‘Razed to the Ground’: Syrian Authorities Demolished Entire Neighborhoods Using Explosives and Bulldozers, Says HRW Report

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By Gopi Chandra Kharel | February 1, 2014 12:37 AM EST

A new ground-breaking report claims Syrian authorities have deliberately demolished thousands of residential buildings, and in some cases entire neighborhoods, using explosives and bulldozers, in Syria's largest cities.


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (Reuters)

The 14-page report by Human Rights Watch said that the demolitions, in the capital Damascus and the city of Hama, served no obvious military goal and were in contravention to the international rules of war.

The gruesome account of the deliberate demolishment of buildings in thousands of numbers, between 2012 and 2013, was published in a report titled 'Razed to Ground' on Thursday. The report has shrugged off claims made by pro-government media outlets that the demolitions were part of urban planning efforts or removal of illegally constructed buildings.

The vandalisms were supervised by military forces and often followed fighting in the areas between government and opposition forces, the report claimed.

"The 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," it stated.

"Human Rights Watch concluded that seven cases of large-scale demolitions documented in this report violated the laws of war," the report said, adding that the demolitions tended to serve no necessary military purpose and appeared to be aimed at punishing innocent civilians.

The first incident of a large scale demolition reportedly took place in July 2012. Citing satellite imagery, analyzed by Human Rights Watch, the organization claimed that Syrian authorities have demolished a total of over 145 hectares of mostly residential buildings in seven neighborhoods in Damascus and Hama.

Thousands of families lost their homes as a result of this alleged demolitions that destroyed buildings, including apartment blocks some of which were as much as eight stories high.

The reported demolitions took place in areas that are widely considered by the authorities and the general public to be opposition strongholds. "As far as Human Rights Watch knows, there have been no similar demolitions in areas that generally support the government, although many houses in those areas were also allegedly built without the necessary permits," the report read.

The government forces carried out the demolitions with little or no warnings, making it impossible for people to shift their belongings. Additionally, owners interviewed by the organization also said that they received no compensation while many others claimed that in contrary to the government's stated reason, they all had the necessary permits and documents for their houses.

"Under the laws of war, parties to a conflict may only attack military objectives. The international or wanton destruction of civilian property is unlawful unless the property is being used for a military purpose, such as for the deployment of opposing forces," the report concluded.  

"Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court".

The report came after the international community met in Geneva to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the bloody civil war in Syria that has been going on for years now. Unfortunately, for the United Nations, the prospects of a meaningful peace process seem bleak as the members from both the Syrian government and the opposition took tough stances against each other and appeared absolutely unwilling to give up.

The development also comes as the Obama administration on Thursday slammed Syria for failing to fulfill its pledges to surrender its most dangerous chemical weapons for destruction. Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed to surrender the chemical arsenal considered one of the biggest in the world, to skirt America's threat to launch missile strikes last summer, in response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the suburbs of its capital.

Just as the international community was preparing for the Geneva II convention to discuss peaceful negations, a series of photographs were released last week that showed Syrian government's systematic torture and murder of detainees.

The 55,000 digital images of approximately 11,000 corpses of detainees were reported to have been smuggled out of Syria by a former photographer of the regime known as 'Caesar'. But the expectation that these photographs would succeed in leveraging more pressure on the Assad regime to give up atrocities and for the representative to agree for a peaceful transition of government were all in vain as the government's representative appeared to be poised to prove that they had done nothing wrong.

Adding fuel to the fire, calls for President Bashar Assad and his aides to face justice have always faltered over the fact that Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. More importantly, the fact that Russia, with a veto power in the United Nations, has always remained a staunch ally to Syria, which has only helped to further delay the peace process and justice.

Dialogues appeared to be heading towards a stalemate in the Geneva meet last week as the peace talk got off to a shaky start. Syria's foreign minister Walid al-Moualem lashed out at UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

"We have come here to put an end to terrorism and its bitter consequences," he said. "Diplomacy and terrorism cannot go in parallel. Diplomacy must succeed by fighting terrorism."

The latest report by the Human Rights Watch on the alleged destruction of civilian property is only one of many evidences offered to the international community about the human rights violations and atrocities meted out by the Assad regime in Syria towards innocent civilians. But like all other evidences, this is also likely to be hidden behind the staunch objectives of the regime that sees justice in wiping out the rebellion forces in the country that it calls terrorists.

According to the UN, the death toll in Syria has surpassed 100,000 ever since the civil war broke out, which has been the biggest one in the contemporary times. Although the figure is likely to be much higher, the UN has said that it is no longer able to prove reliable casualty reports of the civil war.

The fact that there are currently over 2 million Syrian refugees and over 4 million internally displaced persons tends to speak volumes of the scale of the problem. Only time will say if the United Nations can ultimately come up with a permanent solution to the problem that has plagued the country for far too long. 

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Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (Reuters)
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