Report: Syrian government demolishes neighborhoods in quest for control

Human Rights Watch claims hundreds of acres of housing have been destroyed by the Assad regime

A Syrian rebel fighter walks down a street in Damascus that has been reduced to rubble.
Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

Click for an interactive below with before-and-after images of the destruction of neighborhoods.

While Western diplomats and Syrian rebel leaders squabble in Geneva, and the internationally backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons starts removing the Syrian government’s chemical stockpiles, the ground war for control of the country still rages on Syria's streets.

According to a new report, a low-tech weapon in that war has been discovered: the leveling of buildings and even entire neighborhoods with bombs and bulldozers.

The report, released by Human Rights Watch on Thursday, says that the Syrian government has destroyed no less than 350 acres of buildings in at least seven neighborhoods around Syria since July 2012 in an effort to wrest control from the rebels. The report says the tactic has caused widespread destruction and exacerbated Syria’s already critical refugee crisis. It also says President Bashar al-Assad’s government doesn’t plan to stop.

Human Rights Watch analyzed 15 commercial satellite images, conducted interviews with 16 witnesses and homeowners who had their homes destroyed in Syria, and relied on media reports, government officials and videos posted to YouTube to compile the report.

The organization found that in neighborhoods around Damascus and Hama, widespread demolition had taken place in the past year and a half. The Syrian government said these demolitions were necessary to clear the areas of poorly built houses and make way for urban-planning and public-works projects. But according to the HRW review, all the demolished areas were either rebel strongholds or considered high-value targets for the military. And HRW says each demolition was carried out by military forces, and often right after fights with rebels.

Because the destruction was done without proper military justification, HRW’s report concludes that the incidents should be considered war crimes.

“(The demolitions) violated the laws of war either because they served no necessary military purpose and appeared intended to punish the civilian population, or because they caused disproportionate harm to civilians,” HRW’s report said. “Those responsible for the wanton destruction of civilian property or for imposing collective punishment have committed war crimes and should be investigated and held to account.”

The two single biggest demolition campaigns appear to have been in the Hama suburb of Masha’a al-Arb’een, and near Mezzeh Air Base in Damascus.

The Hama demolition consisted of bulldozing about 100 acres of land in the fall of 2012, after rebels and government forces fought for control of the neighborhood for weeks.

“I begged the soldier to let me in to collect my belongings,” one Hama resident told HRW. “He let me, but I had only a few minutes. After I left, the bulldozer demolished my house. Nothing was left of it, not even the walls.”

The demolitions around the Damascus airport were of a similar scale and seemingly also carried out after fighting between government forces and rebels in 2012. Local Gov. Hussein Makhlouf insisted that the demolitions were part of a government program to rid the country of poorly constructed houses and said they were completely legal.

He said new demolitions in other areas are scheduled to take place soon.

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