BEIRUT -- The Syrian regime has put up for public auction a large amount of agricultural land in Idlib province that rightfully belongs to Syrians who were forced to flee the regime's violence, a new report reveals.
The regime recently announced three public auctions of agricultural land in Khan Sheikhun, Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib and Abu al-Duhur, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said in an October 20 report.
The September 29 announcement did not specify the exact location of the land -- approximately 570,000 dunams, in total -- or the names of the landowners, who are known to have fled their homes.
These individuals are now "out of sight", said Idlib's regime-appointed governor, Thaer Salhab, in an apparent justification of the move.
"The confiscation of land is another crime added to the many crimes committed by the regime against the Syrian people, and I am one of them," media activist and Khan Sheikhoun native Othman al-Khani told Al-Mashareq.
Al-Khani said his land is being "usurped" and he is being deprived of the income it generates, adding, "Words cannot describe how I feel."
Pro-regime militias, including the 4th Division, National Defence Forces and Hizbullah, divide the lands among themselves and retain the profits generated from the crops without the permission of the landowners, he said.
Al-Khani said he and other landowners of the Khan Sheikhun area who were displaced by the regime in 2019, most of whom fled to northern Syria, can no longer access their land, as the regime is in control of the region.
Land taken by force
Khan Sheikhun is known for its pistachio and olive orchards, al-Khani said.
"It was known for the wealth of its residents, whose income was cut off and their savings depleted after four years of displacement," he said, adding that their situation is now made worse with the auctioning off of their lands.
"During the olive and pistachio season, the regime makes an inventory of the lands owned by internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees and puts them up for public auctions," he said.
This is done "regardless of whether or not the owner took part in the [Syrian] revolution, or whether he is wanted by the security forces or not", al-Khani said.
"The regime doesn't recognise the power of attorney granted to the landowners' relatives through its own courts either, because it is looking for any excuse to take control of the lands," he added.
While some of the auctioned lands are bought and operated by civilians, many are taken "by force and for free" by the militias, he said, including the 4th Division, which has expanded into southern and southwestern Khan Sheikhun.
Those who remain in regime-controlled areas "require approval by the security authorities to cultivate and harvest their lands but face inevitable obstacles to get this approval", he said.
"Those who do not obtain a license have their lands confiscated and put up for auction, just like the IDPs," he said. "As a result, many people in Khan Sheikhun cannot access their lands."
Regime loyalists profit
The regime started confiscating and auctioning agricultural land in Hama and Idlib provinces as early as June 2020, under the pretext of "investing" in them for their crops, said Sumaya Hadad, reporting manager at SNHR.
Operation licenses "are granted to regime loyalists who kick back to the state a portion of the profits, thus generating a large revenue for the state, while landowners are deprived of those profits because they are not there", she said.
Hadad described what is happening as "the usurpation of the agricultural season", adding that the militias "are violating the Syrian constitution, which stipulates the right of ownership and use of these properties".
"It seems that there is an attempt to legitimise plunder, in violation of the constitution," she said.
Syrian researcher and Idlib native Turki Mustafa said the confiscation of agricultural lands in Idlib and all of Syria is a serious violation of the law.
"The land auctions are being carried out in accordance with the Public Procurement Law of 2004, which relates to the auction and confiscation of state public property," he said.
This law "does not apply to private property, unless the state transfers the ownership of privately owned lands to public ownership, in order for auctions to be held, which did not happen", he said.
In the current circumstances, he said, landowners are unable to do anything, regardless of whether they now reside inside or outside regime-controlled areas.