Recent weeks have seen the Damascus governorate form dozens of structural safety committees to inspect buildings in the capital, which was not really impacted by the February 6 earthquake.
Immediately after the quake, the governorate set up a WhatsApp number to let residents of Damascus get in touch and report any cracks in their buildings. After receiving these reports, a joint committee would be dispatched to inspect the building for cracks and issue recommendations. The governorate forms these committees with other official entities, so that they include engineers and experts from both sides. For example, there are nine joint committees between the governorate and the University of Damascus Faculty of Engineering; 12 between the governorate and the Higher Institute for Seismic Research; and nine emergency joint committees between the governorate and the Damascus branch of the Syrian Engineers Syndicate.
In addition, the governorate formed committees consisting of its own engineers and its 16 municipalities, for a general inspection of all buildings in the city’s municipal services directorate. The governorate also formed a committee to oversee any reinforcement work, which would accompany the local engineering committees on an as-need basis.
At the governorate’s request, the Damascus branch of the Syrian Engineers Syndicate formed a 15-person emergency committee headed by their branch president tasked with assessing the technical safety of facilities and buildings. It was also aimed at providing technical support and test construction materials in the syndicate’s laboratory.
Finally, the General Company for Engineering Studies (GCES), affiliated with the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, formed a committee to inspect government buildings in Damascus for structural safety.
These committees have inspected a combined 2,300 buildings in the capital based on reports from residents, according to an estimate by the Damascus governor published in the official Tishreen newspaper on March 23.
Sources told The Syria Report that the committees found cracks in the walls of some buildings in the Al-Mazzeh 86 neighbourhood. One of the buildings, which consisted of five storeys, showed cracks in its columns and was temporarily evacuated. However, inspectors allowed residents to return to the building, asking them to fill the cracks with cement and monitor them. If the cracks were to grow, then the committee there would study possible reinforcement of the building. Lastly, they recommended constructing several retaining walls in the area at the governorate’s expense.
Some committees inspecting homes in Al-Sham Al-Jedida suburb, previously known as Dummar residential suburb, found that some buildings there had sunk several centimetres into the ground. One committee requested that residents of at least one building construct full metal reinforcements around its load-bearing columns, with the engineering study and implementation costs to be paid for by the residents themselves.
In general, the committees lacked any unified engineering standards and chaos prevailed. Each committee conducted merely visual inspections of the buildings in their areas without using testing equipment or scales. They then classified the buildings according to their structural safety, listing them as either safe and undamaged, as damaged and in need of reinforcement, or, finally, as damaged, at risk of collapse and in need of evacuation and demolition.
The Syria Report’s sources said the most active committees were those that included members from the Engineers’ Syndicate, as it seeks to regain its engineering role after having been marginalised in recent years by the Construction Contractors’ Syndicate. The Engineers’ Syndicate succeeded in imposing unified standards for the fees of engineering studies, inspections of damaged buildings and facilities, and supervision of reconstruction or reinforcement work. This was apparent in Ministry of Public Works and Housing Decision No. 1698 on February 27, 2023, which approved the Syrian Engineers’ Syndicate Central Council Decision No. 4 — this measure reduced the fees for engineers to check on the status of buildings damaged by the earthquake in the most heavily impacted governorates. However, the syndicate was not able to set clear, unified standards for how to inspect damaged buildings or to undertake restoration and reinforcement work, instead leaving that task to the engineering committees.
Meanwhile, no rights organisations participated in monitoring the work of the committees, nor was there any documentation of the damaged properties as the process lacked legal mechanisms for objecting to the committees’ decisions. Based on the committees’ recommendations, the Damascus governorate demolished some of the buildings that were at risk of collapse, after they underwent inspection. All of these buildings were already at risk before the earthquake and were only further damaged in the disaster, including buildings in the Kafr Sousa and Sarouja neighbourhoods. The governorate offered residents of these buildings the option of moving into temporary shelter centres, but most of them decided instead on moving to other parts of the city at their own expense.
Sources told The Syria Report that some residents are afraid to report the cracks in their buildings, fearing they could be evacuated and their homes demolished without any hope of compensation, forcing them to live in the shelter centres or in rental homes at their own expense. Other residents in cracked buildings even tried bribing the committees or pressuring them to issue reports saying their homes were structurally sound. Meanwhile, other people feared that influential figures could seize buildings at low prices by pressuring the committees into deeming safe buildings to be at risk of collapse. This lack of legal mechanisms, as well as fears of security pressure, have restricted the work of engineers on the committees, some of whom have consequently tried to avoid making the right decisions, fearing potential consequences.