Mass Syria regime looting of homes revealed in explosive new report

Mass Syria regime looting of homes revealed in explosive new report
The Syrian regime has been accused of multiple cases of looting in former opposition territories, a new report has revealed.
4 min read
23 May, 2024
Homes in former opposition areas have been stripped of their belongings [Getty]

As the Syrian regime retook the Damascus suburb of Harasta, one soldier from the elite Tiger Forces proudly proclaimed his intentions for the former opposition stronghold.

"Everyone is stealing, looting, not leaving anything... with God’s help, nothing will remain," he tells the camera.

During the same operation, numerous videos were shot showing mobs of uniformed and plain-clothed men stripping vacated homes of all their belongings, with washing machines, furniture, and even steel facades piled onto the back of trucks and military vehicles before departing town.

"Farewell to Harasta," one soldier taunted the survivors in a video, which shows a convoy of military and civilian vehicles, some loaded with household items, leaving the neighbourhood. "This is how looting is done."

Such admissions are frequent in an explosive new report revealed by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) presenting evidence of widespread pillaging by regime soldiers as they 'liberated' rebel towns and suburbs.

Most of the homes were likely empty, with residents fleeing regime bombardments of their neighbourhoods or fearing detention by advancing troops.

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With homes stripped of all their belongings, sometimes even their roofs, there is now little left for residents to return to.

Videos in the report showing gas canisters and refrigerators bundled onto the back of pick-up trucks hint at sporadic looting by victorious soldiers, while the extraction of roofs from mosques and apartment blocks indicate more systematic collaboration on multiple levels of the Syrian military.

Much of the regime's booty ended up in the so-called 'Sunni Markets' of Damascus and Aleppo, referring to the likely religious denomination of the original owners of the goods.

After viewing footage and satellite imagery of one such market in the Alawite-dominated area of Dahiyet Al-Assad, the SJAC concluded that it emerged in 2018, as regime troops went on a looting spree in nearby Harasta.

The 'Looting Market' and 'Thieves Market' also appeared in Aleppo during the regime's recapture of former opposition neighbourhoods in the city and, as the names suggest, likely the result of widespread theft by soldiers. 

The SJAC report, based partly on intelligence documents, underlines a pattern of widespread looting that emerged when regime soldiers entered former opposition areas over the past ten years, with Syrian regime authorities fully aware of a problem but doing nothing to stop it.

"The Syrian military looted civilian areas to destroy livelihoods and send a message that anyone who lived under opposition-control would be punished," said Mohammad Al-Abdullah, SJAC’s Executive Director.

"However, the substantial video evidence of looting means perpetrators who may have moved to Europe may one day be held accountable for the extensive war crimes they have committed."

Institutionalised looting allowed many in the military to profit from the recapture of rebel towns, but also disincentivised the return of displaced residents to their homes, which follows accusations of deliberate ethnic cleansing of opposition areas by the Syrian regime.

"When forces recaptured an area, they would steal anything that could later be sold," said the lead author of the report.

"Soldiers would collect gas canisters, washing machines, air conditioners, and even copper wiring and roofing rebar from large numbers of homes in captured areas, which made it impossible for Syrians to return."

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When the Al-Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, was captured by regime forces in May 2018, residents were barred from returning to their homes until 2021.

Troops combed through the camp looking for spoils of war with the neighbourhood's Palestine Mosque used as a collection point for looters.

Videos showed washing machines, water tanks, gas cannisters, and air conditioning units - all necessities for residents - piled on the side of the camp's main avenue ready for their export out of Al-Yarmouk. 

Russian troops who were deployed to the area as military police, can be seen in one video apprehending thieves who attempted to transport contraband out the neighbourhood.

The military uniforms worn by the looters not only showed the regime's acquiescence to the theft, but also indicated involvement from the army's top brass in the extraction of resources from the former opposition areas.

Colonel Jaber Asaad Duba, who led the 34th Brigade's infantry division, became known as the 'King of Pillaging' due to his alleged involvement in the looting, while Brigadier General Hafez Jabbour, the unit's commander, also took a cut of the stolen goods, the report added.

The criminal nexus also involved intelligence officers and government officials, with official documents warning that the "bad practices" among the regime's foot soldiers would do little re-build trust with the local populations of re-captured rebel towns.

One song of the National Defence Forces was further proof of a culture of criminality among the pro-regime militia and the fate of the belongings left behind by displaced residents.

"Load your refrigerator in the KIA, from Saqba or from Darayya. You and me, the National Defence Forces. Carry with me this washing machine; I can't lift it alone. You and me, the National Defence Forces."

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin