Assad Wiping Entire Neighborhoods Off of Map
The Syrian government has demolished thousands of buildings, in some cases entire neighborhoods, in parts of Damascus and Hama, as part of a collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas, Human Rights Watch has found.
Satellite imagery taken over both cities has revealed seven areas where neighborhoods have either been largely destroyed or totally demolished. None of the destruction was caused during combat. Rather, the buildings have been systemically destroyed using bulldozers and explosives placed by troops who first ordered residents to leave, then supervised the demolitions.
A report released on Thursday morning says the Syrian regime claims that the demolitions were part of an urban planning program that aimed to remove illegally constructed buildings.
Human Rights Watch, however, claims the motivations were instead to punish areas that were deemed to be sympathetic to opposition groups. It says the destruction violated international law and the laws of war.
Claims of widespread abuses have been routinely leveled by the government and the opposition during almost three years of war in Syria, which has killed more than 130,000, displaced close to 8 million, led tens of thousands to disappear and battered the country’s renowned heritage sites. However, the scale of the physical destruction has been difficult to document, with reporting limited by government visa restrictions and the intensity of the fighting.
“Wiping entire neighborhoods 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.”
Using satellite imagery, the organisation has compiled a dramatic series of before and after shots that it says show 145 hectares, the equivalent of 200 football fields, where the state policy has caused near-total destruction.
Some demolitions took place near areas such as the Mezzeh airbase and the international airport that the opposition viewed as strategic. While acknowledging that a military response in these areas could be deemed as legitimate, the report claims that the response was disproportionate.
The Mezzeh and Tadamoun areas of the capital, both opposition strongholds, have been particularly heavily hit, the images show. In Hama, where former president Hafez al-Assad killed tens of thousands of residents and wiped out neighborhoods over several days in 1982, widespread destruction has again taken place. The satellite images show that the Masha al-Arb’een area has been wiped out. One image, apparently taken while the demolitions were under way, shows part of the area still standing – a grey blob of buildings juxtaposed against a white backdrop of ruins.
Researchers compiled the report after viewing 15 satellite images and speaking to 16 witnesses to the demolitions, among them homeowners. Government statements, interviews with officials and videos posted to the web depicting the destruction were also used.
“No one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict, ” said Solvang. “This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion. The UN security council should, with an ICC [international criminal court] referral, send a clear message that cover-ups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.”
Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “These are the areas that we were told about by witnesses. There are likely to be other areas, but there are many black holes in Syria where we don’t have information. This is likely part of a systematic policy in rebel held areas elsewhere in the country as well.
“It shows yet again that this is not a one-off act by a commander. This is part of a strategy targeting all opposition-held areas. It is a mirror image of the starvation of people in Yarmouk [refugee camp in Damascus] or in Old Homs. It shows yet again how ready the government is to collectively harm areas of people that are supporting the opposition.”
While the destruction of Syria’s towns and cities during fighting has been well-documented, the eradication of neighborhoods as a form of punishment or deterrence against supporting the opposition has not been revealed.
The regime has claimed that all those fighting against it are internationally backed terrorists who have imposed their will on communities, which they then use as bases to hide and stage attacks.
Opposition-held parts of Aleppo have repeatedly been hit by large ballistic missiles, including scuds, as well as non-conventional high-explosive bombs dropped from helicopters, known as barrel bombs. Such attacks killed 13 people in Aleppo on Tuesday and have claimed more than 300 lives since the start of the year.
Earlier satellite images have also revealed the scale of destruction in Aleppo, Syria’s second city. A series of shots taken over other towns and cities during the past year has shown a physical landscape changed dramatically by the war.
Human Rights Watch called for its findings to be referred to the international criminal court and for compensation to be paid to homeowners. It also called for the international community to implement arms embargo that limit the supply of weapons and ammunition to the Syrian government.
Martin Chulov in Beirut – The Guardian
January 30, 2014
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