On September 11, balconies collapsed on a building overlooking Damascus’ Adnan Al-Malki Square, in one of the city’s most upscale neighbourhoods. The building is next to a complex that contains residences and offices of the Syrian president, his family and members of his personal protection team.
Damascus governorate sources told The Syria Report that the partial building collapse was due to unlicensed excavation and digging underground to expand the basement level – in violation to the given rehabilitation permit. Before the new basement support base could be finished, the building partially collapsed due to the failure of two load-bearing concrete columns.
According to multiple sources who talked to The Syria Report correspondent, Syrian businessman Wassim Al-Qattan owns the ground floor of the building, and the unlicensed excavation work aimed at expanding the basement on his behalf.
Qattan, who is a member of the Rural Damascus Chamber of Commerce, has been on the U.S. and E.U. sanctions list since 2020 for his role in supporting the regime. His business activities focus on commercial and tourism investment. He has also signed contracts with the Damascus governorate to develop and manage on its behalf the Qasioun Mall in the Barzeh neighbourhood and Masa Plaza Mall in the -Malki neighbourhood. Mr Qattan also won a tender from the Ministry of Endowments to invest in the Yaluegha complex in central Damascus, and he is under contract with the Public Sports Federation to invest in the Al-Jalaa Hotel on the Mazzeh highway.
The partially collapsed building was originally owned by Yassine Al-Tabba, who originates from from Damascus. It consists of three storeys, like the adjacent buildings, which were all built in the 1950s. These buildings, constructed with relatively outdated techniques, rely on reinforced concrete and stone, with the load distributed on the walls and pillars. Demolition of some internal walls often leads to partial or total collapses.
Risk in this area is heightened by a network of concrete sewage channels beneath it, through which wastewater and excess water from the Tora River, a tributary of the Barada River, flow. This network is old and poorly maintained, continuously leaking water into the foundation layer of the buildings, a problem that also applies to the Abu Rummaneh, Rawda, and Malki neighbourhoods, in Damascus.
Most local residents are from the upper class, though a noticeable number of apartments have been abandoned since before 2011 due to emigration. The number of empty homes only increased during the war years. Some apartment owners have died, and their heirs have disagreed on the inheritances, further complicated by the emigration of some heirs and ensuing legal issues.
Despite this, apartments in the area are among the most expensive in Damascus, with the price of a single unit ranging between USD 1.4-2 million, depending on the size and location. Consequently, during the war years, these neighbourhoods were among the investment destinations for the war’s affluent class, including businessmen close to the regime, militia leaders and some officers in the security and military services. New owners often renovate or restore these old apartments after obtaining a renovation permit from the governorate.
According to the Damascus governorate’s website, a committee of engineers from the governorate, the Engineers’ Syndicate and the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Damascus University investigated the causes of the recent balcony collapses. It concluded that there had been a violation of the rehabilitation permit, though it did not specify the type of violation. After formally recording the incident with the police, the governorate referred some individuals found responsible for the violation to the judiciary, based on Law No. 40 of 2012.
The Director of the Services Departments at the Damascus governorate confirmed that the Central Demolition crew in her directorate, which is responsible for removing unlicensed construction within the geographical boundary of each directorate in Damascus, is currently re-examining all renovation permits, especially for ground floors, basements and roofs, and checking the quantities of building materials used in the rehabilitation.
The Directorate of Planning and Urbanisation in the Damascus governorate is the body responsible for issuing rehabilitation permits (officially called “reinforcement and partial reconstruction permits”) after the property owner submits a request accompanied by numerous documents, including a Land Registry extract, a plan identifying property boundaries and neighbouring buildings, a zoning plan of the area showing the property number to be renovated, and various other documents. There must also be a description of the property and any internal subdivisions, a structural plan detailing the placement of columns and walls, detailed pictures, amounts of the required construction materials approved by the Engineers’ Syndicate, a written pledge not to commit any unlicensed construction, and, finally, approval from all owners of the building or permission from the judiciary.
The final permit is approved by the designated Services Department in the governorate, as well as the Directorate of Planning and Urbanisation, the area’s police department, the Engineers’ Syndicate, and the supervising and implementing engineer. The district’s engineer and the services engineer, in the municipal sector to which the property belongs, oversee the rehabilitation process. The area’s police department visits the site to monitor the rehabilitation and has the authority to immediately halt work upon discovering a permit violation and apprehend those responsible.
In this particular case, the collapsed building falls under the jurisdiction of the Arbaeen Police Department, which in turn is affiliated with the PoliticalIntelligence security branch in the Ministry of Interior, responsible for protecting the adjacent security complex. Its extensive authority includes the neighbourhoods ofMazraa, Muhajirin, Sheikh MuhiEddin, Abu Rummaneh, Rawda and Malki, reaching all the way to Omeyyad Square and the Army Command Air Force branch. The department’s patrols and checkpoints oversee verifying the identities of rehabilitation crews and the amount of building materials brought into the area, and ensure that they stick to the terms of the rehabilitation permit. Police have the right to bar entry of excess building materials due to suspicions that they might be used for unlicensed construction.
During the war, the area was inspected more than once to scrutinise the rehabilitation crews and monitor their work, especially when it involved excavations, fearing the opposition might dig tunnels in the area surrounding the security complex. Joint security patrols from various security branches, including the Republican Guard, conducted inspections using sophisticated communication devices to check the sounds coming from the work sites. These patrols prevented rehabilitation work on several properties overlooking security and presidential sites. Security forces can prevent the implementation of a permit, even if it is entirely legal and no matter how minor the required work; obtaining and executing a property rehabilitation permit requires a good relationship with multiple parties and often involves paying bribes to employees.
Despite all this scrutiny, the area witnessed many permit violations over the past years. Licence holders often violate the terms of the rehabilitation permit and bribe monitoring committees and police patrols. Still, permit violations can be settled with the governorate via payment of fines.
Recurring violations include expansion at the expense of other obligations, building additional storeys, installing external elevators, expanding apartments at the expense of balconies, expanding basements, and digging new basements. Digging new basements involves underground expansion of the building for the purpose of creating new rooms, stores, or sometimes entire apartments. This type of violation is the most dangerous to the structural integrity of buildings.