Earthquake’s Impact on Housing, Land, and Property
The earthquake on February 6 caused thousands of buildings to partially or fully collapse in the Aleppo, Lattakia, Idlib, and Hama governorates, areas that are under the control of three different governing forces. These forces include the Syrian regime, which has authority over the majority of Aleppo governorate and all of Lattakia and Hama; the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which is run by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a hardline Islamist group that controls most of Idlib governorate; and the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG), which controls the northern rural part of Aleppo governorate.
Regime-controlled areas: According to a report issued on March 14 by the operations rooms in quake-affected governorates, 527 buildings were demolished. Of those, 413 were in Aleppo, 106 in Lattakia and eight in Hama. These figures include buildings that collapsed as a direct result of the earthquake as well as those that were damaged and later demolished because they were at risk of collapse.
In the city of Aleppo, 53 buildings fully collapsed as a direct result of the quake, 50 of them in the informally constructed eastern neighbourhoods. Most of those buildings had already been uninhabitable and at risk of collapse. East Aleppo’s informal settlements witnessed repeated building collapses in recent years due to indirect damage left behind by the airstrikes and missiles fired by regime forces during the period of opposition control in 2012-2016. In November 2022, the issue prompted the Aleppo City Council to launch a demolition campaign targeting 1,500 buildings at risk of collapse in the city.
In Lattakia governorate, 50 buildings fully collapsed due to the quake, including 16 in Lattakia city that were located in Al-Ramal Al-Janoubi informal settlement and the Project No. 10 zoned real estate area.
Opposition-controlled areas: According to statistics issued on March 8, by the Syria Humanitarian Response Coordinators (HRC), an NGO, during the earthquake 1,983 buildings completely collapsed in northwestern Syria, that is, in areas controlled by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG).
SIG-controlled areas: The town that was most affected by the earthquake was Jandares in the Afrin area in the northwestern Aleppo governorate. There, 278 buildings fully collapsed. The damage was worst in several of the town’s informal neighbourhoods, especially those that had been constructed after opposition factions seized control in 2018. In addition, the earthquake destroyed 80 residential buildings in the city of Souran, most of which were newly-built and had multiple storeys. This was due to the buildings lacking proper foundations, as the soil there is brittle and lacks a hard rock layer close to the surface. Finally, in the city of Afrin, only four residential buildings fully collapsed. Most of the damage there was concentrated in informal settlements that had seen vertical expansion as residents constructed additional storeys to existing buildings.
SSG-controlled areas: The city of Al-Atareb in the western countryside of Aleppo governorate saw 200 homes collapse. Those included single-storey “Arab-style” homes and multi-storey apartment buildings, most of which fell due to the impacts of prior, repeated bombardment of the area by regime forces. In the city of Salqin, in northwestern Idlib governorate, 33 buildings fully collapsed, most of which were newly built in informal settlements and did not take structural safety standards into account. These buildings especially flouted standards for solid foundations and the added load from building additional storeys.
Meanwhile, in the nearby city of Harem, 35 buildings fully collapsed. Most of the earthquake victims in Harem died due to the collapse of one building in particular — “Al-Bakhera” building, which consisted of six storeys and 24 apartments. It was constructed in 2018 without a licence. Nearby, the newly constructed Basania residential suburb consisted of 20 five-storey apartment buildings all built without licences. The buildings there collapsed, likely due to tampering with the types and amounts of the construction materials used there. Finally, the city of Armanaz in Idlib governorate saw 11 multi-storey buildings fully collapse, in addition to 36 old houses.
This report provides an overview of The Syria Report’s coverage since the February 06 earthquake and its repercussions on the housing, land and property rights of the people impacted. In six parts, it will discuss the official and civil society responses to the earthquake in various areas of control, including the formation of structural safety committees, inspection of cracked properties, provision of shelter to survivors, securing temporary and alternative housing, and removal of rubble.
This report also addresses the legal and legislative environment in place in the aftermath of the earthquake in regime-controlled parts of Syria. We will address some technical questions surrounding the Syrian Arab Code for the Design and Implementation of Reinforced Concrete Structures and its appendix on earthquakes, which helps shed light on why some licensed buildings collapsed in zoned areas.
Part one: Structural safety committees
Local Administration Law No. 107 of 2011 allows administrative unit councils to form public safety committees. These can include engineering committees tasked with issuing reports on the structural safety of buildings or on the rate of damage to a certain area. They are sometimes referred to as structural safety committees. No unified standards exist for naming these committees or setting their tasks, and some of them were already in place before the earthquake. Local administrative units rely on these committees for recommendations to demolish, reinforce or leave buildings as they are.
The days after the February 06 earthquake saw hundreds of structural safety committees set up in regime-controlled areas of Syria to inspect damaged and cracked buildings. However, not all of these newly formed committees belong to administrative units — rather, some are affiliated with professional unions, government ministries, NGOs and universities. Such committees have also emerged that include members of the Syrian Engineers Syndicate and engineers from the Ministry of Housing-affiliated General Company for Engineering Studies, and members of the pre-existing structural safety committees affiliated with various governorates across Syria.
These groups have worked to take stock and evaluate the damages to government and residential facilities, as well as provide technical support and engineering consultation to make buildings structurally sound. A number of new committees were also formed to inspect buildings damaged by the earthquake, in cooperation with the Syrian Engineers Syndicate and the Syria Trust for Development, headed by the wife of the Syrian president Asma Al-Assad. Engineering department faculty at the state-run Tishreen University in Lattakia governorate formed a committee to inspect cracked homes, at the request of homeowners, while civil society initiatives and volunteer engineers also set up committees.
According to official statistics issued on March 16, technical committees inspected 28,279 buildings in Lattakia governorate. Of those, 961 buildings were completely damaged and required demolition. In Aleppo governorate, figures issued on March 13 said 23,921 buildings had been inspected, with 5,301 in need of reinforcement and 877 in need of demolition. The Aleppo City Council launched a campaign to demolish hundreds of at-risk buildings after the earthquake, based on reports issued by the structural safety committees. Work crews affiliated with the Iraqi Hashd Al-Shaabi militias as well as the Faylaq Mudafain Halab militia affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took part in demolishing buildings in east Aleppo and removing some of the rubble in order to clear the roads.
In areas controlled by the SSG, the Idlib branch of the Syrian Engineers Syndicate coordinated with the local Ministry of Local Administration and Services as well as the Directorate of Technical Services to form earthquake damage assessment committees. These groups included volunteer engineers and dispersed to areas of Idlib governorate that had been impacted by the quake. It was less organized in the areas under the control of the SIG.
In general, in all opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria, the number of damaged buildings that must be demolished has reached 4,073, the number of cracked buildings that need reinforcement is 12,043, and the number of safe buildings that need simple maintenance is 19,446, according to a census released in March 8, by the HRC.
Part two: Shelter
Since the earthquake, many survivors whose homes were either partially or fully damaged have moved into shelter centres that were set up hastily in various affected areas. Numerous centres have shut down over time as fears of aftershocks decreased and many cracked homes were assessed for structural safety.
In the quake’s immediate aftermath, the Aleppo City Council allocated more than 200 shelter centres in eastern neighbourhoods, especially in local schools, mosques and sports halls. Some people were also housed in 150 apartments that had been allocated by the city council as temporary housing, as well as another 25 apartments belonging to the Directorate of Railways. At the same time, however, hundreds of families have set up tents under bridges, on sidewalks and in public parks. Generally speaking the shelter centres suffer from overcrowding and poor services, while temporary shelters are discriminatory and require wasta, or personal connections.
Meanwhile, in Lattakia city, around 15 shelter centres remained in place as of mid-March. These centres include school buildings, which are the worst in terms of services. They suffer repeated power outages, disrepaired bathrooms, hot water shortages and poor hygiene. Mosques, on the other hand, are considered better shelters as they are regularly cleaned and feature consistent electricity and hot water. However, the mosques lack privacy for residents, especially women.
The two largest shelter centres in Lattakia city are in the municipal stadium and in the sports city. Immediately after the earthquake, these two facilities received several thousand people fleeing cracked homes, though only a few hundred today remain. Unlike the school buildings and mosques, the stadium and sports city shelter centres received immediate aid, including three meals per day and medicine for all residents. Both centres also feature electricity and hot water.
In Idlib, 52 shelter centres housing around 37,500 people were set up after the quake, according to figures issued by the SSG’s General Directorate of Humanitarian Affairs in early March. Most of these centres were established on public or endowments properties, including schoolyards, parks, mosques and playgrounds, in addition to existing encampments that already housed people displaced to Idlib from other parts of Syria.
The majority of these centres lack some basic services such as water networks, sewage and electricity. In response, some NGOs added mobile bathrooms and water tanks for drinking and cleaning, as well as gravel to cover the floors. Other NGOs and community campaigns were behind equipping some centres with tents, pouring cement floors and digging channels to drain sewage water. It is still unclear what will happen to the residents of these centres and how long they will stay there. Many of them fear the shelter centres simply becoming new camps added onto the dozens of existing encampments for displaced people.
The shelter situation was less organized in areas controlled by the SIG. In Souran for example, the local council did not set up a shelter centre but still received aid such as tents from NGOs, which it distributed to those in need. People ended up setting up the tents outside their damaged homes, essentially turning the city into a large encampment. In Afrin, the earthquake caused 3,500 families to leave their homes and stay in 40 shelter centres. People also sheltered inside tents in the city and its outskirts that had been set up by the local council. Some shelter centres and tent encampments can accommodate 300 families, while others are smaller, accommodating only 30-40 families.
Part three: Temporary and alternative housing
The days immediately after the earthquake saw Syrian government officials issue statements about the potential for securing alternative housing for people whose homes had fully collapsed or that cracked and were at risk of collapse. However, as more time passed, those officials began shifting to using the term temporary housing for the residents of the shelter centres.
Alternative housing is a loosely defined term usually used in reference to the housing built by the General Housing Establishment as part of government social housing programmes. Recipients must pay for such housing, as it is not provided for free. Owners of homes in informal settlements may apply to receive alternative housing if their properties are expropriated or demolished, or if the area is rezoned. However, Syrian law does not indicate any right to alternative housing for people whose homes have been impacted by natural disasters.
The Syrian government appears to have gradually eschewed talk of alternative housing in its long-term meaning and related rights for residents, in favour of focusing on prefabricated housing units that can be used as temporary alternatives to shelter centres. According to officials, these temporary dwellings include 300-400 prefabricated housing units that will be transported to governorates impacted by the earthquake. Most of these units consist of just one or two rooms. It is still unclear who will pay for setting up and transporting these units, how they will be distributed and who will be entitled to receive them.
While some official statements have welcomed foreign assistance in funding the construction of these units or in providing ready-made units, it is unclear what will happen to the prefabricated housing units in the long-term, who will own them and if they will actually be temporary and can be dismantled at any time. The idea of supplying prefabricated housing units has gradually taken shape in recent weeks and appears to fit with the government’s financial capabilities while relieving some popular pressure by securing housing for quake-affected families. Still, this medium-term approach does not actually solve the problem at hand.
In areas controlled by the SSG and SIG, there do not appear to be any official efforts to set up alternative or temporary housing projects, largely due to funding reasons. Instead, some civil society initiatives have stepped in to secure housing and re-house those affected by the quake. The city of Armanaz in rural Idlib governorate saw residents launch the “Seed of Good” project to direct aid from donors, especially from abroad. They also unified efforts to set up a permanent housing project to shelter earthquake-affected families, particularly those with the lowest income, as a form of ongoing assistance. The project aims to set up 20 apartments in its first stage, while those in charge are hoping to obtain a housing association licence from the SSG, which will manage business matters.
Part four: Removing the rubble
Some NGOs operating in SSG-controlled parts of Idlib governorate and SIG-controlled parts of Aleppo governorate have launched rubble removal projects. In most of those projects, workers have taken care to document ownership of the debris, as well as owners’ rights to any possessions beneath the rubble and rights to benefit from recycling it. However, such approaches clearly lack acknowledgment of collapsed home owners’ rights to property and housing. Namely, none of these projects have included an explanation that such rubble serves as a final proof of ownership for those who own collapsed homes, nor have they clarified what will happen to the original properties or lands these homes were built on.
So far the most notable rubble removal project is one that was announced by the Syria Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets) on March 09 to assist in the recovery of earthquake-affected communities. The project targets the areas of Harem, Salqin, Jandares, Al-Atareb, Al-Dana, Jisr Al-Shughour, Darkoush, Akhtarin and Souran, as these are the largest population centres to have suffered damage. The Civil Defence plans to send its team to all of these locations, where they will allocate personnel and equipment to remove the rubble.
The rubble removal process is expected to take between three and four months, depending on how committed the local councils are to obtaining approval from owners of collapsed homes to get rid of the debris. These local councils will examine ownership claims and compare them with official title deeds issued by real estate authorities, as well as rental contracts registered with local councils and mokhtars. Local council engineering and technical teams, as well as the Civil Defence, will also document the rubble removal process in accordance with official records.
First, the rubble will be set aside and sorted at the sites of the buildings that have collapsed. Any possessions found beneath the debris will be handed over to their owners. Next, the rubble will be transported to collection sites allocated within each quake-affected area in accordance with existing regulations. Each step of this process will be documented by Civil Defence teams. Then the rubble will be taken to as-yet undetermined sites outside the cities and towns for final recycling. This will take place in coordination with the local councils in order to determine where the materials can be reused, such as to restore roads, construct public squares and so on.
In the SIG-controlled town of Jandares, rubble removal began on March 12 in coordination with the local council and Civil Defence, and is expected to take 100 days in order to reach the entire town. The rubble is being taken to sites close to the Afrin River, as well as to some public roads so they can be expanded using the debris. Opposition faction-affiliated security officers and police are present during the rubble removal process in order to confirm ownership of the debris and document the removal. These officers make records of the possessions found in the rubble and transport them to police stations for handover to owners.
Notably, areas controlled by the Syrian government still have not witnessed talk of rubble and any related rights, despite the existence of the controversial Law No. 3 of 2018 on the removal of rubble.
Part five: The legal viewpoint
No law in Syria’s legislative system specifically addresses real estate damaged by natural disasters. While some laws mention issues related to real estate damaged by natural disasters, they do not address housing, land and property rights. Here we review some of the most important Syrian laws that address damaged real estate.
Article 817 of Syrian Civil Code No. 84 of 1949 states that the owners a real estate property may form a union where the real estate is divided into separate apartments or storeys. Under Article 823, if the building is destroyed by a fire or other means, the partners in this union must abide by what the union decides by the majority. Each owner contributes according to their share in the building. Afterwards, the building is returned to its owners in the same condition it was in beforehand. If the building cannot be reconstructed, the shareowners may terminate their common ownership of the property and divide it up. First, they must correct the legal property description of the real estate and list it as merely a plot of land slated for construction. In other words, the subdivided ownership of the building ceases to exist, and each owner reverts to being a joint owner of the land itself. In such cases, the owners are entitled to the rubble of their former homes and any monetary compensation or aid as decided by the state.
In cases where Real Estate Development and Investment Law No. 15 of 2008 is applied to an area damaged by a natural disaster, the real estate developer must secure alternative housing for occupants or pay an agreed-upon cash allowance. Recipients must pay for any alternative accommodation they are allocated. This law may include real estate within and outside an existing zoning plan. It also stipulates allocating and selling real estate residential shares within the zoned real estate area to occupants of expropriated homes after the completion of construction work.
Meanwhile, Legislative Decree No. 40 of 2012, which focuses on unlicensed construction, states that if a property within a zoned area built in violation of the building permit has been destroyed, it becomes the owners’ common property. Those owners may request a renewed construction permit per the building codes in place.
Decree No. 40 does not entitle owners of unlicensed buildings to any rights should their properties collapse. Instead, Article 2 of the law states that if an unlicensed facility is incapable of standing (according to an assessment by that governorate’s public safety committee) then whoever is found responsible should be sentenced to a year to three years imprisonment. Should the building’s collapse cause the death of one or more persons, the penalty increases to at least ten years of hard labour and three times the usual fine.
Moving on, chapter two from Zoning and Urbanisation Law No. 23 of 2015 can apply to areas impacted by natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods. However, the law leaves it up to the local administrative units in damaged areas to apply zoning measures according to prior zoning plans when implementing approved plans, meaning they are not obliged to rezone areas impacted by natural disasters. Law No. 23 allows exemptions from fees and any other local costs and sums related to rebuilding destroyed real estate. At the same time, the law entitles administrative units to deduct parts of these damaged areas free of charge and expropriate areas containing mass unlicensed construction that happen to be located within approved zoning plans. The law calls for creating compulsory land readjustment committees tasked with giving rights holders their due shares, either within or near the location of their original property. Rights holders may also be granted plots of land to be commonly owned between them, provided each owner’s share is identified. However, these measures apply only to properties that have been licensed. Law No. 23 states that owners have rights only over the rubble for unlicensed properties within zoned areas or state-owned lands. Administrative entities may choose to sell alternative housing to the owners of unlicensed properties if there is a surplus.
Law No. 10 of 2018 stipulates that one or more zoned real estate areas may be established within the zoning plans of an administrative unit and was meant to complement Legislative Decree No. 66 of 2012. The 2018 law may be applied only to areas containing unlicensed construction and informal housing destroyed by natural disasters, as it does not stipulate any application in already licensed buildings in zoned areas. Article 43 of Law No. 10 states that owners of unlicensed construction only have the right to the rubble of their buildings and the possibility of being allocated alternative housing by the local administrative unit if there is a surplus. However, they must pay for such housing. They may also receive two years of rent allowance.
Finally, Law No. 3 of 2018, which focuses on removing the rubble of damaged buildings, was issued in response to the destruction Syria faced due to the war. However, the law also includes measures for removing the rubble of buildings destroyed by natural causes such as earthquakes.
In either case, it is up to the relevant governor, based on proposals by local administrative units, to determine which damaged areas will undergo rubble removal. Law No. 3 does not differentiate between the rubble of buildings in zoned vs unzoned areas. It also does not stipulate what is meant to happen to lands where debris has been removed or when facilities at risk of collapse have been demolished. The law does not clarify whether owners of these properties may construct new buildings, whether they must be compensated or even if the land is expropriated, whether allowance payments or alternative housing must be given to the owner. However, Law No. 3 clearly states that property owners have ownership rights over the rubble of their buildings. This law is not limited to only removing building rubble but also includes the possibility of administrative units demolishing damaged buildings and removing debris.
Notably, the sole legal response to the February 6 earthquake was Legislative Decree No. 3 of 2023, which granted tax exemptions to people impacted by the quake, some of which were related to properties that had fully or partially collapsed as a result. The decree exempted damaged properties from some of the usual taxes and fees, granted owners temporary reprieve from some upcoming taxes and facilitated obtaining loans for restoration and construction work. However, this decree left out any financial compensation to repair damaged properties, rental allowances for those who lost their homes, or any indications for potential alternative housing — even if provided in exchange for payment. In short, the decree did not contain anything new regarding housing, land and property rights for people impacted by the quake, but rather addressed the earthquake damages from a merely technical and financial standpoint. This makes Decree No. 3 of 2023 similar in content to the previous Decree No. 13 of 2022, which granted easements and broad tax exemptions within the old city centers of Aleppo, Homs and Deir-ez-Zor governorates, including historic souks.
Part six: The Syrian Arab Code
The Syrian Arab Code for the Design and Implementation of Reinforced Concrete Structures is a system for buildings to meet certain safety standards. The Syrian Engineers Syndicate (SES) adopted the first version of the code in 1992. The third version of this code, which was issued in 2004, included an appendix titled “Designing and Implementing Earthquake-Resistant Buildings and Structures”, which was developed by a committee of the Engineers Syndicate, Syrian universities, the General Establishment for Geology and Mineral Resources and the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria.
In 2013, the SES issued the second version of its earthquake appendix to prevent loss of life from building collapses and preserve the continuity of vital facilities. It made corrections, amendments and additions, relying on the International Building Code IBC-2009 and the ASCE-7 issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. This version also included a seismic map of Syria developed by the General Establishment for Geology and Mineral Resources and the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria.
The code’s earthquakes appendix specifies the construction methods to prevent total or partial collapse during earthquakes. A building site’s seismicity (or maximum expected earthquake magnitude) must first be determined. Second, the geological features and soil type of the building site must undergo study. The excavation depth and dimensions for reinforced concrete foundations can be determined based on that study. Next comes the design stage of the building, which determines the structural sequence of construction, meaning the distribution of the building foundations, retaining walls, and the building height. Finally, the design for the building’s earthquake resistance undergoes study using static methods (the impact of an earthquake on the base of a building only) and dynamic methods (the impact on the entire structure).
Only buildings that comply with these four steps are in adherence with the earthquakes appendix. This includes determining the types of iron rebar that must be used, the amount in square metres of concrete, the concrete mixture and distribution of load-bearing “shear” walls. Afterwards, the design may be submitted to the relevant local administrative unit to obtain a construction permit.
The Engineers’ Syndicate and local administrative units oversee adherence to the code during the different stages of construction. When starting excavation work at a construction site, the builder must provide soil samples for testing in specified labs. According to those results, the foundation design must be modified, as well as the concrete mixture. As the construction process continues, the builder must provide samples of their concrete mixes to officially approved labs to test their adherence to the revised design specifications. The lab then issues an official report either approving or rejecting the mixture. These results are all documented in official records.
In all cases, and despite there being some negligence and corruption, the code’s strict standards are indeed applied during the design and construction process. And yet the February 6 earthquake caused buildings designed and built in accordance with the code and its earthquakes appendix to collapse, indicating that there are problems with the appendix itself.
Among these problems is that the code requires testing of the construction site soil at depths determined by excavation of the foundations, but does not require a geological study of the site. This is despite the fact that beneath the site there could be water cavities or basins, sandy or unstable soil or vulnerable zones near seismic fault lines. Earthquakes can cause these layers to loosen beneath the surface of the ground, leading to any homes built on top of them to collapse even if they were designed to be quake-resistant.
The code also fails to specify the period of time allotted for construction. In Syria, construction often takes a long time due to a number of factors such as funding difficulties, bureaucratic complications or security approvals. In many cases, this means that the concrete structures of buildings undergoing construction remain without insulation or protection from the elements for long periods of time. For example, the high humidity in coastal areas can erode the outer cement surface and cause any iron rebar to rust. Afterward, when any further construction finally continues, no re-inspection of the cement structure takes place.
Another issue with the earthquakes appendix is that it uses multiple different scales for measuring seismic intensity, energy and size, without any organising factor. This is due to the appendix being essentially a mixture taken haphazardly from various international construction codes without reformulating them to work in harmony and unity with one another.
The confusion between scales causes difficulties in implementation for engineers wishing to design earthquake-resistant buildings. For example, engineers in Syria’s coastal region have resorted to designing buildings that can resist earthquakes of magnitude six on the Richter scale, despite the fact that the earthquakes appendix does not use the Richter scale. In simple terms, a magnitude-six quake is equivalent to a peak ground acceleration (PGA) of 300 measured in centimetres per second squared. PGA measures how quickly the ground moves during an earthquake in a certain area and is the scale most used in the earthquakes appendix.
Here arises yet another problem with the appendix: according to its seismic map of Syria, the most dangerous region for earthquakes is the western coast, which can see a PGA of 400, equivalent to about 6.5 on the Richter scale. And yet the appendix only requires residential buildings in that area to be resistant to PGA-300 quakes. It is unclear why the appendix does not require buildings to be designed to withstand PGA 400.