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Assyrian family properties in Syria threatened by illegal seizures

The numerous parties to the Syrian war are ignoring the theft and forgeries of properties of minorities in the country, including the properties of Syriac Assyrians who have fled the war.
The Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was previously destroyed in 2015 by the Islamic State, in the village of Tal Nasri, south of the town of Tal Tamr, Hasakah province, Syria, Nov. 15, 2019.

Robbing the property of displaced Syrians has become a systematic action for some influential groups backed by the de facto authorities in northeastern Syria, especially with the spread of corruption within the judicial system of each of the parties to the Syrian conflict.

The Syriac Assyrians hailing from the Syrian Jazira region and who currently live outside Syria, have recently been losing their properties and agricultural lands to theft. Organized gangs are looting lands either by forging property documents or terrorizing property owners and forcing them to sell at low prices.

The Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), the largest and oldest Assyrian Christian party in Syria that was established in 1957, has recently revealed violations against Syriac Assyrian properties in the cities and regions of the Syrian Jazira area by the Assad government and influential people in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, especially in Qamishli, Malikiyah, Tal Tamr and Hasakah, by forging documents and signatures of their original owners.

In a July 13 statement posted on its Facebook page, ADO said, “Most recently, a property located in the security square under the control of the regime on the western side of the Mar Yaqoub al-Nusaibini church [in Qamishli], owned by Mr. Ishak Afram and his sons, was sold against their will.”

On July 7, the Ishak Afram family, a Syriac Christian immigrant family, reported that their expensive property in the city of Qamishli in Hasakah province in northeastern Syria had been illegally seized.

The family said in a statement addressing the public and the Autonomous Administration, “Our property, located on President Street, corner of Abi Tammam Street, was not sold to Fouad Jamil Mohammed Hassari, nicknamed Abu Dalo. A lawsuit has been filed with the Autonomous Administration courts against Abu Dalo for the crime of usurping real estate and threatening and trespassing on the property of others.”

Abu Dalo is a well-known businessman based in Qamishli who is influential among Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s agencies and judicial institutions, as well as with the Autonomous Administration affiliated with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

According to ADO, out of about 22,000 Syriac Assyrians who had been living in 34 villages in the Syrian Jazira region, more than 20,000 emigrated in two migration waves — the largest was after the Islamic State invaded the area in early 2015, posing a serious threat to their survival. The other migration wave was after the Khabur River, along which Syriac Assyrians live, dried up and the people who significantly depended on agriculture had to leave. Today, no more than 800 people remain in the villages of the Khabur Basin, giving way for looters to take over.

The head of ADO’s public relations office, Gabriel Moshe Kourieh, told Al-Monitor that due to chaos and lawlessness, seizing property and real estate belonging to the Assyrians and Christians in general in the areas of the Syrian Jazira has recently escalated, especially those belonging to immigrants and expatriates.

He said, “We have information that those behind such acts are influential figures linked to the regime and benefit from the rampant state of corruption, and use the judiciary to seize these properties and accumulate huge fortunes through sale operations based on forged documents and data.”

Kourieh added, “Such cases exist in many Syrian areas and are not limited to Jazira alone. But for Syriac Assyrians, losing their property is enough to sever all ties that bind the expatriates to their homeland, and this raises fears about a demographic change policy by influential people associated with the Assad regime and the Autonomous Administration, which perpetuates the law of the jungle.”

In addition to real estate, agricultural lands owned by Assyrians in Derik, Khabur, Tal Tamr and other areas were seized over the past years; owners or proxies were prevented from the right to dispose of or cultivate them, and in other cases, their owners were forced to sell them at low prices through extortion methods, Kourieh said.

ADO is working with other Syriac Assyrian parties and some specialized committees in this field, to conduct a census and document properties, real estate and lands stolen or those that have been violated in the Khabur Basin, Tal Tamr and other areas, Kourieh noted, adding that no official party is concerned with documentation and statistics processes since these violations are considered as individual incidents and not given a political character.

Kourieh pointed out that his organization has assigned a number of lawyers to begin documenting the stolen property and to identify the complaints submitted by land owners, in an attempt to take the necessary legal action to retrieve properties away from the media, as to avoid a backlash from influential figures that could cost Assyrians to lose more rights.

He added that the corruption within the judiciary and the courts of the Syrian government, in addition to the latter’s failure to recognize the courts of the Autonomous Administration, are slowing down the organization’s efforts. “Our courts can process such cases quicker, but all real estate records are still in the custody of the regime's departments.”

Kourieh explained that these practices are a flagrant violation of the most basic human rights to property, especially since these properties are owned by displaced people and immigrants who left the country in search of safety and to escape the brunt of war.

Meanwhile, new offices specializing in forging documents are opening in Jazira. They mostly target real estate and property owned by expatriates, by forging personal cards, seals and signatures and registering them in the name of the new buyer. These offices also organize false sales contracts with the signatures of the original owner, and with the help of witnesses colluding with the buyer, then confirming the sale and purchase operations in civil registries, to which records officers are complicit as well.

Forgers usually target real estate and property of high value and good locations in the center of the cities of Jazira.

A Syriac activist from Qamishli told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The most important locations that forgers focus on are in city centers such as Qamishli on Jisreen Street and real estate in central Malikiyah, Hasakah and Qahtaniyah, in addition to agricultural lands in the Khabur Basin, which were plundered by corrupt people. Meanwhile, the Syrian government and the Autonomous Administration are turning a blind eye to these actions as these people [behind forgeries] have powerful relations within state agencies.”

The source said that there are no accurate statistics on the number of stolen property, real estate and land, noting that dozens have certainly been illegally seized, with an estimated value of $10 million to $15 million. 

“Some Assyrians have close ties with influential people in the Syrian government and the Autonomous Administration, which they take advantage of to regain ownership of their lands. But families who lack such ties resort to the courts and file forgery cases, although they know it would be in vain because such cases take a lot of time and influential figures would get involved to stop them,” the activist added.

Article 15 of the 2012 Syrian Constitution stipulates: “Collective and individual private ownership shall be protected in accordance with the following basis: 1. General confiscation of funds shall be prohibited; a. Private ownership shall not be removed except in the public interest by a decree and against fair compensation according to the law; b. Confiscation of private property shall not be imposed without a final court ruling; c. Private property may be confiscated for necessities of war and disasters by law and against fair compensation; 2. Compensation shall be equivalent to the real value of the property.”

Ghazwan Kronfol, lawyer and head of the Turkey-based Free Syrian Lawyers Association, told Al-Monitor that there is no justification for violating the law on the part of any individual, party or authority, whether it possesses legitimacy, assumes it has it or is a de facto authority.

Kronfol said none of the numerous parties to the Syrian conflict respected the law in the first place, be it the law for the protection of absentee property or other laws. “All the ruling authorities in the various Syrian regions protect their own influential figures and believe they are above any law and they may not be held accountable.”

According to Syrian law, forging official papers is considered a felony, and the penalty is hard labor of no less than five years. Article 443 of the Syrian Penal Code defines forgery as “the deliberate counterfeiting of material facts and data proven by an instrument or any other written document that may result in material, moral or social harm.”

Kronfol said criminals find it easier to loot Assyrian property because they consider Assyrians as a weak minority and the majority of them have fled the country.

“We need to have strict procedures to verify the authenticity of ownership documents, personal cards or proxies in sales and purchases, in addition to increasing penalties for the perpetrators of such crimes,” he concluded.