Syria

Barrel Bombs Sow Terror in Syria

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Jamie Dettmer

February 07, 2014

BEIRUT — Every war brings a new terror and in recent weeks so-called barrel bombs dropped from helicopters into rebel-held areas by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have emerged as the latest weapon of terror to kill and maim thousands of mostly innocent civilians.

But now some rebel leaders are hinting the reign of terror brought on by the barrel bombs could be coming to an end.

Discussing the dropping by government helicopters and warplanes of barrels packed with explosives or fuel on rebel-held areas, Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba told a Middle East television news station a few days ago that advanced arms are on their way, including weapons to help the armed opposition “get rid of these aircraft.”

He would not be drawn on which countries would be supplying the missiles, which the rebels have long urged foreign backers to provide.

Kerry speaks out

The day before Jarba’s interview U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry forcefully condemned an increased use by the Assad regime of crude-but-deadly barrel-bombs, especially on rebel-held districts in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

“Each and every barrel bomb filled with metal shrapnel and fuel launched against innocent Syrians underscores the barbarity of a regime that has turned its country into a super magnet for terror,” Kerry said in remarks issued by the State Department.

On February 4, the Syrian opposition activists accused the regime of dropping a bomb on the Ottoman Bin Affan mosque in Aleppo, which was being used as a school. Fifteen boys were killed in the attack.

The U.S. and other Western governments sympathetic to the anti-Assad uprising have held back from supplying rebels with portable surface-to-air missiles, often called SAMS or MANPADS, for “Man-Portable-Air-Defense-System.”

One reason cited by U.S. officials in the past is that such missiles, capable of shooting down a commercial aircraft, could fall into the hands of terrorists or foreign Jihadists. And rebel commanders and Western diplomats say Washington had urged the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to provide them to the rebels. Rebels have managed to secure some MANPADS on the black market but not sizeable supplies they say.

A new tactic

Opposition activists say there has been a clear uptick in the use of barrel bombs in recent weeks, starting in December in the run-up to the Geneva 2 peace talks.

Activists posted online harrowing footage this week of barrels bombs being dropped on the southern Damascus suburb of Daraya during the Geneva 2 peace talks, the first round of which ended without agreement last week amid bitter recriminations between the warring sides.

And government forces have been pounding several rebel-held areas of Aleppo with barrel bombs. Aleppo has been divided since rebels captured several districts in 2012 but government forces have started an offensive on the eastern approaches to the city. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based pro-opposition monitoring group that relies on a network of informants inside Syria, as many as a hundred people have been killed in Aleppo in past few days due the barrel-bombs.

Another rights group, the Violation Documentation Center says 433 people were killed in air strikes in the province of Aleppo between November 22 and December 18. Only eight of them were rebel fighters.

Barrel bombs were first used in August 2012, according to rights groups. The bombs are in essence rudimentary devices made from oil drums or cylindrical containers and packed with TNT explosives and filled with an assortment of metal parts, steel fragments or fuel and topped off with a basic fuse that detonates on impact. They are just rolled out of helicopters and the bombs aren’t equipped with any guidance systems.

Perfect terror weapon

According to Richard Lloyd, a technology consultant, the bombs are a cost-effective way of striking at built-up areas and sowing terror by being arbitrary killers. “The main objective of the Syrian barrel bomb program is to provide cheap and lethal damage on urban areas in Syria,” Lloyd wrote in a post for the influential Brown Moses Blog.

Human-rights groups have condemned the Syrian air force’s use of barrel bombs, arguing that as an indiscriminate weapon they breach international laws of war. They cite the U.N, Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons, which prohibits incendiary weapons intended to cause injury “through the action of flame or heat” being used in civilian areas.

Human Rights Watch in a December report accused the Assad government of dropping barrel bombs on residential and shopping areas in rebel-held territory regardless of whether there was a military target. According to Ole Solvang, a senior emergencies researcher with the group, “The Syrian Air Force is either criminally incompetent, doesn’t care whether it kills scores of civilians – or deliberately targets civilian areas.”

War crimes

And in December the U.N.’s human rights chief Navi Pillay indicated that a U.N. rights monitoring commission on Syria was investigating the Assad government for war crimes, among them indiscriminate government artillery bombardments and air strikes on towns and villages. The U.N.’s commission of inquiry is also looking into war crimes committed by rebel forces, say U.N. officials.

Barrel bombs aren’t the only ordnance being unleashed on civilians and rebel fighters alike. The use of cluster munitions and fuel-air bombs have also been documented. Last October, eyewitness testimony and video-evidence suggested a fuel-air bomb was dropped in the rebel-held city of Raqqa in the north of the country. The bomb hit a school killing at least 16.

Fuel-air bombs are not considered chemical weapons, as they don’t unleash nerve agents or toxic gases. But they do utilize a chemical reaction with air to generate a super-intense, high-temperature explosion and a cloud of burning fuel. The U.S. first developed them for use in Vietnam and the Russians used them in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Military analysts say the fuel-air bomb dropped at Raqqa was likely a Russian-supplied ODAB device.

The Syrian government argues that military operations target “terrorist groups” and they complain that rebels often use schools as barracks or as unit headquarters. At the Geneva 2 talks, when asked by the press about the use of barrel bombs, Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said: “I want to give you a simple response. Do you want [us] to defend our people by sending SMS messages?”

Images from Syria