In Syria, Death Is Falling From the Sky

The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria is one of the greatest of recent decades, but in a world which gets so consumed with constant breaking news and the bombardment of all sorts of information, the electrifying noise of barrel bombs and the real cry for help are not reaching our ears. With more than 330 barrel bombs a day falling on the city of Darriya alone, a staggering number of 175,000 of the city's citizens had no choice but to join a mass exodus from a shattered place that has now been left with less than 8,000 people. The death toll in the 'ghost city' of Darriya is no less than 6,493 effected by 5,375 barrels and with victims been 97% civilians. In some truly shocking scenes, thousands of desperate Syrian refugees queue up amid the rubble and devastation wrought by Syria's three-year war.

At the same time another massive exodus of refugees is happening in Aleppo, civilians escaping from rebel-held parts of the largest city in Syria. As many as half a million people have been displaced to date (in one of the largest refugee flows), many crossing the borders to Turkey or Jordan hoping to flee the continuing mayhem and unprecedented disaster that their country is suffering.

'Al-barmeel' is the Arabic word for 'the barrel.' However, in Syria this word is synonym to death; disaster; humanitarian catastrophe. Barrel bombs are dropped by the Assad regime on civilians over residential areas all across Syria.

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch a few days ago released a report which catalogs what it said were 266 barrel bombings that affected 340 different sites around the city between November 2013 and end of February this year. According to their analysts, there is a legal rationale for viewing barrel bombs as different from other munitions used in the war.

This destructive and lethal weapon, is entirely makeshift and unsophisticated and so it makes no distinction: schools, hospitals, entire neighborhoods are wiped off the map. 'The use of a weapon that can't be aimed violates long-established laws on the conduct of war', HRW argues.

Let's explain what these weapons are made of: barrel bombs are crude, makeshift oil drums or garbage containers filled with explosives, packed with deadly material such as TNT, oil, nails, metal shrapnel. They are DIY bombs, with an estimated weight of up to 2,000 pounds, but analysts suggest that they can hold as much as 3,000 pounds of explosives, which dwarfs even the bigger bombs.

"Use of barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods has 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."

No matter how shocking, footage from the disastrous effect of barrel bombs cannot encapsulate the daily horrors of life in the war-torn Syria. Those who have survived barrel bomb attacks recollect the nightmare in a state of lasting shock. When they are dropped from helicopters barrel bombs make a loud, tearing sound spurring nearby civilians to run in despair and hide somewhere just to wait for their violent death to land.

Shrapnel coming out of them in all directions slaughters people in the most cruel ways: cutting heads off, mutilating bodies, slicing in half babies and children. Hundreds of people are being killed daily in barrel bomb attacks by Syrian regime helicopters, has denounced the aid group Doctors Without Borders. As the Syrian government escalates its assault on rebel-held areas of Aleppo, barrel bombs have seen unprecedented use. The toll so far is estimated to amount to hundreds of thousands since the beginning of the conflict.

But what makes barrel bombs so much deadlier than more conventional weaponry? And are they a recent 'phenomenon' in Assad's official strategy? Not really. According to Eliot Higgins, a blogger covering the situation in Syria for a number of years under the pseudonym 'Brown Moses,' he traces their use in Aleppo back to August 2012; ever since they spread across the country.

One of the scary facts around barrel bombs is that they are cheap, easy to mass produce and deploy from the air. This is not expensive and sophisticated highly advanced technology. It is a thick, stupid, low-cost weapon. What the extended use of 'al-barmeel' confirms is that the Assad regime is looking to avoid losing the war even if it has to eliminate a significant part of Syrian people.

The HRW report details the impact of large-scale aerial bombardment over opposition-held parts of Aleppo and the devastating effects of these underestimated weapons of mass destruction. According to HRW analysts, barrel bombs should be regarded as equally lethal and disastrous to napalm and cluster bombs. This is because they are un-sophisticated, makeshift weapons which are inaccurate; they are dropped randomly in densely populated areas and they cause a high number of civilian casualties.

Using satellite imagery analysis, HRW, has identified at least 340 distinct sites in Aleppo's opposition-held neighborhood that were damaged between November 2013 and February 2014. Damages clearly carry the signature of unguided high explosive bombs, which are locally produced and made of cheap material. These do not look like isolated incidents or military accidents, they look more like a well planned strategy.

A few days ago a condemnatory report was released by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon concluding that a month after passage of a Security Council designed to facilitate aid delivery and end the most brutal military tactics used inside Syria, humanitarian deliveries are still disrupted and indiscriminate attacks against civilians continue.

'I strongly condemn the continued heavy shelling, including the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government forces in residential areas," Ban Ki-Moon concluded in the report.

February's Security Council Resolution 2139 included provisions demanding an end to "the use of barrel bombs, and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering."

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has called the use of barrel bombs in Syria a 'barbaric method which must end' and has urged for action in relieving the plight of civilians caught up in the bloodshed.
However, the harsh reality is that the 'al-barrel' nightmare in Syria continues.

In warfare there are practical reasons not to harm civilians since such actions can provoke retaliation, increase resistance and undermine prospects for lasting peace. Factors such as respect for life, mercy and preserving fairness in fighting, help make war psychologically bearable to those engaged in an activity that traumatizes and can shame voluntary and involuntary participants.

Right now Syria is undergoing social fragmentation and a major development setback. Fragmentation is generated by the hatred between its residents, the increased number of displaced people and the catastrophic effects that the use of barrel bombs cause on the country's manpower, social fiber, economy and infrastructure.

According to a Western diplomat who was inside the Security Council meeting, United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said that "the country continues to be systematically destroyed."

Where does the EU and the rest of the international community stand in all this? Are they turning a blind eye to the obligations set by the Security Council? Who and how can step up and guarantee that no more Syrian civilians will be sacrificed in this continuous bloodshed? And let's not forget that this is a world where social media are enabling people, citizens from all around the world, to take action, spread the word and push for change. Amnesty International has issued a global call, passing the word on means action, which as human beings we are obliged to undertake.