Use of barrel bombs
Barrel bombs, also called explosive barrels, are makeshift explosive devices increasingly employed by the Syrian Air Force against opposition strongholds in Syria.
The use of barrel-bombs by Government forces was first documented in August 2012 in Homs city and Al-Qusayr in Homs governorate. In September 2012, army helicopters dropped barrel bombs on opposition-controlled neighbourhoods of Aleppo city. Since then, they have increasingly formed part of the arsenal of Government forces, with devastating consequences for civilians and civilian objects.
Cheaper than conventional munitions and deliverable by transport helicopters, they are made from simple containers packed with explosives, scrap metal, and in many cases additional incendiary material. Locally made in different shapes, sizes and composition, they lack exact technical specifications available with conventional projectiles, in terms of accuracy and lethality. The enhanced anti-aircraft capabilities of non-State armed groups have forced Government helicopters to fly at higher altitudes, further reducing their accuracy.
The use of barrel bombs, in this manner, is indiscriminate. In areas where armed group fighters were present, Government forces treated clearly separate and distinct military objectives located in densely populated areas with high concentrations of civilians, as a single military objective. The use of barrel bombs in this context amounts to ’area bombardment’, prohibited under international humanitarian law. Such bombardments spread of terror among the civilian population. Some barrel bombs are constructed as rudimentary incendiary weapons, causing superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering.
Since 15 July 2013, barrel-bombs have been dropped on civilian-inhabited areas in Idlib, Hama, Al-Raqqa, Aleppo, Dara’a and Damascus governorates. Aleppo city and Daraya in Damascus countryside suffered intense and highly lethal attacks with barrel-bombs between November 2013 and January 2014.
Civilians are killed in the initial blast, in the shrapnel that results and from the collapse of buildings in and around the impact site. Video footage of barrel bomb explosions and their aftermath show the loss of limbs and deep cuts as a result of shrapnel injuries. The impact of the Government’s campaign of barrel-bombing of civilian-inhabited areas extends beyond mass civilian casualties.
The terror that the Government’s barrel-bombing campaigns generate should not be underestimated. Barrel-bombs, particularly when dropped from high altitudes, cannot be properly targeted. Nor is it likely that anyone at the impact site would survive the initial blast. The Government does not provide early warning of attacks and there is little chance of being able to move from the area once a barrel bomb is released from a helicopter overhead. Victims of barrel bombs emphasized the extreme fear and mental suffering they felt as they came under attack. Survivors and witnesses consistently described that as a result of the barrel bombing campaign, much of the civilian population lived in a state of terror.
The impact of barrel bombs causes the collapse of buildings around its explosion, leaving neighbourhoods in ruins. Where such buildings are residences, this further contributes to the mass displacement of civilians inside Syria and over its borders.
On 14 July, a helicopter released three barrel bombs on Al-Bara market and residential areas in Al-Bara. The first barrel hit a truck carrying fuel, causing a massive blaze killing the driver and 5 nearby civilians. The bodies were burnt almost beyond recognition. Others sustained serious injuries, including a loss of limbs. The other two barrels hit residential buildings, destroying them but causing no casualties.
In the last two weeks of July, Saraqib came under intense shelling and aerial bombardment by Government forces. This attack included the heavy use of barrel bombs on 18, 19, 20, 27, 28 and 31 July. In the course of this sustained assault, scores of civilians were killed and many more injured. As buildings collapsed under the bombardments, families were buried in the rubble. In the 31 July attack, four civilians, including women and children, were killed when a barrel bomb exploded as it struck their house.
Throughout August, the Jabal Al-Zawiya region in southern Idlib countryside was bombarded by barrel-bombs. In two separate instances in August 2013, army helicopters dropped barrel bombs into villages populated by significant numbers of civilians. In the first attack, taking place in the second week of August, two children and a woman were seriously injured. One of the children lost a limb to shrapnel. In the second attack, which took place days later, the bomb hit a residential building. The building was flattened and its occupants, a family of 6 children and their parents, were killed.
On 3 August, shortly before the breaking of the Ramadan fast, a helicopter dropped five barrels bombs on civilian houses in Balyoun village. The impact killed a 40-year-old woman and injured three others, including a three-year-old boy. Three buildings were flattened. Two days later, on 5 August, several barrel bombs were dropped on the market in Balyoun, killing 20 people outright and injuring dozens. An unknown number of additional civilians were killed when the building collapsed on them due to the force of the blast. A large number of houses were destroyed, further fuelling the displacement of residents to other areas.
On 18 August, two barrel bombs were released over Bdama, a town to the south-west of Jisr Al-Shughour near the Turkish border. The first hit a residential neighbourhood, killing four civilians including two boys, aged 13 and 7 years. An unspecified number of people were injured and there was significant property damage. The second hit civilian homes in a nearby neighbourhood, killing at least 5 and severely injuring 20 people. Further casualties resulted from the collapse of houses near the impact site.
On 25 September, barrel bombs were dropped on Maarat Hurmah from a helicopter hovering high overheard. The village lies 13 km south of Ma’rat Al-Numan. Six people were killed, including three women and two children.
On 8 October, a Government helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on Bizabur, a village just south of Ariha. In the same month, Government forces used barrel bombs on Al-Hobait in southern Idlib. In one attack, the bomb landed on a family home, killing a woman, her two teenage daughters and two sons.
On 11 October, the Government launched a barrel bomb attack on Kansafra, a town with approximately 30,000 inhabitants, situated 20km west of Maarat Al-Numan. The explosion, the shrapnel generated and the collapse of approximately five building caused mass civilian casualties.
Government helicopters, flying at high altitudes, dropped barrel bombs on towns and villages inhabited by civilians in Hama governorate. On 9 August, the Government targeted Al-Hawwash with barrel-bombs, causing significant civilian death and injuries. On 14 October, on Eid Al-Adha, Government helicopters launched six aerial strikes, dropping barrel bombs on each occasion. Two people were killed, including one child while 20 were injured. The next day, helicopters targeted Al-Latamneh with three barrel bombs. One hit a house, killing three children from one family.
Government helicopters dropped barrels bombs on Al-Raqqa city in July and August 2013. In all instances documented, there were significant civilians casualties, a high proportion of which were children.
On 30 July, shortly before the breaking of the Ramadan fast, a helicopter flew over the Al-Raqqa city twice, dropping two barrel bombs in each sortie. The residential areas of Ta’meer and Badow were hit, killing 13 civilians including 7 children and 3 women. Twenty people were injured and there was significant damage to houses.
On 2 August 2013, a helicopter dropped two barrel bombs in two consecutive raids on residential areas. While one hit a vacant park, the other struck a residential building, killing a woman and her brother. Thirty-two others were injured.
On 10 August, four barrel bombs were dropped on residential areas, again in Al-Raqqa city, killing 36 people and injuring many more.
The campaign of shelling and aerial bombardment of Aleppo governorate has been prosecuted with shocking intensity. The Government’s on-going campaign has made liberal use of barrel bombs on Al-Safirah in September and on Aleppo city and the Al-Bab region in particular, between November 2013 and January 2014.
Al-Safirah, a town 25 kilometres east of Aleppo city, is home to a large number of internally displaced persons, many of whom live in a camp on the outskirts of the town. In early September, Government helicopters released several barrel bombs over Al-Safirah and its IDP camp. While rebel fighters were present in the town and numbered among the casualties, the majority of those killed were civilians. The shelling and bombardment, including with barrel bombs, continued into October. On 20 October, civilians fleeing the town were killed in barrel bomb attacks on their vehicles.
Barrel bombs were dropped by Government helicopters on Aleppo city throughout November and December. Attacks have continued into January 2014. Use of barrels bombs in Aleppo city was documented as taking place on 23 November, on 9, 16, 17, 20, 24, 28 December and on 1 January 2014. Across the span of these attacks, several hundred of civilians have been killed, many of them children.
On 23 November, a helicopter targeted Al-Marjeh neighbourhood in Aleppo city with three barrel bombs. Twenty-eight people were killed and 25 others were injured. All the victims were civilians. Ten civilian homes were also destroyed. On the same day, barrel bombs exploded in a vegetable market in Tariq Al-Bab neighbourhood, killing 25 civilians, many of them women and children. The blast caused a fire which led to further civilian casualties and injuries.
On 9 December, a barrel bomb exploded near to a school and a medical point in Al-Zabedia neighbourhood. At least four people were killed, including a pregnant woman. All victims were civilians.
On 17 December, Government helicopters targeted civilians gathering in a crowded market in Al-Maadi neighbourhood. Twenty people were killed, including three women and five children. Some survivors lost limbs.
On 20 December, a barrel bomb was dropped on a family home in Al-Sukkari neighbourhood. Five civilians were killed including one woman and two children. At least forty were injured including a five-year-old boy. Due to shrapnel injuries to the head, the boy now has limited ability to move and speak. Ten residential buildings were destroyed.
Again on 24 December, multiple barrel bombs struck Al-Sukkari neighbourhood. The bombs fell on residential areas and the shopping district. At least 30 people were killed and more injured. Twelve residential building collapsed. One bomb hit a gas station, causing deaths by burning as well as serious injuries. Another bomb hit a mosque where children were receiving religious instruction. Consequently many children were killed.
At noon on 28 December, a Government helicopter released multiple barrel bombs over Al-Myasser neighbourhood. One of the injured was a 14-year-old boy who received shrapnel injuries to the head. He underwent an operation to remove the shrapnel from his brain but this proved unsuccessful. Consequently, the boy has lost the ability to speak and is partially paralysed. In a separate barrel bomb attack, helicopters dropped barrel bombs on a vegetable market, while civilians sought to buy food. Over 25 people were killed.
On 1 January, a helicopter also dropped barrel bombs on Al-Sukkari neighbourhood. The bombs landed in the main shopping area, killing 20 people and injuring many others. Commercial premises were destroyed.
Barrel bomb attacks occurred in Al-Bab on 30 November, 1 December and 12 January 2014.
Government forces dropped barrel bombs on other civilian-inhabited towns and villages in Aleppo governorate. On 21 November, a helicopter dropped barrel bombs on Souran, killing 14 civilians, including women and children. At least one man, a passenger in a car, lost his leg in a shrapnel injury.
On 23 November, helicopters targeted the industrial zone of Sheikh Najar with barrel bombs. Three people – civilian workers – were killed. There were an unspecified number of injuries as well as significant destruction of property. On the same day, helicopters released barrel bombs over Tadef, south of Al-Bab city killing 15 people. Children were among the dead. One bomb struck a fuel seller. The ensuing blaze burnt people to death and caused serious burns to survivors.
On 28 November, a Government helicopter dropped barrel bombs over Dawar Qadi Askar during the day when people were out shopping. At least 14 people were killed including children and one pregnant woman. The barrel bombs caused a residential building to collapse and severed the main water supply line.
On 19 December, a nine-year-old girl lost both of her legs in a barrel bomb attack on Hreitan. The girl was playing with some other children on the roof of her apartment block when they heard the sounds of a helicopter overhead. The helicopter was flying too high to be visible. While the other children ran, the girl was the last off the roof and lost her limbs in a shrapnel injury. On the same day, in a barrel bomb attack on Minbij, five civilians, including three children, were killed and nine were injured. A residential building and several cars were also destroyed.
December 2013 and January 2014 saw an increase in the use of barrel-bombs.
In mid-December, a warship helicopter dropped barrel bombs on Jasem city, killing over twenty civilians. On 3 January 2014, barrel bombs were dropped from helicopters on residential areas in Inkhil and Jasem, following an attack by armed group fighters’ on an army checkpoint.
January 2014 saw a dramatic increase in the use of barrel-bombs on Damascus governorate, with Daraya being particularly hard hit.
On 7 January 2014, barrel bombs killed an unspecified number of civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus city. On 14 January, Government helicopters dropped barrel bombs on civilian-inhabited areas in Daraya, Arbin and Zabadani, all in the Damascus countryside. This campaign is ongoing.
Government forces consistently failed to employ precision weapons when attacking targets in dense urban areas. Repeatedly throughout the reporting period, they deployed highly imprecise munitions with an expansive impact zone. Inevitably, these weapons killed and injured large numbers of civilians. Such weapons included barrel bombs.
Where barrel bombs were built as de facto incendiary weapons, they also violated rules of international humanitarian law prohibiting the use of weapons that cause superfluous injury, unnecessary suffering or that are indiscriminate by nature.
Government helicopters dropped barrel bombs in the hours before break of fast during Ramadan, on fuel depots, and on busy market areas. The information strongly indicates that the manner in which the attacks were carried out, the timing and duration of the attacks demonstrates that the aim of the Government’s campaign of barrel-bombing was to terrorise the civilian population present in the areas attacked, with the clear message that no civilian was safe anywhere at any time of the day or night.