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Destruction-in-Progress: Revolution, Repression and War Planning in Syria (2011 Onwards)


Abstract and Figures

The infra-state confl ict that has engulfed Syria since March 2011 began with a popular and peaceful mobilization calling for freedom and dignity. In 2014, after three years of heavy repression by the regime and the militarization of part of the opposition, large parts of the country are destroyed. The extent of urban destruction in Syria questions the role of the material goods in an armed confl ict. Indeed, according to international humanitarian law, ‘civilian objects’ cannot be targeted in the absence of clearly defi ned and circumscribed military objectives. In Syria, the use of destruction as an instrument of warfare is documented clear and well. In other terms, and as this article tries to demonstrate, in many respects urban destruction seems to be more than a side eff ect of the armed confrontation. Drawing on a spatially informed analysis, the article aims to document urban destruction and off er analytical leads as to such destruction’s place in the regime warfare. To do so, the scope of urban destruction, and the historical and spatial contexts in which it takes place are presented, followed by a classifi cation of four types of urban destruction based on diff erent spatial patt erns. The typology of the diff erent spatial patt erns of destruction shows that destruction is not only a consequence of war but is central to the regime’s strategy.
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more than half a million wounded; 6.5
million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs);
2.7 millions of refugees outside Syria.2 These
terrifying numbers also indicate the scope
of the physical destruction of the built en-
vironment. In particular, whole urban neigh-
bourhoods are turned into rubble, and cities
are razed to the ground.
The scope of urban destruction in Syria
raises two sets of questions. First, from a
prospective point of view, it is such that it
will be at the centre of the political, economic
and humanitarian equation to be solved in a
post-conflict Syria, linked to the question of
the re-settlement of the millions of displaced
people and refugees. As a consequence, and
as learned from other recent infra-state
The infra-state con ict that has engulfed
Syria since March 2011 began with a popular
and peaceful mobilization calling for freedom
and dignity, then asking for the fall of the
regime when faced with heavy repression
(Majed, 2014). The uprising, which started in
the southern city of Der’a, expanded rapidly
to most of the Syrian territory, especially
in cities, large or small. In 2014, after three
years of heavy repression by the regime and
the militarization of part of the opposition,
the country is destroyed. The human toll
of the Syrian crisis features regularly in the
headlines of the newspapers: in April 2014,
for a population of 21 million inhabitants, it
amounted to 150,000 deaths1 – one-third of
whom are civilians; 17,000 missing persons;
Revolution, Repression and War
Planning in Syria (2011 Onwards)
The infra-state con ict that has engulfed Syria since March 2011 began with a
popular and peaceful mobilization calling for freedom and dignity. In 2014, after
three years of heavy repression by the regime and the militarization of part of the
opposition, large parts of the country are destroyed. The extent of urban destruction
in Syria questions the role of the material goods in an armed con ict. Indeed,
according to international humanitarian law, ‘civilian objects’ cannot be targeted
in the absence of clearly de ned and circumscribed military objectives. In Syria, the
use of destruction as an instrument of warfare is documented clear and well. In other
terms, and as this article tries to demonstrate, in many respects urban destruction
seems to be more than a side e ect of the armed confrontation. Drawing on a
spatially informed analysis, the article aims to document urban destruction and o er
analytical leads as to such destruction’s place in the regime warfare. To do so, the
scope of urban destruction, and the historical and spatial contexts in which it takes
place are presented, followed by a classi cation of four types of urban destruction
based on di erent spatial pa erns. The typology of the di erent spatial pa erns of
destruction shows that destruction is not only a consequence of war but is central to
the regime’s strategy.
one is to elaborate on the question of urban
violence. The first one would be to frame
violence mainly in terms of intentionality,
to understand it as a causal and linear
relationship (even if not achieved): from a
project to the definition of an objective, and
to its possible result. The second difficulty
would be somehow to disconnect the urban
and the violence, suggesting that violence
is a process applied to the urban, from the
outside. The urban would in this regard
be considered as a mere stage on which
actors would apply their intentionality, an
entity separated from the rest of society,
whose specific quality (urbanity) would be
contrasted with an ‘outside’, and destroyed
from outside.
Although this article addresses such
theoretical concerns and is written as the war
still rages, it presents the first elements of a
research programme on ‘cities, revolution
and war in Syria’. It aims at documenting
urban destruction and at offering analytical
leads as to such destruction’s place in the
regime warfare. To do so, the scope of
urban destruction, and the historical and
spatial contexts in which it takes place are
presented, followed by a classification of four
types of urban destruction based on different
spatial patterns. This article focuses on the
destruction carried out by the Syrian regime,
which is without comparison superior to that
carried out by the armed opposition.
Sources on physical destruction are para-
doxically both scarce and aplenty: images of
bombings and of collapsed buildings flow out
from Syria every day, but no survey of the
country is available. The full scope of urban
destruction is therefore difficult to assess.
However, some aspects of the destruction
of the material environment are researched
in order to document the indiscriminate
shelling and bombing of civilian areas,
which is one of the specificities of this con-
flict (UN Human Rights Council, Human
Rights Watch); to assess the humanitarian
needs within the country (UNICEF); or to
prepare the future (UNRWA [United Nations
conflicts – for instance in Lebanon (Verdeil,
2001) or in Kosovo (Herscher, 2007) – the
whole issue of ‘reconstruction’ is already in-
cluded in the current destruction-in-progress.
Second, the scope of the destruction ad-
dresses the issue of material goods in an
armed conflict. Indeed, according to inter-
national humanitarian law,3 ‘civilian objects’
cannot be targeted in the absence of clearly
refined and circumscribed military objectives.
In Syria, the use of destruction as an instru-
ment of warfare is documented clear and
well. In other terms, and as this article will
try to demonstrate, in many respects urban
destruction seems to be more than a side
effect of the armed confrontation.
In the context of war, urban destruction
therefore addresses more theoretical questions
about the specificities of urban violence, as
suggested by the editor of this special issue.
Can we indentify an urban violence per se?
How would it be defined? The importance
of urban destruction in recent conflicts
(Lebanon in 1975–1990; Bosnia in 1992–1996;
Palestine during the second intifada started
in 2000; Gaza strip in December 2008/January
2009, and in summer 2014) and the rise of
the war on terror following the terrorists
acts of 9/11 in New York, led to a fresh
understanding of cities as the new sites of
political violence in the wars of the post-cold
war era (Graham, 2004a). Urban destruction
has been in part encapsulated in the concept
of urbicide, understood as the ‘killing of
the cities’ (Graham, 2004b). It points to the
destruction of the cities as an objective per
se, as ‘a particular formation of purposive
violence where urbanity is the strategic object
of violence’ (Campbell et al., 2007).
The concept of urbicide is useful to think
inclusively materiality in contemporary war-
fare (Coward, 2009), and to identify the con-
crete sites of political violence. In addition,
following Sara Fregonese (2009), urbicide
helps to ‘highlight a spectrum of different degrees
by which urban space is shaped by political
violence’ in different contexts. However, in this
field, two main difficulties lie ahead when
come from four governorates only5 (Homs,
Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib); in Jordan
(700,000 refugees),6 50 per cent come from
neighbouring Der’a, followed by Damascus
and Aleppo; in Turkey, about 80 per cent of
the refugees originate from northern Syria,
mainly from the regions of Idlib, Latakia,
Azaz, Aleppo and its northern area. On a
more local scale, the contrasts are sharper:
some cities have been nearly totally destroyed
(like al-Qusayr, in the south-west of Homs,
near the Lebanese frontier). A survey among
8,000 clients of the UNRWA programme for
microfinance reported that, in June 2013, in
Damascus and Aleppo, over half of their
homes (55.7 per cent) had been damaged,
14 per cent of which completely destroyed
(UNRWA, 2014).
In armed conflicts, destruction is obviously
a consequence of the physical confrontation
between opposed groups, and frontlines are
doomed to be turned into no-man’s-lands,
especially when confrontation takes place
in built environment. Buildings are used as
shelters, as surveillance towers, as strategic
strongholds for snipers, or to launch attacks,
etc. However, the importance of the physical
destruction in some cities of Syria goes
beyond frontlines types: whole buildings and
neighbourhoods are destroyed as shown for
instance in the photos of Homs (figure 1).
The scale of the destruction of built
environment is to be related first to the
massive use of shelling by the regime forces
since the beginning of the repression. Some
destruction is also inflicted by the mortars
and rockets fired by the opposition groups.
They cannot however be compared to the
aerial and long-range strike power that is in
the hands of the regime army. The British-
based NGO Action on Armed Violence
documented twelve types of arms most
used in Syria. It underlines that aviation and
helicopter bombing, as well as the larger
missile-types, are only in the hands of the
regime forces.7 Shelling of cities is the result
of strikes from ground artillery and tanks;
from aerial bombardment by fighter jets, and
Relief and Works Agency] team on Syria’s
reconstruction). Drawing on a scholarly and
personal knowledge of Syria, this article was
written with no direct access to Syria, for
obvious security restrictions. It relies on open
sources (newspapers, reports from NGOs and
international organizations, scientific articles,
books), on sources from Syria gathered by
activists’ networks (reports, videos etc.),
and on direct accounts from within Syria,
from contacts having left Syria at the time of
writing, or who are still there.
Destruction of the Built Environment in Syria
Episodes of urban violence and destruction
are part of Syrian history. Close to us, the
bombing of Hama, a large city in central
Syria in February 1982, ordered by president
Hafez al-Asad to break an insurrection of
the Muslim Brotherhood, killed an estimated
10,000 to 30,000 inhabitants and destroyed
vast areas of the city (Lefevre, 2013). The
current con ict in Syria outnumbers Hama
on all counts.
Early in 2013, nearly three million build-
ings were considered to have been either
damaged or destroyed (Save the Children,
2013), a figure that has kept spiralling-up
ever since. Residential buildings bear the
brunt of the destruction, as does civilian
infrastructure: in 2013, 60 per cent of hospitals
and 38 per cent of primary health facilities
were damaged or destroyed, an estimated
18 per cent of the schools (4,072) (UNICEF,
2014), as well as bakeries,4 mosques, churches,
commercial zones, factories etc.
The spatial distribution of destruction is
not homogeneous over the country. It mostly
takes place in the zones of confrontation
between regime forces and opposition
groups, and in the areas under the control of
the armed opposition. On the national scale,
the analysis of the region of origin of Syrian
refugees helps to give a sense of both the
geography of the conflict and of the intense
destruction: 75 per cent of the refugees
in Lebanon (one million in April 2014)
missiles (SCUD-types) on the northern cities
from the end of 2012.
The intensity of the shelling is another
characteristic of the Syrian conflict. In Feb-
ruary 2013 alone, 150 to 400 areas were
shelled every day, with only four days with
less than 250.10 A father in Deir-ez-Zor (a
city on the Euphrates, north-east of Syria)
helicopters, especially since the summer of
2012; from the use of conventional as well as
non-conventional bombs:8 not only chemical
bombs, but also cluster bombs, or explosive
barrels (large oil drums, gas cylinders, and
water tanks, weighing more than half a ton,
and filled with explosives, scrap metal or
chemicals) that are dropped from helicopters;9
from the use of surface-to-surface long-range
Figure 1.
(a)Destruction of a building
in Homs, 2012. (Source: CC
(b)devastation of the area
of Bab Dreeb. (Source: CC Bo
March 2011 onwards, the Syrian uprising
took place, spreading from small cities to
impoverished suburbs, from peri-urban
villages to inner-city areas (Vignal, 2012).
The demonstrations and the mobilizations
had strong roots in the local environments.
In Dar’a, where the uprising started in 2011,
Reinoud Leenders and Steve Heydemann
(2012) have shown that the areas where
demonstrations and activism took place
contained ‘the social and political features which,
in combination, allowed for early collective action
and mass mobilization based on grievances and
aspirations’. As Matthieu Rey (2013) reminds
us, the ‘neighbourhood’ plays a central
role in urban revolts in the contemporary
Syrian history. He suggests that, until today,
primary affiliations and solidarity networks
are to a large extent embedded at this local
scale, although they connect with the outside.
He shows, for instance, that the city of Irbil
(north-west) entered the uprising in the
summer of 2011 after a navy vessel shelled
the quarter of Raml al-Janoubi in Latakia
(Mediterranean Coast) on 14 August, an area
inhabited by descendants of migrants from
Irbil, with which networks were still active.
From March 2011 onwards, the neighbour-
hoods are the places where the people would
demonstrate, especially (but not only) on
Fridays (which is a public holiday in Syria).16
This is where activists organize their actions,
as demonstrated for instance by the mush-
rooming of Local Coordination Committees
in the country. This is where the numerous
networks of solidarity providing shelter,
support and humanitarian aid to neighbours
in need or to internally displaced Syrians
would plan their action (Vignal, 2014a). This
is where the militarization of the opposition
started, with local men taking arms to protect
their neighbourhoods from the repression of
the regime – in parallel but not necessarily
connected with the formation of the Free
Syrian Army in July 2011 (Kodmani and
Legrand, 2013). The local character of the
uprising, deeply set into the tight networks
of the Syrian urban society, explains the
There is shelling all the time but sometimes it is
unbearable. During the week of 23 May [2013] it
was relentless. Ba eries of 12 rockets would land
in quick succession. It went on at that pace for
two weeks; it was impossible to go out even to
get bread.11
The international NGO Human Rights Watch
analyzed a satellite image of the neighbour-
hood of Baba Amro, in the city of Homs, sub-
jected to an intensive campaign of shelling in
February 2012, that illustrates this intensity.
The image, taken on 25 February 2012,
shows that in three weeks, 640 buildings in
the neighbourhood were destroyed or bear
visible damage (although there might be
more that are not visible on satellite images),
and at least 950 craters in open areas can be
Urban Syria at the Heart of the Uprising
The scale of urban destruction in Syria
re ects – if one indulges a tautological twist
– the fact that, at the beginning of the twenty-
rst century, most of the Syrian population
is urbanized, following world trends.13
Urban growth had picked up since the inde-
pendence of the country and accelerated over
the last four decades. It was fuelled by rural
migrations and natural growth, and more
recently by important internal migrations.14
The dynamics of urbanization benefited
Damascus and Aleppo, whose agglomerations
polarized a total of approximately 8 million
inhabitants in 2011,15 more than a third
of the Syrian population. Until 2011, the
agglomeration of Damascus was indeed
a 5-million capital city characterized by a
continuous urban fabric of high densities
(even in areas remote from the centre) that
included suburbs, former villages or cities
of tens of thousands of inhabitants (Douma,
Darraya, Jaramana etc.). Urbanization also
fuelled the rapid growth of mid-range and
small cities, especially those located within
the attraction area of larger urban poles
(Ababsa et al., 2007).
It is in this urbanized Syria that, from
constitution of the armed opposition trans-
lates therefore into the multiplication of sites
for war. In this respect, the Syrian opposition
warfare is, to a large extent, a guerrilla war
fought in multiple sites or, more precisely,
hundreds of guerrilla actions taking place
from the north to the south of the country.
For instance, in 2013 Yazid Sayigh estimated
that ‘since mid-2012, if not earlier, (the
regime) has been fighting in 80–100 locations
on any given day, often on a 360-degree arc
and without clear frontlines’.
The opposition fighters have benefited
from this situation. As in all guerrilla actions,
they have knowledge of the place and rely to
some extent on support networks in the local
population. The built environment provides
shelter, is easy to protect, and allows them
to turn their type of fighting (foot fighters
with light weapons) into an advantage.
On the contrary, a regular army is more
handicapped in an urban milieu, both from
a technical point of view (the urban is less
adapted to the manoeuvring of tanks etc.)
and from a strategic one (the population
might be supportive of the guerrilla fighters).
In 2011, the Syrian army was particularly ill-
prepared for this kind of warfare (Sayigh,
2013). In addition, fighting numerous urban
guerrillas in different sites overstretched the
regime forces in space, as well as in time. In
2013 for instance, the regime army had to
rely ‘on air assets to resupply besieged troops
in its Aleppo and Idlib outposts because it
lacked overland logistical lines connecting
those outposts (and had) contracted its
military footprint to Damascus and Homs in
order to secure its supply lines while rebels
contested Homs’ (Nassief, 2014).
Quite classically, urban confrontation in-
volves destruction of the built environment.
Damage is a direct consequence of the
fighting (buildings, streets, infrastructure,
the transformation of a building into a shelter
or a strategic outpost etc.). Destruction can
also be carried out to serve a military-related
purpose, as for instance the razing to the
ground of buildings in the surroundings of
difficulty for the regime to foresee the course
of events, with demonstrations spreading
from one place to another.
Therefore, the anatomy of the uprising is
reflected in the anatomy of the repression.
Since the beginning of the contestation, con-
trolling the protests has included, from the
regime’s point of view, the necessary control
of the space. In the urban environment, it
translates into the suppression of demon-
strations by the means of armed intervention
by the army, the security services, or militias
(known as shabiha), shelling from tanks (Da’ra
in April/May 2011) or warships (Latakia in
August 2011), snipers posted on the roofs of
buildings (Homs and Hama, spring 2011) etc.
Control also operates through restrictions on
the mobility of the population. The number
of checkpoints skyrocketed and, in a few
months, they became a familiar feature of the
Syrian cities. Campaigns of arrests multiplied
(Yazbek, 2012). The demonstrators – and later
the armed opposition – were referred to by
the regime officials as ‘terrorists’ and ‘foreign’
foes threatening the country, justifying the
repressive measures taken against them,
as well as the military actions against their
territorial strongholds. Destruction as a con-
sequence, but also destruction as an instru-
ment of the warfare, go hand in hand in Syria.
Destruction and Urban Guerrilla(s)
In Syria, asymmetry characterizes the com-
parative positions of the two main camps,
opposing on the one hand a regular army,
whose manpower is organized and trained,
and relies on regular supplies of weapons;
and a loose network of armed groups, on the
other, poorly coordinated, hardly trained,
and yearning for proper equipment and
armament (O’Bagy, 2013a). Indeed the armed
opposition stems from myriads of local
movements responding to the violence of
the suppression of the 2011 demonstrations.
Its ghters are, in large majority, local men
acting in their own neighbourhoods.
This particular ‘bottom-up’ process of
put in place, aimed at retaking opposition-
held areas. The area is encircled, and then
relentlessly shelled. The population leaves,
and the opposition fighters are forced to
retreat. The regime forces (army, militias,
special forces) enter the area, clear it of
potential resistance, and then hold it. This
strategy allows the regime to make the most
of its military advantages – its capacity for
shelling/bombing from afar, its exclusive
domination of the sky, its stockpiles of all
types of bombs – to take the upper hand
on enemy ground. It eases therefore the
difficulties of fighting urban guerrillas and
multiple local wars.
Since 2013, this tactic has been used
on most of the operations of ‘retaking’ in
Syria (Nassief, 2014). It was, for instance,
illustrated in the battle of al-Qusayr in the
Spring of 2013. Al-Qusayr is a city located
in the south of Homs that commands the
gateway between Damascus and the harbour
cities of the Mediterranean coast. The regime
forces regained it after weeks of an intensive
bombing campaign in April/May 2013. Large
parts of the city were destroyed. The popu-
lation fled, and the opposition forces, cut
off from their supply lines, weakened by
the intensive bombing and the departure of
the population, if they had not been killed,
had to retreat. The regime forces claimed
the city in early June – although the once
30,000-population border town had been
turned into no more than a mere stack of
empty rubble. The same tactics were used on
cities of the Qalamûn region, north-west of
Damascus, during the winter 2013/2014.
Reflecting on historical precedents, these
operations display all the elements of a
scorched-earth tactic, defined as the destruc-
tion of everything that can be of use or
help to the enemy. The definition of what
constitutes ‘help to the enemy’ is of course
as broad as can be, and depends on the
variability of perception and judgment of the
warring parties. In the case of al-Qusayr, as
in many other instances in Syria, the urban
fabric seems to fall into this category.
a specific place/building (military barracks,
hospital, government building etc…) in order
to secure or to defend it. Typically, this type
of destruction is concentrated in frontline
areas, creating a landscape of no man’s land,
littered with rubble and surrounded with
damaged buildings. Jean-Pierre Filiu (2013)
describes all the classical attributes of a
frontline area when he relates his experience
in the neighbourhood of Salaheddine in the
summer 2013, located, since the offensive of
the armed opposition in the summer 2012, on
the ‘eastern front’ of the frontline dividing
the city between the East (opposition-held
areas) and the West (regime-held areas). The
once-populated middle-class central neigh-
bourhood has been emptied of its inhabitants
and turned into a ghost-like area of smashed
buildings, with streets renamed ‘streets of
the paradise’, where one is under the deadly
threat of being shot by the snipers of the
opposite camp.
However, in Syria, separating lines often
overlap and frontlines may vary locally.
There is no standard type of destruction
limited to frontline areas. In addition, in order
to circumvent the tactical difficulties of fight-
ing multiple urban opposition armed groups
at the same time, the regime resorted to new
tactics in which destruction plays a central
Destruction and Military Tactics
Since 2012, the duration of the con ict,
limited manpower and the multiple fronts to
hold simultaneously overstretched severely
the regime’s forces and a ected its capacity
to make real territorial and military gains.
The regime army therefore adapted its
military training to urban warfare, with the
help of the expertise of its allies Iran and
Russia (Sayigh, 2013). It also relied more
and more on the involvement of militias
more apt to fight urban wars, the Lebanese
Hezbollah being a particularly key actor in
its military gains since 2013 (Sullivan, 2014).
On the ground, a new military strategy was
that is spatially more concentrated (frontline
types). Third, all the areas affected by
destruction have in common that they are
strongholds of the 2011 uprising and/or are
controlled by opposition forces.
The bombing campaigns over Aleppo since
2012 give a clear sense of this spatial pattern
of destruction, as illustrated by the map of the
main sites of destruction identified by Human
Rights Watch between the 31 October 2013
and 20 February 2014 (Human Rights Watch,
2014a) (figure 2). This map corroborates
similar findings of research on the shelling
campaigns in Aleppo from September 2012
to March 2013 (research conducted by the
AAAS).17 The AAAS research shows the same
spatial distribution of the impacts of shelling
(away from frontlines, and widespread).
In addition, it concludes that 99 per cent of
them took place in areas classified as either
contested, under rebel control, or unknown,
while only six out of a total of 713 were
located in regime-controlled areas.
Destruction and Repression
Since 2012, the armed con ict has intensi ed.
It claims more and more lives as shelling
and bombing campaigns multiply all over
Syria. This intensi cation goes with the
use of scorched-earth tactics, in the context
of military operations, as in al-Qusayr.
However, shelling campaigns occur in
contexts that are not related to direct military
Indeed, the analysis of the destruction
generated by the shelling campaigns displays
in this regard a remarkable spatial pattern.
It is firstly characterized by the fact that
much of the destruction takes place away
from frontlines. Second, destruction sites are
numerous (impacts on buildings or craters
in open areas), close to each other, carpet-
like, and they cover large areas of the built-
environment, as shown in the example of
Baba Amro, Homs. This spatial distribution
does not support fighting-related destruction
Figure 2.Major sites of
destruction in Aleppo, by
geographical sectors of
control (31 October 2013 to
20 February 2014). (Source:
Human Rights Watch, 2014a)
urban environment can therefore only be
important, as shown in the images of the
destruction in Azaz, a town 30 km north of
In Syria, the widespread practice of drop-
ping bombs from helicopters is also congruent
with important physical devastation. In addi-
The singular distribution of destruction
sites in civilian neighbourhoods, far from
fighting areas and beyond the reach of
artillery, indicates that they are the result of
specific war technologies: bombardment by
missiles or by air. These technologies have
a limited accuracy, and their impact on an
Figure 3.The aftermath of aerial bombardment by Syrian government forces on Azaz, 2012. (Source: CC
campaign of shelling: bulldozers and excava-
tors move in afterwards and clear the rubble
(cases 5, 6, 7); or it is carried out by bulldozers
and excavators that flatten the area (cases 6
and 7). If needed, controlled explosions are
used for the destruction of bigger buildings
(some of them up to eight floors high) (cases
1, 2, 3, 4). The regime forces (army or security
forces) supervise the process.
The razing is mostly part of a military
operation. It aims at neutralizing areas that
fell under the control of the armed opposition
during the attempted ‘Battle of Damascus’ of
the summer 2012 (cases 1, 3) and/or that are
near the front line (1). Razing helps to control
the movements of opposition fighters in
clearing out the main circulation axes (cases 1,
6), the roads to opposition strongholds (case
3), and the entrance of central areas (cases
1, 3, 6, 7). It serves to protect the regime’s
strategic assets: the Mezzeh Military Airport
(base of the Air Force Intelligence Service,
one of Syria’s four main security services,
case 4); the Tishrin Hospital in Barzeh (case
3); Damascus International Airport (case 5).
However, this strategy resorts as well to
unambiguous intimidation campaigns. A
woman living in a neighbouring district of
Wadi al-Jouz, Hama (case 6) explained that:
after the demolition, the army came to our
neighbourhood, saying through loudspeakers that
they would destroy our neighbourhood like they
destroyed Wadi al-Jouz and Masha’ al-Arb’een
should a single bullet be red from here. (Human
Rights Watch. 2014b, p. 17)
In this regard, the disproportion between the
lawful use of destruction in warfare (long-
term security reasons, military objectives)
and the actual extent of the seven operations
(145 hectares razed to ground, thousands
of buildings, tens of thousands of homes)
combined with the neglect of the rights and
needs of the population (insu cient warning
delays, no compensation mechanisms etc.),
suggest that the razing operations are unlaw-
ful with regard to international humanitarian
Interestingly, among the different reasons
tion, the bombs are dropped ‘from such a
height as to make accurate targeting im-
possible’ (UNOHR, 2013, p. 93). In Aleppo,
between November 2013 and February 2014,
‘the majority of (the) identified sites (figure
2) have damage signatures that are strongly
consistent with the detonation of barrel
bombs’ (HRW, 2014a).
The spatial pattern of destruction over
wide urban areas of civilian neighbourhoods,
away from fighting areas, with no direct
military purpose, raises the question of the
place of destruction in the regime’s politics
of war. It might indeed aim at turning the
population of the targeted areas against the
locally active opposition armed groups, or it
may be seen as retaliation for its supposed
support to the opposition; it might also
act as a warning for the population of the
regime-held areas.19 It corroborates however
the diagnosis of ‘indiscriminate’ shelling of
populated areas, which is unlawful under
international humanitarian law, as reported
by the ‘Independent International Commis-
sion of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’
of the UNOHR (2013, 2014) which documents
breaches of international humanitarian laws
and war crimes.20
Destruction and ‘War Planning’
Since the beginning of the armed con ict,
many occurrences of ‘razing to the ground’
of whole neighbourhoods either held by
the armed opposition or supportive of the
uprising have been documented by activists
in Syria (Local Coordination Commi ees,
2012) and by international organizations and
NGOs. Table 1 provides a summary of seven
occurrences of razing operations supervised
by the Syrian regime documented by Human
Rights Watch (analysis of satellite images at
di erent time periods and interviews).21 The
operations happened in neighbourhoods that
are all illegal or informal developments.
In these seven cases, the destruction is
clearly delineated although the areas are
large. Destruction happens either after a
Table 1.Summary of seven ‘razing-to-ground’ operations carried out by the regime forces in Syria.
Neighbourhood Dates of Demolition Surface Area Type of Urban Fabric Context of Destruction Argument for Destruction
1.Qaboun (Damascus) 21 July to October 2012 18 ha illegal/informal and dense rst wave: ongoing military
operations against opposition none
June and July 2013 next to Damascus–Homs motorway looting of the houses
2.East Tadamoun/North 8 September to 15.5 ha residential areas rst wave: ongoing military 12 August 2012, a military spokes-
Yalda (Damascus) 29 November 2012 operations against opposition person: the army has ‘cleansed’…
ghters Tadamoun (from insurgents) (Press)
4 February to 1 July 2013 illegal/informal and dense mostly emptied by population
3.Barzeh (Damascus) October 2012 5.3 ha Tishreen Street: demolitions on both demonstrations/presence and enlargement of the street:
sides within 45 m circulation of opposition ghters application of the Decree
February to July 2013 Tishreen Hospital: demolition of hospital was one of the main ones around the hospital for its
buildings up 90 m away receiving wounded government protection
4.Around Mezzeh Airport August 2012 41.6 ha residential areas second wave: opposition a ack on slum clearance programme:
(Damascus) illegal/informal and dense a government checkpoint demolition andreconstruction (as
well as in Yalda, Daraya and
Harasta), Decree 66 issued on 18
September 2012
December 2012 to March access to Daraya and Moadamiya, to drive out opposition
2013 two opposition strongholds ghters
5.Harran al-’Awamid February to April 2013 14.3 ha town of 12,000 inhabitants, south- opposition a ack on a government decree to expropriate land in
(Damascus) east of Damascus agglomeration checkpoint several areas around the inter-
shelling campaign national airport to build power
lines (Press)
6.Wadi al-Jouz (Hama) 30 April to 15 May 2013 10 ha north-west edge of Hama ongoing military operations the removal of urban irregularities
against opposition ghters (Press)
illegal/informal and dense shelling campaign restoring peace and security,
next to the Homs–Aleppo motorway killing terrorists, and seizing
weapons and ammunition (Press)
passage for FSA ghters in and out army threats to neighbouring
of Hama inhabitants of possible similar fate
7.Masha’ al-Arb’een (Hama) 27 September to 40 ha illegal/informal and dense ongoing military operations the removal of illegally built
13 October 2013 against opposition ghters structures to develop the area and
north-east edge of Hama shelling campaign improve the living conditions of its
inhabitants (O cial statements in
next to the Homs–Aleppo motorway passage for FSA ghters in and out the press)
of Hama
Total destroyed area 144.7 ha
Source: Human Rights Watch, 2014a.
bourhoods was not new when the decrees
were published. It gained prominence at the
end of the 2000s. Two main options were
discussed: regularization and upgrading
on the one hand; or urban renewal (i.e.
demolition and reconstruction) on the other.
Before the uprising, the jury was still out.
According to Clerc, it seems that, since then,
the authorities of Damascus have decided in
favour of the second option of urban renewal.
Clerc bases this assumption not only on the
issuing of the two decrees, but on the fact that
plans for the renewal of a certain number of
peri-central illegal neighbourhoods of the
agglomeration of Damascus, designed at
the end of the 2000s (known as the ‘Detailed
Studies’), were then relaunched.
The debate on the treatment of illegal neigh-
bourhoods in the second half of the 2000s
took place in the context of modernization
of the regulations and of the institutional
framework governing Syrian real estate
(Clerc and Hurault, 2010). It evolved as
investors started to turn to the development
of real estate projects in Syria. In Damascus
especially, announcements of ‘mega-projects’
mushroomed (Vignal, 2014b). However,
one of the hurdles for potential investors
was the scarcity of available land in central
or peri-central locations. Therefore, the
interest in urban ‘renewal’ projects stemmed
in part from the potential represented by
many illegal neighbourhoods, situated in
favourable locations. These projects would
provide the legal framework to make the
land available to private investment.
A few years later, in the middle of a war,
investment in real estate and development
of urban projects might not seem to be a
priority. However, troubled times of war offer
many opportunities as well, as is inferred by
the publication of the two decrees on illegal
neighbourhoods of 2012, or the re-opening
of the Detailed Studies. Among the areas
examined for redevelopment in the Detailed
Studies are those with a strong potential
for real estate projects. This is, for instance,
the case of Jobar (north-west of Damascus,
presented by the authorities to justify the
razing, one can find the mention of urban
planning regulations (cases 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and/
or redevelopment projects (cases 4 and 7).
Such an argument could seem either surreal
or cynical in the context of war, especially as
the razing operations are connected to the
conflict. However, it is congruent with the
fact that, in 2012, the regulation framework
on illegal/informal neighbourhoods was
strengthened, in particular through two
decrees: Decree No. 40, published on 20
May 2012, which orders the demolition
of all unauthorized buildings in illegal
neighbourhoods; and Decree 66, published on
18 September 2012, which provides for slum-
clearance and redevelopment programmes in
two southern areas of the capital.22 It is this
second decree that is referred to by officials
in the case of the destructions carried out
around Mezzeh airport (case 4).
The recourse to 2012 planning decrees
to justify the razing of the opposition-held
neighbourhoods can be understood as a
pragmatic usage of planning regulations,
in order to pursue ‘lawfully’ unlawful
repression-related demolitions. Indeed, if
the razing complied with the law of war,
which authorizes a limited and justified use
of destruction, there would be no need to
resort to urban planning regulation to justify
it. The timing of the publication of these
technical decrees can be questioned too, as
the subject of their regulation could appear as
secondary in times of revolution and armed
conflict. They were issued just a few weeks
after the battle of Homs (February 2012), the
battle of Aleppo, and the attempted battle
of Damascus (summer 2012). One cannot
exclude that the resilience of administrative
routines might explain the issuing of the
decrees, whatever the circumstances. How-
ever, their publication at that time might
more likely have served one objective: to
provide legal protection for the pursuit of
unlawful war-related destruction.
Valérie Clerc (2014) reminds us that, in
Syria, the issue of illegal/informal neigh-
of political violence. In the current con ict,
destruction is framed by its asymmetric place
and use in the warfare. First, regime forces
are the only warring party with the military
power to destroy, and they relentlessly use
it; second, the opposition-held areas are the
most a ected by destruction; third, the urban
fabric is widely targeted.
Therefore, the typology of the different
spatial patterns of destruction shows that
destruction is not only a consequence of
war but is central to the regime’s strategy.
It is a military weapon against the regime’s
opponents, as displayed by the scorched-
earth tactics. It is central to the combination
of repression and retaliation, as indicated by
the indiscriminate shelling taking place in
cities. It is, finally, central to sustaining the
client-based State: in freeing central urban
locations of their inhabitants and buildings,
it provides for the potential new economic
and political resources necessary to feed its
client networks and loyalties. In this respect,
the place of destruction in the regime warfare
amounts to a strategy of ‘total war’, which is
defined by the engagement of all resources
available in the warfare, and the use of all
means available.
In Syria, destruction is clearly an instru-
ment widely employed to pursue military
and repression goals. However, the scope
of the destruction and the way it is applied
sheds a new light on destruction itself.
Indeed, the strategy of the regime clearly
does not aim at the preservation of the
country and its own citizens: the recourse
to massive bombing of the cities implies,
on the contrary, a dire blindness towards
the future in terms of collective well-being.
If a group of a happy few might gain from
destruction, in pursuing personal interests,
the human, social, economic and political
assets of the country are, however, torn
down and it will take decades to put them
back together, if ever (see Yazigi, 2014). At the
time of writing, the regime does not seem in
a position to make any decisive military gain,
the armed opposition is weak but resists, the
located on main motorways). It was a pro-
opposition neighbourhood in 2011 and,
sitting on a frontline since 2013, the area was
therefore largely destroyed in 2014, offering
potential avenues for future redevelopment.
The razing operations documented by
Human Rights Watch operated in illegal
neighbourhoods with similar potential for
real estate investments: for instance, Masha’
al-Arb’een is ideally situated next to the
Homs-Aleppo motorway, and in the close
vicinity of a wealthy residential compound
of villas (case 7). In Qaboun, the razed area
is next to the motorway, just north-east of
central Damascus (case 1). According to
Damascene architects, many sketches for the
construction of high-end apartment blocks
on the southern fringe of Mezzeh Military
Airport (case 4) have already been drafted
(Kafer Sousseh area).
Times of war in Syria offer the opportunity
to use a military situation to disguise or to
promote other interests. The securing of
valuable urban land is an opportunity that
the Syrian regime has learned to value
indeed since the 2000s, when it promoted real
estate as a tool for economic development,
directly benefiting of its political supporters
(Vignal, 2014b). Destruction and massive dis-
placements of population, together with the
emptying of urban neighbourhoods, might
provide one of these opportunities. Razing-
to-the-ground operations are part of a body
of converging elements that suggest that
destruction is used as an instrument of ‘war
planning’ as well. The logic of destruction
and construction, explored by Walter Ben-
jamin in the Parisian context, exemplified in
research on Pristina in Kosovo (Herscher,
2007) or Dili in East Timor (Philipott, 2007),
find a new incarnation in Syria.
In the war opposing the Syrian regime and
opposition armed groups, the extensive de-
struction of the urban fabric in Syria questions
the role of destruction as a particular type
9.The Syrian NGO Syrian Network for Human
Rights estimated in March 2014 that 5,375 barrels
had been used by the governmental forces, killing
6,493 people (97 per cent of whom were civilians),
and destroying 5,840 buildings as the explosive
barrels mainly targeted residential areas (Source:
h p://
10.Source: Daily Reports of the Strategic Research
and Communication Centre: Compilation and
calculations from the author.
11.Donatella Rovera (2013) Divided town of Deir
Ezzour is a microcosm of Syria’s bi er con ict.
Amnesty International, 12 September. Available
at: h p://
con ict-2013-09-12.
12.Human Rights Watch (2 March 2012) ‘Syria:
new satellite images show Homs shelling’.
Available at: h p://
13.However, o cial Syrian statistics do not
account for it due to very restricted de nitions
of urban: in 2010, only 53 per cent of the total
population is o cially labelled as urban).
14.In the 2000s, an estimated million inhabitants
from the Jezireh (the agricultural north-eastern
region), eeing the consequences of severe
droughts, took shelter in the southern cities of the
15.Source: author’s calculations based on Central
Bureau of Statistics data (Central Bureau of
Statistics, Damascus, 2011).
16.One has counted a record high of 939
simultaneous demonstrations on 1 June 2012
(Vignal, 2012).
17.The Geospatial Technologies and Human
Rights Project of the American Association for
the Advancement of Science (AAAS) studied
satellite images of Aleppo (September 2012–2013)
(Satellite Imagery Analysis for Urban Con ict
Documentation: Aleppo, Syria).
18.Human Rights Watch published several
articles and reports on missile strikes in the
opposition-held areas of North Syria. See for
instance ‘Syria: Ballistic Missiles Killing Civilians,
Many Children’, 5 August 2013.
19.It is for instance explicitly recognized as
part of the warfare in the case of the besieging
campaign, dubbed by Syrian o cers themselves as
a ‘starvation until submission campaign’. Source:
Reuters, ‘Insight: Starvation in Syria: a war tactic’,
eastern regions of the country are under the
control of the jihadists of the former ISIS,
and the conflict could go on for years (unless
structural changes happen). Even on the
hypothesis that the regime scored a military
victory, it seems difficult to foresee how it
could establish any durable pre-eminence in
the country: it seems difficult to see how it
could win the peace. Nourishing the spiral
of violence is therefore to its direct benefit.
In this particular political configuration,
paradoxically, destruction feeds the survival
of the regime.
1.According to the ONG Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights, cited by Le Monde (1 April 2014,
‘Syrie: un bilan de « 150 000 morts » depuis trois
ans’), among whom nearly 70,000 civilians in April
2014 (Source: Violations Documentation Centre,
h ps://
2.According to the UNHCR (h p://data.unhcr.
3.On the Customary International Humanitarian
Law, see the ICRC – International Commi ee of
the Red Cross (h p://
4.The UN O ce for Human Rights (UNOHR)
documented many bombings of breadlines and
bakeries, like for instance in Aleppo in summer
2012: UN Human Rights Council (5 February
2013), Report of the Independent International
Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,
5.The governorate is the largest administrative
unit in Syria, of which there are fourteen. The
Damascus region is divided between Damascus-
city, which covers the centre of the agglomeration,
surrounded by the governorate of Damascus-
countryside: here, their numbers are here added
into one category.
6.Information on the region of origin of the
refugees is available only for refugees in those two
countries (Source: UNHRC, h p://
7.Source: ‘Syria’s dirty dozen’, h p://
8.Source: Human Rights Watch (11 April 2013),
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The world is urbanising rapidly and cities are increasingly held as the most important arenas for sustainable development. Cities emerging from war are no exception, but across the globe, many post-war cities are ravaged by residual or renewed violence, which threatens progress towards peace and stability. This collection of articles addresses why such violence happens, where and how it manifests, and how it can be prevented. It includes contributions that are informed by both post-war logics and urban particularities, that take intra-city dynamics into account, and that adopt a spatial analysis of the city. By bringing together contributions from different disciplinary backgrounds, all addressing the single issue of post-war violence in cities from a spatial perspective, the articles make a threefold contribution to the research agenda on violence in post-war cities. First, the articles nuance our understanding of the causes and forms of the uneven spatial distribution of violence, insecurities, and trauma within and across post-war cities. Second, the articles demonstrate how urban planning and the built environment shape and generate different forms of violence in post-war cities. Third, the articles explore the challenges, opportunities, and potential unintended consequences of conflict resolution in violent urban settings.
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In recent years, the international community has been paying increasing attention to the movement and planned relocation of people affected by climate change. In the Pacific region, however, many indigenous people are saying they intend to remain on their ancestral lands.
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The attention given today to the armed uprising in Syria must not conceal the fact that there also exists a peaceful revolutionary dynamic, which is deeply rooted in society. The new generations, mainly urban and more educated than their parents, are at the forefront of a movement of political contestation that is trying to occupy public space through various means. Today, in late July 2012, the confrontation between the armed forces of the regime and the militarized branch of the uprising federated under the name Free Syrian Army (FSA) is attracting significant media attention, and rightly so. After the Wednesday, July 18 th attack perpetrated in the heart of the security apparatus in Damascus that took the lives of four country security senior officials -including Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of the Syrian president -the armed opposition now seems capable of undermining the regime even in its Damascus fortress. As these lines are being written, the end of Bashar al-Assad's rule seems near, though its modalities and exact date are difficult to ascertain. Yet the attention given to the militarized aspects of the uprising, justified in light of the impact these have on the movement's development, conceals the central, peaceful revolutionary dynamic currently at play. This dynamic has spread over the entire Syrian territory, despite significant regional variations and notable exceptions. Numbers confirm this: 51 protests were recorded on Friday, June 17 th , 2011; 493 on Friday, January 6 th , 2012; and 939 on Friday, June 1 st ,
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Insurgency and war in Syria have induced changes in urban policies towards informal settlements. Syrian urban policies in the 2000s set the issue of informal settlements as a priority item on the agenda. The reform of the legislative urban frameworks, designed with international assistance, and new master plans encouraged both their regularization and upgrading and their renewal (destruction/reconstruction). While competition between these models and objectives delayed decisions and programme implementation in Damascus, the beginnings of the 'Arab Spring' elsewhere in the region influenced the orientation of these policies, showing the different ways in which urban planning can be used for strategic purposes. Initially, the Syrian uprising led to an inflexion of policies towards more social options for regularization. Subsequently, as it developed into an armed conflict, and with the escalation of physical destruction, the urban renewal option was favoured and overlapped military targets. Thus conflict, destruction and displacements have led to all urban options being put back on the table with the view to future reconstruction. This article discusses policies towards informal settlements in Syria before and during the uprising with a special focus on the case study of urban policies in the metropolitan area of Damascus.
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In 2005, in announcing the acceleration of the open-economy policy, Bachar al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic, responded positively to the growing interest from Gulf region investors in regionally specific investment. Several laws were initiated to accompany a rapid increase in the number of investments in luxury property projects announced. This paper studies this process, the impacts on Damascus of the announcements and the (limited) realization of these prestige projects. It highlights the new dynamics produced to revitalize the city centre and to create new secondary urban centres. It also shows that this process induced the emergence of new urban planning practices, as well as the implementation of many other projects designed specifically for lower income categories.
The term 'urbicide' became popular during the 1992-95 Bosnian war as a way of referring to widespread and deliberate destruction of the urban environment. Coined by writers on urban development in America, urbicide captures the sense that the widespread and deliberate destruction of buildings is a distinct form of violence. Using Martin Heidegger's notion of space and Jean-Luc Nancy's idea of community, Martin Coward outlines a theoretical understanding of the urban condition at stake in such violence. He contends that buildings are targeted because they make possible a plural public space that is contrary to the political aims of ethnic-nationalist regimes. Illustrated with reference to several post-Cold War conflicts - including Bosnia, Chechnya and Israel/Palestine - this book is the first comprehensive analysis of organised violence against urban environments. It offers an original perspective to those seeking to better understand urbanity, political violence and the politics of exclusion.
In this paper I employ critically the idea of urbicide to explore the reciprocity between geopolitical discourses and the changing materiality of cities experiencing conflict. In doing so, the paper problematises assumptions about cities newly replacing states as post-Cold war pivots of political violence. This critique operates through the example of Beirut, a city which endured conflict before the end of the Cold War and a city where the production of geopolitical meanings was multi-sited, as national, trans-national and sub-national geopolitical discourses were renegotiated through the everyday urban spaces of war. Analysing the relationship between these discourses and the violence perpetrated by the militias amidst and against Beirut's built fabric, the paper brings a fresh empirical focus on the understudied early phases of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1976) by reading contrapuntally a number of state-based geopolitical accounts of the time on Lebanon alongside oral, written and graphic representations produced by urban militias during combat as well as in present recollections by their former members. The paper argues that urbicide is a useful concept to interpret the links between political violence and physical urban space. However, urbicide should also be employed as a theoretical and methodological tool to investigate contextually specific and multi-sited geopolitical accounts between the national and the subnational rather than as a descriptive category exclusive to post-Cold War conflicts or alluding to abstract ideas of urbanity.