Syria’s Law 10 is designed to punish refugees

May 30, 2018

With its new law to confiscate and sell off the land of millions of Syrian refugees, the Assad regime is using some of the same tactics that Israel has used in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, explains Shireen Akram-Boshar.

THE SYRIAN regime of Bashar al-Assad is using legal maneuvers to ratify the displacement of millions of Syrians from their homes and land — in order to lock in the ethnic cleansing carried out through years of counterrevolution and civil war.

May 11 was the deadline for Syrians to register their properties and provide proof of ownership in order to comply with Law 10, which Assad signed on April 2.

The law established a 30-day window during which all property owners had to file the appropriate papers with newly formed local administrative bodies. Property owners who fail to file the required documentation can have their land and property confiscated and sold at auction.

But with half of the Syrian population displaced by seven years of civil war, Law 10 threatens to permanently bar millions of Syrians from returning to their homes.

The vast majority of those displaced from their homes are fleeing the violence of the regime — and the vast majority of them participated in or stood in solidarity with the revolution that began in 2011 with the call to overthrow the Assad dictatorship.

Syrian refugees attempt to return to their homes from Lebanon
Syrian refugees attempt to return to their homes from Lebanon

Law 10 is therefore a tool to punish the 6 million internally displaced Syrians and additional 6 million refugees outside the country, who together account for about half of Syria’s pre-2011 population.

Many Syrians are understandably afraid to return to areas now under regime control, fearing arrest, torture and forced conscription. At least 70 percent of Syrian refugees lack basic identity documents, a reality that the government is eager to exploit.

The regime has already acted to prevent those who have lost or been separated from their property documents from complying with Law 10 by systematically torching land registry offices in numerous Syrian cities since 2013. In response, some Syrian organizations and local revolutionary councils have attempted to set up their own registries or create online databases to digitize property deeds.

The Assad regime implemented this law on the eve of its victory over key regions held by opposition forces. In April, government forces retook control of the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, a series of towns in the suburbs of the capital that had remained in rebel control for the past five years.

After forcing the last rebels and civilians to flee the Ghouta region, Assad’s military then shifted its focus to a new bombing campaign directed at Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Damascus.

During the last seven years, the regime has employed the same strategy to force one rebellious community after another to surrender: starvation sieges, barrel-bombing campaigns and chemical attacks, followed by forcible transfer and exile.

THE ASSAD regime asserts that the aim of Law 10 is to facilitate the redevelopment of slums and reconstruction of areas impacted by the war, but this is only a thinly veiled pretext for punishing the working-class communities that rose up in 2011. For example, Law 10 does nothing to address conditions in slum areas under regime control.

It instead is designed to engineer large-scale demographic change, permanently dispossessing predominantly Sunni communities that made up the base of the uprising, and replacing them with regime loyalists, in particular Shi’as from Syria and Iran.

The law further aims to secure a lucrative deal for the regime, which will sell properties to wealthy friends of the Assad family and secure foreign funding for the reconstruction process. The reconstruction process itself will be used to consolidate political and economic power, while further enriching the tight-knit network of business elites loyal to the Assad family.

These business elites are led by Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin who is thought to control some 60 percent of the Syrian economy.

Law 10 can in many ways be seen as an exacerbation of the way that the regime has functioned for decades — a small group of businessmen, mostly relatives of the Assad family, controlling the vast majority of the country’s wealth and compelling the population to comply to its will. It is laughable that some leftists still characterize the Syrian state as “socialist.”

But it’s not just the wealthy Syrian elite that stands to reap enormous gains. Other countries, too, are looking to benefit from Law 10, including Russia, China and Iran.

Iran has already begun purchasing real estate in order to consolidate its own sphere of influence in Syria, claim its share of reconstruction profits, and safeguard the stability of the Assad regime, which is its closest regional ally.

Iran has focused on acquiring land in two areas. First, it is buying property along the Lebanese border, giving it a territorial means to maintain its close connection with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which fought on the side of the Assad regime during the civil war.

Second, the Iranian Embassy has bought property and hotels in Damascus and surrounding neighborhoods, while Iran-aligned Shi’a militias have started buying real estate near Shi’a religious shrines in the capital. In fact, Law 10 extends the logic of previous decrees that allow the Syrian government to appropriate and reconstruct areas of the country while giving a green light to corporate entities — crucially, without restriction in regard to foreign ownership — to snap up real estate. This has allowed Iran to buy up as much property as it would like.

LAW 10 has a striking resemblance to Israel’s Absentee Property Law.

Introduced in 1950, two years after Zionist militias forced 750,000 Palestinians to flee their homes and established Israel on stolen land, the Absentee Property Law legalized the seizure of property from Palestinians and transferred it to Israeli ownership.

Indeed, the Assad regime has used many of the same tactics as Israel to ensure that its territorial gains — established through war crimes, including collective punishment and ethnic cleansing — are irreversible.

Just as Israel’s Absentee Property Law aimed to make the Palestinian Nakba permanent, Law 10 hopes to prevent Syrians in their millions from returning, while giving a legal veneer to the transfer of their land into the hands of regime loyalists.

Israel has used numerous methods over the years to prevent Palestinians from returning to their homeland, and Assad has copied many of these tactics in his drive to ethnically cleanse Syria.

For example, in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, Israeli laws encourage Jewish families to take over property and evict Palestinians living there. Similarly, refugees from Homs, Syria, have found that their homes have been sold without their knowledge to Alawites (Syrian Shi’a who have been a traditional base of the Assad regime) using counterfeit documents to “prove” ownership.

Iranian settlers coming to reside near the shrines of Damascus claim to be “religious pilgrims,” but they are clearly pro-Assad loyalists and members of pro-regime militias who seek to replace the area’s previous residents.

No government that uses forcible transfer and ethnic cleansing as weapons against an uprising can be considered a friend to the left.

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And a left that stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people and commemorates the ongoing Nakba carried out by the Israeli state must also realize that Assad is following in Israel’s footsteps, putting in place a similar Nakba.

Just as a movement has developed in support of Palestinians and their struggle for freedom, we also need a movement that can respond to Assad’s barbarism. In the course of seven years, the Assad regime has killed more than 500,000 civilians and displaced between 12 and 13 million people.

Even though the Syrian revolution has been savagely repressed, the left should seek to organize solidarity and defend the uprising from those who want to erase its memory. Progressive movements in solidarity with Syrians may make all the difference when a second stage of struggle to oust the Assad regime emerges.

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