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Turkish Army’s Unauthorized Seizure: Land Grabs and Unfulfilled Lease Contracts in Northern Syria

Between mid-2022 and mid-2023, Turkey maintained a relatively stable number of military locations in Syria: 125 in total.

The investigation delves into the Turkish army’s encroachment on private property in northern Syria. This occurred as Turkish bases and observation points were established on agricultural lands. Many landowners signed lease contracts expecting compensation, but received nothing. Others had their lands seized forcefully without any financial recompense, leading to significant economic losses for both individuals and the region’s economy.

Mustafa Al-Mustafa, for instance, leased his agricultural land to the Turkish army years ago but never received payment, despite signing a contract promising $700 annually per dunam. This amounted to approximately $23,000 to $24,000 annually. Turkish forces occupied the land for two and a half years, beginning seven weeks before the contract was signed and continuing for about two years and four months thereafter.

“My family depended on the land’s production of olives and pistachios,” laments Mustafa, 43, who has a family of seven. “With about 80 dunums and 18 trees per dunam, the land used to yield 300 kilos of crops or more, depending on the season.” It served as their sole source of livelihood.

The Turkish army currently maintains a significant presence in northern Syria, with 125 military sites, including 12 bases and 113 points, as reported by the Jusoor Center for Studies. While some sites resulted from Turkish military operations under undisclosed agreements via the “Astana” process, others were part of announced agreements for establishing observation points. These were intended to oversee de-escalation measures, road openings, and crossings. However, changing circumstances led to disruptions in implementation, with Ankara controlling some points while abandoning others.

Beyond the violation experienced by Mustafa and other landowners, this issue gains heightened significance due to its foundation on agreements among external parties involved in the Syrian conflict. This undermines the judiciary’s role in resolving property disputes and fundamentally impacts efforts to restore and reinforce the rule of law in the country.

Astana Sets the Stage

In 2017, the Astana process involving Russia, Turkey, and Iran crafted a de-escalation agreement for Syria. It aimed to create four safe zones for six months, extendable, to lower hostilities. These zones included Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and parts of Daraa and Quneitra. The goal was to enable humanitarian aid and foster conditions for a political solution. Although the agreement briefly reduced tensions, it failed to bring lasting stability. Meanwhile, Ankara established 12 military observation points within these zones, strategically positioning Turkey and bolstering its influence over time. Despite initial hopes, the Astana process did not achieve the sustained peace envisioned.

Phases-in-the-establishment-of-Turkish-observation-posts-post-the-Astana-Accord-

 

Ninth Observation Point

On April 7, 2018, the Turkish army set up its ninth observation point in Morek, located in the northern Hama countryside, marking its farthest point from the Turkish border at a distance of 88 kilometers.

Situated just 12 kilometers from Khan Shaykhun in the southern Idlib countryside, near the international road (M4) linking Aleppo and Latakia, agreements were intended to open this route.

Around two months later, on June 1, 2018, Mustafa leased his land for the observation point for a year, renewable, for $700 annually per dunum, as stated in the contract’s third clause.

Unexpectedly, on August 23, 2019, Syrian government forces encircled the ninth observation point following their control over Khan Shaykhun and nearby areas, amid rising tensions and accusations of violating de-escalation agreements between Damascus and Ankara.

This situation persisted until October 20, 2020, when the Turkish army dismantled the ninth observation point, withdrawing forces and equipment under Russian supervision.

Mustafa, within his dwelling at the “Morek” camp in Sharqi Kalli, clutches one of many photographs, cataloging an aspect of the devastation endured by his land, rendering it “barren” – November 5, 2023, “Syria Indicator.”

Faylaq al-Sham Disavows

Mustafa shared with Syria Indicator the losses he incurred, which unfolded in stages: “First, they took 15 dunums, then 10 dunums, and the Turkish army cut down 120 pistachio trees and around 40 olive trees from my land to construct earthen berms, besides bulldozing the land.”

The contract didn’t permit the Turkish army to cut trees or bulldoze the land. Mustafa sought counsel from the Turkish officer overseeing the observation point. “He assured me of compensation for any land damage, but they didn’t keep their word, and the land became barren,” he lamented.

The proprietor of the agricultural estate, Mustafa Fawaz Al-Mustafa, within his residence at the "Morek" camp, situated in Eastern Kalli, holds in his possession the Arabic rendition of the contract leasing his land to the Turkish observation post - November 5, 2023, "Syria Indicator."
The proprietor of the agricultural estate, Mustafa Fawaz Al-Mustafa, within his residence at the “Morek” camp, situated in Eastern Kalli, holds in his possession the Arabic rendition of the contract leasing his land to the Turkish observation post – November 5, 2023, “Syria Indicator.”

As per the contract’s fifth clause, the tenant (Turkish army) must return the property in its original condition, with the removal of barriers, or face compensation for damages. However, till the time of this investigation’s publication, Mustafa hadn’t received any financial compensation, nor for the land damage, nor a copy of the signed contract by the Turkish Ministry of Defense.

Mustafa detailed the leasing circumstances: “After the Turkish army chose my land for a control point, a committee of six merchants evaluated it annually. Later, I signed a contract with Faylaq al-Sham leaders (The Sham Legion). It was to be sent to Turkish leadership for approval.” Unfortunately, Mustafa lost his rights when the regime took over Hama countryside.

Mustafa sought mediation through the Levant Legion. However, despite his efforts with various commanders, no resolution was reached. When Syria Indicator approached Sheikh Omar Hudhayfah, head of Faylaq al-Sham’s Sharia Office, he explained his inability to intervene due to Turkish involvement. He suggested directing inquiries to the office for further information.

The contract contains a handwritten note stating, “The contract was signed in the presence of the head of the judicial office and the sector commander in Hama for Faylaq al-Sham,” with a signature and an illegible circular stamp underneath.

The investigation team reached out to Ahmed Dalo, head of the legal office of the Levant Legion, who denied the Corps’ involvement in leasing agricultural land for Turkish observation points. He stated, “Perhaps some individuals within the Legion mediated unofficially. However, the legal office has no knowledge of such mediations. When we officially intervene, we affix our seals on supervised contracts. In 2019, we were presented with a case but refrained from intervening as it was unrelated to us.”

Faylaq al-Sham was established on March 10, 2014, from 19 opposition factions and Islamic groups, operating across Syrian territories from Aleppo to Damascus. Currently, it is affiliated with the National Liberation Front, backed by the Turkish-supported Syrian National Army.

A 2015 Study of War Institute report labeled the Faylaq al-Sham as a key player in Syria, receiving support primarily from Turkey, followed by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Syrians for Truth and Justice, members of the Syrian National Army, mostly from the Faylaq al-Sham, assisted Turkish observation points. Their duties included external protection, civilian coordination, and each member received 600 Turkish liras monthly for their services.

Turkish military bases in Syria -
The agricultural land lease agreement between Mustafa Fawaz Al-Mustafa and the Turkish government, presented in both Arabic and Turkish versions, November 5, 2023, “Syria Indicator.”

Legal Obstacles Hindering Mustafa’s Rights

Despite repeated attempts to engage with the “governor of Afrin” and various Turkish points, Mustafa lost hope in reaching a resolution through mediators. He turned to the idea of hiring a lawyer in northern Syria to pursue legal actions and claim his rights. However, the process of appointing a lawyer is straightforward, but their mobility is severely restricted. Lawyers’ activities, including powers of attorney and legal pleadings, are confined to local cases in northwestern Syria.

Lawyer Fouad Yazji, consulted by Mustafa, clarifies that lease contracts under Syrian Civil Law are binding once both parties consent, irrespective of the means used to express their intentions. However, in Mustafa’s case, it was assumed that the Syrian state would act as his representative due to dealings with a foreign government seeking to establish a military base on his land. However, Yazji notes that actions on the ground were informal and supervised by armed factions.

The complexity lies in litigation mechanisms and jurisdiction. Yazji explains that disputing the Turkish military point requires filing a lawsuit where the property is located, before a military court due to the involvement of a military party. However, courts in northern Syria lack recognized judicial and legal authority accepted by Turkey, presenting a significant obstacle to legal recourse.

What Turkish Law Says

In early October 2014, the Turkish Parliament passed Resolution No. 1071, allowing the government to deploy Turkish military forces abroad for cross-border operations to safeguard national security against threats. This authorization, valid for one year and extendable, is grounded in Article 92 of the Turkish Constitution, international law, and the right to self-defense as per Article 51 of the UN Charter.

According to Turkish lawyer Yildirim Kasab Bashi, the Turkish Armed Forces can intervene militarily up to 5 kilometers into northern Syria under Annex No. 4 of the 1998 Adana Security Agreement between Damascus and Ankara, despite Mustafa’s land being approximately 90 kilometers away.

Bashi notes, “Landowners can claim agreed-upon rent through Turkish Magistrate and Administrative Courts by filing a lawsuit for material and moral compensation. The Ministry of Defense is obligated to pay the rent.”

An image documenting the investigation team’s message to the Turkish Ministry of Defense via email (Syria Indicator – Exclusive).
An image documenting the investigation team’s message to the Turkish Ministry of Defense via email (Syria Indicator – Exclusive).

Syria Indicator reached out via email to the Turkish Ministry of Defense regarding the protection of agricultural landowners’ rights, compensation for economic losses due to land conversion into military facilities, and military action regulation in these areas. However, no response has been received as of the publication of this investigation.

“Our Land, Our Rights”

Following the unsuccessful outcome of the Astana talks to de-escalate military tensions, Turkish observation points in northern Syria significantly increased. This expansion was justified by Ankara citing concerns about border security and the perceived Kurdish threat.

Between mid-2022 and mid-2023, Turkey maintained around 125 military sites in Syria, primarily concentrated in Aleppo Governorate, totaling 57 sites, as reported by the Jusoor Center for Studies.

Images documenting the repercussions of felling and bulldozing pistachio trees in the village of Kaljabrin, "Syria Indicator."
Images documenting the repercussions of felling and bulldozing pistachio trees in the village of Kaljabrin, “Syria Indicator.”

In late 2017, during the redeployment of Turkish forces in Azaz, a Turkish observation point was established in the village of Kaljibrin in the northern countryside of Aleppo without the consent of landowners. Despite their demands for land evacuation, the owners faced Turkish refusal.

One affected landowner expressed, “I never leased the land to anyone. The Turks seized it by force.”

He shared with Syria Indicator, requesting anonymity due to security concerns, that his land spans 40 dunams. Approximately five dunams were seized, and on the remaining area, around 900 pistachio trees, 400 cherry trees, and vines were uprooted to construct earthen berms. Despite assurances from officials promising compensation, fear prevents many from speaking to the media about their losses.

He estimates his annual loss at $15,000, stressing the land’s significance passed down through generations. “The land sustained five families. They destroyed trees, some of which were as old as me. Our land is a legacy from our ancestors.”

Replanting pistachio trees demands specific conditions: suitable climate, proper irrigation, fertilization, and protection from diseases and pests. It also requires patience, often taking years to bear fruit. “We’re attempting to replant pistachio trees on the remaining land. However, five dunams within the Turkish base, where they dug trenches, are no longer arable,” he lamented.

Anonymous Violations

Before Turkish forces enter any area in northern Syria, a specialized military team conducts surveys, as explained by a regional military expert who wishes to remain anonymous. The team assesses the area and identifies strategic points. Subsequently, they occupy the area and commence extensive fortification operations, deploying large equipment, digging underground tunnels, and establishing water wells, filters, and fuel tanks in major bases.

Numerous obstacles hindered this investigation, including challenges related to victims, witnesses, available information, and circumstances surrounding the violations, such as military operations, mass displacement, and de facto control.

Most witnesses in this investigation refrain from providing complete information due to fear of retaliation from the party that attacked their lands or due to a lack of confidence in achieving justice. The long-standing neglect of their cases by regional authorities has fostered a collective sense of disillusionment among many victims of property violations in northern Syria, who feel that hopes for achieving accountability are remote.

The investigation team managed to persuade a land surveyor from Idlib to share insights on the case, albeit under the condition of anonymity for security reasons. He specializes in measuring land and providing essential data about land shapes in the area. However, he noted that when the Turks seize agricultural lands, they restrict access to these areas, hindering measurement efforts. Consequently, estimating the seized land’s area becomes challenging.

Drawing from his observations and experience, the surveyor believes that if the decision rested with the people, no one would willingly surrender their land. He cited Binnish in southern Idlib as an example, where many residents seek to reclaim their seized lands akin to an occupation. Additionally, he highlighted another complication: “The Turks select portions of each land to erect observation points,” meaning one point infringes upon multiple properties in such cases.

Millions Lost in Agriculture

The agricultural sector holds significant importance in the Syrian economy, serving as a primary income source for numerous families across the nation. According to the Syrian General Authority for Scientific Agricultural Research, Syria’s total area spans 18.5 million hectares, with arable and forested land covering around 6.5 million hectares, accounting for 32.8% of the country’s geography. Approximately 20% of Syrians are engaged in agriculture.

Turkish military bases in northern Syria

 

In 2017, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated losses from conflict-related damage to the agricultural sector at approximately $16 billion. This includes damages to agricultural assets such as equipment, farms, veterinary clinics, animal shelters, greenhouses, and irrigation systems, with losses in crop production alone totaling about $6.3 billion.

The areas documented in this investigation represent some of the country’s most fertile agricultural regions, cultivating important crops like olives and pistachios.

According to a pistachio farmer and trader from Morek, the agricultural land in the region covers approximately 65 thousand dunums, with 98% of it dedicated to pistachio cultivation. Typically, an average of 16 trees are planted per dunum, and around 20 thousand dunums of land have been destroyed. Production estimates suggest an average yield of 30 kilograms per dunum each season, with pistachio prices ranging from 3 to 5 dollars per kilogram.

In Azaz, located in the northern countryside of Aleppo, suitable land for pistachio cultivation accounts for around 10% of the total agricultural area. An agricultural engineer residing in the region informed Syria Indicator that approximately 250 dunums of this land were damaged. On average, 25 trees are planted per dunum, with each tree producing between 10 and 20 kilograms per season. The price of pistachios ranges from 5 to 8 dollars per kilogram. Based on these figures, the agricultural engineer estimates farmers’ losses to be no less than one million dollars. The engineer requested anonymity for security reasons.

Who Holds Accountability?

The Syrian government strongly condemns ongoing Turkish military intervention in Syrian territory, branding it as “occupation and aggression.” This stance aligns with the violation of UN Security Council resolutions, Astana agreements, and outcomes of the Sochi conference, all emphasizing respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In 2019, former Syrian delegate to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, criticized Turkey for deploying troops, equipment, and weapons in Idlib, viewing it as a breach of Astana agreements, which permitted 12 Turkish police observation points with a maximum of 280 policemen.

Under international law, Turkish intervention lacks legitimacy, subjecting it to the standards of an occupying force. Consequently, the Turkish Armed Forces must take all necessary precautions to prevent civilian casualties and property damage, adhering to international law in military operations and fortification construction methods, as explained by Syrian jurist Muhammad Al-Abdullah.

“As an occupying force, Turkish authorities must ensure officials and subordinates refrain from seizing private civilian property for military use unless fairly compensated with owner consent,” elaborated Al-Abdullah. He further clarified that when legally categorized as an occupation, international humanitarian law comes into effect, focusing on parties’ conduct during conflict and the protection mandated by applicable legal frameworks. 

“Bilateral or multilateral agreements like Astana hold less relevance in cases of housing, land, and property violations, particularly when land is unlawfully seized in breach of contractual obligations. Therefore, the act of confiscating private agricultural land under false promises of compensation via contract lacks recognized legality. Such actions by one party constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.”

Jurist Muhammad Al-Abdullah

However, Al-Abdullah emphasizes a crucial distinction: “Defining behavior and legally categorizing it as a violation differs from holding individuals accountable for these violations. The local (Syrian) courts in the occupied territories serve as the primary competent judicial authority, or any neutral court operated by the occupying power within Syrian occupied territories.” Subsequently, “an appeal can be lodged against the occupying authority, including before Turkish courts, if justice is not obtained initially.”

If local remedies are exhausted or prove unattainable, the jurist suggests turning to the European Court of Human Rights. He notes, however, that the likelihood of success in this avenue is minimal.

Al-Abdullah concludes by stressing the importance of preventing looting or forced seizure of private property for personal use, as such actions violate the laws of war and may constitute war crimes. Combatants are prohibited from seizing property for personal purposes, including housing their families, and destruction of property without military necessity or just compensation is also forbidden under the laws of war.

According to the legal team of Syrians for Truth and Justice, the Syrian legislature has not addressed the issue of foreign occupation or theft of property ownership by another country. Syrian law does not specifically cover such matters. However, contracts signed in border areas are deemed invalid if the required license, as per Decree No. 49 of 2008 amended by Decree No. 43 of 2011, is not obtained. Since the property owner didn’t secure the necessary license due to the property being beyond Syrian government control, the contract is deemed invalid.

Therefore, the presence of Turkish military bases on private property is considered a violation of property rights, especially if the occupation persists beyond the contract period. The owner has the right to claim rent for the duration covered by the contract. For the period exceeding the contract, the owner is entitled to demand a rent equivalent to the property’s value during that extended occupancy without a contract and consent. This value is determined by the average yield of adjacent lands, considering their size and location.

However, courts in opposition-controlled areas do not recognize Syrian decrees governing ownership and rental of border real estate. Therefore, the property owner can demand rent equivalent to the property’s value for the entire occupancy duration, irrespective of whether it was covered by the contract or not.

The court has discretion in this matter. It may deem the contract invalid because the required approval wasn’t obtained. Conversely, it could consider the contract valid if the property owner couldn’t obtain the necessary approval due to the conditions of occupation, the area being beyond Syrian government control, and the impossibility of obtaining approval from the Syrian government under such circumstances.

The Syrian government or individual Syrians have the option to sue a foreign country in international courts, particularly as the Turkish government is viewed as an occupying authority. The Turkish government has distinct obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to safeguard the rights of civilians in the occupied regions, including the right to property. 

“Syrians for Truth and Justice” organization.

A history of tension

Syrian-Turkish relations have been marked by periods of tension. The Iskenderun District issue was the initial source of tension between Damascus and Ankara. It arose after the French-Turkish agreement on May 29, 1937, which granted autonomy to the Iskenderun District. This district was separated from Syria on November 29, 1937. In September 1938, the Legislative Assembly in the region declared the “independence of the Republic of Hatay” before it officially became part of Turkey in June 1939.

In August 1957, Turkey mobilized thousands of soldiers along its southern border to deter the Syrian government, led by Shukri al-Quwatli, from aligning with the communist camp. This crisis ended with Syria strengthening its ties with Arab countries and signing a unity agreement with Egypt in 1958.

Tensions peaked in 1998 when Turkey mobilized its forces on the border with Syria and threatened invasion if Damascus continued to support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The crisis concluded with the signing of the Adana Security Agreement in the same year.

What will happen to the Turkish observation points?

Turkish observation points were set up in northern Syria to establish safe areas and secure Turkey’s borders. They also serve to monitor any military violations of the “Astana” agreement in the region. According to Nawar Shaaban, a military affairs researcher, these points are part of Turkey’s defense strategy.

Shaaban explains that Turkish observation points fall into two categories. The first category includes military observation points stationed in Idlib Governorate, established since October 2017 under the “Astana” agreement. Shaaban suggests that the fate of these points may change based on international agreements, field conditions, and geopolitical influences.

The second category comprises military observation points in the “Euphrates Shield,” “Olive Branch,” and “Peace Spring” areas. Turkey deployed these points to expel Kurdish units from its southern borders, relying on direct military presence. As long as Ankara perceives a threat from Kurdish influence, these points will likely remain in place to counter it.

Translated by: Nabil Nano

Investigation: Saleh Malas - Proofreading and editing: Suhaib Anjrini - Supervision: Ali Eid

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