"My story began when a broker named Kazem Yahya Murtada asked me to sell him a plot of land that I owned. Murtada, who is from the predominantly Shiite village of Mukhtariya, adjacent to our city of Talbiseh, works in buying land and property in the countryside of Homs. The plot of land was five dunams in size and located in the Masjar area south of the city, adjacent to the village of Al-Mukhtariyah, which is close to the villages of Atoun, Al-Najma, and Malouk, all of which are inhabited by a Shiite majority that is loyal to the Assad regime."
With these words, Youssef Sheikh Taha, 49, begins his story to Raseef22. He says, "He offered me a tempting offer of $32 per square meter, which is an offer that those who suffer from hunger and deprivation cannot refuse, but I did, because I do not want to sell my land, because I do not own anything else, and despite his repeated attempts, I held on to my position."
Two weeks later, in February 2019, while Taha was on his way to Homs to receive treatment for his diabetes, a military security checkpoint at the entrance to Homs city arrested him for no reason, after asking him for his ID and requesting that he get off the minibus. He was then transferred to the military security branch in Homs for holding.
This is where the story of the forty-year-old man being forced to sell his land begins. He narrates that after his arrest, the broker Murtada contacted his wife, under the pretext that he was trying to contact her husband, and that his phone was switched off. When the wife told him that Youssef had been arrested, he offered to get him out of prison, saying that he knew one of the officers in the military security branch.
After the regime took control of the entire countryside of Homs, the movement of selling real estate for the benefit of a number of officers of the regime became active
Youssef says, "The broker told my wife that his help would cost her $8,000 dollars, and then offered to buy the land after she told him that she did not have that kind of money. My wife agreed that the payment would be made after my release from prison, and surprisingly, he offered a much lower price than the one he had offered me; only $19 per square meter. My wife agreed without hesitation and I was released from prison after being detained for 28 days without them investigating or accusing me of anything in the branch."
He continues, "I realized that my arrest was orchestrated just to force me to sell, and after I got out of jail, I immediately went with my family to Lebanon, and after a while I arrived in France through the United Nations as part of its resettlement programs."
Settlement and extortion
Journalist Mohammed Arroub, 34, who hails from the city of Talbiseh in rural Homs, tells Raseef22 that the price per square meter of land in rural Homs ranges between $13 and $19, according to real estate brokers. The price depends on the location of the land, and whether it is suitable for construction or agriculture, and most landowners in rural Homs are unable to optimally invest their land and rely on it for their livelihood.
He refutes this by saying, "The high prices of seeds, agriculture and harvest, not to mention the difficulty of securing irrigation water, the difficulty of transporting or disposing of the crop, and the fact that most people are now living on the brink of poverty, makes the issue of selling land a possible option for them.. Those who hold on to their land are paid more than $19 per square meter, while those who refuse are threatened, harassed, and subjected to various forms of pressure to force them to sell."
Aroub gives an example of this, saying, "Mahmoud Bakour is a resident of Talbiseh, and he owns a plot of land on which he built a number of shops and stores within a building on an area of about 10,000 square meters. It is located on the road between the city of Talbiseh and the town of Ghantou, which is a very unique location. He was offered to sell it more than once, but he refused. Not long after, he was assassinated in the city of Talbiseh by unknown assailants with a bullet to the head in front of his house, and all the people of Homs countryside knew about it."
But is there any proof that his assassination has anything to do with land? The journalist who follows what is happening in his city says, "I cannot be certain, but his good reputation and his lack of involvement in anything, made people connect his assassination with his refusal to sell, and as a result, they live in a state of anxiety and fear, and this is what has helped brokers easily persuade these people to sell."
After the regime and the opposition signed a settlement agreement in the summer of 2018, and after the regime extended its control over the entire countryside of Homs, the sale of agricultural lands, shops and houses – even destroyed ones – became more active and increased in favor of a number of officers of the regime or influential people who returned to the area after regaining control of it in mid-2018, through a Russian-sponsored agreement.
"The broker told my wife that his help would cost her $8,000, and then offered to buy the land after she told him that she did not have that kind of money" – an example of the extortion being practiced in Homs
A well-informed source familiar with the work of these officers says, "Perhaps the most prominent of these officers is a major general from the al-Ali family, who is charge of military construction and hails from the village of Al-Mukhtariya, in addition to a merchant from the Al-Nawaf family whose sole mission is to find people who want to sell their property, whether they are located in the countryside, or are among those who have been displaced to northern Syria, or even those who have left Syria completely. This is done through brokers who work with these officers in exchange for financial commissions on each sale."
He adds, "Al-Nawaf also works in coordination with Rabah al-Ali and a number of officers and other influential figures, and his task is to force the owners of some properties that have a good location within the cities and towns of the countryside to sell their properties by threatening them with security prosecution if they are in the area, or confiscation if they are among those who have been displaced to northern Syria or who left Syria completely, if they refuse to sell after being tempted by a good price."
The source indicates that an engineer from the al-Khatib family is also involved in the operation and has served as head of the Red Crescent branch in the city of Talbiseh in the countryside of Homs for the past eight years.
It is known among the residents of rural Homs, and those who preferred to stay in the countryside rather than be displaced, the strong relationship between al-Ali and the Iranian militias stationed in the villages of al-Mukhtariya, al-Najma, Muluk and Atoun.
Arroub confirms that "the most cities and towns that are witnessing real estate purchases in the countryside of Homs are those near or adjacent to villages with a Shiite or Alawite majority, and an example of this is what happened in the cities and towns of Talbiseh, Al-Sa'en, Oyoun Hussein and dozens of other villages, where a number of brokers from the villages of Al-Mukhtariya and Al-Najma, located only two kilometers south of the city of Talbiseh, bought a large number of properties, whether they were houses, shops or agricultural lands".
"As we are residents of the same area that have lived together for a long time, we know very well that real estate brokers from Shiite villages in rural Homs are connected with a number of Shiite-Iranian associations, such as the Mahdi Association and the Jihad al-Bina Association, which is active in rural Homs," he adds.
The cities and towns that are witnessing the most real estate purchases in the countryside of Homs are those near or adjacent to villages with a Shiite or Alawite majority
Jihad al-Bina Association is one of dozens of charitable and social foundations funded by Iran in Syria. It was established in the aftermath of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979. It played social roles at first and then participated in combat operations during the Iran-Iraq War.
In 1988, Hezbollah opened a branch of the association in the Lebanese capital Beirut, as a social, developmental and real estate institution. It became famous for implementing infrastructure construction projects, building, educational and health facilities in areas controlled by Hezbollah, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The institution's branch in Syria was officially opened in the Sayyeda Zeinab area in mid-2016, under the direct supervision of Iranian and Hezbollah figures, led by the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard militia, Hajj Farhad Debian, who was assassinated by unknown assailants on March 6, 2020, after which the management of the institution was transferred to Syrian people known for their strong loyalty to Iran and Hezbollah, while continuing to supervise them.
As for the al-Mahdi Scouts Association, it is a youth movement that was founded in Lebanon in 1985, by Hezbollah. Its mission is educational-based, and it has cultural and educational activities in Syria aimed for boys in various areas of Iranian influence, while also training boys and adolescents to fight, and aims at creating an Islamic generation based on the concept of "Wilayat al-Faqih" (guardianship of the jurist) as mentioned in a calendar issued in 2006.
"The incentives and temptations offered to residents to convince them to sell their properties are very high, and perhaps what Iran's militias are seeking, in order to increase the number of lands and houses sold, is to reach the largest possible area of towns and regions that are under their absolute control without any contention or dispute. This is done through contracts organized in the regime's municipal directorates, which were opened after the regime took control of the area," Aroub continues.
According to him, the strange thing is that there are some houses that have been destroyed due to previous shelling, especially those that were on the front line between the opposition and the regime, and they were bought for very large sums of money.
What is noteworthy, according to Aroub, is that if we take into account the living conditions of the residents here in the countryside of Homs, and trace the individuals who bought real estate from the city of Talbiseh alone, we find that most of the people who register properties with shares during sales contracts that take place before they register them in the real estate registry, belong to people who are either fighters in the ranks of the Iranian militias and the regime's National Defense Forces (NDF) or employees and workers within Iranian humanitarian institutions and Syrian humanitarian institutions directly supported by Iran.
Not a demographic change
Nizar Habboush, who currently resides in Turkey, and who worked as director of the survey department in the real estate department in Homs for several years, believes that "material profit was not the primary goal of the Iranians or those associated with them, from these purchases, but rather their quest to expand their influence and control the largest possible amount of areas of those areas and own them for many reasons that I cannot be certain about, especially with the talk of demographic change or forcing people to migrate and so on, even though it happened in other areas of Homs, such as al-Qusayr."
While speaking to Raseef22, he adds, "The city of al-Qusayr, for example, was one of the first areas for which a demographic change was planned, as it turned into a city that housed hundreds of families of Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and the most important neighborhoods and places in Damascus, such as Sayyeda Zainab, for example, have become a residence for Iranian families after they bought them with facilitations from the government. Also, neighborhoods in Aleppo were mostly bought by Iranian investors and are now homes for families of Iranian elements active in the city and some of the surrounding countryside."
The immediate aim of the purchases may not be direct demographic change, but rather an attempt by Iranian militias to take control of the area, at the expense of the militias formed by the Russian Hmeimim Air Base
On the other hand, Lieutenant Abdel Hamid Sheikh Qaddour, who hails from the village of Al-Dar Al-Kabira in the countryside of Homs, and works within the ranks of the National Army in northern Syria, believes that "the purchase operations may not be aimed directly at demographic change, but rather an attempt by the Iranian militias operating in the countryside of Homs to gain full control of it, at the expense of the militias formed by the Russian Hmeimim Air Base, and its fighters who preferred to stay in the countryside of Homs rather than migrate to northern Syria, after promises they received from Russian officers who oversaw the negotiation process that took place between the regime and the opposition in the summer of 2018."
Usually, the registration of any purchased property for the average citizen may take months, and requires paying large sums of money as bribes in order to complete the registration process. This is all in addition to the physical and psychological torment in visiting the relevant departments and obtaining the necessary security approvals to complete the registration process, as confirmed by one of the current employees of the land registry division inside the city of Homs.
The employee, who asked not to be named for security reasons, says, "The process of registering any property that is purchased requires the buyer to obtain security approval from the Air Force Intelligence branch, and this matter sometimes requires several months to obtain it, and here, we cannot register ownership of any property without the security approval document."
He adds, "I know people who have canceled the purchase of real estate and land because they couldn't get security clearance. Usually, obtaining security approval requires paying bribes to the officers in charge, and people who have influence or are favored by the regime get approval within a few hours, and at most within one day, while the process we have here in the institution for registering the property requires only a few administrative procedures, and the ongoing purchasing processes that have taken place in the countryside of Homs until the time this report was written are being done within a record period that does not exceed a few days, and sometimes less, since the system provides great facilitations for conducting purchases and registration, especially if the buyer has ties to Iranian militias operating in Homs and its countryside."
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