Assad destroying Damascus in order to save it

The Wall Street Journal reports: All that remains of Abu Mohammed’s ancestral home here in Syria’s capital are two small adobe brick rooms and a few fig, loquat and mulberry trees.

It was bulldozed as part of a government slum-clearance program that appears to have a political motive: isolate neighborhoods sympathetic to Syria’s armed insurrection, and then obliterate them, according to critics, human-rights groups and even some officials within the government itself. “We are like gypsies now,” says Mr. Mohammed, who took his wife and five children to another part of the city after sections of his neighborhood, Qaboun—one of the first to rise up against Syria’s regime—were flattened and ringed by military posts.

The campaign stands in contrast to the all-out urban warfare in the northern city of Aleppo. Here in the capital, Damascus, the strategy appears designed to cripple and disperse the rebels through the destruction and encirclement of communities where they operate.

For the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the stakes in Damascus are nothing short of retaining control of the nation itself. “If they lose Damascus, they lose the state,” says Patrick Seale, a British author and Syria expert.

Senior security officials within the Assad regime say partial demolitions of pro-rebel neighborhoods in and around Damascus are a key element of an ambitious counterinsurgency plan now unfolding. The plan also involves the expansion of regime-funded militias known as “Popular Committees” within the capital.

These officials say the strategy applies lessons learned from other offensives against the rebels since the start of the conflict more than 20 months ago, most notably in the central city of Homs.

The government’s official position is that the destruction is part of a long-discussed master plan to rid Damascus of illegal slums. City officials say illegal settlements account for nearly 20% of the capital’s 26,500 acres.

Based on several extended visits to Damascus and vicinity last month—some of which coincided with demolition by military authorities—the destruction appears to be occurring only in areas where opposition fighters have been active. In addition, much of it has been overseen by the military rather than municipal authorities, residents say.

“There’s still work to be done, we are not finished yet with cleansing operations that are in response to popular demand,” says Hussein Makhlouf, a relative of Mr. Assad and governor of Rif Damascus, the province surrounding the capital.

In his Damascus office, Mr. Makhlouf praised the government’s official slum-destruction decree, known as “presidential decree No. 66,” as a model for urban renewal. He said demolitions will soon begin in Daraya, Harasta and Yalda, all suburbs that have been at the center of the insurgency against Mr. Assad. Mr. Makhlouf was forthright about the motives behind the demolitions, saying they were essential to drive out rebels, or “terrorists” as he called them.

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