Recently in Syria there has been an increased reliance on engineering reports issued by public safety committees to determine structural dangers of buildings, especially in areas affected by fighting during the conflict. Obtaining such reports has become a condition for displaced people who seek to return to their homes in some partially damaged neighbourhoods.
Despite the importance of these reports, as well as the dangers they pose for housing, land, and property rights, there is no clear definition of the public safety committees, nor is there a clear and unified description of their mission and the nature of their work. There are also doubts about the supposed impartiality of these committees, amid accusations from members of the opposition that committees are subject to intervention by state security services.
The Local Administration Law, which was issued as part of Decree No. 107 of 2011, allowed administrative unit councils to form multiple permanent or temporary committees, composed of their own members or non-member experts, to undertake certain tasks. Under Decree No. 107, the Ministry of Local Administration’s rules of procedure determine the nature, composition, and work methods of these committees. The Syria Report was unable to obtain a copy of these rules.
In general, an administrative unit council may form one or more public safety committee and give it tasks that vary from studying available ways to dispose of removing medical waste to addressing structural safety issues for buildings at risk of collapse. The public safety committee’s size may range from six to twenty members.
There are many types of public safety committees, including engineering committees that are responsible for issuing structural safety reports for buildings or reports on the extent of damage in certain areas. Sometimes these committees are referred to as technical committees, structural cohesion committees, construction and reconstruction committees, and damaged building evaluation committees. The different titles are due to the lack of a unified criteria for naming the committees and defining their tasks, often leading to confusion.
It is worth noting here that Syria’s Syndicate of Engineers also carries out studies on the structural safety of buildings. However, it is up to the administrative unit to receive assistance either from the syndicate or by forming its own public safety committee. This article addresses only the latter.
Law No. 40 of 2012, which addresses the removal of construction code violations, is the only law to explicitly mention public safety committees. Under Article 2 of the law, buildings that violate construction codes and are at risk of collapse must be removed, and those responsible for constructing them fined and imprisoned. Such actions are based on the findings of the governorate’s public safety committee.
Administrative units have become increasingly reliant on the work of public safety committees, especially in areas damaged by wartime fighting. The committees are now responsible for determining the levels of danger buildings face, as well as recommending whether certain buildings should be removed, reinforced, or maintained in their current form.
In some formerly opposition-held areas that have been retaken by the regime in recent years, such as Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in Damascus, forcibly displaced residents who wish to return home must fulfil certain conditions. One condition is that a technical committee from the municipality must inspect the home that the person wishes to return to and assess the damage. If the committee finds the building habitable, then the homeowner must apply to the municipality for a restoration permit.
The Aleppo City Council demolished and removed several residential blocks in eastern Aleppo in March 2022 after the city’s public safety committee discovered dangerous cracks in the buildings. Later in April, the council demolished buildings in the western part of the city after the committee reported that the structures were in violation of construction codes or at risk of collapse. Meanwhile, the demolitions in western Aleppo appeared to be political in nature, as they targeted buildings owned by absentees, most of whom were forcibly displaced to opposition territory outside of regime-held Aleppo city.
In Damascus’ Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, a structural cohesion committee worked with the General Company for Engineering Studies in 2019 to examine properties and determine whether they were habitable and in need of reinforcement, or destroyed and uninhabitable. The committee also suggested building additional storeys atop buildings that had been deemed safe.
Public safety committee reports play a large role in determining the fate of certain urban areas. Committees may assess the degree of damage to a certain area, sometimes referred to as an area’s zoning factor. Based on this factor, an administrative unit may decide to close the area and demolish it completely or issue a new zoning plan for the area, similar to what happened in the Qaboun Industrial Zone. In this case, the Syndicate of Engineers in Damascus issued a structural safety report for the industrial zone that contradicted the public safety committee’s report. The difference may indicate politicised reporting on the part of the public safety committee.