In the 1990s, the owner of a large plot of arid land outside Damascus died, bequeathing his land to his four sons. The sons shared common ownership of the property, with each holding 674 of the land’s total 2,400 shares. In legal terms, the land was excluded from the town’s zoning plan and classified as agricultural, meaning construction on the plot was unauthorised.
According to Article 780 of the Syrian Civil Code, common ownership is when two or more individuals share ownership of one property such that each share is not subdivided, making them co-owners.
In this case, the four sons determined the locations of their shares without official documentation. Because the land was classified as agricultural, each son built an unlicensed house and sold what remained for unlicensed construction. Because the land was owned as a commons, the sales were made for the original property’s shares through contracts documented by the notary.
The new buyers then built unlicensed houses on their plots of land without construction permits and without registering their properties in the Land Registry. This is how informal settlements began to arise in the area in the late 1990s. However, despite all the changes that have occurred to the property since its original owner’s death, the legal classification of the land has remained as it was beforehand: arid agricultural land. In the late 1990s, at least 25 multi-storey buildings with dozens of apartments were built on the land. Each owner of these apartments technically owns a share of the original, commonly owned property.
This informal settlement did not have basic services, such as public water, electricity, and sewage networks, among other things. And yet, high costs and increased demand for housing in formally zoned areas pushed people to build and live in informal housing instead. After several years, the local municipality eventually provided some services to this particular district.
Here is where the story of Omar and his five brothers, who moved to Damascus for college and work, begins. The six brothers saved enough money to purchase a house in the informal settlement in 2002. The home was one storey and was constructed on a 120-square-metre plot of land. But because the property was not formally listed in the Land Registry, the brothers’ ownership of the home took the form of 21 common shares of the original, larger plot of land in the informal settlement. That meant their sole proof of ownership was a contract sale of shares under an irrevocable power of attorney regulated by a notary. Because their shares were small, the brothers agreed to register their shares pro forma under Omar’s name because their allocations were small.
After some time passed, the brothers reinforced the house and constructed additional storeys due to the increasing urgency of their housing needs. By 2011, they had a three-storey house with five apartments. The legal status of their property, however, did not change. It was still simply 21 commonly owned shares of the original land.
At one point, the brothers began considering the possibility of terminating the common ownership of their property to preserve each of their rights. Here they came across a complex legal situation, which made things difficult for them for two main reasons. First, the municipality must correct the classification of the original land from agricultural to residential before terminating the common property, which is beyond the brothers’ abilities. Second, there was the practical issue of a large number of common owners of the original land.
Faced with these roadblocks, the brothers drew up a quota purchase contract in which they specified each brother’s share and its classification. For example, Omar owned the right-hand apartment on the home’s second storey. They registered it with the Damascus governorate’s Directorate of Finance and paid the required fee to legitimise the contract.
By 2012, once the revolution transformed into an armed conflict, Omar and his brothers, like many other informal settlement residents, fled to Damascus and left their homes behind. Regime forces seized control of the area and allowed residents to return only once to check on their properties, preventing them from returning to live there. Omar and his brothers inspected their apartments and found that the building had not been significantly damaged.
A security service branch arrested Omar in 2015, and the family’s multiple attempts to secure his release failed. This complicated the situation because the notary initially registered the 21 commonly owned shares under Omar’s name.
In 2017, the family learned that Omar had been killed under torture just a month after his arrest. They did not receive his body, and instead received a piece of paper requesting them to visit the Tishreen Military Hospital to pick up his death certificate.
In 2018, regime forces permitted residents of the district to visit their properties for a second time after regime forces retook East Ghouta from the opposition. The brothers discovered their neighbourhood was completely looted, despite the regime controlling it throughout the war. The house was robbed of its furniture, doors, windows, and baths, and anything that did remain had been destroyed.
The family’s building and other buildings in the area were no longer habitable. Even if their building was intact, the family members were scattered worldwide, some as refugees abroad and others internally displaced. Those who remained in Syria tried to return to the building but lacked the finances to restore it.
In addition, when Omar died under torture, he left behind a wife and two daughters. Because he has no male heirs, his wife, daughters, mother and brothers became his heirs, per Islamic inheritance rules. This means that the number of shareholders in the commonly owned property has now increased.
Omar’s small neighbourhood is an example of dozens of other informal areas across Syria that have seen similar fates. Approximately 40 percent of people in Syria live in informal districts, where common ownership is still the norm. Many of these areas saw significant destruction due to the war. Meanwhile, their residents were forcibly displaced and, thus, at risk of losing their housing, land, and property rights.