A new urban development law in Syria has put the onus on citizens, millions of whom are displaced, to prove ownership of their homes — or potentially risk losing them to postwar developments.

The full implications of Law 10 of 2018 are yet to be seen. There are provisions allowing distant relatives to register properties for absentee landlords, allowing for flexibility.

But in the political context of an ongoing conflict between government loyalists and opponents, it has been a cause for anxiety — especially among those forced to abandon their homes in areas where the rebellion has now been crushed.

A photographer from Eastern Ghouta who fled his neighborhood during the last government offensive in April, and managed to smuggle himself across the border to Turkey in recent weeks, is worried the new law will ruin any chances he ever had of returning home.

“If I was there I could prove ownership, but I’m not,” the photographer told the Asia Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“I can’t go through legal channels, because of my political activities, but also because I’m so far. But I’m afraid I’d be arrested if I went back.”

Sprawling suburbs

The sprawling Ghouta suburbs, whose lush orchards and fields were the historic breadbasket of the capital, were also fertile ground for Syria’s 2011 uprising.

For years, Ghouta had seen growing “poverty belts” of workers, whose rural villages had been devastated by a combination of agricultural subsidy withdrawal and the breakdown of small-scale industry under expanding trade liberalization policies, according to Dr. Philip Proudfoot of Northumbria University, whose research focuses on the relationship between labor migration and the revolution in Syria.

The price of revolt came in the form of a crippling siege and relentless aerial attacks, reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble.

Pro-regime forces tightened the noose over the past year, each town’s capitulation ending in convoys of busses ferrying opponents to an uncertain future in distant rebel-held territory.

The United Nations says 158,000 people were displaced from Eastern Ghouta since March 9 alone.

The photographer said his biggest fear is being lost: “Lost as an activist, lost as a photographer … lost in the world.”

“I don’t own anything anymore. Everything I had is theirs,” he said, referring to the regime.

Fighting for a home

Many Syrians are holding onto hope that relatives inside government-held areas will be able to register their properties, and keep the hope of return alive.

A Ghouta resident displaced to rebel-held territories said he still has family living in government-held areas.

“They went to Damascus and are trying to collect the necessary paperwork. It’s a complicated process,” he said. He would not provide his name, for fear of scuttling the process.

The climate of fear is symbolic of the retrenched position of President Bashar al-Assad’s authority, seven years after mass protests broke out against his rule.

Several people in the same situation were unwilling to be interviewed— even off the record — for fear of ruining relatives’ chances of securing their homes.

The climate of fear is symbolic of the retrenched position of President Bashar al-Assad’s authority, seven years after mass protests broke out against his rule. Backed by powerful allies Russia and Iran, government troops have in the past year restored control over key highways traversing the country, and the crucial ring around Damascus. “I haven’t seen my house in years. I know it was partly destroyed, but I don’t know if it survived the last military campaign,” said one Syrian, living in a government area, but whose family home is located in Eastern Ghouta.

She is concerned that despite possession of the proper paperwork, any hint of suspicion could put her claim in jeopardy.

“I’m able to go through the legal channels, but I have some political fears as I don’t know who was living there for the past five years,” she said.

“I’m worried for the future, that I won’t be able to prove the ownership for some reason, and that all the work of my father will be lost.”

State stands to gain

The new law does not go into immediate effect in blanket form. It must be applied to a given area on a case by case basis by presidential decree, according to lawyers who have studied it. When that happens, there is a one month period during which those who have property in the area must assert ownership.

“If an individual already has his property registered with the land registry, there’s no need to renew that,” Damascus-based lawyer Aref al-Shaal told the Asia Times.

“The problem is that in Syria a very large percentage of owners haven’t registered their ownership,  for a whole host of reasons.”

Syria’s rural communities often relied on customary land rights, while a third of the urban population lived in informal settlements before the crisis, according to a 2016 Norwegian Refugee Council report. Informal areas faced disproportionate destruction during the war, it said.

With nearly six million Syrians made refugees, and 6.6 million internally displaced to date, there is concerns many will lose the possibility of having anything to return to.

Their dispossession would be the regime’s gain.

Prime real estate

“The biggest beneficiary (of Law 10) is the state. It will get a huge amount of prime real estate free of charge, as was the case with Khalaf al-Razi area, along the Mezze highway of Damascus,” said lawyer Shaal.

Khalaf al-Razi is largely informal district, now slated for luxury redevelopment under an earlier zoning decree.

“Khalaf al-Razi is the Solidere of Damascus,” said Shaal, referring to the controversial public-private venture that rebuilt Beirut’s downtown through eminent domain in the wake of the Lebanese civil war. Once a bustling place of trade, home to a cross-section of the population, downtown Beirut is now an exclusive fortress.

Law 10, on its surface, is an urban planning law, says Shaal.

“But it differs from other urbanization laws in that the method for redistributing property is somewhat malignant,” he said.

In the context of the ongoing upheaval and massive scale of displacement, those who have fled in recent years, or even in recent weeks, see the law’s passage as a foreboding sign of what is to come .

“We won’t know the scope of the problem until the government plans to apply it to a certain area,” said Shaal. “That’s when we’ll know the magnitude of the issue.”

For political geographer Fabrice Balanche, the implications of the law are clear:

“The political interpretation of this law is that the government seeks to recoup the land of the displaced and redistribute it to those close to the regime so they can rebuild new neighborhoods,” he said.

“All the people who built things informally before the war, the poor people who supported the opposition, from Douma, Harasta (Eastern Ghouta) — now they’re in Idlib. The guys from Qusayr, Baba Amr (Homs) are not in Syria. It’s a way to confiscate their properties.”

The winners, he says, will be the cronies of the regime — “the war profiteers.”