The Syrian government’s campaign to clear rebels from the city of Aleppo by pummeling residential neighborhoods with so-called barrel bombs constitutes a war crime because the weapons cannot be aimed at combatants, according to a detailed report released Monday by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
The report, which cataloged what it said were 266 bombings that affected 340 different sites around the city from Nov. 1, 2013, to the end of February this year, provided a legal rationale for viewing the barrel bombs, which often are nothing more than barrels filled with explosives dropped from helicopters, as different from other munitions used in the war.
“Use of barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods has done the expected: killed hundreds of civilians and driven thousands from their homes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director. “If these indiscriminate dumb weapons managed to hit a military target, it would be sheer luck.”
The use of a weapon that can’t be aimed violates long-established laws on the conduct of war, the report argues.
“Military commanders should not, as a matter of policy, order the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians,” the report said. “By using barrel bombs on densely populated areas, Syrian government forces used means and methods of warfare that could not distinguish between civilians and combatants, making attacks indiscriminate and therefore unlawful.”
Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified at least 340 locations in Aleppo’s opposition-controlled neighborhoods that had been struck by explosions. The majority of those showed “damage signatures that are strongly consistent with the detonation of barrel bombs.” In many cases, investigators found that residential neighborhoods located far from active front lines were repeatedly targeted. In most cases, residents told Human Rights Watch investigators that rebel military targets were rarely located anywhere near those strikes.
Rebel groups have controlled roughly half of Aleppo since the summer of 2012.