Drone Videos Take You Inside Syria’s Decimated Cities

The aerial footage of little-seen war zones captures the extent of the damage to some of the world’s oldest places.
Syrian army soldiers and civilians inspect the site of two bomb explosions in Homs, Syria. (Photo: Sana/Reuters)
Feb 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gionni Ponce is Participant Media’s Assistant of Advocacy and Social Impact.

Images of Syrians fleeing war have flooded screens and newspapers, but what’s left behind is more rarely seen. The latest technology—aerial HD drone footage—is providing devastating insight into the crumbling buildings, debris-strewn streets, and shattered windows of the war-torn country. As cameras sweep over decimated cities, many viewers are introduced to the damage caused by barrel bombs, gunfire, and deliberate vandalism for the first time.

After close to five years of war and more than 250,000 deaths, major cities and cultural heritage sites lay in ruins, leading to a refugee crisis with more than 4.5 million people fleeing their homes.

Syria watchers hope videos like these can inspire change. Emma Cunliffe, an Oxford University researcher, says drones are useful for conveying the scale of how horrific the war is. She is part of a two-year project, Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa, that records and shares information about threatened archaeological sites.

“When it’s so far away, it’s easy to be removed and imagine it can’t possibly be as bad as people make out,” Cunliffe told TakePart.

The videos are a testament to the situation from which Syrian refugees are fleeing as many European nations continue to decry the influx of people.

Homs: Prewar Population 652,600

Drone footage over Homs

After years of war, parts of Homs, Syria, are crumbling and deserted. New drone footage shows the extent of the devastation.

Posted by Channel 4 News on Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Footage for this video, released on Feb. 2, was gathered by a Russian film crew earlier this year and edited by the U.K.’s Channel 4 news station to include stark details about the destruction.

The damaged buildings and crumbling staircases to nowhere have elicited comparisons to apocalypse films on social media. Anything left inside the bombed buildings faces another threat: looting. Cunliffe believes the biggest challenge moving forward will be to encourage all fighting forces to obey the international laws in place to protect sites from systematic looting.

“Tackling that isn’t just a case of security or better enforcement,” she told TakePart. “It means tackling poverty and the crippling lack of money that is driving these people to loot to support their families before they starve.”

Damascus: Prewar Population 1.4 million

The ancient city of Damascus is one of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in Syria, which means the United Nations has deemed it of special cultural significance to the world.

Nada Al Hassan, chief of the Arab states unit for UNESCO, has been working with her team to create damage assessment reports, conduct temporary conservation efforts, prevent the illicit trafficking of artwork, and form international coalitions to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage.

In December 2015, Russian state video news agency Ruptly published this video of the damage exacted in Damascus, the capital of Syria. This footage comes from the outskirts of the city, where there are fewer historical sites, according to Al Hassan.

Castle Krak des Chevaliers: Prewar Population 9,000

One of the main sources of damage during conflict comes when ancient structures are commandeered as foxholes for warring factions. Near the town of Hosn and built in the 12th century by crusaders, Castle Krak des Chevaliers was one of the best conserved monuments in Syria before the conflict began, said Al Hassan.

Rebel forces occupied the castle for two years before President Bashir Assad’s forces sought to take it back in early 2014. When the fighting intensified in Hosn, civilians took refuge inside, and the castle endured battle once again as a series of air strikes and heavy artillery shook its walls. This video, released by RussiaWorks in October 2015, shows the extent of the damage to the castle’s infrastructure.

After the fighting ended, UNESCO helped put up temporary structures on the most precarious parts of the castle to prevent further problems. “We just wanted to halt any possible collapse, freeze the situation until we can involve a full-fledged multidisciplinary team that would include historians, conservation architects, and others,” Al Hassan said.

Damascus in Times of Peace

In comparison, this prewar slideshow of Damascus created by Cities of the World YouTube channel shows some of the many treasures the city has fostered for thousands of years. What often goes unsaid in the media is the large role the Middle East has played in human history. “This is the cradle of civilization,” said Al Hassan. “People see Syria as a battleground or video game. It’s a region that is very rich and refined in culture, but it’s going through a difficult passage now.”