The Damascus governorate is still preventing residents of the informally built Al-Asali neighbourhood from returning to their homes, more than three years after regime forces seized the area. Only those who have obtained prior approval from security forces have been able to visit their properties and assess their condition.
Part of the Qadam neighbourhood, Al-Asali is located in the farthest southern reaches of Damascus city. Al-Asali is also located within Damascus’ second development zone, known more commonly as Basilia City. The zone was defined by Legislative Decree No. 66 of 2012, which aimed to develop informally built neighbourhoods. At around 900 hectares, Basilia City is composed of the Mazzeh, Kafr Sousseh, Qanawat Basatin, Darayya, and Qadam real estate zones.
Al-Asali was home to about 100,000 people before 2011, according to estimates by local sources. Residents were a mix of people from across Syria, though most were from the Daraa governorate and had moved to the neighbourhood due to its proximity to Daraa and low real estate prices. Many residents worked in the public sector and government ministries in both the Damascus and Damascus Countryside governorates.
According to historian Mohammad Arnaout, in an article published by pro-opposition Orient-News, Al-Asali was originally the site of a hospice or building established by the Ottoman wali of Damascus, Ahmed Pasha, in 1636. The facility provided free meals to the hungry and the homeless. The wali endowedmany properties to the facility in order to cover its expenses. In later years, the Al-Asali hospice provided services for pilgrims travelling to Mecca. Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Hijaz Railway station was built in nearby Qadam, causing the hospice to lose its special role in serving pilgrims. Migration to Damascus, including displacement from the Golan Heights in 1967, spurred the growth of informal housing in the area, encroaching on some endowment properties as well. Al-Asali later became host to several coach stations for private bus transport companies between Syria and Saudi Arabia that seized remaining endowment properties around the historic hospice.
The neighbourhood was under opposition control from 2012 to 2015, during which it had an independent local council. The Islamic State (ISIS) later seized Al-Asali in July 2015, expelling opposition fighters. The neighbourhood remained under ISIS control until June 2018, when the regime made an agreement with ISIS that saw the latter expelled to the eastern part of the Suweida governorate. Al-Asali was subject to heavy Russian airstrikes and artillery fire from the regime’s Fourth Division, causing widespread damage to homes and infrastructure. Groups affiliated with the Fourth Division and the local Military Security branch are still demolishing the roofs of neighbourhood buildings and removing certain materials for usage elsewhere increasing the number of uninhabitable buildings in Al-Asali.
In March 2018, the Damascus governorate announced that it had released the complete zoning plans for Basilia City, and called on property owners in the area to prove their ownership. This was so that they could later obtain their shares within the new zoning plans, or their compensation. However, many former residents of Al-Asali were unable to prove ownership, largely because they had left Syria or were living in opposition-held areas. Many of them were also wanted by Syrian security forces or had lost their ownership documents to war and displacement.
As they are endowment properties, most ownership documents in Al-Asali are issued by the notary public. Deeds organised or notarised by the notary public in the presence of concerned parties are not registered by Cadastral Affairs. According to sources in Al-Asali, the Damascus governorate refused to recognise such notary documents, requesting additional witnesses and an oath for the procedure. In most of these cases, the governorate decided to recognise ownership of properties only, but not the land on which they are built, prompting some owners to appeal the decisions before the Court of Appeals. The court is still considering the cases.
Photograph of Damaged Buildings in Al-Asali