The General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs opened the Central Specialised Citizens Real Estate Service Centre in April 2021, inside its headquarters in Damascus city. The directorate also announced that it will open similar centres in the other governorates to facilitate real estate service provisions to citizens.
According to a video published by the state-owned news outlet SANA in August 2022, the Damascus centre includes: 18 service windows, two offices for an alphabetically-organised index and survey data, three collection offices, an informational office, a communications office, an office for supervising follow-up, a technical support office, a financial compliance office, and five Industrial Bank offices to allow direct payment of fees.
The centre offers real estate services for the Damascus and Rural Damascus governorates. Those services include automated real estate registration, survey statements for automated real estate properties, proof or rejection of ownership, and a real estate registry statement that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can approve. For similar services in other governorates, the Damascus centre communicates electronically with relevant cadastral affairs directorates to obtain the abovementioned documents. In all cases, the services provided only extend to properties located within areas where registration has been automated.
This work – albeit still modest – is the culmination of years of effort to automate certain processes in the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs as part of an e-government plan launched two decades ago alongside the UNDP. According to the program, 100 percent of Syria’s main government services should now be available electronically. However, for various reasons, including the past decade of war, little progress has been made toward that goal.
The Syria Report asked several lawyers in Damascus who specialise in real estate how much they now benefit from online services at the centre. They all responded that they had never entered the centre despite working near-daily in the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs headquarters. Instead, they preferred to work traditionally, coordinating directly with Cadastral Affairs employees to obtain real estate documents for the clients in exchange for paying widely known bribes. It is customary for the attorney to bear these additional expenses.
Citizen service centres
The General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs had previously begun providing online real estate services in coordination with the governorates’ citizen service centres. For example, the citizen service centres in Damascus governorate offered real estate services, including registering residential lease contracts, certified copies of lease contracts, and temporary registration. Temporary registration includes a statement showing the series of owners for a property, an ownership statement drawn from the alphabetical index, a real estate registry request, a real estate compliance registry and a certified copy of the title deed. The citizen service centres in Damascus also provide some real estate services to other governorates, such as real estate registry extraction, description statement, series of owners, survey statements, survey plans, subdivision plans and ownership statements from the alphabetical index.
Automating work in Cadastral Affairs directorates
Providing these real estate services was impossible until a necessary infrastructure was set up, including automating land registries in some governorates: Damascus, Rural Damascus, Hama, Lattakia, Tartous and Suweida. Certain electronic equipment and software were also installed. The Cadastral Affairs directores in different governorates were also linked to the central directorate in Damascus and the service centres.
Digitising, or automating, land registries means transferring paper real estate records into digital records and electronically linking real estate services between the governorates. The goal is to protect and facilitate information handling, speed up real estate transactions, and ease citizens’ access to Cadastral Affairs services.
Recent years have seen several statements, reports and news items from the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs about automating its records. Now and then, it would announce that it was automating the records for new real estate zones containing thousands of properties.
However, these achievements no longer appear realistic. What little has been achieved in recent years has been limited and inconsistent. For example, in 2017, the cadastral affairs directorate in Hama announced that it had finished installing an electronic real estate data exchange network – also known as a BDN – in the Masyaf, Salamiyeh, Mahardeh and Al-Suqaylabiyeh districts. At the same time, the directorate also announced that it was following up on a project to automate the land registry and that, as a first step, it had entered some 2,500 real estate properties in Hama. But the provision of electronic real estate services in Hama was delayed until February 2022. By that point, around 43,500 land records of a total 482,925 in Hama were digitised, or only about 10 percent. Completion rates in other governorates are around the same or even less.
Still, in early 2018, the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs stated that it was following up on work to digitise records in Damascus, Rural Damascus, Tartous, Lattakia, Homs, Hama and Suweida, with a total of 25 real estate zones and two zoned areas in Damascus having undergone the process. This number is paltry compared with Syria’s total 11,172 real estate zones. And amid a lack of statistics and slow-moving work on the national level, it is difficult to obtain precise numbers on the success rate so far. The official numbers available so far indicate that until the beginning of 2021, some 500,000 land records across Syria have been digitised out of a total of around six million, or around eight percent, are now digitised. More recently, in October 2022, the Minister of Local Administration announced that around 700,000 records had been digitised, raising that rate to 11 percent.
Cadastral Affairs has blamed these law numbers on numerous difficulties and obstacles, such as electricity shortages, fuel, staff at all employment levels and funding. For example, in 2018, only SYP 225 million were allocated to the directorate to follow up on the digitisation project.
In short, any electronic real estate services are limited to the land records that have already been digitised, which means that such services are only available for around 11 percent of all such records in Syria so far. It is also unclear how continued electricity and internet outages will impact such services.