Syria under attack over its scorched earth policy

Syrian authorities have flattened seven residential districts for no apparent military objective in a form of collective punishment for people living in areas that support the rebels fighting president Bashar al-­Assad’s government.

Assad: Yet to be held to account. Picture: Getty
Assad: Yet to be held to account. Picture: Getty

The US-based Human Rights Watch published “before” and “after” satellite images of the destruction, along with witness testimony, in a website report.

It said Syria deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of homes in the year from July 2012, estimating the built-up area destroyed at 360 acres, and said many of the buildings were tower blocks of up to eight storeys. It named the districts as Mashaa al-Arbaeen and Wadi al-Jouz in the central city of Hama, and Qaboun, al-Tadamon, Barzeh, Harran al-Awamid and Mezze airport in and around the capital, Damascus.

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Buildings in Mashaa al-­Arbaeen, a wedge-shaped district bordered by main roads on three sides, are clearly visible in a photograph dated 28 September, 2012. In a further photo from 13 October the buildings have been pulverised into a white smudge, while the adjacent neighbourhoods remain untouched.

Residents told Human Rights Watch government bulldozers, directed by the military, moved in after rebels retreated from an army offensive. Another Hama neighbourhood, Wadi al-Jouz, faced a similar fate. The rights group cited one woman who lived near Wadi al-Jouz, who said the army came and announced over loudspeakers “that they would destroy our neighbourhood like they destroyed Wadi al-Jouz and Mashaa al-Arbaeen should a single bullet be fired from here”.

In the cases of both Hama neighbourhoods, local residents said rebels had used the suburbs to enter and leave the city.

Syrian officials and pro-government media had said the demolitions were conducted to remove buildings constructed without the necessary permits.

But Human Rights Watch said “the context and circumstances” of the destruction showed it was meant to punish civilians living in areas used by the rebels. It said the demolitions often occurred after regime forces cleared an area of rebels and in some cases extended several miles around military or strategic sites.

“It’s not enough that there’s some tangential military objective or benefit to conducting the demolitions,” Human Right Watch’s Lama Fakih said. “The standard requires it be militarily necessary, and even with that there’s a manner in which these demolitions need to take place that does not disproportionately harm civilians, which has not been the case here.”

Human Rights Watch said international law had been violated. “No-one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict,” said researcher Ole Solvang. “This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion.

“The United Nations Security Council should, with an International Criminal Court referral, send a clear message that cover-ups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.”