Conflict & Justice

The Syrian government is razing entire neighborhoods — and that's not the half of it


A family flee Maarat al Numan in January 2013.


Tracey Shelton

BEIRUT, Lebanon — It’s not news that the Syrian civil war has led to appalling property destruction as well as a tragic loss of life. But a report released by Human Rights Watch on Thursday says that in addition to the homes hit incidentally during strikes on military targets, the Syrian government has systematically destroyed vast swaths of the Damascus suburbs — not with missiles, but bulldozers. Entire communities are being lost.

Then-and-now satellite imagery portrays the extent of the destruction, which according to the report has taken place over the past two years in seven suburbs of Hama and Damascus. Eyewitness accounts express the human toll.

“As I was walking I looked back and I saw the bulldozer demolishing my shop,” a local restaurant owner told HRW in Qaboun, Damascus. Government soldiers had arrived without warning and ordered him to leave the premises on foot leaving everything behind. “The shop was opened by my grandfather many years ago. I personally managed the restaurant for eight years. Before my eyes, all of my family’s hard work was destroyed in one second.”  

Other residents also said they had received no warning of the demolitions and were forbidden to remove their belongings.

The HRW report concluded that the demolitions “either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians in violation of the laws of war.”

This is not the only method by which entire communities as well as numerous historical sites have been obliterated in Syria. As the first round of peace talks on Syria come to a close in Geneva, here are four more stories that show how far the country will have to go to recover.

Ballistic missiles: The story of Aleppo

Destruction from the Tariq missile strike in Aleppo on Jan. 31, 2013. (Courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

In March 2013, GlobalPost investigated the sites of four alleged Scud missile impacts in the city of Aleppo.

The scene was one of total destruction. Entire streets lay in rubble. Injured families picked through the debris in hopes of salvaging any of their possessions. At one site, rescue workers still searched the ruins for the missing.

In the area of Ard al Hamra, where locals said they recovered 127 bodies of which half were children, 12-year-old Salwa sat near the ruins of her old home where she lost her entire family. Cuts and bruises were visible around the bandages that covered her head and legs. She described her ordeal. 

“When it hit it was like gravity pulling me," she said. "I felt like I was crashing through things. And then I found myself in the middle of the courtyard. Everything around me was all destroyed. All the walls were down. We were all at home and I am the only one who survived. I have a broken leg and my eye is gone.”

Of nine ballistic missile sites HRW investigated between February and July last year, seven had no apparent military targets in the vicinity.

Indiscriminate shelling and ground combat: The story of Maarat al Numan

A family flees Maarat al Numan in January 2013. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)

In May 2012, Maarat al Numan was a bustling city. When I returned in January 2013, it was rubble. Not one building remained unscathed. Few were standing at all. The only sign of civilian life was a truck loaded with women and children fleeing the area.

Maarat al Numan has been the scene of relentless fighting since rebel forces first attacked government checkpoints surrounding the city in June 2012. Parts of the city have changed hands constantly as both sides fight for control of nearby oil deposits, a key military base and the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Both sides have destroyed countless homes and public buildings in ground battles and constant shelling, while government warplanes continue to level buildings almost daily.

Maarat al Numan’s story is by no means unique. The same is happening to cities across Syria, particularly those situated along key highways, such as Saraqib, Ariha and Khan Shayhun and those close to military bases like Binnish and Taftanaz.

Air Raids: The story of Mara

A man holds the body of a child killed in an air raid in Aleppo in September 2012. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)

At 7 a.m., we were fast asleep in the town of Mara, in Aleppo province. Suddenly, the shutters rattled on their hinges and the door blew in as a large boom filled the silence. I followed my host Rafah al-Huseni, a veteran of air raids, into the courtyard. She had come to Mara with her husband, a former fighter pilot who defected from the regime after their neighborhood in Homs was destroyed by air strikes. Her mother, who cowered under a blanket fortress inside, had clearly not grown as accustomed to such attacks as her daughter.

Huseni checked for the plane’s location. She described the pilot's routine that had become so familiar to her.

“The fighter jets always circle around and drop a second one," she said. "You see how she comes down, down, down so low? We better take cover.”

The bombs fell 5 yards apart, killing two of Huseni’s neighbors, injuring seven more and flattening seven homes. The damage stretched across several blocks, with windows smashed, walls and roofs pierced by shrapnel and cars and other property damaged by debris.

Huseni’s husband, Captain Wasel Ayoob, described the deadly capability of the regime's aircraft. The fighter jets can carry up to four 550-pound bombs or two 1,000-pound bombs with a kill radius of around 650 yards in an open area. The helicopters are usually loaded with 550-pound bombs. All aircraft are armed with either 14.7-mm or 23-mm guns.

Air raids continue to claim lives and destroy towns and cities across the country. A 10-day raid over the Christmas period in Aleppo killed more than 400 people in December 2013, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One hundred and seventeen of them were children.

Looting and theft: Syria’s heritage, destroyed

An ancient mural from Idlib's Dead Cities lies pockmarked with bullets in the Alma Arra Museum in Maarat al Numan. It's one of only a handful of items remaining after heavy looting and shelling. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)

The Paris-based organization Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat supplied GlobalPost with a three-page list of museums and ancient sites that have been damaged and looted by government and opposition forces during the past two years. Here are some you may have heard of:

  • The National Museum of Aleppo
  • The desert fortress of Palmyra
  • The historial districts or ‘old cities’ of Aleppo and Homs
  • The ancient city of Bosra
  • The ‘Dead Cities’ of Idlib
  • The Great Mosque of Aleppo
  • Umm al-Zenar Church, Homs
  • The ancient citadels of Aleppo, Homs and Hama
  • The crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers

Once rich in archeological treasures, Syria has now become a place of rampant looting and theft. Accounts abound of fighters from all sides of the conflict stealing, looting and smuggling everything from jewelry and furniture to oil and artifacts. Both the personal loss to civilian families and the squandering of national resources and treasures will devastate Syria for decades to come, even if the conflict stopped now.

An ancient pot damaged by fighting is one of the few items that remain after heavy looting in the world renowned Alma Arra Museum in Maarat al Numan. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)