Similar to the public auctions held in the northern part of Hama governorate, there were auctions held between September 1 and 17 to invest in lands belonging to “absentees” from the regime-held countryside of eastern Deir-ez-Zor governorate, an area known as Al-Shamiyeh. These most recent auctions have proven more systematic and organised than those held previously in Hama. Specialised committees have become the ones responsible for organising the auctions based on ministerial directives and decrees, rather than security decisions alone.
In preparing for the auctions, these committees included farmlands in the Al-Muhassan area and surrounding towns, such as Al-Mreyeyeh, Al-Buamer, and Al-Buleil. In total, more than 200 plots of farmland in Al-Muhassan were put up for auction, according to sources who spoke with The Syria Report. In multiple cases, the properties slated for investment were registered in the auction announcement in the name of the owner’s heirs, as the lands were common properties and not yet terminated. Auctions were held for each of the 200-plus plots of land.
According to The Syria Report sources, those who were awarded land in the auctions included loyalists who returned to the area after regime forces retook control, wealthy local militia leaders, and leaders of the Iranian and Iraqi militias that control the area.
Al-Muhassan and the surrounding villages, all of them from the Al-Uqaydat tribe, came under opposition control in 2012, then Islamic State control in 2014. Regime forces later recaptured the area in 2017 with Russian aerial support. The area faced widespread destruction and many residents fled as a result of artillery bombardment from the nearby Deir-ez-Zor Military Airport. Since 2018, only a handful of residents have returned to the area. Many residents did not return after discovering that they were wanted by security forces for sympathising with the opposition.
The regime’s move to offer absentee farmers’ lands up for investment comes after many local farmers allegedly refused to sell their wheat crops to the General Organization for Grains last season. Farmers’ refusal to sell their crops stemmed from fear of hungerdue to the appearance of a drought and low water levels in the Euphrates River, a source told The Syria Report. The public auctions this month stipulated that the land be cultivated with wheat for one season, setting the average yield at 3,500 kilogram per hectare for irrigated wheat and 1,000 kilogram for rainfed agriculture.
Many of the properties that were auctioned off this month are Amiri lands, raising fears that allowing people other than the owners to invest in them for a period of more than five years could cause the owners to lose their right of disposal, meaning the properties would then be returned to the state. The state appears to be using this loophole to try expropriating these lands from their forcibly displaced owners. Sources said that in the village of Al-Qouriyeh, near Al-Muhassan, lands that were auctioned off this month included residential buildings. The property descriptions, according to the village’s zoning plans, allow for such construction. This issue has raised additional fears among residents that they may also lose their properties.
The auctions came alongside increased security restrictions against absentees, to impede them from defending their properties. The Ministry of Justice recently issued a circular requiring prior security approval in order to issue judicial power of attorney in administering the assets of absent or missing people. Forcibly displaced or otherwise absent owners of Amiri lands have been recently resorting to judicial power of attorney in large numbers to prevent their lands from being forcibly listed for investment in public auctions.
Under Land Investment Announcement No. 1785, issued by the Deir-ez-Zor governorate on August 29, 2021, there are five types of committees involved.
- The Main Committee in Deir-ez-Zor, which announced the public auction of abandoned and vacant lands for the winter agricultural season of 2021-2022. This committee was formed by Deir-ez-Zor Governorate Decree No. 4723 on June 20, 2021. The committee’s announcement to hold the auctions comes as part of implementing an action plan approved by the Council of Ministers on May 11, 2021, in accordance with its Letter No. 7985. The Deir-ez-Zor governorate requested that people hoping to take part in the auctions submit an application to the governorate secretariat, accompanied by proof of non-conviction, a residency document, a pledge to invest in the land in accordance with the technical conditions specified by the Ministry of Agriculture, and a pledge that the applicant would not be barred from entering auctions held by public entities. The Main Committee has also stated that the priority for land investment would be given to residents who are family members of the actual investor from the 2010-2011 agricultural season.
- The Auctions Committee was formed by Decree No. 5169 on July 12, 2021. It organized the investment contracts and the details of the agreement after the lands were successfully auctioned off. The Auctions Committee relied on a format circulated by the Ministry of Agriculture in regulating the contracts.
- A special committee formed by Decree No. 5167 on July 12, 2021, which sets the initial price for opening each auction. The initial value for investing in one hectare is SYP 500,000 for irrigated land and SYP 150,000 to 100,000 for rainfed land.
- The Spatial Committee is responsible for handing over land to whoever won the auction bid and enabling them to invest in it. Prior to Land Investment Announcement No. 1785, the spatial committees finished preparing the lists of lands to be auctioned off for investment, in accordance with a special form. The Ministry of Local Administration and Environment formed spatial committees in December 2020 to tally these lands and determine the status of their residents. Each committee included an agricultural engineer, the village mayor, head of the local Agricultural Extension unit, a real estate interests representative, secretary of the party branch, head of the farmer’s syndicate, head of the agricultural department, and a representative from the security authority. The committee compiled a form with tables that included the property name, village name, property number, full name of the land owner or person in possession of the land, the current status of that person, security notes, whether the owner is outside the country, land area, whether the land is irrigated or rainfed, and the proposed agricultural cycle. The security notes included whether the owner or possessor of the land was armed, wanted by security, or outside the country.
- The Objections Committee, formed by Decree No. 5711 on August 17, 2021, is tasked with studying objections and submitting those results to the Auctions Committee. This committee is to receive landowners who do not have “issues” with their files and who wish to return to invest in their lands.