While the Syrian government and its Russian allies were claiming that eastern Aleppo had been liberated by its forces, its soldiers were engaged in widespread looting of private property. This adds to the long list of war crimes carried out by the Damascus government, including the deliberate targeting of civilians, deliberate starvation, and forced displacement. Government troops did not even spare those civilians supportive of the regime or people in the western half of the city that was always under state control. This has prompted a surge of anger, much of it expressed on social media in the past month.
As of December 22, 2016, all remaining residents of the eastern districts of Aleppo, including most of the Old City, had been forced to evacuate from their homes. This was due to an agreement reached between Turkish intelligence and the Russian army. The recently displaced population consisted of civilians of different political leanings, citizen journalists, medical personnel, local council representatives along with other civil society actors. They also included academics of the Free University of Aleppo, members of the Syrian Civil Defense, and opposition fighters.
The Aleppo Project assessed multiple accounts and spoke to dozens of affected civilians from different parts of the city. They described family members in western Aleppo being barred entry to their homes in the east. All the while Syrian Arab Army personnel and Shabbiha militias were loading trucks with fridges, washing machines, TV screens, carpets, kitchen pots, gas bottles, water taps, electricity meters and cables.
English lecturer Abdulkafi Alhamdo’s family home was looted after they were forced out of the city. A family friend was able to enter Alhamdo’s neighborhood. Alhamdo told us, “He saw what is like a market for secondhand furniture. A soldier or an officer comes with a merchant and sells the building as a whole. The merchant comes with workers to take all that’s in the building and sell it.”
“Those who paid bribes were allowed to enter their homes,” said one resident. “They were basically asked to buy their own furniture or watch it being stolen.” Others who were able to get hold of their relatives’ belongings and wanted to move them to western districts had to pay exorbitant sums of money at regime checkpoints throughout the city.
The looting wasn’t restricted to homes but included shops and factories. The factories in the ar-Ramouseh Industrial Area were particularly affected in the recent developments. Medical clinics have also been seen as a profitable target. A laboratory physician who lives in western Aleppo said he watched a regime group take all the equipment in his lab as he arrived to check on it after the regime takeover.
This type of looting follows a pattern seen in different parts of Syria since the beginning of the conflict. More recently, in November of 2016, one month before the evacuation deal, residents in the suburbs of western Aleppo said their apartment buildings were looted after the regime was stationed there to repel a rebel advance. “We were away three days and we returned to find our homes empty. Every door is broken into and the authorities didn’t see them! How could that be when each car going in or out is being thoroughly searched at checkpoints?”
Limited cases of looting have also happened under mainly short-lived rebel formations, most prominent among which was a faction led by the infamous shabbeeh-turned-rebel Hassan Jazara. “It was Hassan who caught me during a protest [against the regime] in Aleppo in November 2011,” told us Aleppian pharmacist Fadi H. He spent two months in prison following the arrest. An opposition court ruled against Jazara. A coalition of rebel groups attacked Jazara’s headquarters and arrested him, but he was released in exchange for the release of individuals detained by Jazara’s group.
In 2013, ISIS, newly arrived in the city, attempted to consolidate its power by eliminating already weakened rivals. They arrested Jazara and executed him publicly. ISIS was meanwhile also forcibly disappearing activists and civil society members, but their own criminal presence in Aleppo didn’t outlive the January 2014 purge by local rebels.
The homes of those who left eastern Aleppo between mid-2012 and late 2016 remained mostly untouched by remaining civilians and rebel groups. One major exception was with the need for those who lived in upper floors to move down to lower floors of buildings to avoid being killed in government and Russian air strikes. These air strikes would often destroy only the upper floors of buildings. This type of emergency relocation soon became an accepted norm.
The people of Aleppo who have been displaced as part of the evacuation deal, as well as those who left before to avoid the bombing and persecution, are now facing a new struggle for survival away from home. Those who have lost family or been disabled, as well as those whose homes were destroyed or damaged, see the theft of their possession as rubbing salt into their wounds.
Unfortunately most of them will never be able to recover their possessions. The absence of fair compensation will delay reconciliation and is likely to become another unaddressed grievance, among many than Syrians feel against the government. Looting is a war crime under the Rome Statute. The government should be held responsible for bringing those guilty to trial and for paying compensation. There is of course no prospect of this happening.