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2018 | Dispossession or development? The tug of war over Syria’s ruined slum dwellings by Arno Lund

The article focuses on the new property law, Law Nr. 10 introduced by the Syrian government in April 2018, that allows the government to expropriate and redevelop areas considered fit for reconstruction. It exposes a danger lurking in what otherwise might constitute a reparatory measure, namely, the restitution of, or compensation for property lost or destroyed during conflict. While the Assad regime represents Law10 as an important step toward development and post-conflict reconstruction, the opposition in Syria and international human rights groups warn that it also serves as a fig leaf for the mass confiscation of the property of political opponents and refugees, preventing their eventual return. Assad’s cabinet has recently announced that the first areas set for re-development under Law 10 will be formerly besieged, opposition-led areas in Damascus, including Yarmouk, Jobar, Qaboun and Barzeh, whose residents have been forcibly displaced to the north of Syria or who have fled. 

The article provides a clear explanation of how Law 10 works:
-      The Ministry of Local Administration and Environment recommends areas that could be expropriated and redeveloped under Law 10 to Bashar al-Assad, who is the ultimate decision-maker.

-      The areas targeted need not necessarily have been damaged by the conflict, since the original purpose of the decree amended by Law 10 (Decree 66) was to redevelop slum housing. 
-      Once a zone is declared publicly, Syrians who want to receive compensation for a property built in that zone must make sure their ownership is recorded in the national land registry or file property deeds with the government within 30 days (later extended to one year) either in person of trough a legal representative.
-      A committee will evaluate the value of the property and the amount will be translated into new plots of land or financial shares in the new development project. Property owners have five days to contest the evaluation and can be provided with rent compensation and alternative housing.

Human Rights Watch has termed the law a major obstacle for internally displaced Syrians and those who have fled abroad as refugees, as they are unlikely to be able to file the necessary papers at such short notice, and may also be deterred from do so by the risk to their safety if they return to the location or indeed to the country. Moreover, opposition activists say that, given that it is mainly pro-rebel areas which are being redeveloped, this Law is effectively being used as an additional weapon of war and as a tool for politically motivated demographic change inside the country.

The extension of the time limit – announced but not yet actually added to the amendment - will in any case be of no benefit to the millions of Syrians who were formerly living in unregistered homes, in a legal gray zone, in the Syrian countryside or in slums (ashwaiyat) created by rural immigration to the cities: these citizens will have no land deeds to present. Those semi-legal suburbs, including Daraya, Qaboun and Jobar, make up most of the area of the Ghouta region which, following recapture by the Assad regime and displacement of their populations, is now being targeted for re-development.

The author depicts a regime using Law 10 to kill many birds with on stone: with its economy severely damaged and with many potential international donors declining to fund reconstruction under the present regime, the Assad government hopes to attract private commercial investors interested in this potentially valuable urban real estate; the majority of the persons who have fled from the affected areas are a) poor, b) political opponents of the regime and c) Sunni Muslims. While the Syrian government denies allegations of such social or political engineering and insists the filing procedure is easy and expeditious, critics point out that there is no independent body that can ensure that Law 10 is not used to consolidate gains of the conflict for the Assad regime.