By Katie Pelikanou
THE SYRIAN regime is undertaking a thinly-veiled legal manoeuvre to punish the millions of refugees who have fled the civil war, and entrench the postwar sectarian redivision of Syria by repossessing their homes.
The government of dictator Bashar Al-Assad enacted this law whilst the remnants of the Syrian army, along with Iranian and Hezbollah militias, was brutally liquidating the Ghouta pocket, shortly followed by a shelling campaign against the Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp.
‘Law 10’ was signed on 2 April, and gave all homeowners just six weeks to register their properties and provide proof of ownership. Those who don’t will have their properties seized by the state.
Half of the Syrian population have fled their homes. This move is a clear attempt to permanently shift the demographic balance and re-establish the regime’s authority after it has turned half its population into refugees. Given the situation on the ground, up to six million internally displaced Syrians and five million refugees face being permanently dispossessed.
As with property seizures in the Balkans during the 1990s and in Lebanon following the civil war, this will repopulate entire towns with regime supporters from higher social classes. But this is merely an administrative measure to legalise the principal means of depopulating entire towns and regions: chemical warfare, bombing and shelling attacks, starvation, fuel and medical aid sieges – all carried out with Russian backing, and passivity from the West.
The timeframe is a clear sign of the regime’s intentions. To establish property rights, individuals would have had to return to the region of their property to declare ownership – a close friend or relative with power of attorney could do this but this legal process would take months.
Clearly this is an impossible task for those who have fled with no practical means of returning; the legal transfer of ownership will have been far from the minds of those fleeing Assad’s indiscriminate chemical weapon and barrel bomb attacks. In the chaos of war, it is estimated that at least 70 per cent of Syrian refugees lack even basic identity documents; few took property deeds with them. The regime is determined to capitalise on this.
An added factor is that returning requires security clearance, a significant deterrent for those who fled regions that were under opposition control—or whose relatives remained—who will rightly fear retribution by the regime.
Under the guise of ‘reconstruction’, the Syrian regime is in fact extending Decree 66, an ‘urban planning’ measure enacted in 2012, which grants the regime the right to confiscate property. This led to several large scale demolitions and evacuations in Damascus and Hama between 2012-13. The ongoing Marota City project in Damascus has involved the forced evacuation of the working and lower middle class communities who have received neither compensation nor guarantee of return.
That this is an attempt to rearrange the demographic map of Syria by repopulating rebel areas with loyalists who will be bound to the regime is self-evident. In the process these designated regions of redevelopment are destined to become lucrative opportunities for the neoliberal kleptocrats that make up the extended Assad family – plus the foreign allies who will demand their pound of flesh. As with the Marota City project, this is providing significant financial rewards for those turning Syria’s graveyards into goldmines.
Ironically for a regime which claims to defend the Palestinians, Law 10 is effectively a copy of Israel’s ‘Absentee Property Law’, enacted after the 1948 expulsions, which enables the Israeli state to confiscate property of Palestinian refugees.
Whilst this goes on, the contemptible disregard demonstrated by France, Britain and the United States towards the victims of seven years of total war in Syria (including their own bombing of civilian areas) has abandoned millions of refugees to an uncertain fate in neighbouring states that, facing their own economic and political upheaval, are less than inclined to be well-disposed towards them.
Millions of refugees stuck in hellish refugee camps face the prospect of years of being used as pawns as the region’s map is redivided by the victors. Lebanon’s Michel Aoun has ominously suggested the one million Syrians in the region to return to “secure areas”. This has echoes of Germany’s policy towards Afghan refugees. Under the diplomatic cover of having taken in almost a million mainly Syrian refugees, Angela Merkel’s government is now deporting Afghan refugees to “secure areas” in a country that remains ravaged by war and imperialist occupation.
From Yemen to Turkey, the Middle East has become a vast open air refugee camp, with millions of refugees condemned to eke out a miserable existence, dependent on the toleration of the local governments, and charitable organisations.
The Palestinians have been refugees in their own lands for 70 years. Without a fundamental change in the economic and political organisation of the Middle East, they will be joined in decades of exile by millions more refugees from every country in the region.
The scale of the catastrophe and the intensification of war and great power rivalry precludes simplistic solutions.
To begin with socialists in the West must demand our state open their borders to refugees and grants them indefinite right to work and live here. Secondly, we need to rebuild the antiwar movement to put an end to the brutal occupations and to support for dictators which ensures they continue to defend our rulers’ imperialist interests. Finally we need to reassert the centrality of solidarity with the Palestinian people and their legitimate resistance; the resolution to which strikes at the lynchpin of western imperialism’s colonisation and subordination of the whole region.