How are Land Registries in Opposition-Held Areas Responding to the Earthquake?
The February 06 earthquake has made matters more difficult for authorities responsible for managing land registries in opposition-controlled areas of northwestern Syria. Nevertheless, these authorities have not issued any instructions or laws to address the quake’s impacts amid Syria’s lack of legislative framework addressing the properties affected by natural disasters or wars.
The earthquake damage only adds to property rights threats in opposition-controlled areas that have been subjected to bombing over the past few years and suffer from issues related to documenting property ownership, urban planning, and informal housing. As a result, the authorities responsible for managing property interests in these areas appear incapable of documenting and protecting property rights impacted by the quake.
In Syria, the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs is the official body responsible for documenting property ownership and emergency changes to properties. No document related to properties acquires definitive proof unless registered in these records.
In opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria, there are many administrations of this kind, including the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs in Idlib, part of the Hay’at-Tahrir Al-Sham-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG). Meanwhile, areas under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG) appear more fragmented, with each cadastral affairs department reporting to the local council of its city or town, e.g. the Cadastral Affairs Department in Azaz, the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs in the city of Al-Bab, and the Land Registry in Afrin.
The Directorate of Cadastral Affairs in Idlib has not issued any post-earthquake instructions. A source within the directorate told The Syria Report that nobody asked them to do anything. They explained that the procedures followed by the directorate for collapsed properties are as follows: if a property is listed in the Land Registry and is subdivided and the building has been destroyed or demolished, the boundaries of the land on which the property was built can be accurately redefined based on the records. A detailed plan can also be provided for the building as it was before it was destroyed.
The directorate carries out this work at the request of property owners, especially if disputes arise. However, if the property in question is unauthorised, unregistered, and not subdivided within the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs, it is registered as undeveloped land or land prepared for construction. Therefore, the directorate cannot do anything in the event of an earthquake or other disaster.
This situation is not new in Syria and applies to informal housing areas that have been extensively destroyed during the conflict or demolished by the regime. This has resulted in the loss of rights for the owners of these homes, which existed in reality but were not documented in the property records.
Sources told The Syria Report that the SSG’s Ministry of Local Administration and Services dealt with the earthquake’s aftermath but that their approach focused solely on helping those affected. An informed source within the ministry said they did not issue any new decisions or instructions apart from setting up committees to assess the earthquake damage immediately after the fact.
The resource-limited ministry attempted to help those affected by the earthquake by directing humanitarian organisations operating in Idlib towards repairing damaged homes. The ministry coordinated with these organisations and provided them with information about the damaged buildings, their conditions, and needs, whether for demolition, reinforcement or repair. The earthquake damage assessment committees prepared the report. According to a source in one of the organisations, the ministry asked organisations to prioritise repairing the damaged buildings.
For example, Shafaq, a Syrian NGO registered in Turkey since 2013, received the ministry’s approval to work on repairing homes in the town of Maarat Misrin. The ministry provided the organisation with a list of 50 buildings damaged by the quake needing repair and asked them to continue coordinating with the local council in Maarrat Misrin regarding the buildings whose owners had not yet requested an inspection by the committees. The same applies to organisations working in Salqin, Armanaz and other areas under SSG control.
The situation in areas controlled by the SIG has been similar in regard to how cadastral affairs departments and directorates dealt with the quake aftermath.
However, it is worth noting that one initiative in the Jandares area of rural Afrin aimed to preserve property rights. Jandares was the area most affected by the earthquake, resulting in the collapse and removal of many buildings and raising concerns about property rights. Therefore, the land registry in Azaz collaborated and met with the Next Day organisation, an NGO concerned with housing, land and property rights, to form a survey committee to determine the locations and boundaries of the destroyed buildings in Jandares, similar to delimitation and census work.
There is an ongoing crisis in addressing property issues in Afrin due to several main factors. Firstly, the property database before 2011 in Afrin exists only within Aleppo’s main cadastral affairs directorate. Second, many property documents left behind by the majority-Kurdish authorities’ land registry during their control of the area between 2012-2018 mostly related to unauthorised construction. Third, significant informal urban expansion has occurred recently, particularly after the opposition took control in 2021.
The Free Engineers Union, Ministry of Local Administration and Services and local councils have all dealt with the quake aftermath in SIG areas. Committees are formed in cooperation with these entities to inspect damaged buildings, assess their technical condition, and determine their needs. However, due to limited resources, local humanitarian organisations bore the burden of funding.
For example, on February 19, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Engineers Union and Mercy Without Borders, an NGO established in 2012 and registered in Turkey. They launched a comprehensive survey project for facilities and buildings to assess earthquake damage in affected areas in northern Syria. Under this memorandum, the organisation provided the necessary equipment and logistical services for the assessment process and secured wages for the assessment teams in Azaz and Afrin.
In Jandares, the Comprehensive Engineering Survey Project Management for Facilities and Buildings, the Public Safety Committee of the Free Syrian Engineers Union, the Presidency of the Local Council in Jandares city, and engineers from the local council Service Office agreed on the survey, evaluation and supervision of the debris removal from damaged buildings. This process then began in early March, following the survey results.
Also in March, the Ministry of Local Administration and Services formed the Central Committee for Damage Assessment and Surveying in coordination with the Free Engineers Union; the Support Coordination Unit; representatives of the Free Aleppo Governorate Council; local councils in Jandares, Afrin, Azaz, and Suoran; the Syrian Civil Defence, or White Helmets; the Stability Support Unit; the Free Aleppo Lawyers Union; and the Free Aleppo University. These groups decided to form subcommittees in areas affected by the earthquake under the supervision of the SIG to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the earthquake damage, submit proposals and implement them all while preserving housing, land, and property rights.