A barrel bomb is an improvised unguided bomb, sometimes described as a flying IED (Improvised Explosive Device). They are typically made from a large barrel-shaped metal container that has been filled with high explosives, with possibly shrapnel, oil or chemicals, and then dropped from a helicopter or airplane. Due to the large amount of explosives (up to thousands of pounds), their poor accuracy and indiscriminate use in populated civilian areas (including refugee camps), the resulting detonations have been devastating. Critics have characterized them as weapons of terror and illegal under international conventions.
The earliest known use of barrel bombs in their current form was in Croatia in 1991, where they were deployed from An-2 agricultural airplanes against Serbian positions around Vukovar. They were also used in Sudan in the 1990s, where they were rolled out of cargo-doors of transport planes. Barrel bombs have been used extensively by the Syrian Air Force during the Syrian Civil War and later by the Iraqi forces during the Anbar clashes. Experts believe they will continue to be embraced by unstable nations fighting insurgencies since they are cheap to make and utilise the advantages of a government's air-power.
Barrel bombs are cheap to produce, a barrel bomb can cost as little as $200 to $300. They can be used with any type of aircraft including non-military cargo planes. The explosive payload can be as simple as fertilizer (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil). The bomb may contain metal shrapnel such as nuts and bolts or even chemicals such as chlorine. The bomb is barrel-shaped and might be made from improvised material or specially designed. The early versions in Syria used lit fuses and thus had to be carefully timed, otherwise they would fail to explode before breaking apart on the ground or explode too soon in the air. Later models had impact fuses and stabilizing fins which were improved on over time. Earlier barrel bombs also weighed less (100-300 pounds/45–150 kg), while later versions range from 1,000 pounds (454 kg) to 1 ton(ne).
Barrel bombs by country
In 1991, barrel bombs were used by Croatian forces against Serbian forces during the Battle of Vukovar, where they were dropped from Antonov An-2 agricultural airplanes. The device was called the Bojler Bomba ("boiler bomb") as it was made by filling ordinary household hot water boilers with explosives and shrapnel. The effects were predominantly psychological. As background, a Croatian airforce was established in 1990, made up of volunteers from a sports club at Sinj. They were private individuals and enthusiast. Their weapons were home-made and improvised. Bojler Bomba are now on display at a number of museums in Croatia including the Technical Museum Zagreb and the Military Museum of the Croatian Ministry of Defence. Human Rights Watch also reported a first-hand account of a boiler bomb being used in ground combat in Zlatiöte. A 70 kg boiler bomb was rolled down hill into enemy trenches while snipers tried to blow it up before it reached their position - it eventually got stuck in a tree "all it did was destroy a lot of trees".
Barrel bombs have been used in Sudan since at least the 1990s. They were studded with nails and rolled out the cargo doors of Russian-made Antonov An-24 and Antonov An-26 transport aircraft onto insurgent populations in South Sudan and Darfur. Barrel bombs were used, beginning in early 2003, after the Sudan Liberation Army rebelled against Khartoum. They were used again beginning in 2011 when a new insurgency began after the south separated from the north.
Prior to the Civil War, the Syrian arsenal was built to counter an Israeli attack and thus did not have much in the way of close air support (e.g. air to ground bombs and missiles), rather ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles to harass and delay the Israeli air force. The Syrian military thus soon ran out of precision weapons, had trouble obtaining more and needed a cheap and readily available supply of air to ground weapons. Barrel bombs were first identified in August 2012, in particular through the video forensic work of Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses) and Richard Lloyd. Their existence was initially denied by a Russian military expert until a video surfaced in October 2012 from inside a moving helicopter showing a barrel bomb being lit and dropped onto a target by Syrian Air Force personnel. The deliberate use of indiscriminate weapons makes President Assad potentially liable for war crimes. As such Assad has denied the use of these weapons, saying "We have bombs, missiles and bullets. There [are] no barrel bombs, we don't have barrels." Nevertheless there is considerable video, pictorial, and after the fact proof of the use of such weapons in Syria. Video evidence of a barrel bomb being used was recovered from a mobile phone found in the wreckage of a crashed government forces helicopter in May 2015. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said, "This video footage exposes Assad's lies on barrel bombs," and "We will bring those involved in these criminal acts to justice".
Barrel bomb attacks throughout Syria have killed more than 20,000 people since the conflict began in March 2011, according to a December 2013 statement by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). It is estimated that, as of mid-March 2014, between 5,000 to 6,000 barrel bombs have been dropped during the war and their use has escalated. Aleppo has been the focal point of the Syrian government's use of barrel bombs. Over time, government forces have refined their use of the barrel bomb to cause maximum damage - dropping one device and then waiting 10 to 30 minutes to drop another bomb on the same location. According to opposition activists, the aim is to ensure that those who flood the scene to rescue the victims are then themselves killed.
In February 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that demanded an end to indiscriminate aerial bombardment including the use of barrel bombs. China and Russia supported the measure allowing its passage. Five months later in August 2014, it was reported that barrel bomb use had instead escalated in defiance of the ban. Human Rights Watch produced a map showing at least 650 new impact locations consistent with barrel bomb attacks. In early September 2014, Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., stated that "The Syrian government has increased its reliance on barrel bombs to wage a brutal aerial campaign..." By November 2014, it has been reported that the Syrian government has increased its barrel bombing campaign while world attention has been diverted following the American-led intervention in Syria.
In May 2014, it was reported by witnesses that the Iraqi army dropped barrel bombs on the city of Fallujah and surrounding areas, killing civilians during the Anbar clashes (2013–14). According to Mohammed al-Jumaili, a local journalist, the army repeatedly dropped barrel bombs "targeting mosques, houses and markets." Their use was later confirmed by a mid-level Iraqi security officer in Anbar province who admitted that barrel bombs had in fact been dropped in Fallujah. It has been reported by Iraqis that the attacks usually come at night, in order not to be caught on video. Militants in Fallujah have boasted that they have discovered about 20 barrel bombs that did not explode on impact and are using them to make their own weapons. It was claimed in July 2014 by doctors in Fallujah that the city was being barrel-bombed three times a week and more than 600 civilians had been killed in such strikes since January. It has been claimed by an Iraqi Kurd air force pilot that the barrel bombs are produced by Iranians who then use Antonov aircraft and Huey helicopters to drop them.
According to Erin Evers of Human Rights Watch, "What's happening now in Iraq definitely started in Syria. If I were al-Maliki, and seeing Assad next door using the same tactics without a slap on the wrist and gaining ground as a result, it stands to reason he would say, 'Why the hell not?'".
According to residents of Tikrit, Baiji and Mosul, government forces have also dropped barrel bombs on their cities during the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive. Similar barrel bombs attacks were reported in Fallujah and the nearby town of Al-Karmah, in late July and August. On 11 September, 14 barrel bombs were dropped on Fallujah city, killing 22 civilians. According to aid workers, the Iraqi army continues to use barrel bombs extensively against ISIS-held areas, including 30 to 35 barrel bombs on Aziz Balad, a town east of Samarra.
The following were never called "barrel bombs" but had characteristics similar to the modern barrel bomb phenomenon.
In April 1968, during Operation Inferno of the Vietnam War, the United States dropped dozens of barrels filled with incendiary fuel and tear gas-equivalent, in order to start forest fires and to flush out Viet Cong guerrillas in the U Minh forest. The bombs were not dropped on heavily populated areas and in the end were not very effective at starting forest fires.
Some commentators and institutions have labeled barrel bombs as incendiary devices, which are banned for use against populated civilian areas under the terms of the UN Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons. Human Rights Watch has insisted that the employment of these weapons constitutes a war crime. According to Victoria Nuland, of the United States Department of State, barrel bombs are "incendiary bombs which contain flammable material that can be like napalm" or can be packed with nails and launched from the air or from a launcher.
In December 2013, Russia refused to back a text at the UN Security Council that would have condemned the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for carrying out such indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.
According to Nadim Houry, the Middle East and North Africa deputy director for HRW, the reason for the Assad government's continued use of barrel bombs is that it doesn't fear any strong international action.
Syrian opposition representatives have repeatedly requested from international allies, and been denied, the transfer of anti-aircraft weapons to moderate rebel groups, in order to target the aircraft used to drop barrel bombs.
There have been allegations of chemical weapons being delivered as barrel bombs, specifically the 11 April 2014 Kafr Zita chemical attack which saw the use of chlorine gas. Within days of the attack, analysts said they were moving towards a belief that there is "a coordinated chlorine campaign with growing evidence that it is the government side dropping the bombs".
In August 2014, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report detailing the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon used by Syrian government forces, dropped by barrel bombs from helicopters on numerous towns in Syria including Kafr Zita (April 2014), Al-Tamana'a (May 2014), Daraa (August 2014), Jobar (August 2014).
As background, to be legal under international law weapons used for aerial bombardment must comply with the principles of the laws of war: military necessity, distinction, and proportionality. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy; it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
During the Syrian Civil war, in February 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that demanded "that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs, and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering". China and Russia supported the measure allowing its passage.
There have been numerous instances of the use of barrel bombs during the Syrian civil war as reported by the press and activists. Incidents and casualty numbers can not always be independently verified by many news agencies. The BBC reported that between January 2014 and May 2015, only 1% of those killed by barrel bombs were rebel fighters. Some of the major reported incidents include:
- In August 2012, report of a barrel bomb being dropped on the Hamidiya neighborhood of Homs.
- In August 2012, report of barrel bombs being dropped on Al-Qusayr.
- From 15–24 December 2013, barrel bombs killed more than 300 people (and as many as more than 650 according to the Syrian National Council). in several districts of Aleppo.
- On 18 January 2014, barrel bombs killed at least 60 people in Aleppo.
- On 29 January 2014, barrel bombs killed at least 62 people in the Maadi and Salhin districts of south Aleppo.
- From 1–5 February 2014, barrel bombs killed at least 246 people in Aleppo.
- On 12 February 2014, barrel bombs killed at least 38 people in Aleppo, while 31 people were killed in Daraa - mostly by barrel bombs.
- On 31 March 2014, barrel bombs killed at least 31 people after being dropped on the Aleppo town of Maaret al-Artiq.
- On 4 April 2014, barrel bombs killed about 50 people after being dropped on the Dalati Mosque and Dar al-Shifa Hospital of the Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo during peak times.
- On 10 April 2014, barrel bombs killed at least 88 people in the northern neighborhood of Aleppo.
- On 11 April 2014, a barrel bomb, allegedly containing chemicals, was dropped on Kafr Zita.
- On 18 June 2014, barrel bombs killed at least 20 and injured at least 80 people, many seriously, in the refugee camp in the village of Shajra, 2 km (1 mile) from the Jordanian border.
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..the campaigning group Human Rights Watch has insisted that the employment of these weapons constitutes a war crime and that those responsible should be held to account.
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- Evidence Chlorine Gas Was Used In The Kafr Zita Chemical Attack, brown-moses.blogspot.com.au.
- Brown Moses (December 22, 2013). "Syria's Barrel Bomb Technology Relative To Aleppo Syria Attacks - The Good, The Bad And The Ugly". Brown Moses Blog. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
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they are dropping cluster bombs and barrel bombs, which are intended to do maximum damage to civilians.
- Gabriel Meyer (2005). War and Faith in Sudan. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 117–118. Retrieved June 7, 2014.
- Kristof, Nicholas D. (22 February 2012). "Dodging Bombers in Sudan". The New York Times Company. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
- Lee Crawfurd (25 April 2012). "How Sudanese Bombers Work". rovingbandit.com. Retrieved June 10, 2014.
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- Ethan Field (February 10, 2015). "The Origin of the Barrel Bomb: Assad’s Weapon of Fear". heglobalscout.com. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
- Eliot Higgins (30 August 2012). "The Mystery Of The Syrian Barrel Bombs". Brown Moses Blog. Retrieved January 25, 2014.
- Matthew Weaver (21 March 2013). "How Brown Moses exposed Syrian arms trafficking from his front room". The Guardian. Retrieved January 22, 2014.
Reports of DIY barrel bombs being thrown out of helicopters were initially dismissed as "baloney" by a Russian military expert. Extensive and clear footage unearthed by Higgins suggests otherwise.
- Eliot Higgins (27 October 2012). "Clear Evidence Of DIY Barrel Bombs Being Used By The Syrian Air Force". Brown Moses Blog. Retrieved January 25, 2014.
- Syrian regime Barrel Bomb Being Dropped on YouTube
- William James (January 13, 2014). "Britain calls Syrian barrel bomb attacks a war crime". Reuters. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
- Ishaan Tharoor (February 16, 2015). "When the U.S. dropped barrel bombs in war". Washington Post. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
- Sara Hussein (February 10, 2015). "Syria 'informed' about US-led strikes on IS: Assad". Yahoo! News. AFP. Retrieved February 10, 2015.
- Kylie MacLellan (May 20, 2015). "Britain says Syrian video footage exposes Assad barrel bomb lies". Yahoo! News. Reuters. Retrieved May 20, 2015.
- "UN condemns Syria regime air strikes on Aleppo". World Bulletin. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- What happened in Syria when the world was not watching, channel4.com.
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- "Hague urges end to barrel bomb use". London Evening Standard. Press Association. February 22, 2014. Archived from the original on February 28, 2014. Retrieved May 7, 2015.
- Carol J. Williams (July 30, 2014). "'Barrel bomb' use in Syria said to escalate despite U.N. ban". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
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- Ambassador Power at the UN Security Council on Syria, humanrights.gov.
- Syria escalates barrel bomb attacks as world attention shifts, news.yahoo.com.
- Barrel Bombs Hit Residential Areas, hrw.org.
- DEADLY BARREL BOMBS REPORTEDLY HITTING FALLUJAH, america.aljazeera.com
- Thousands flee Iraq government assault on rebel-held Falluja, Reuters.
- Barrel Bomb Attacks Devastate Iraqi Families, nepr.net.
- Fears grow in Baghdad that US is abandoning the city to its fate, theguardian.com.
- Iraq reports major effort to recapture Tikrit, washingtonpost.com.
- Iraqi military battles for control of Tikrit, aljazeera.com.
- Like Assad, Maliki uses explosive barrels to quell rebellion, english.alarabiya.net.
- Iraq: Civilian Toll of Government Airstrikes, hrw.org.
- Airstrikes on Fallujah rebels kill 19, dailystar.com.lb.
- 'Barrel bomb' attacks kill 12 in western Iraq, worldbulletin.net.
- Iraq speaker warns on civilian deaths, dailystar.com.lb.
- Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants, independent.co.uk.
- U.S. Says Syrian Regime Using Missiles, Barrel Bombs, naharnet.com.
- AFP, 20 December 2013, France says Syria air strikes amount to "war crimes"
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- SYRIAN CIVILIANS IN CROSSHAIRS OF ASSAD'S BARREL BOMBS, SAYS REPORT, america.aljazeera.com.
- America can stop the ‘barrel bombs’ in Syria, washingtonpost.com.
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- Syrian regime forces filmed dropping 'barrel bomb' on Homs, telegraph.co.uk.
- SYRIA WITNESS: Helicopters Drop Improvised Barrel Bombs on Qusayr, middleeastvoices.voanews.com.
- UN condemns Syria regime air strikes on Aleppo, worldbulletin.net.
- Syrian air force attacks Aleppo neighborhood with barrel bombs, america.aljazeera.com.
- Syrian regime's barrel bomb assault on Aleppo kills hundreds, telegraph.co.uk.
- Barrel bomb attacks kill 60 in Aleppo, aa.com.tr.
- Syria negotiators congratulate themselves for 'positive steps' in peace talks… as more children are killed by barrel bombs in latest Assad slaughter, dailymail.co.uk.
- 62 killed in Aleppo barrel bomb attack by Syrian regime, worldbulletin.net.
- 246 dead in 5 days of bombing Aleppo, www.sbs.com.au.
- Syria death toll soars, peace talks falter, sbs.com.au.
- Coalition’s Jarba pays rare visit to Latakia, dailystar.com.lb.
- Activists challenge world to #SaveAleppo, dailystar.com.lb.
- On the road to the grave, now.mmedia.me.
- 20 people - mostly children and women - killed in first attack on Syria refugee camp, independent.ie.
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