The Syrian government might be — slowly — going forward with a plan to destroy its chemical weapon arsenal under the supervision of international observers. But that didn’t keep them from bombarding civilians with all kinds of other weapons, including, increasingly, DIY “barrel” bombs dropped from helicopters.
In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed the impact of large-scale aerial bombardments over opposition-held parts of Aleppo, and the devastating effects of cheaply built, large bombs made from various objects, like oil drums or garbage containers. These are filled with explosives and scrap metal, making them as inaccurate as they are disruptive.
The video below, uploaded to YouTube by local activists, shows a recent barrel bomb attack on the Ansari district of Aleppo. This happened just a day after the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution demanding — among other things — an end to the use of barrel bombs.
An airstrike on the Ansari district of Aleppo last February 23.
HRW used satellite imagery, as well as video and witness accounts, to document widespread destruction and attacks on civilians, including the shelling of densely populated areas.
“Use of barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods has done the expected: killed hundreds of civilians and driven thousands from their homes,” HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. “If these indiscriminate dumb weapons managed to hit a military target, it would be sheer luck.”
Some 2,321 civilians were killed in airstrikes in Aleppo since November, according to the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), a monitoring group based in Syria, which also counted 266 strikes between November and January alone. The group estimated about 600,000 people fled the area in that time period.
“Why do people focus on chemical weapons and not other weapons? This is what we told a lot of people even in Geneva. We said that there is also napalm, cluster bombs, and now barrel bombs,” Bassam Al-Ahmed, a VDC spokesperson, told VICE News, referring to the two largely unsuccessful rounds of peace talks that took place in Switzerland earlier this year. “Even while there were negotiations going on in Geneva II, the barrel bombs didn’t stop.”
The graphic videos below show bombs being dropped by helicopters near Damascus, and the aftermath of a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo last month.
Video uploaded to YouTube by local activists shows an other airstrike near Damascus, on February 2.
Video uploaded to YouTube by local activists shows the damage caused by an aerial strike in Aleppo, on February 8, which reportedly killed 20 people.
The VDC said that both the bombs’ inaccuracy and the fact that they are dropped in densely populated areas — often nowhere near military targets — have caused the high number in civilian casualties.
“Barrel bombs are very, very random. If there’s a military base or something like this, you can target it by missiles,” Al-Ahmed said, talking about the indiscriminate impact of barrel bombs. “We are sure this is just to make people leave, and to kill more people. The number of people killed by cluster bombs and barrel bombs is more than the number of people that were killed by chemical weapons.”
Al-Ahmed added that “99 percent” of the shelled areas were civilian neighborhoods. HRW identified at least 340 sites hit by aerial strikes in Aleppo, a majority of which were heavily built-up residential areas far from the frontline.
A map of major damage sites in opposition-held parts of Aleppo. Image via Human Rights Watch.
Syrian forces have stepped up their use of DIY bombs not only in Aleppo, but also in rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus. That’s because the easy-to-make weapons have effectively turned the government’s helicopter fleet into bombers. But it's also because the regime’s forces got much better at making the bombs more deadly.
“There's been an interesting upswing in the number of DIY barrels bombs being used in recent months, and that’s coinciding with the introduction of a more reliable design that's far more effective than the types used earlier in the conflict,” Eliot Higgins, a blogger and Syrian war investigator, told VICE News. “The new types are several times larger, use a far more reliable impact fuse rather than a wick fuse — imagine a stick of dynamite — and they also have tail fins welded onto them that ensure the bomb lands on the impact fuse, further increasing their reliability.”
The airstrikes continued both throughout the Geneva peace talks and after the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the latest resolution on Syria — calling once again on all parties to stop attacks on civilians.
But critics have long argued that such resolutions are hardly enough and HRW said the UN should back up its condemnation with an arms embargo on Syria’s government and a referral to the International Criminal Court.
Since the issuing of the resolution, on February 22, attacks by the regime’s forces have killed 437 civilians, including 64 children, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, another local monitor.
“As expected, the Syrian government, the side targeted with the Security Council resolution 2139, hasn’t implemented any of the items of the resolution,” that group said in a statement.
“For three years the Syrian government has declared open season on civilians with almost no consequences,” Whitson, of HRW, said. “The UN Security Council should respond to this disregard of its resolution.”
Chemical weapons have horrified and captured the imagination of the west, critics say, but bombs — of any kind — are no better.
“The Syrian government has been bombing from helicopters since mid-2012, so it's really nothing special now,” Higgins said about the general disinterest in aerial strikes over chemical ones.
But “barrel bomb” itself, he added, is a bit of a misnomer.
“It's only because the term ‘barrel bomb’ sounds more interesting than just ‘bomb’, and it's a term that built this reputation that it's getting any coverage at all. It's a good way for NGOs to get people to notice Assad is still indiscriminately bombing the opposition,” he added. “Really, barrel bomb is a bit like saying ‘pointy sword’: it's meaninglessly repeating a common characteristic of the weapon you're talking about, but it seems it made for a catchy name.”
To Syrians on the ground, those details are hardly relevant at all.
“Killing is killing,” Al-Ahmed said. “If you kill by chemical weapons it’s the same as if you kill by barrel bombs.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi