have taken a hard line against Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian President, are eventually asked to help pay for rebuilding the country.
A Syrian attorney who asked to be identified only as Adnan said the law had become politicised even before its full effect was clear. “It is normal to see the opposition trying to demonise the decision while loyalists try to describe it as a civilisational project,” he said.
Another criticism is that the law is intended to punish Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Syria’s population and the majority of those who engaged in armed rebellion against the government.
The law’s passage also comes at a time when tens of thousands of Syrians have been transferred from central to northern Syria as part of deals brokered to end fighting between rebels and the government. Those deals have been criticised by the UN as “forced displacement”.
“It is not hidden to anyone that the resolution will bear in its details a demographic change and we all know that it is directed to areas where there has been recent displacement of the people,” the lawyer said.
Syrian refugees who own property in Syria are now considering how best to protect their title.
“We had a house in Zamalka in Damascus, but the whole building is now destroyed,” said a man who asked to be identified only as Abu Sima and now lives in Turkey. “My father still holds the papers and proof of ownership, but they are here in Turkey.”
His father was determining how best to proceed, and planned to have a relative in Syria appointed to look after the property.
Abu Sima said he thought the relative was in good enough standing with the government to preserve the family’s title, but many of those who fled continue to fear backlash.
“We left the country because we opposed Assad and we have no place in it as long as he exists,” said Abu Yusuf, a Syrian from the eastern city of Al Hasakah who now lives in the UAE. “I do not know what will happen to our house in Hasakah if an organisational project was created in that area.”
Such sweeping land reforms are not uncommon in times of war. Similar laws were passed in several Balkans countries in the 1990s, and following the civil war in Lebanon, compulsory purchase was widely used by Solidere, the private company that rebuilt much of downtown Beirut with the government’s support.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Barakat in Gaziantep, Turkey