Mass destruction and demolitions were often preceded, followed or accompanied by three other, related processes: pillage, purchase and appropriation of civilian property in those areas.
There have been countless reports, witness statements, pictures and videos of one particular type of ‘routine crimes’ committed by members of the Syrian regime’s paramilitary force known as the National Defence Forces, or the shabbiha, namely looting.
Unlike regular army soldiers, NDF members are allowed, and even encouraged, to loot houses and shops and take ‘spoils’ after battles, which they then sell on the black market in regime-held areas or in Lebanon (these have come to be known as ‘Sunni markets’ as the majority of the looted houses belong to Sunnis and the majority of the shabbiha are Alawis, at least in popular perception). The opportunity to loot has been used by the regime as an incentive to recruit for the NDF, as a number of captured NDF members have testified.1
As explained in the next chapter, these practices amount to pillage, which is considered a war crime during armed conflicts. And they appear to be widespread and systematic enough to deduce a state policy. But they are arguably about more than just pillage.
After almost every military campaign conducted by the Syrian army and the militias fighting alongside it, such as Hezbollah Lebanon, NDF or shabbiha members would storm the newly captured town or village, looting residents’ homes and often setting them on fire, with the apparent aim of ensuring that the owners have nothing left to return to. As the majority of NDF members appear to be Alawi, and the majority of the targeted towns and neighbourhoods appear to be Sunni, it has been argued that this amounts to a sectarian cleansing of the targeted areas.2
The history and practices of the shabbiha have been discussed by the authors at length in another Naame Shaam report.3 For the purposes of this report, it suffices to point out a couple of well-established facts.
The NDF was created by the Syrian regime for the sole purpose of doing the “dirty work” of the regime in suppressing peaceful anti-regime protests at the beginning of the revolution in early 2011.4 As such, it can be safely argued that the militia has been acting with a common criminal purpose, as defined by Article 25(3)(d) of the Rome Statute, and that the highest levels of the Syrian regime are well aware of this criminal purpose and those criminal activities, but have done nothing to stop or punish them.
The Iranian regime, particularly Sepah Pasdaran, played an essential role in creating, arming and training the NDF, which was modelled on the Iranian Basij force.5 This role, provided with knowledge and intent, amounts to “furthering the criminal activity or criminal purpose of the group,” according to Article 25 of the Rome Statute.
Renting ’empty’ property
In May 2014, the Syrian Ministry of Justice published a proposal for a “comprehensive revision” of Rental Law No. 1 of 2006, allowing the authorities to “open houses abandoned by their owners and renting them to other Syrian citizens under the supervision of a special governmental committee.”6
The proposal was presented by pro-regime media as stemming “out of concern for providing safe accommodation and alleviating the suffering of many Syrians who have become homeless and whose houses had been destroyed,” in the words of judge Kamal Jinniyyat, the head of the special committee formed by the Ministry of Justice to study and implement the proposal.
But the reality, many contend, is that the targeted properties belong to opposition activists and rebels killed, arrested or wanted by the regime. The real aim therefore is to appropriate such properties so that their owners, who appear to be mainly Sunni, have nothing to return to in the future. The proposal has been described by Syria opposition media as “playing with the country’s demographics.”7
Even if the concerned property belonged to ‘the enemy’ rather than civilians, the seizure of the enemy’s property has to be “imperatively demanded by the necessities of war,” according to Article 8 of the Rome Statute. This does not appear to be the case and the scheme, if implemented, could therefore amount to a war crime.
There have been numerous, often unsubstantiated media reports about the Syrian and the Iranian regimes buying – either directly or through agents – property en masse in Homs, Damascus and, to a lesser extent, in Aleppo. Often the implication is that both regimes are attempting to establish a loyalist corridor stretching from Damascus to the coastal region, along the border with Lebanon.
For instance, since mid-2012, Syrian opposition media have frequently reported about Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi Shia buying houses and land in Homs for extortionate prices, including property destroyed or burnt by shelling, exploiting the residents’ need for money or their desire to flee due to the prolonged siege and fighting.8 The aim, they often claim, is to “empty Homs” of its Sunni or anti-regime residents in a “systematic process of ethnic cleansing.” The story of Zionists buying Palestinians’ land before the establishment of Israel in 1948 is often cited as an alarm bell.
While the purchase of property, whether by Syrians or foreigners, is not unlawful in itself, the context and the manner in which it is allegedly being carried out in Homs appears to be dubious. For instance, various media reports have claimed that people are sometimes forced to sell their property, or that the ownership of property is sometimes transferred to the new owners without their presence or approval, and so on and so forth.9
On 1 July 2013, in what appears to have been an attempt to cover up such unlawful practices, the Land Registration Office in Homs was set on fire and destroyed.10 The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces issued a statement condemning the “intentional” burning of the Land Register and considering the act to be “part of the regime’s efforts to change the demographic composition of the city.”11
In Damascus, similar media reports claim that the Iranian embassy and Iranian businessmen have been buying up property in old and central Damascus, exploiting residents’ economic or security needs.12 The embassy has reportedly purchased several hotels and buildings in the al-Bahsa area, near the Iranian Cultural Centre, as well as a large number of houses and restaurants in the old city, stretching from the Umayyad Mosque to Bab Touma. It has also allegedly been buying vast swaths of property along the Mazzeh highway, where the embassy is located.
In June 2014, Now TV reported, quoting an anonymised source from the Land Registry Unit in the Syrian Ministry of Housing, that the ownership of 6,746 properties had been transferred to Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian Shia.13
In the first half of 2014 alone, 3,267 properties were allegedly transferred, at a rate of around 500 properties per month. The properties ranged from houses and shops to hotels and hospitals, concentrated mostly in the areas of al-Mazzeh, al-Maliki and Baghdad Street in central Damascus and in al-Shaghour, al-Midan and al-Amara in old Damascus.
The majority of the transferred properties belonged to Syrians who had fled the country for security or economic reasons, the source added. The transfer of ownership was allegedly carried out by the Land Register through falsifying documents and producing new ones signed and stamped by the Minister of Housing, all under the supervision of the Iranian embassy. As to known opposition figures and activists, their citizenship was withdrawn and their property confiscated and reclaimed as state property, then ‘sold’ to the new owners.14
In November 2014, Al-Arabiya quoted a Syrian businessman claiming that Iranians had offered him buying all his property in Damascus “for whatever price he wanted,” adding that there was “a big property purchase movement” in Damascus, which he described as “legal occupation” by Iran.15 The businessman also claimed that the Iranian ambassador in Damascus enjoyed “great facilitation” by Syrian security services and used agents on the ground who contacted businesspeople and offered them money. Some of them, he added, threatened those who refused to sell their property or forced them to do so.
A number of estate agents in Damascus have confirmed to Naame Shaam’s correspondents that there has indeed been “a relatively strong movement” in the property market in certain parts of the city, roughly corresponding to the areas mentioned in the Now report above. Given the security situation in the city, this can only be explained by big investors buying and selling property.
Syrian sources also told Naame Shaam that houses were beings “legally stolen” all over the capital city, with a focus on the districts of Old Damascus, Bab Msalla, al-Hamra and Sayyeda Zaynab. Sunnis in these areas are “becoming a minority”, they added, and could only live there if they received a security clearance from the local militiamen ruling the area. Checkpoints securing these areas are reportedly manned by Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The only mentions in Iranian media of Iranians buying property in Syria seem to relate to Iranian efforts to ‘rebuild’ holy Shia shrines in Damascus. As part of these ‘reconstruction’ efforts, the Iranian government has been reportedly buying large swaths of land surrounding these shrines in order to “expand” them.16 Similar Iranian efforts in Iraq, especially in Samarraa and Karbalaa, over the last decade are widely documented.
For instance, in August 2014, the head of the Iranian Department of Reconstruction of Holy Shrines, Hossein Palarak, said a new masla (place of prayer) named after Imam Khomeini was to be built next to the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine in Damascus.17 The new, three-story building was expected to be ready in two years. According to media reports, the project will cost 300 billion Rials (about 10.8 million USD).
Significantly, Palarak was also quoted saying: “The urban planning of the area near Sayyeda Zaynab is to be revised. A new model is being prepared now and we are buying the properties around the shrine.” “After the Syrian election [in June 2014],” he added, “we will continue the reconstruction in a more effective manner.”18
On another occasion, Palarak was quoted by the media saying: “Expanding the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine is high on our department’s agenda. We hope to prepare the maps and finish the procurement of the properties by the end of this year  so that the pilgrims to Sayyeda Zaynab would have a better security.”19
Similar stories are repeated about Homs, Aleppo and the coastal region, though even less details are provided.20 The crucial point here is whether it can be proved that fraudulent or coercive measures linked to the armed conflict were employed by the Iranian regime or its agents to acquire these properties, and whether there is sufficient evidence to show that the practice has been widespread or systematic enough so as to reflect a state policy (or that of a de facto authority). Only then can it be said that these property purchases amount to unlawful appropriation of civilians’ or the enemy’s property tantamount to a war crime.
Notes & References:
1. See, for example, Erika Solomon, ‘Insight: Battered by war, Syrian army creates its own replacement’, Reuters, 21 April 2013.
2. For an example of this argument, see: Ruth Sherlock, ‘Bashar al-Assad’s militias ‘cleansing’ Homs of Sunni Muslims‘, The Telegraph, 22 July 2013.
4. For more on how and why the NDF was created, see here.
5. For more on the Iranian role in creating the NDF, see here.
6. ‘Opening safe and closed houses and renting them for sums that will be preserved for their owners‘ (in Arabic), Al-Ba’th newspaper, 22 May 2014.
8. Here is a typical example.
9. See here, for example.
10. See here.
11. Available here.
12. Here is a typical example.
13. ‘Special source to Now News: Systematic Shi’atisation of Damascus through property purchase‘ (in Arabic), Now, 28 June 2014.
15. ‘Iran buys land in Syrian cities to change demography‘ (in Arabic), Al-Arabiya, 18 November 2014.
16. See, for example, ‘A technical force of 16 to rebuild the shrine of Hazrat Zainab‘, Department of Construction of Shrines.
17. ‘Construction of new haram named after Sayyed al-Shohada will be completed by the end of the year‘ (in Persian), SNN, 4 August 2014.
20. See, for example, this article.