January 30, 2014

VII. Demolitions in Harran Al-`Awamid Neighborhood, Damascus

Date of demolitions: February-April, 2013 (approximate)

Estimated area of destruction: 14.3 hectares

August 28, 2012

May 23, 2013

In Harran al-`Awamid, a town of about 12,000 people three kilometers north-east of the Damascus International Airport, government forces demolished a total of 14.3 hectares of buildings in early 2013.

According to media reports around February 12, 2013, the Syrian authorities had issued a decree to expropriate land in several areas around the international airport, including Harran al-`Awamid, to build power lines.[64]

However the circumstances of the demolitions, witness and government statements indicate, that the operation was related to the armed conflict. On January 28, just two weeks before media reports about the expropriation decree, opposition fighters in Harran al-`Awamid attacked the only government checkpoint in the town, forcing government troops to abandon it, according to activists and Tarik, a local resident interviewed by Human Rights Watch.[65] In response, government forces launched artillery, rocket and aerial attacks on the town, which caused the majority of the population to leave.[66] Satellite imagery shows damage consistent with the allegations of shelling in the period between August 28, 2012 and May 23, 2013, the two dates for which imagery was available to Human Rights Watch.[67]

In addition to the attack on the government checkpoint, opposition forces, some of whom were likely based in Harran al-`Awamid, had been conducting attacks on the airport in the months before the demolitions, which likely also factored into the government’s decision to attack and destroy the town.[68] Government statements and pro-government media reports about Harran al-`Awamid before, during, and after the demolitions focused on the clashes between government and opposition forces. In December, pro-government media reported that government forces had killed several “terrorists” in Harran al-`Awamid and confiscated weapons and ammunition in their possession.[69] SANA, Syria’s state-run news agency, published a similar statement in February.[70] And on April 7, SANA announced that Harran al-`Awamid, among other places, had been cleaned of “terrorists.”[71]

Satellite imagery confirms that about 14.3 hectares of buildings were destroyed between August 28, 2012 and May 23, 2013, the dates of the imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch.[72] Limited satellite coverage over this area prevented a more accurate determination of the time frame from satellite imagery alone, but in a posting on its Facebook page on February 17, the Coordination Council of Greater Damascus wrote that bulldozers had been demolishing houses in the town for ten days, indicating that the demolitions in Harran Al `Awamid started around February 7.[73]

Tarik, a local resident who witnessed the demolitions, told Human Rights Watch that he believed the authorities had demolished about 500 houses, half of all the houses in in Harran Al `Awamid.[74] This is consistent with the damage visible on the May satellite imagery, which shows that the majority of houses in the center were demolished. There are also multiple areas of extensive building demolition within several kilometers of the center of town radiating in most directions. According to Tarik, people dressed in civilian clothes looted furniture from people’s houses before they were demolished by explosives and heavy construction machinery.

Tarik also said that local residents had received no warning or compensation and no formal explanation about the demolitions.[75]

While opposition attacks on the airport might have justified the government taking protective measures, the demolition of hundreds of houses, many kilometers away from the airport, appears to have been disproportionate.

[64] Media reports refer to decree 18905. Human Rights Watch has not been able to obtain a copy of the decree itself. The most recent decree on the Syrian government’s site at the time of writing was issued in September 2012. Syrian Government, “Decisions/Resolutions,” (2007-2012), http://www.youropinion.gov.sy/ViewDecisions?type=k (accessed August 13, 2013); “الحكومة السورية تقرر استملاك مناطق على طريق مطار دمشق الدولي,” [The Syrian government decides to expropriate areas on the road to Damascus International Airport],”Sham Times, February 10,2013, http://www.chamtimes.com/157480.html, (accessed August 12, 2013); “الحكومة السورية تقرر استملاك مناطق على طريق مطار دمشق الدولي,” (“The Syrian government decides to expropriate areas on the road to Damascus International Airport”), http://www.dp-news.com/pages/detail.aspx?articleid=139831 (accessed August 13, 2013); “الحكومة السورية تستملك أراضي قرى محيطة بالمطار لتوسيع شبكة الكهرباء والأهالي يشككون في نواياها,” (“Syrian government expropriates the villages surrounding the airport lands for the expansion of the electricity grid and residents are skeptical about the intentions”), Anba Moscow, February 12, 2013, http://anbamoscow.com/aworld/20130212/380087626-print.html (accessed August 13, 2013).

[65] Human Rights Watch phone interview, July 26, 2013. See also: ““الحكومة السورية تستملك أراضي قرى محيطة بالمطار لتوسيع شبكة الكهرباء والأهالي يشككون في نواياها ,” (“Syrian government expropriates the villages surrounding the airport lands for the expansion of the electricity grid and residents are skeptical about the intentions”), Anba Moscow, February 12, 2013, http://anbamoscow.com/aworld/20130212/380087626-print.html (accessed August 13, 2013).

[66] Human Rights Watch phone interview, July 26, 2013.

[67]Satellite imagery dates analyzed by Human Rights Watch: August 28, 2012, and May 23, 2013; Sources: EUSI, USG and Astrium; Copyright: DigitalGlobe 2014 and CNES 2014.

[68] “Syria conflict: 'Fierce clashes' near Damascus airport,” BBC News, November 29, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20547799 (accessed August 12, 2013); “المجلس العسكري يتعهد السيطرة على مطار دمشق ,” (“Military Council vows to control Damascus airport”), Al Yaum, November 30, 2012, http://www.alyaum.com/News/art/64371.html (accessed August 8, 2013).

[69]الجيش العربي السوري يواصل تطهير ريف دمشق.. وقتلى الإرهابيين بالمئات أغلبهم من جنسيات غير سورية ,”(“Syrian Arab armycontinues tocleanseDamascus killing hundreds of terrorists, mostly from non-Syrian nationalities”), Al Baath Media, December 8, 2012, http://www.albaathmedia.sy/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=66655 (accessed August 10, 2013).

[70]سلسلة عملياتضد الإرهابيين في ريف دمشق وإيقاع أعداد منهمبين قتيل ومصابفي حلب وريفي إدلب وحمص, (“Series of operations against the terrorists in Damascus and a number of them dead and injured in a rural Aleppo and Idlib, Homs”), SANA state news agency, February 2, 2013, http://sana.sy/ara/336/2013/02/02/464988.htm (accessed August 13, 2013).

[71]إتمام الطوق على الغوطة الشرقيةوتنظيف المنطقة الممتدة من مطار دمشقإلى جنوب غرب الضمير من الإرهابيين,” (“Surrounding East Gouta and cleaning the area from terrorists from Damascus Airport to the south-west”), SANA state news agency, April 7, 2013, http://sana.sy/ara/336/2013/04/07/476048.htm (accessed August 5, 2013).

[72]Satellite imagery dates analyzed by Human Rights Watch: August 28, 2012, and May 23, 2013; Sources: EUSI, USG and Astrium; Copyright: DigitalGlobe 2014 and CNES 2014.

[73] Post to Coordinating Greater Damascus, Facebook, February 17, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/Damas.Biggest.Org/posts/482698551787268 (accessed January 9, 2014).

[74] Human Rights Watch phone interview, July 26, 2013.

[75] Ibid.