Why the Government Razed Whole Neighborhoods in Hama and Damascus

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch released a 38-page report on the Syrian government’s illegal demolition of neighborhoods in opposition-held areas.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

The seven areas destroyed between July 2012 and July 2013 were the Masha` al-Arb`een and Wadi al-Jouz neighborhoods in Hama, and the Qaboun, Tadamoun, Barzeh, Mezzeh military airport, and Harran Al-`Awamid neighborhoods in and near Damascus. 

“Some of the demolitions took place around government military or strategic sites that opposition forces had attacked. While the authorities might have been justified in taking some targeted measures to protect these military or strategic locations, the destruction of hundreds of residential buildings, in some cases kilometers away, appears to have been disproportionate and to have violated international law,” the group said in its report. 

Lama Fakih, HRW’s Syria-Lebanon researcher, explains why the government targeted these neighborhoods and the effect of the demolitions on the civilian population.

Syria Deeply: What did you find?

Lama Fakih: The report is based on a combo of witness testimonies and 15 high-resolution satellite images. What we found is that since July 2012, the government has demolished, through bulldozers and explosives, thousands of commercial and residential buildings in Hama and Damascus, and in some cases, entire neighborhoods. What we’ve seen is that the total building area demolished is more than 145 hectares, equivalent to 200 soccer fields. We’re talking about widespread urban territory completely leveled intentionally by the government.

While the government claims that this is part of an urban housing scheme to remove illegal housing, we know that [at least] many of the homes destroyed were built with the necessary permits and that the demolitions took place in opposition strongholds.

SD: What was the government’s objective here?

LF: The overall concept reflects that this was not part of an urban planning scheme but related to a government campaign against pro-opposition forces. What we’re seeing is that in some cases there was no military objective in conducting the demolitions and that even in some cases where there was a military objective, the demolitions were disproportionate: the government did not give residents notice before they came in, and have failed to compensate these residents or give them other housing.

SD: Besides the fact that they are opposition-controlled, why were these specific areas targeted?

LF: In some cases, the government has gone in and done these operations right after fighting has stopped. It seems what they’re trying to do is level areas where fighters might have been present but also punish the civilian population there for presumed support of the opposition.

SD: Is this a war crime?

LF: These are serious crimes. We continue to urge that the U.N. Security Council continue to refer this to the International Criminal Court so they can prosecute those who were responsible.

SD: What was the time frame for the demolitions?

LF: In satellite imagery from Hama, there were three dates: you can see them do this over the course of a two-week period, destroying the entire neighborhood. The satellite imagery is imperfect in a sense in that we don’t have images for every day, so we don’t know when they stopped definitively.

SD: Is this an isolated incident?

LF: We have detected other large-scale demolitions that appear to follow the same pattern. These additional images cover Homs, but we haven’t seen them in other parts of the country like Aleppo.

SD: How effective a method of intimidation is this?

LF: It results in mass displacement. In some cases civilians have left for other parts of the city, or they have left the country entirely. It’s clearly a warning. Witnesses said they were directly threatened: things like, “If one shot comes from your neighborhood, we’re going to do to you what they did to your neighbors.” It means severe punishment for people living in opposition areas.

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