The final months of 2020 saw an unprecedented rate of demolitions targeting so-called “building violations” in the form of an organised campaign that began in Hama governorate, and then expanded to Damascus Countryside, Quneitra, Suweida and Deir-ez-Zor. Even during the winter holidays, provincial councils mobilised and continued to demolish buildings into New Year’s Eve, implementing what pro-government websites described as “strict orders” from a high-level political authority.
The campaign coincided with the dismissal of former Damascus Governor Alaa Ibrahim and the arrest of a number of mayors. The executive office of the Qudsaya suburb in Damascus Countryside was transferred to the judiciary, while the heads of the municipal council’s technical offices for Al-Tal, Kisweh and Al-Nabek were removed from their positions. Meanwhile, the mayors of those same cities, as well as the city of Zabadine, were transferred to the Damascus Countryside governorate’s Directorate of Internal Oversight for investigation.
The governorate also removed the mayors of Zamalka, Dhahret Artouz, Al-Husseiniyeh, Mnein, Al-Hafir, Wadi Barada, Jaramana, Dhahiyet Youssef Al-Athmeh, Al-Mleiheh and Al-Ghazlaniyeh from their positions, referring a number of them and their municipal council members to the public prosecutor. Often, charges were brought against both those arrested and removed related to their failure to suppress building code violations or to implement the provisions of Decree No. 40 of 2012 that deal with demolishing such buildings.
Quoting official government bodies, pro-government media outlets reported that the campaign was undertaken to implement the relevant laws and decrees, claiming that actors in the construction business, as well as the corrupt employees in league with them, were behind the targeted building violations.
It is not clear why the campaign was launched at this time, especially given the flexibility that the regime has appeared to show in recent months by allowing residents of some destroyed areas to return to their homes, albeit only to repair partially damaged properties. It is difficult to find any link between the launch of the government’s latest campaign to demolish buildings that violate code to any current economic, political or social events – whether the fallout of the Caesar Act sanctions, the outbreak of Covid-19 or repercussions of the financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.
The current campaign may not be designed to actually combat building violations and corruption, but rather to serve as a new strategy for the regime to monopolise the real estate sector following the significant shrinking of many other business sectors in recent years. The regime may be taking control of and monopolising the real estate market by restricting it to reconstruction projects in zoning areas, or through social housing projects that are supervised by the Ministry of Public Works and Housing.
The continuous decline in value of the Syrian pound and high inflation are among the economic challenges that have generated increased demand for safe investments such as land and real estate. This has caused a general rise in real estate prices, especially for properties licensed in zoning areas, accompanied by complex bureaucratic procedures to obtain building permits in such zones. While this appears to be a method used by influential municipal and governorate council employees to collect illegal commissions, it may also reflect an unspoken policy to limit the ability of individuals to construct licensed buildings, while facilities are provided to investors – including real estate developers and construction companies – to set up large housing projects in the name of “reconstruction” as defined by the controversial Decree No. 66 of 2012 and Law No. 10 of 2018.
The delay in issuing new organisational plans, especially in areas of Damascus Countryside that faced destruction, has led to most new buildings in those areas being considered violations and therefore requiring demolition. The current demolitions campaign coincided with stricter practices by municipal authorities in refusing to settle the statuses of some building violations, in accordance with Law No. 40 of 2012.
Building violations have increased in recent years due to growing housing needs in light of the severe destruction suffered by many areas, especially in Damascus Countryside, and because government authorities have prevented internally displaced people from some areas from returning to their homes. The ban on repair work in some areas was another factor for the growth of non-compliant construction. These issues contributed to the growth of the illegal real estate market, especially given the low purchasing power for a wide swathe of the populace. Illegal construction became a common solution for fixed-income earners whose savings had collapsed in recent years.
Source: Suwar Al-Sham website