January 30, 2014

VI. Demolitions around Mezzeh airport, Damascus

Dates of demolitions: August, 2012; December, 2012-March, 2013

Estimated area demolished: 41.6 hectares

February 4, 2013

July 14, 2013

Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows that a total of 41.6 hectares of buildings was demolished around Mezzeh military airport, a military base in the southern Damascus suburbs, which is base of the Air Force Intelligence Service, one of Syria’s four main security services. According to the imagery, the demolitions took place mainly at some point between December 2012 and July 2013.[53] Limited demolitions took place also earlier, in August 2012.

When interviewed about demolitions in Damascus Hussein Makhlouf, the governor of the Damascus countryside to which the demolished areas around the Mezzeh airport belong, referred to decree 66, which was issued by President Bashar al-Assad on September 18, 2012. [54] The decree stipulates the development of two areas with illegally constructed houses, one of which seems to be the south-eastern side of the Mezzeh airport that was demolished. [55] Makhlouf said that demolitions would soon be carried out in Daraya, Harasta and Yalda. Although the decree refers to illegally built houses, Makhlouf in the interview said that the demolitions were essential to drive out rebels, according to the article.

The Mezzeh military airport and the adjacent demolished area link Damascus city and Daraya and Moadamiya, two towns in the Damascus countryside known for being opposition strongholds. Initial peaceful protests eventually turned into armed opposition and a significant number of armed opposition fighters used the town to stage attacks on government targets, including the airport. In August 2012, government forces launched a massive offensive against the two towns, described as one of the deadliest government assaults in the Syrian conflict up until that point.[56]

Satellite imagery shows that a small number of buildings just north-east of the Mezzeh airport were demolished in the same period as the August offensive, between August 22 and 26.[57] According to Yasser, a local resident interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the demolished houses were located near military barracks, which had come under attack by opposition fighters during the August clashes. Human Rights Watch has not been able to interview witnesses to these demolitions and more investigation is needed to determine whether this limited wave of demolitions was a violation of international law.

The second, more significant, wave of demolitions started in December 2012. According to Yasser, this phase followed an opposition attack on a government checkpoint at a key intersection on November 25 and killed all the soldiers there.[58] Yasser told Human Rights Watch that government forces easily resumed control of the residential area immediately adjacent to the airport called Khaleej.[59]

Yasser said that his father and grandfather who were living in the Khaleej at the time fled the area on November 25 as soon as they heard about the attack, fearing government retaliation against the civilian population.[60] Yasser told Human Rights Watch that he believed that around 3,000 buildings might have been demolished in total around the Mezzeh airport.[61] Satellite imagery shows that all buildings in a triangle between the airport and two roads to the south and east of the airport have been demolished. Although it is difficult to establish the exact number, satellite imagery indicates that several thousand buildings were demolished.[62]

Compared to the demolitions in the Tadamoun neighborhood, for example, at least some of those around the Mezzah airport appear to have been much less controlled and professional. Videos posted on YouTube in February, 2013, show several buildings being demolished by large uncontrolled explosions, throwing large pieces of building material hundreds of meters into the air.[63]

While opposition attacks on the Mezzeh military airport might have justified the government taking certain measures, the demolition of hundreds of residential buildings appears to have been disproportionate.

[53]Satellite imagery dates analyzed by Human Rights Watch: August 4 and 28, September 8, and November 29, 2012, February 4, and July 1, 2013; Sources: EUSI, USG and Astrium; Copyright: DigitalGlobe 2014 and CNES 2014.

[54] Sam Dagher, “Fighting to Hold Damascus, Syria Flattens Rebel ‘Slums’,” The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204707104578092113759746982 (accessed January 9, 2014).

[55]مرسوم بإحداث منطقتين تنظيميتين في نطاق محافظة دمشق ضمن المصور العام للمدينة,”(“The creation of two organizational decrees in the province of Damascus within the general scope of the City”), SANA state news agency, September 20, 2012, http://sana.sy/ara/2/2012/09/20/442479.htm(accessed January 9, 2014).

[56] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/27/world/middleeast/dozens-of-bodies-are-found-in-town-outside-damascus.html

[57]Satellite imagery dates analyzed by Human Rights Watch: August 4 and 28; Sources: EUSI, USG and Astrium; Copyright: DigitalGlobe 2014 and CNES 2014.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview, Lebanon, June 19, 2013.

[59] Human Rights Watch interview, Lebanon, June 19, 2013.

[60] Human Rights Watch interview, Lebanon, June 19, 2013.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview, Lebanon, June 19, 2013.

[62]Satellite imagery dates analyzed by Human Rights Watch: August 4 and 28, September 8, and November 29, 2012, February 4, and July 1, 2013; Sources: EUSI, USG and Astrium; Copyright: DigitalGlobe 2014 and CNES 2014.

[63]تفجير البيوت المحيطة بمطار المزة العسكري - السبت 16-2-2013,” (“Bombing of houses surrounding the Mezzeh military airport - Saturday 16/02/2013”), February 16, 2013, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/Vsjg-KIkMMM (accessed August 13, 2013).