In early 2022, the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs finished work to restore damaged real estate documents for some real estate zones in Arbeen, part of the Douma district in the Rural Damascus governorate. In that process to restore documents, some Administrative Restoration decisions were issued, in addition to one Judicial Restoration decision.
Law No. 23 of 2017, which regulates how to restore lost or damaged real estate documents, defines restoration as a set of administrative and judicial steps that end with issuing approved replacement documents or completing missing sections of existing documents. The law outlined two different methods for this process: administrative restoration and judicial restoration. Administrative restoration applies when there are sufficient documents available with the concerned Cadastral Affairs department to restore the lost or damaged document. But if those documents are fully damaged and there are no copies or other records available with the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs or other government entities, then judicial restoration is pursued.
In a radio interview in September 2022, the General Director of Cadastral Affairs explained that if a given series of real estate transactions can be linked to documents available with the directorate without any missing information, then restoration can be done directly. Afterwards, administrative restoration of the damaged documents can be announced in the relevant area. But if some of these documents are missing, then the case is referred to the judiciary for the judicial restoration process.
The Rural Damascus cadastral affairs director told the semi-official Al-Watan newspaper in September 2019 that, of 898 real estate records in Arbeen, 310 were missing. Consequently, the documents held by the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs and some government agencies have been relied upon, in order to implement the administrative restoration of those lost records.
This process makes sense, as the central office of the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs in Damascus periodically makes copies of real estate documents in its sub-directorates in the governorates, in order to store them in the capital on microfilm and digital cameras, according to official statements. There is also a central warehouse in Damascus dedicated to storing these copies, as well as a set of microfilm copies kept at the Central Bank of Syria.
To address issues about the strength and authenticity of certain documents, Law No. 33 of 2017 states that copies stored electronically or on microfilm have the same evidentiary value as the original documents.
Original real estate documents are those mentioned in Article 1 of the Land Registry Law, issued as part of Decree No. 188 of 1926. Under the law, the Land Registry is a set of documents that shows the description and legal status of each real estate property, as well as any rights, amendments or transactions connected to that property. Those amendments and transactions must be recorded on the Land Record for the properties in question. The law also mandates that responsible parties record the date and time for their real estate transactions on these Records.
It is unclear if microfilm and electronic copies of these Records show all the amendments and transactions, including sales, purchases, lawsuits and other notes. Also among the documents that comprise the Land Registry are a number of complementary records, which in turn include many pages. The ownership registry book is the main record entry. There is also the 200-page journal book, which lists the registration requests and transactions by date and type and assigns each a serial number.
This lack of clarity — over whether microfilm and electronic copies contain full details of amendments and transactions — in turn impacts the reliability of the administrative restoration process, which relies on documents available at the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs. In other words, depending on this central archive in Damascus may not sufficiently provide information on all transactions. There is no certain answer over whether Land Registry officials have transferred all those transactions from the original journal book to the ownership registry book, whether there is an electronic or microfilm copy of the journal book or when the last record was added. This is on top of doubts surrounding the mechanisms for building, preserving and managing the central archive and to what extent it keeps up with the pace of real estate documentation.
Law No. 33 of 2017 also stipulates that a website be set up for restoring real estate documents, with the goal of informing the public on the procedures for implementing the law. However, this website has yet to appear, despite the administrative and judicial restoration processes having been completed in more than one area — raising additional concerns for the housing, land and property rights of absent, detained, missing and forcibly displaced property owners in particular.