A day after the February 6 earthquake, the Idlib branch of the Syrian Engineers’ Syndicate called all experienced engineers in Idlib, which is controlled by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), to volunteer with damage assessment efforts. The engineers would inspect cracked buildings, assess their structural safety and determine whether they are habitable, should be evacuated or can be restored.
The Free Engineers Syndicate was established in 2014 in opposition-held areas, and it has two branches; the Idlib branch and the Aleppo branch. In 2020, the Idlib branch was re-formed under the name of the Syrian Engineers Syndicate – Idlib Branch. A distinction must be made between this branch and another branch bearing the same name; Syrian Engineers Syndicate – Idlib Branch is active in regime-controlled areas of the Idlib governorate. In both cases, a similar organizational, administrative, and legal structure prevails in the two branches, with different political affiliations.
On February 7, the Engineers’ Syndicate, the SSG-run Ministry of Local Administration and Services, and the Idlib governorate’s Directorate of Technical Services formed the earthquake damage assessment committees of volunteer engineers. It deployed them to affected parts of Idlib.
Each of these committees initially had four engineers. However, significant demand from residents to assess their cracked homes prompted that number to be reduced to three engineers. Two are engineering consultants who have been part of the Syrian Engineers’ Syndicate for at least ten years, and one is from the Directorate of Technical Services, who would be responsible for documentation and data collecting. Each committee is also accompanied by representatives from the municipal council technical offices in the areas where they assess the damage. Still, the groups rely on the experience of their members and simple engineering tools alone, without any modern technological tools.
Local municipal councils told residents whose homes were damaged in the earthquake to sign up to receive an inspection from the engineering committees. The committees visited the most heavily damaged sites and examined cracked buildings. They focused on checking the structural integrity of the ground storeys–that is, any concrete elements supporting the structures, such as columns, bridges and foundations.
The committees classified the buildings they inspected into four categories in their records:
- Buildings marked as safe, undamaged, and acceptably habitable in their current condition without any restoration or retaining work;
- Buildings that are habitable but in need of repair;
- Buildings that are uninhabitable and require evacuation, which residents could only return to after restoration;
- Buildings at risk of collapse that must be evacuated due to irreparable damage to the load-bearing structural elements. Buildings in this category must undergo another inspection and assessment by a central committee, which issues the final decision on whether or not to demolish it. The court then considers the decision before issuing a ruling to implement it. However, it is unclear how this central committee is formed.
The earthquake damage assessment committees immediately began preparing technical reports for each damaged building they inspected. All committee members must sign each report. For example, in one working day, one committee inspected 17 buildings, ten of which needed to be evacuated, six deemed habitable, and another in need of demolition.
The committees estimated that by February 19, in the city of Salqin alone, there were around 200 multi-storey buildings whose walls needed restoration. These buildings had an average of five storeys each. There were also about 200 multi-storey buildings requiring evacuation and restoration work and 15 needing complete demolition. Some 58 buildings in Salqin collapsed entirely due to the earthquake.
There have been several obstacles for the committees, most notably the sheer size and urgency of their workload. Residents want to know whether they can return to their earthquake-damaged homes as quickly as possible. When the committees arrive in a given area, they often find dozens of residents waiting for them, pressuring the engineers to inspect their houses. Some of the damage to their homes were just small cracks in the walls, but nevertheless, residents are in fear. Residents often turned to engineers outside these committees to check on their homes.