This year has not seen any public auction to lease agricultural lands belonging to IDPs who fled regime-held territory in the Sabkheh and Maadan districts in the Raqqa governorate. Instead, a handful of existing lease contracts were renewed for the same tenants who rented the lands in the last agricultural season. In some cases where previous tenants declined to renew their contracts, the lands were leased to pro-regime militia leaders in the area.
The rental price per hectare of land reached SYP 500,000 in 2022, while last year prices ranged from SYP 300,000 to 400,000.
The Raqqa Farmers’ Syndicate announced on March 14, 2021 that it would hold the area’s first public auction for agricultural lands. However, the syndicate did not specify which administrative area the auctioned lands would belong to or the type of crops that winning tenants would be required to cultivate.
According to a correspondent for The Syria Report, the lands offered in the auctions are located in the Sabkheh and Maadan districts of the Raqqa governorate and are owned by people who fled the area after regime forces took control in mid-2017. The local farmers’ syndicate includes 22 farmers’ societies in villages across Sabkheh and Maadan, an area known for cultivating cotton, wheat and corn.
In Syria, a farmers’ society is a group formed at the village level or among a group of neighbouring villages. A farmers’ syndicate, on the other hand, is a group of farmers’ societies and runs at the administrative district level. A group of syndicates form a governorate farmers’ union and, finally, those governorate unions together comprise the nationwide General Farmers’ Union. Because the area under regime control in the Raqqa governorate is small, the governorate appears to have only one syndicate grouping the different farmers societies.
There were very few applicants for investment in the previous auction in March 2021, prompting the farmers’s syndicate to postpone it more than once before finally holding the auction on May 1, 2021. This lack of interest in the auction was due mainly to the strong tribal relationships between current residents of Sabkheh and Maadan and former residents who fled to areas of the governorate that are now under the control of the majority-Kurdish Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES). People from the area typically frown on any social rifts between current residents and displaced persons, as they are all members of the area’s tribes. In some cases, auction bidders faced serious threats and were forced to withdraw.
Though the local farmers’ syndicate announced in March 2021 that it intended to lease 66.7 hectares of agricultural land, a former mukhtar — a neighbourhood mayor — of one of the area villages told The Syria Report that the actual leased area was many times greater than that number. According to the mukhtar, in his village alone some 130 hectares of land were offered for rent.
The total area of farmland offered for rent in 2022 is less than in 2021, the correspondent said. This is due to some displaced land owners returning home to undergo “reconciliation” with the regime, a process that involves opposition-affiliated locals settling their status with regime security services, undergoing investigations and writing personal pledges not to engage again with anti-regime activities.
In 2021, each village in the Sabkheh and Maaden districts formed its own committee to determine which displaced land owners’ properties would be offered in the auction. Each of the committees included that village’s farmers society president, the village mukhtar and a Baath Party secretary. However, displaced land owners were not the only ones whose properties were included in the auction. Also listed in the auction were agricultural lands owned by current residents whose opposition-affiliated sons had fled to AANES territory in the Raqqa governorate, as well as those whose sons had refused to be enlisted in the regime’s military forces.
Previously, in the 2019 and 2020 agricultural seasons, regime military officers and some members of the Tribal Army and the Friends Movement, two pro-regime militias, took possession of some displaced landowners’ farms, which they cultivated and harvested from without providing any justification or legal basis for doing so.