Former Lattakia Governor Major General Ibrahim Khader Al-Salem was arrested under a warrant issued on October 18, by the Ministry of Justice’s Lattakia Court and placed in the governorate’s Al-Basseh prison. Out of 14 officials wanted for investigation in the same cases, 10 were arrested and four went into hiding.
Among the charges directed against the former governor, according to the arrest and summons warrant, are crimes of bribery, forgery of official documents, the misuse of public funds, embezzlement, and seizing state properties. A video clip circulated on social media showing Mr Salem surrounded by police officers, apparently at the moment of his arrest and being led out of his house. However, it appears that his arrest preceded the warrant by more than 45 days, according to local media.
On October 3, the semi-official Al-Watan newspaper reported the arrest of current and former officials, neighbourhood mukhtars, building contractors, and influential people, describing them as part of an organised corruption network involved in serious unlicensed construction, public funds embezzlement, changing the zoning status of real estate areas, extorting public properties, and money laundering. The newspaper stated that a precautionary seizure was placed on the properties of these accused individuals, including their spouses and children. Other local media also reported the recovery of some state properties seized by the accused.
Among the detainees are the director of Cadastral Affairs in Lattakia and his assistant, two former mayors of Lattakia city, and the former director of the technical services department. Also among the accused is a member of the People’s Assembly, amid reports of demands to lift his immunity for arrest.
The current head of the Lattakia Governorate Council announced on September 10 the transfer of five files to the monitoring and inspection authorities, including files regarding transgressions in the Lattakia City Council, the General Housing Establishment, and other projects, where corruption and waste exceed billions of Syrian pounds, according to Al-Watan.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister issued Resolution No. 1751 on November 13 to form a committee to count and study all properties whose zoning status was modified in Lattakia, believed to involve more than 180 properties, as well as study the modifications to the building code. The committee includes the Deputy Minister of Local Administration and Environment, the Deputy Minister of Public Works and Housing, the head of the Lattakia City Council, a judge from the State Council, the director of the financial directorate of the governorate, and the director of the real estate services directorate.
As some local news outlets reported, Mr Salem is supported by Bouthaina Shaaban, the political advisor to Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, with whom he has a familial connection. He previously held the position of head of the Criminal Security Branch in Lattakia and is one of the longest-serving governors among those appointed since 2011. He served as the governor of Lattakia for seven years, from 2014 to 2021.
In Syria, the governor sits at the head of the highest executive authority in their governorate and is directly appointed by the President of the Republic. According to Local Administration Law No. 107 of 2011, the governor is the representative of the central authority, an agent for all ministries, and is appointed and dismissed by decree. The law also states that the governor is, by default, a member of the Higher Council for Local Administration, and the governor chairs the Executive Office in the province, which in turn is part of the Governorate Council. The governor has the right to name members of the permanent or temporary committees that they establish, and they have the powers of judicial police in the case of flagrant crimes. They are responsible for contracting, and ordering expenditure for the governorate budget, and all official directorates in the governorate are subject to their written orders.
Reports in local media have pointed to corruption cases exceeding SYP 52 billion, most notably real estate issues, such as overlooking major cases of unlicensed construction, including an unauthorised increase in the number of storeys, in exchange for the governor and his partners receiving a share in each building. Some local networks have reported that the number of properties registered in the name of the governor, his wife, and his children exceeds 100 properties. However, The Syria Report has not been able to verify the accuracy of this information.
However, according to media reports, the most prominent case of unlicensed construction committed by the governor relates to the Zeitouna residential project in Al-Mashaher area of Lattakia city, which was established on land without detailed zoning plans to date. The general zoning plan for the area had envisaged the construction of schools, public parks, and housing.
It is unclear who owns the land and whether it is private or expropriated. In any case, the project contractor, in partnership with the former governor, built a luxurious residential project in Zeitouna without leaving space for gardens and schools. Theoretically, this means that despite its luxury, the project is considered informal, built on public property, or land commonly owned but not subdivided in the Land Records. Consequently, the residential apartments in the project will not be noted in the Land Records. They will not be eligible for subdivision and registration in the names of their buyers. However, in practice, the buyers were granted official ownership deeds for these apartments, meaning the official documents were falsified.
The opposition website Al-Hal Net reported in 2021 that developers of residential apartments in Zeitouna had begun requiring applicants to pay half the property’s value in advance. According to the website, the apartment was valued at more than SYP 100 million at that time.
In August 2021, Al-Wahda published an interview with the director of the Zeitouna project, who said the buildings included shops, commercial markets, storeys designated for offices, and, above them, 10 residential storeys. The engineer indicated that the project began in 2017 and was completed in multiple phases. The extent of completion of the project and whether it is partially or fully inhabited is unclear amidst news of fraud and corruption in connecting the electricity, sewage, and water networks.
Moreover, news leaked about the same contractor and the former governor extorting a large property from a private company in the Al-Slaybiyeh real estate area and incorporating it into the Zeitouna project. Additionally, the former governor granted approval to change the zoning status of some areas from commercial to residential, allowing for the construction of additional storeys while maintaining their commercial nature. Some pro-regime influencers on social media revealed an agreement between members of the arrested network to inflate the prices of certain properties artificially.
This news of the former governor’s corruption does not come as a surprise. It is a quasi-official way of dealing with influential regime officials whose interests conflict with those more powerful than them. For example, a similar case happened with the former businessman Rami Makhlouf. With the lack of transparency in the official media and the inability to access the real reasons that led to the opening of corruption files against the former governor of Lattakia, unconfirmed rumours circulate that the problem stems from the former governor and his partner, the contractor in the Zeitouna project, refusing to pay USD 10 million to one of the influential senior officials in the state. However, The Syria Report was unable to substantiate this rumour.