Poor living conditions and substantial unmet housing needs have spurred widespread “building violations” that are in violation of construction codes in the city of Masyaf in the countryside of the Hama Governorate. In recent years, many families have resorted to seizing state-owned lands on the outskirts of the city, especially on the western side.
Some people resorted to appropriating publicly owned lands and either cultivating or constructing buildings on them. Usually these seizures are done regardless of local authorities or with the complicity of influential officials. Oftentimes, people seize these properties by demarcating the borders of the land with stone, concrete fences, or barbed wire. They then construct simple buildings on part of the land, usually consisting of just one room.
Masyaf is the centre of an area consisting of dozens of villages, home to Ismailis, Alawites, Sunnis, and Christians. The city’s zoning plans, first issued in 1961, have been amended a number of times, most recently in 1978. However, the city extended beyond both the original and amended zoning plans, bringing about many “building violations” and infringements on publicly owned properties.
Most of the illegal construction is carried out by low-income residents who had little choice but to carve out publicly allocated areas for housing or agriculture. According to a The Syria Report correspondent in the area, some local leaders from the National Defense Forces have carried out even larger violations of public property than those executed by civilian residents. The older violations dating back to before 2011 were carried out by members of the military and senior civil servants, including judges. This last category of offenders took larger portions of public property, constructing luxury buildings on them.
According to official regime media, in recent years, there have been 1,400 instances of such “building violations” in Masyaf. The Hama Governorate Council and the Masyaf City Council launched a campaign in late 2020 and early 2021 to demolish these buildings in accordance with Legislative Decree No. 40 of 2012, which regulates the penalties for construction code violations.
The Syria Report correspondent said that the Decree No. 40 demolition campaign targeted some 73 “violations,” most of which were attributed to Masyaf’s low-income residents. At the same time, the campaign refrained from demolishing older violations of security and military officials and senior civil servants. To justify this discrepancy, Masyaf City Council President Ahmad Al-Basha said that his council bore no responsibility to address the older construction code violations. Decree No. 40 made it possible to settle some violations if violators could prove that they occurred before the decree’s issuance in 2012.
However, the demolition of newer violations while older ones were spared spurred residents to protest in August. Some local leaders from the National Defense Forces also participated in defending their illegally constructed properties.
Facing the pressures of popular protest, authorities in the Hama Governorate requested negotiations with a committee formed by protesters to convey their demands to the governor of Hama. The day before the committee was to meet with the governor, fires broke out in the area, spreading to the illegally constructed buildings in question. It took the fire brigade several consecutive days to suppress the blaze. Local sources told The Syria Report that they blamed security forces for causing the fires. They said they felt the fires were an act of retribution against the protesters whose demands went beyond merely halting the demolitions, and touched on poor living conditions in the city. Sources added that the fires only affected building violations belonging to low-income residents, while those belonging to influential figures were left unscathed.
The Syria Report was unable to confirm these accusations. In recent years, the countryside in the Hama Governorate witnessed increased fires during the summer months due to droughts and high temperatures resulting from climate change.