(New York) – Mounting evidence shows that Syria’s air force is continuing to drop cluster bombs on towns across five governorates despite the Syrian army’s denial that it is using them, Human Rights Watch said today. Data compiled by Human Rights Watch shows an important increase in the use of cluster bombs in the past two weeks. The cluster bomb strikes are part of an intensifying air campaign by government forces on rebel-held areas that has included dropping high explosive, fragmentation, and even improvised “barrel” bombs into populated areas.
Following an October 14, 2012 report by Human Rights Watch on Syria’s use of cluster bombs, Syria’s army issued a statement denying it was using cluster bombs and saying it did not possess such weapons. Since then, Human Rights Watch has gathered new evidence of ongoing cluster bomb attacks by Syria’s air force and has confirmed them through interviews with victims, other residents and activists who filmed the cluster munitions, as well as analysis of 64 videos and also photos showing weapon remnants of 10 new cluster bomb strikes in or near the towns of Salkeen and Kfar Takharim in the Northern governorate of Idlib; Eastern al-Buwayda, Talbiseh, Rastan, and Qusayr in Homs governorate; al-Bab in Aleppo governorate; al-Duwair and al-Salheya in Deir al-Zor governorate; and Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus.
“Syria’s denial is meaningless as evidence mounts that cluster bombs are raining down on towns and villages,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria’s air force is imposing a reign of terror on civilians in rebel-held areas across the country with cluster bombs and other explosive weapons dropped from aircraft.”
Human Rights Watch has received information about more than 35 cluster bomb strike sites. The locations illustrate the broad scope of the use of cluster bombs. Videos and photos of cluster bomb remnants indicate that the Syrian air force has used at least 46 cluster bombs. Human Rights Watch has identified at least 136 unexploded bomblets from the attacks, all of which pose grave dangers to civilians. These are the tallies of strikes, bombs used, and explosive duds that can be determined from available sources, but are probably only a partial indication of the actual totals.
Human Rights Watch spoke to two cluster bomb victims in the town of Eastern al-Buwayda, as well as with residents in the towns of Rastan, Talbiseh, al-Bab, and Qusayr, who witnessed cluster bomb air strikes or filmed the aftermath and directly provided the footage or photos to Human Rights Watch.
The 64 videos Human Rights Watch reviewed were posted on YouTube in October showing the remnants of new cluster bomb attacks in Syria. In each video, Human Rights Watch experts identified cluster bombs containing explosive bomblets (also called submunitions) that apparently had been dropped by aircraft, including helicopters. Two types of RBK cluster bombs have been identified, one containing 150 AO-1SCh antipersonnel fragmentation bomblets and one containing 30 PTAB-2.5M anti-armor bomblets.
In most of the reviewed videos, the visible physical damage to the bombs and the submunitions show them to have been air-delivered, Human Rights Watch said. The cluster bombs show the wearing away of the paint of the suspension lugs that attach the bomb to the rack of the aircraft, as well as the extension of the ejection rod that breaks apart from the bomb after it is dropped. The physical damage to the stabilization fins on both types of cluster submunitions found in the videos indicates the aerodynamic force exerted on them and the deformation that occurred when they hit the ground. In many of the videos, the force of bombs and submunitions hitting the ground has caused them to be solidly lodged in the earth.
To ensure that the videos publicly posted show unique incidents, Human Rights Watch analyzed the types of submunitions deployed, the factory data and production data on the individual bombs and submunitions, the characteristics of the locations where the strikes took place, and the particular damage to the individual bombs and submunitions found. In a number of incidents, phone interviews with witnesses and victims provided additional confirmation of the strikes. Using these points of analysis, a database of unique strike incidents was built, showing the dramatic rise in the use of cluster munitions by the Syrian forces over the past two weeks.
A review of the markings on the bombs and the submunitions contained inside them, as well as a comparison with the Soviet manuals for the weapons, show that they were manufactured in the 1970s and early 1980s at Soviet state munitions factories. The most numerous submunitions identified are AO-1SCh antipersonnel fragmentation bomblets, and all appear to have been manufactured at a Soviet factory corresponding to the marking code of 55.
On October 15, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, denied the use of “Russian-made” cluster bombs in Syria. He said there was “no confirmation” of use and said it is very “difficult” to establish where the cluster munitions came from.
While it is not publicly known how or when Syria acquired its arsenal, RBK cluster bombs were produced and exported by the former Soviet Union in significant quantities. Authoritative publishers of specialist military hardware handbooks like IHS Jane’s, as well as materials published by the Russian military-industrial complex, state that RBK series cluster bombs were marketed by the Bazalt State Research and Production Enterprise in Moscow. No country other than the Soviet Union is known to have produced the RBK-250 series cluster bombs, or AO-1SCh and PTAB-2.5M bomblets.
“While Foreign Minister Lavrov may justify his denial as applying narrowly to modern ‘Russian-made’ cluster bombs, all the evidence so far shows that the weapons being dropped by Syrian government helicopters and jet aircraft originated in the Soviet Union,” Goose said. “Russia should be expressing concern at the use of cluster munitions in Syria and not questioning the compelling evidence that Soviet-made cluster munitions are being used.”
In recent days several governments have condemned Syrian use of cluster bombs, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Qatar.
“All countries that care about protecting civilians from the harmful effects of cluster munitions and other explosive weapons should speak out and demand an end to the air campaign,” Goose said.