Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Syria: Losing lives and land

With populations displaced, land ownership is sure to feature as a key source of internal friction for years after the conclusion of hostilities.

Syria: Losing lives and land
Published 18 Apr 2017   Follow @RodgerShanahan

The tragic suicide bombing that targeted buses full of civilian transferees (including children) is yet another senseless act in the ongoing Syrian civil war. But the population-transfer process targeted in this attack has elicited relatively little commentary, yet it will have profound consequences for the stability of the country once the fighting stops.

The Assad regime has laid siege to various rebel-held enclaves in an effort to broker local ceasefires or to negotiate the removal of fighters and their supporters and families, largely to rebel-held Idlib, which hosts a variety of anti-regime forces, including Islamist groups.

For the Assad regime, concentrating as many non-ISIS opposition groups in Idlib offers the practical benefits of concentrating your opponents in one area, and of constructing the narrative in which all opposition groups are connected in some way to armed Islamist groups either ideologically, transactionally or geographically. And given that the term 'moderate rebel' lost whatever accuracy it had years ago, it suits the regime's purpose to co-locate as many armed groups as possible and to tar them all with the Islamist brush.

Population displacement is a natural consequence of conflict, and forced displacement may constitute a war crime. But regardless of the purpose of population transfers, or how permanent it is designed to be, it is often in the post-conflict phase that long-term problems present themselves, with displaced peoples returning home to try to re-establish themselves.

Indeed, the ability of people to return to their homes is a foundational measure of long-term post-conflict stability. Such moves would be difficult even in societies in which it easy to prove ownership of property, but after years of war in which personal and government-held land records will have been destroyed (and where the land registration system was less than perfect in the first place), the problems of trying to turn the property clock back to where it was prior to the civil war are readily apparent. The ability of people to prove that land from which they were displaced is actually theirs is far from assured for a number of reasons, so the issue of land ownership is sure to feature as a key source of internal friction for years after the conclusion of hostilities. 

If that wasn't bad enough, agricultural land availability and use, already an issue pre-uprising due to an extended drought, will be another thorny problem. The regime understood prior to the war that food security was an issue, but the conflict has had a devastating impact on the rural economy, with a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization report estimating the war had cost the agriculture sector US$16 billion in lost production and would require US$10-17 billion in investment to get it back to pre-war status. With this in mind, the fact that Damascus has already given away 50 hectares (50 square km) of farming land to Iran as part of the deals that it has been forced to cut with Russia and Iran to ensure the regime's survival shows the weakness of  Damascus' hand.

Photo by Flickr user Joel Bombardier.

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