30 Jan 2014

Syria: Assad regime ‘wiping neighbourhoods off the map’

Bashar al-Assad’s government has demolished thousands of homes in an attack on Syria’s civilian population, says a report from Human Rights Watch.

Scroll down to see photographic ‘sliders’ of satellite imagery showing before and after demolitions.

The report documents the razing of “thousands of residential buildings, in some cases entire neighbourhoods, using explosives and bulldozers” in the cities of Hama and the Syrian capital Damascus.

Human Rights Watch says that though government officials have said the demolitions are part of urban planning efforts or the removal of illegally constructed settlements, evidence suggests the action is punitive.

“Wiping entire neighbourhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.”

Satellite imagery analysed by the charity shows the state of neighbourhoods before and after demolitions.

The report, Razed to the Ground: Syria’s unlawful neighbourhood demolitions in 2012-2013, said:

“The demolitions were supervised by military forces and often followed fighting in the areas between government and opposition forces.

“These circumstances, as well as witness statements and more candid statements by government officials reported in the media indicate that the demolitions were related to the armed conflict and in violation of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war.”

Demolitions of Syrian homes by government troops (source: Youtube)

The report concluded that seven cases of large-scale demolitions “violated the laws of war either because they served no military purpose and appeared intended to punish the civilian population, or because they caused disproportionate harm to civilians.”

The incidents documented in the report date back to July 2012. In the seven cases, Human Rights Watch said around 360 acres, the equivalent of around 200 football pitches.

In Damascus the demolitions have taken place in Daraya, Yarmouk, Qaboun, Barzeh and Harran al-Awamid – all sites of fighting between rebels and government forces, located in the south and east of the capital.

Two areas in Hama where demolitions were said to have been taken place had reportedly been used by rebels to get in and out of the city.

‘No warning’

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that governments gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible to remove belongings. Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said they had not received compensation.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to immediately halt demolitions of houses in violation of the laws of war and to ensure humanitarian assistance was given to those who had lost their homes.

It also called on the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court and to adopt targeted sanctions against Syrian officials who had been implicated.

The report also called on international powers to publicly condemn the demolitions, implement embargoes and increase pressure on Russia and China to “stop hampering effective UN Security Council action on Syria”.