BEIRUT - The Syrian government used controlled explosives and bulldozers to raze thousands of residential buildings, in some cases entire neighborhoods, in a campaign that appeared designed to punish civilians sympathetic to the opposition or to cause disproportionate harm to them, an international human rights group said Thursday.
The demolitions took place between July 2012 and July 2013 in seven pro-opposition districts in and around the capital, Damascus, and the central city of Hama, according to a 38-page report by Human Rights Watch. The New York-based group said the deliberate destruction violated international law, and called for an immediate end to the practice.
"Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war," Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher for HRW, said. "These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government."
Human Rights Watch said many of the demolished buildings were apartment blocks, and that thousands of families have lost their homes because of the destruction.
It said government officials and media have described the demolitions as part of urban planning or an effort to remove illegally constructed buildings. But Human Rights Watch said its investigation determined that military forces supervised the demolitions, which in each instance targeted areas that had recently been hit by fighting and were widely understood to be pro-opposition.
There also is no indication, HRW said, that pro-government districts have been targeted for similar controlled destruction.
The neighborhoods targeted were Masha al-Arbayeen and Wadi al-Jouz in Hama, and Qaboun, Tadamoun, Barzeh and the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus as well as Harran al-Awamid outside the capital.
The report includes satellite images of the neighborhoods before and after the demolitions, providing a window on the scale of the destruction.
Buildings in the Hama neighborhood of Masha al-Arbaeen, a wedge-shaped district bordered by highways on three sides, are clearly visible in a photo dated Sept. 28, 2012. In a second photo from Oct. 13, the buildings have been pulverized into a white smudge, while the adjacent neighborhoods remain untouched.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the government bulldozers directed by the military moved in after the rebels retreated from the area in the face of an army offensive. Another Hama neighborhood, Wadi al-Jouz, faced a similar fate.
HRW cited one woman who lived near Wadi al-Jouz, who said the army came to her district afterwards and announced over loudspeakers "that they would destroy our neighborhood like they destroyed Wadi al-Jouz and Masha al-Arbaeen should a singled bullet be fired from here."
In the cases of both Hama neighborhoods, local residents told Human Rights Watch opposition fighters had used the districts to enter and leave the city because of their location on the outskirts.
The report also provided accounts and images of the Damascus neighborhoods of Qaboun, Tadamoun, Barzeh and the Mezzeh military airport, as well as Harran al-Awamid outside the capital.
Residents said government forces gave them little or no warning before razing their homes, and it was nearly impossible to remove their belonging before the demolitions, the report said. HRW also said that owners it interviewed reported receiving no compensation from the government.
Human Rights Watch said that noted that some of the demolitions took place near military facilities or in areas recently engulfed in fighting.
"It's not enough that there's some tangential military objective or benefit to conducting the demolitions," HRW's Lama Fakih said. "The standard really requires that it be militarily necessary, and even with that military necessity 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 it based its report on 14 satellite images, interviews with 16 witnesses and owners of houses that were demolished. It also reviewed media reports, government statements, and videos posted online of the destruction and its aftermath.
"No one should be fooled by the government's claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict," Solvang said. "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 cover-ups and government impunity won't stand in the way of justice for victims."