Syrian Government Punishing Rebels By Razing Their Neighborhoods, Human Rights Watch Reports

There's no doubt that Syria's civil war has ripped apart the country, with President Bashar al-Assad's ruthless army directly linked to 11,000 deaths. Now, Human Rights Watch has released photographic evidence that the Syrian government is responsible for destroying entire neighborhoods in the cities of Damascus and Hama. The neighborhoods were considered strongholds for opposition forces against the Syrian government.

From July 2012-July 2013, the Syrian army reportedly used explosives and bulldozers to sweep in and destroy seven pro-opposition neighborhoods. Syrian authorities "violated the laws of war either because they served no necessary military purpose and appeared intended to punish the civilian population, or because they caused disproportionate harm to civilians," according to HRW. The organization says the perpetrators should be tried as war criminals.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that government forces gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible for them to remove most of their belongings. Owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said that they had received no compensation. Several house owners claimed that contrary to the government’s stated pretext for the demolitions, they had all the necessary permits and documents for their houses, but their homes were nevertheless destroyed.

No one was killed or injured as a result of the demolitions, HRW notes. The report was based on 14 satellite images, interviews with 16 witnesses and home owners, media reports, government statements, and online videos posted immediately after the aftermath.

Areas around Mezzeh airport in Damascus provided a vital link for the opposition. But after protests turned violent, Syrian forces "launched against the two towns what has since been described as one of the deadliest assaults in the Syrian conflict to that point."

An interactive before-and-after view of the Masha neighborhood in Hama shows the extent of the damage:

“No one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict,” says Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at HRW. “This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion. The UN Security Council should, with an ICC referral, send a clear message that coverups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.”

Even though thousands of lives have been uprooted by the Syria war — and an estimated 130,000 people have died — the country's heritage is also at stake. Aleppo's famous covered marketplace, one of the oldest in the world, has been reduced to rubble. The medieval castle of Krak des Chevaliers in Homs is partially destroyed. UNESCO site cities and structures made by the ancient civilizations of Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, and Greeks are in peril of being lost forever.

All images courtesy of Human Rights Watch.