Barrel bomb

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Propaganda for a No-Fly-Zone by the "Syrian Network for Human Rights"

"Barrel bombs" are weapons of massive and indiscriminate damage and civilian deaths, allegedly all made and deployed by Syrian government forces, dropped from aircraft (helicopters) on rebel-held areas. The way these crude but powerful explosives fall straight down from a hovering helicopters is widely described as "indiscriminate," and they point to the almost totally civilian death from attacks described as done with barrel bombs. Pro-intervention activist reports have such attacks happening on a near daily basis in 2014 and 2015, using the charges increasingly as a reason for an imposed "No Fly Zone" over at least parts of Syria.

From March 2015, increasingly the accusation was expanded to barrel bombs that disperse chlorine gas, dropped on areas of Idlib and neighboring provinces, that had been "liberated" by Jabhat al-Nusra.

There is adequate logic behind the basic idea of such a weapon, depending on its usage. And there is some visual evidence of government forces indeed dropping explosives-laden barrels with welded tailfins from helicopters (some images or videos might be dubious or fake, but not likely all of them). However, when activists produce dead and suffering civilians in areas they administer, and claim it was one of these bombs that caused it, there is ample cause for skepticism. In many circles, that seems to get skipped over on the way to quick acceptance of the claim, and especially the central "fell from a helicopter" part of the story.


Sources and claims

Banias, an oil refinery city on Syria's Mediterranean coast, is home to one of the Assad regime's secret barrel bomb factories
The barrel bomb: a tremendous iron tank filled with explosives and organic fertilizers, and stuffed with sharp metal objects. Its weight ranges between a quarter to half a ton, and is dropped randomly from regime helicopters flying at high altitudes in order to avoid opposition fire. The barrel usually targets opposition-held cities or villages, deliberately causing death and injury among civilians.

  • A BBC report offers a graphic summary; from January 2014 to March 2015, in attacks described as done by this weapon: 3,124 civilians killed vs. 35 rebel fighters. The attacks had also damaged 3 schools, 17 hospitals, and 23 mosques.

Assad Denies Barrel Bombs

It's widely claimed that Syria's president - not his military experts - flatly denies using "barrel bombs." This stems entirely from one 2015 interview with BBC's Jeremy Bowen. Some sources highlighting this apparent dishonesty:

The quote in question: - Jeremy Bowen: What about barrel bombs, you don’t deny that your forces use them?

- Bashar al-Assad: I know about the army, they use bullets, missiles, and bombs. I haven’t heard of the army using barrels, or maybe, cooking pots.

- Bowen: Large barrels full of explosives and projectiles which are dropped from helicopters and explode with devastating effect. There’s been a lot of testimony about these things.

- Assad: They’re called bombs. We have bombs, missiles and bullets… There is [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.

If here completely denying barrel bombs, would he respond to a precise description of them with "they're called bombs," or with something like "they're imaginary"? The "gotcha" quote here is "there is no barrel bombs, we don't have barrels." But he also seems to acknowledge they do, just making issue of the barrel part - they're called bombs, he says. It's a questionable distinction, and easy enough to misread into a flat denial. He would still deny, and perhaps with good reason, that they're killing hundreds of civilians as claimed.

Assad to AP in 'September 2016:

When they talk about barrel bombs, what are barrel bombs? It's just a title they use in order to show something which is very evil that could kill people indiscriminately, and as I said, because in the media "when it bleeds, it leads." They don't talk about bombs; they call it barrel bombs. A bomb is a bomb, what's the difference between different kinds of bombs? All bombs are to kill, but it's about how to use it. When you use an armament, you use it to defend the civilians. You kill terrorists in order to defend civilians. That's the natural role of any army in the world. When you have terrorists, you don't throw at them balloons or you don't use rubber sticks, for example. You have to use armaments. So, it's not about what the kind of armament, it's about how to use it, and they want to use it that time to accuse the Syrian Army of killing civilians.

Video of Barrel Bomb Usage

Barrel Bombs 4.png
Aerial (Syrian military usage)


Barrel Bombs by Numbers

(regarding alleged use, not necessarily real use)

  • BBC Dec. 29, 2013 "Barrels packed with explosives and dropped from Syrian aircraft have killed 517 people in the northern province of Aleppo since 15 December, activists say. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 151 were children and 46 women." (320 men = 62%)
  • SNHR infographic (above, original source elusive): 5,150 BBs between Feb. 22 2014 and the same date in 2015

killing 12,193 people, 96% civilian. But it also breaks this in half, before UNSC resolution 2139 (Feb 22) and after. It shows less bombs were used after the resolution, killing more people, including more than 4 times as many children as before. They say 50% of the 12,193 killed is women and children, but only the latter half is. The earlier half was only 21%. The real average is about 39%, and 61% are adult males.

(note: this says the resolution condemned BB usage, and press release says "Some called specifically on the Syrian regime to lift the blockade, stop using barrel bombs and allow aid delivery." But UNSC resolution 2139 22 Feb 2014 is mostly about allowing aid, and apparently didn't, in itself, include anything about barrel bombs.)
  • May 31, 2015 REF/RL "(the SOHR) says it has documented 17,000 barrel bombings by the Syrian regime since October 2014."
  • Middle East Eye, 14 August 2015: "Syrian forces have dropped more than 2,000 barrel bombs across the country since July, killing hundreds of people, the US ambassador to the United Nations said on Thursday. ... "The Assad regime has apparently grown reliant on the repugnant use of barrel bombs as an instrument of terror against innocent Syrian civilians," Power said in a statement."
  • VDC whole war, bombing with "barrel" in notes = 7,578 killed. 217 non-civilian men, of 7,361 civilians. These are 1,098 women (15%), 1,276 boys (17%), 734 girls (10%), and 4,258 men (58%).
  • SNHR tweet "At least 6016 barrel bombs dropped by regime helicopters in the first half of 2016" 185 civilians killed, 54 children, 26 women, so 105 men (57%)
  • SNHR tweet "93 civilians died in at least 1183 barrel bombs dropped by gov helicopters in Jul 2016." 21 children, 18 women, so 54 men (58%)

Report: No less than 10987 Barrel Bombs since Russian intervention. Links to SNHR monthly report on the use of barrel bombs by government forces. This says "99% of the victims killed by barrel bombs are civilians and the percentage of women and children victims varies between 12% to 35% in some cases." (men = 65% to 88%)