Conflict has left Syria a shell of its former self

Rubble fills a street in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, a World Heritage Site.
(Monica Prieto / Associated Press)

BEIRUT — First his parents’ home in eastern Syria was reduced to rubble, followed by his father’s pharmacy. Then Melad received a call last month informing him that his own apartment in a Damascus suburb had been obliterated by a bomb unleashed by a MiG jet.

By then, he had become inured to the sense of loss.

“I got to the point that when I would hear of another of our properties destroyed, I started laughing,” said Melad, a computer engineer who now helps with the humanitarian effort in Syria. “Just as we have gotten accustomed to the amount of blood over these last two years, we have grown accustomed to the destruction.”

PHOTOS: Living under siege: Life in Aleppo, Syria


Much of Syria has become a disaster zone: In September, the opposition group Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that more than 2.9 million homes, schools, mosques, churches and hospitals had been damaged or destroyed since the uprising began in March 2011. More than half a million are a complete loss, it said.

Weeks later, the group’s founder, Sami Ibrahim, estimated that 600,000 more buildings had been shelled or bombed, as the government of President Bashar Assad escalated its campaign with daily airstrikes by helicopter and warplane. The rebels are fighting back, claiming to have captured half a dozen military bases in recent weeks in eastern and northwestern Syria and around Damascus. On Monday, they said they captured a hydroelectric dam in northern Syria.

Although the toll on structures is impossible to verify, the weapons the government is turning against civilian populations have become increasingly destructive, activists say, with TNT barrel bombs and vacuum bombs wiping out entire buildings in one blow.

On streets once lined with multistory buildings and mosques, ceilings lie pancaked atop smashed and dusty home furnishings and appliances. Electrical wires hang like carelessly strung streamers across concrete columns strewn with antigovernment graffiti.

Roads in front of gutted shops have become impassable for the sheer amount of rubble.

The buildings and infrastructure, though of lesser importance compared with the more than 30,000 people reportedly killed and at least an equal number detained or missing, are part of the larger fraying social fabric of the country. Any post-Assad period is likely to be marked by sectarian violence, vendetta killings and hostile ideological wrangling over the future of Syria, all set against an already devastated landscape.

“The regime has said many times, ‘Either Assad stays, or we will destroy the country,’” Ibrahim said. “It is obvious that it is punishment.”


Now the government has enacted a law that allows it to tear down illegally constructed buildings. Opposition activists say implementation of the law has been discriminatory, targeting only areas dominated by Sunni Muslims, who have led the uprising, while areas populated by Assad’s Alawite minority have been untouched.

The mass destruction has left many families homeless, forcing them to flee the country or seek shelter with overburdened relatives or even in public parks, a situation made more precarious by the impending winter. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that 3.5 million people have been internally displaced.

Some of what has been damaged may be irreplaceable: Historic sites, including medieval and Roman ruins, are scattered throughout the country. Aleppo’s Old City, a United Nations World Heritage Site, has been pummeled by weeks of clashes between government forces and rebel fighters.

In September, a fire left hundreds of shops destroyed in the centuries-old Souk Madina, a maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets where merchants sell everything from gold jewelry to traditional soap to prayer rugs to wedding dresses. The nearby historic Umayyad Mosque was also damaged, as well as the medieval citadel, Aleppo’s most iconic structure, which for centuries has stood high above the growing city.

The law that allows illegal buildings to be demolished went into effect last month, strange timing for a government waging a fight on multiple fronts and facing international calls for its resignation, activists say.

More than half the buildings in Damascus are illegally built, in part because the country’s urban planning hasn’t been updated in 40 years, said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council.


Entire neighborhoods in and around the capital consist of these buildings put up without government permits but with some form of tacit approval as public services were extended to these districts, he said.

“The main idea behind [the law] was to punish all these areas where they have a strong presence of the Free Syrian Army,” Ziadeh said. “They need to destroy the social support” for the rebels in Damascus and the suburbs.

Some residents have been given no more than an hour or two of warning before buildings were torn down, activists say.

“The regime is using the excuse of urban planning to demolish entire buildings,” said Lena Shami, an activist in Damascus. “But what are the chances that it ignored the issue for all these years and now remembered it? And they haven’t given residents any warning or reimbursement.”

Abu Jabir, a civil engineer in Homs, formed the Union of Free Engineers seven months ago after the central city became the first site of mass destruction after more than a month of bombardment by government forces. The Baba Amr neighborhood, which received the brunt of the shelling, looked as if tornadoes had passed through, shredding much of what stood.

“We see in front of our eyes how the homes are crumbling down,” Abu Jabir said. “Even the faucets and the electrical wiring and appliances are being stolen.”


Though he said it was still too early to estimate the extent of the destruction in the country, the engineers union, with members across Syria, is preparing for a post-conflict phase in assessing, fixing and rebuilding.

Melad estimated that his family had lost about $720,000 worth of property during the uprising. But he is better off than many, living in a rented apartment on the outskirts of Damascus with seven other family members, including his wife and children. Others he knows are living 30 to an apartment and dependent on handouts to get by.

In Harasta, which just a month ago had been spared the intense shelling and airstrikes other suburbs have seen, about 70% of the city has been damaged, Melad estimated. A week ago, one of the few remaining residents sent him a photo of what was once his building: “The building crumbled like a biscuit,” he said.

“Truly they have burned the country,” Melad said. “For the country to stand on its feet again it needs 20 years, because the country has become a mere skeleton.”