BEIRUT: Over the past week, a dramatic stepping up of the Syrian government’s assault on Aleppo has killed at least 300 people, including 87 children. Many of those casualties have been the result of “barrel bombs,” which have also been used in other parts of the country over the same period. According to military experts, the resort to barrel bombs doesn’t mean the regime’s military capabilities are being ground down, and, more importantly, the rebels don’t appear to have an effective response to the deadly devices.
Launched from helicopters, rather than planes, barrel bombs are crude creations, consisting of a metal barrel such as an oil drum filled with a fuse, explosives and shrapnel, according to Eliot Higgins, a weapons expert who has closely followed the Syrian conflict. The wick is lit while in the helicopter, often by a cigar, as matches or lighters would be extinguished in the wind, and the bomb is rolled out.
While the Syrian government claims to be targeting rebel “terrorists,” the makeshift nature of these barrel bombs means their damage is often indiscriminate and widespread, as the high death tolls this week have shown.
But why use them instead of more conventional rockets?
Barrel bombs were first used by the regime in August 2012 in Aleppo province and in the last week they have been dropped everywhere from Idlib in the northwest to Deraa in the deep south of the country.
Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described barrel bombs as, “Sort of a blockbuster type weapon ... they can do a lot of damage, mostly in built up areas.”
While they are used to support operations to root out rebel forces, White said they were also employed to intentionally target civilians.
“They cause a lot of terror; they cause a lot of casualties. There is no question about it,” he said.
Higgins agreed that the bombs were used more “to terrorize the local populace rather than achieving specific military objectives.”
Most of the casualties are caused by the fallout from the destruction of buildings, White believes, rather than the shrapnel itself.
White has not seen evidence of barrel bombs being used in any previous conflict, but Higgins said that different models had been used in Sudan, calling the practice “just an idea that’s occurred to different militaries across the world at different times.”
In the summer of 2007, when the Lebanese Army faced off against Islamist militants in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, it also took advantage of gravity in this way, as the Syrian military is doing with barrel bombs. With no air force to speak of, the Lebanese Armed Forces customized regular mortar bombs so that they could be dropped from helicopters rather than launched from jets, said Elias Hanna, a retired Army general.
Over the weekend, Human Rights Watch condemned the government’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in and around Aleppo.
“The Syrian Air Force is either criminally incompetent, doesn’t care whether it kills scores of civilians – or deliberately targets civilian areas,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at HRW.
“HRW believes that 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 statement added.
Barrel bombs are cheap to make, consisting of sheet metal, simple fusing and explosives, White said, but added that this doesn’t necessarily indicate a major depletion in the regime’s regular munitions, or indeed its fleet of planes.
He called the phenomenon an addition to the regime’s existing capabilities.
“They are something the government can produce itself and it gives them another way to get explosives on to targets.”
The government continues to launch conventional weapons and carry out strafing and other incendiary bombing every day, White said. “I think barrel bombs are just something extra.”
And, he said, the “rebels really have no response.”
Earlier in the conflict, rebel units acquired a supply of MANPADs, or shoulder-launched surface to air missiles, and this weapon has forced the helicopters to drop the bombs from a higher altitude.
However, White believes that the rebels’ supplies of MANPADs are dwindling and not being replenished as they once were.
“My sense is that the rebels don’t have as many MANPADS as they used to ... they are not receiving as many as before,” he said.
Higgins, who blogs under the name Brown Moses, agreed that the use of helicopters to drop barrel bombs merely represented the regime utilizing the maximum level of its resources.
“They’ve been doing this since August last year, so it’s not anything new and it doesn’t suggest it’s a reaction to any specific circumstances within the air force,” he said.
The Syrian air force has always been weak, White said, and has certainly been affected by wear and tear and attrition over the last nearly three years of war, meaning that the use of helicopters is a way of boosting the regime’s air capabilities. Across the country, only around 30-40 air attacks are carried out each day, so 20 aircraft, including helicopters, carry out two journeys a day, or 40 aircraft each carry out one journey.
“Helicopters and barrel bombs are just part of the air package right now,” White said.
Higgins added: “It’s always seemed to me that these DIY barrel bombs are more about making the most of their transport helicopter fleet rather than issues of cost or the availability of conventional bombs.”
“If you look at the composition of the Syrian military’s helicopter fleet, there are many more transport helicopters than attack helicopters, so why not make use of them instead of having them sat on helipads doing nothing?”
For White, the apparent intensity or frequency of the attacks during the current campaign in Aleppo does represent a development worth paying attention to because of the question of what might come next.
A surge in attacks, such as those that preceded the battle for Qusair on the border with Lebanon in May or the Safira offensive in Aleppo province in February, occur normally “when the regime is up to something.”