Building violations – which include buildings constructed on public property or on land that has been expropriated for state-use, violations of relevant zoning plans, or buildings that does not adhere to safety codes – occur through two main channels. Often, they occur when builders bribe municipal council members and employees to overlook construction code breaches within organised zones in government-held territory. Other times, construction violations occur when the violator is a government official or security or military commander who weilds influence. It is difficult to remove buildings that have been constructed illegally, either due to the impunity of those involved or to employees tampering with the relevant official documents. In some cases, such buildings are demolished for undisclosed reasons.
Since 1960, Syrian authorities have issued four laws to remove so-called illegally constructed buildings, the most recent of which is Legislative Decree No. 40 of 2012. This law stipulates the demolition of such buildings that were constructed after it was issued, while previously constructed buildings that violate construction codes may remain in place and attain legal status. The authorities carry out organised demolition campaigns from time to time, usually targeting buildings that were constructed by ordinary Syrians who could not afford to pay bribes.
There are many different forms of construction that violate the law. Generally, it is nearly impossible to build within zoned land without paying bribes to municipal council employees.
Sanaa is a mother from the Rural Damascus governorate whose husband, a military intelligence officer, was killed during the war. After his death, she and her children moved to an apartment in a residential area affiliated with a government social housing programme in Rural Damascus. Sanaa decided to expand the small apartment by building a 70-square-metre addition that protruded into a public road.
Through acquaintances, Sanaa was able to reach an employee in her community’s municipality, a man described as a “key,” that is, a middleman who facilitates bribes for influential municipal authorities. This employee demanded SYP 8 million as a bribe after inspecting Sanaa’s apartment and the location of her planned addition. He explained to Sanaa that there are varying degrees of building violations, and that the bribes and the recipients vary according to these degrees. For example, if the “violations” consisted only of iron columns, false ceilings, and glass facades suitable for a commercial store, then the cost of the bribe would be much lower. Sanaa agreed to pay the bribe, subsequently built her addition on the public road, and currently leases out the space as a separate apartment.
Muhammad, an employee at a municpial headquarters in a major Rural Damascus city, told The Syria Report that the municipality witnessed a surge in construction code violations during the term of its former mayor, who was recently dismissed due to corruption. Previously, Muhammad had received a commission for his role as the middleman between the head of the municipality’s demolitions committee and members of the community who had committed construction code violations. To avoid the risk of complaints about these violations, employees resorted to concealing official documents, submitting false demolition orders, and, in some cases, denying that they had witnessed any violation take place, according to Muhammad.
On the other hand, high-status officials do not resort to paying bribes in order to protect buildings they may have constructed against the law. Instead, the influence of their public positions protects them. For example, one criminal security officer in a Rural Damascus suburb illegally constructed a building over 100 square metres of public property, taking advantage of his position to do so. The mayor of that suburb ignored the officer’s violation, telling others in the municipality that he could not prevent the officer from carrying out such acts even if someone submitted an official complaint to the governorate, an eyewitness told The Syria Report.
However, and rather unusually, a high-ranking government official who resided in that same suburb submitted a complaint about the violation directly to the Presidential Palace. Despite having made the complaint, this high-ranking official was not actually affected by the criminal security officer’s violation. It remains unclear why he submitted the complaint, though it may have simply boiled down to a personal dispute.
Immediately following the complaint, the municipality’s demolition committee, escorted by a police patrol, arrived on the scene to remove the building. The governor of Rural Damascus personally followed up on the demolition, accompanying the local mayor to the municipal hall to contact the Presidential Palace and confirm that the violation had been removed.