Destroying Cities and Their Environs, Displacing Their People, and Seizing Their Properties Is the Syrian Regime’s Malicious Tripartite Crime to Punish Those Demanding or Dreaming of Political Change
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) shows in its latest report that destroying Ma’aret al Numan and Saraqeb cities and displacing their residents is a clear example of the Syrian regime’s tactics in its recent military campaign between early December 2019 and March 2020, noting that destroying cities and their environs, displacing their people, and seizing their properties is a malicious and criminal tripartite strategy by the Syrian regime intended to punish those demanding or dreaming of political change.
The 25-page report outlines the background of the destruction and forced displacement inflicted by the Syrian regime in and around Idlib, noting that the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have by far exceeded the other parties to the conflict in forcible displacement of populations due to several reasons, the foremost of which is the use of the air force, violent barbaric shelling and the population’s fear of brutal reprisals, of arrest, torture or illegal conscription into the Syrian regime’s forces. The report points out that in the first months of the military campaign which began on April 26, 2019, the population of large areas was displaced, before the Syrian regime and its allies intensified their military attacks at the end of 2019 on and around Idlib governorate. During this campaign they targeted Ma’aret al Numan city, Saraqeb and their environs, along with the northwestern suburbs of Aleppo.
The report adds that the region has witnessed five cease-fire agreements; the first of these was declared on August 1, 2019, while the latest one began on March 6, 2020. All these ceasefire agreements failed completely to achieve any actual cessation of combat operations. On the contrary, the report notes, each agreement was followed by a military escalation more violent than its predecessor, which led to the Syrian regime advancing on the ground.
The report provides an analysis of the destruction caused to Ma’aret al Numan city by the bombardment operations that it was exposed to since April 2019; this bombardment was focused particularly on the southern districts of the city, with the report using the help of high-resolution satellite imagery showing the entire area of the city. The report also provides several visual guides to the sites chosen to serve as illustrative examples of the total destruction of the city, as well as providing an additional analysis of destruction in Saraqeb city.
This report notes that the Syrian regime and its Russian ally carried out almost daily bombing operations on Ma’aret al Numan city, which were not limited to the last campaign that started at the end of 2019, but intensified in power over time and were more focused during the last campaign, with the process of destroying the city and displacing its people, according to the report, dating back to April 2019.
As the report states, the displacement of the people of the cities of Ma’aret al Numan and Saraqeb is organically linked to the process of destruction inflicted in these military operations, because destroying cities and towns has been a deliberate strategic objective of the Syrian regime and its allies in order to force the people towards surrender, displacement, and humiliation, since IDPs are usually the poorest members of society, with the loss of their homes, possessions, and any commercial properties leaving them destitute.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, Chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, says:
“The Syrian regime hasn’t just displaced hundreds of thousands through brutal violence, but pursued them through relentless bombardment, targeting camps, schools and gathering places where they were located. The regime also sought, along with its Russian ally, to obstruct and plunder desperately needed humanitarian aid by canceling the extension of the cross-border aid resolution, and finally by passing laws that contravene the most basic human rights principles with the objective of controlling their property and lands. This sequence of crimes is an essential part of the Syrian regime’s strategy in the issue of forced displacement in Syria.”
As the report further reveals, the Syrian regime’s and its Russian ally’s plan in all the besieged areas often starts with targeting vital facilities, with this barbaric strategy depending on forcing people to despair and to flee into displacement, with the report noting that when medical facilities, Civil Defense centers, and markets are bombed, this sends a clear, murderously violent message telling the people that they have no option but to surrender or leave.
The report documents at least 882 attacks by Russian-Syrian alliance forces in and around Idlib since April 26, 2019, up until May 29, 2020, including attacks on 220 places of worship, 218 educational facilities, 93 medical facilities, 86 Civil Defense centers, and 52 markets.
The report documents 30 cluster munitions attacks in and around Idlib during the same period, 27 of which were carried out by Syrian Regime forces, resulting in the deaths of 38 civilians, including 18 children and nine women (adult female), and injuring 36 people, while Russian forces carried out the remaining three attacks.
The report notes that since April 26, 2019, up until May 29, 2020, the Syrian regime carried out at least 21 incendiary weapon attacks and at least seven nail missile attacks, in addition to using chemical weapons in one attack, while the Syrian regime’s helicopters and fixed-wing warplanes dropped at least 4,849 barrel bombs on Idlib region in northwest Syria during the same period.
The report further notes that the investigation carried out by the Internal Board of Inquiry established by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, on August 1, 2019, to investigate the attacks that occurred in northwest Syria, which was issued on April 6, 2020, confirmed four incidents that occurred in the Idlib region after the military campaign began on April 26, 2019, and confirmed the Syrian regime’s implication in them.
The report cites Ma’aret al Numan city as a study model to demonstrate the true scope of the destruction that took place in the cities throughout the latest campaign that started in early December 2019, due to its being the largest and most populous city in the areas that the Syrian regime and its allies controlled during the last campaign, which lasted until March 2020. The report relies on satellite images taken on February 27, 2020, that is, after the Syrian regime and its allies took control of the city, noting that SNHR identified numerous points of destruction in the city, totaling approximately 770 points in all, 15 of which were of completely destroyed buildings, 716 of buildings which sustained average damage, and 36 points of buildings which sustained minor damage. The report further notes that according to the calculations conducted by the work team of the ratio of the points of destruction to the area of the inhabited city that the team analyzed, which is approximately 8.5 square kilometers (850 hectares), concluding that each one- square kilometer area contains 90 points that have been destroyed (9 points in every 10 hectares), meaning that at least two percent of the city’s area is completely destroyed, and approximately 40 percent of it is partially destroyed.
The report emphasizes that the destruction that afflicted Ma’aret al Numan city is not an isolated case, meaning that it is quite possible to compare it to the various other cities and towns where the Syrian regime has seized control. In this context, the report cites another city, Saraqeb, as another model that demonstrates that the destruction of cities and towns and the displacement of their people are goals in themselves for the Syrian regime in order to inflict the most severe types of punishment possible on anyone seeking or supporting political change and freedom.
The report stresses that the Syrian regime’s and its allies’ continuous bombardment over many months, has consistently targeted vital civilian facilities and residential neighborhoods, with the regime and its allies not focusing this bombardment against areas containing combatants, but rather using a strategy of indiscriminate and ferocious bombing, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. The bombardment also causes terror among the population of people of brutal reprisals. All of these factors led to the population of other areas fleeing as soon as the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies approached them, a pattern which further undermines the Syrian regime’s implausible claims to be ridding Syria of terrorists and protecting its people.
As the report reveals, the bombing and destruction carried out by Syrian Regime forces has caused the displacement of nearly one million people since December 2019, due to the Syrian regime and its allies taking control of new cities and towns in the southern suburbs of Idlib and the northwestern suburbs of Aleppo.
The report further notes that the terrible living conditions IDPs suffer in light of the inadequacy of the humanitarian response and the high population density, especially in the regular and informal camps and shelters that are wholly insufficient for housing, mean that IDPs are one of the groups most vulnerable to infection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report adds that after destroying buildings and whole neighborhoods and displacing their residents comes the third part of the regime’s campaign of dispossession and humiliation against Syrian citizens, namely passing laws giving the Syrian regime and its allies total possession of and power over the property of the displaced people. The report outlines a number of relevant laws and decrees enacted by the Syrian regime since 2012, noting that they violate basic human rights and the Syrian constitution.
The report calls on the UN Security Council to issue a binding resolution that prevents and punishes the crime of enforced displacement, compels the cessation of enforced displacement, and explicitly provides for the right of forcibly displaced people to return safely to their homes, and receive reparation for what they have suffered, and to compel the Syrian regime to stop its settlements and the population replacements it carries out in cities and neighborhoods whose residents have been displaced; that is to say, forced displacement threatens the region and Syrian territory, destabilizing security and stability.
The report further calls on the OHCHR to assist in the building of a central housing and real estate database in Syria, with the aim of achieving reparations, implementing voluntary repatriation programs and ensuring restitution of housing, land and real estate in accordance with the UN Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons – Pinheiro Principles, to prepare a special report on destroying buildings, shops and vital facilities in northwest Syria, and to report to the Security Council on the seriousness and sensitivity of the issue of property destruction.
The report also provides a set of recommendations to the UN Envoy to Syria, and to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI), as well as to the Russian regime.