Q and A: Barrel bombs are Assad’s ‘weapons of terror’

Al Jazeera talks to military analyst Riad Kahwaji on the devastating prevalence of the cheap homemade weapon in Syria.

Syria barrel bombs
A new report says the use of air-delivered munitions by Syrian forces have killed or injured thousands of people [Reuters]

In a TV interview aired on February 10, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied accusations that his forces were using barrel bombs against civilians in Syria.

Two weeks later Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery anaysis and video evidence, it says, identifies “at least” 450 major damage sites where the homemade air-dropped bombs had been used.  

A local monitoring group has recorded 2,576 civilian deaths in the Aleppo governorate from aerial attacks, including 636 children and 317 women in the year ending February 19.

Residents from the rebel-held territory in Daraa and Aleppo said that barrel bombs have accounted for the majority of air strikes on their area.

The UN Security Council meets on Thursday to report on resolution 2139 which demanded a year ago that all parties to the conflict in Syria end the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and other weapons in populated areas.

Al Jazeera asks Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, to explain the sudden prevalence of the basic and deadly arsenal.

Al Jazeera: Simply, what are barrel bombs and what do they do?

Riad Kahwaji: Barrel bombs are old crude weapons that have no tactical value. They are pure weapons of terror aimed at causing maximum destruction in civilian areas with the objective of inflicting severe damage to property and killing civilians. They are cheap and could be built domestically by loading hundreds of kilogrammes of gunpowder and other explosive material inside big barrel-shaped canisters.

Soldiers on board helicopters light the fuse of the barrel bomb before they drop them on the intended targets. The size of damage caused is meant to implant fear in the hearts of the civilian population in order to get them to turn against the rebels.

Al Jazeera: Why does President Assad go to such trouble to deny their specific use, as in his recent TV interview?

Kahwaji: This is a basic strategic bombing strategy carried out at a very low cost… It is humiliating and damaging to a regime that likes to place itself as a champion of high values with a powerful military seeking to defend its civilian population against terrorists.

Denial is the only strategy, even though there are video tapes and images of Syrian regime helicopters dropping barrel bombs in an indiscriminate manner on highly populated neighbourhoods.

Al Jazeera: Recent conflicts seem to become known by the weapons specifically prevalent in them. Is this the “barrel bomb war”?

Kahwaji: Yes, we can say that Syria was the “barrel bomb war”, even though the regime used other weapons like ballistic missiles. The regime has reportedly used nearly 70 percent of its arsenal of Scud missiles, which was estimated to be about 1,000 at the start of the conflict.

Al Jazeera: It has been said that media reporting of modern warfare may inadvertently be an advertising tool for the arms trade. What do you think of that statement?

Kahwahi: The defence industry uses many forms of marketing, including media, to promote their products with the objective of increasing sales. News coverage of wars is done by media outlets to report the conflict. Some weapons would be promoted indirectly when media outlets decide to mention them by name and describe their capabilities.

Barrel bombs are not hi-tech or even sophisticated weapons that are sold by modern defence companies. They are primitive bombs built by bloody dictatorships with the objective of terrorising people.

Al Jazeera: What can be done to protect civilians in Syria from attack by either hi-tech or low-tech weaponry?

Kahwaji: The UN Security Council should issue a resolution outlawing the use of barrel bombs and other similar weapons against civilian populations, and consider their use as a war crime.

There is already an International Arms Trade Treaty that entered into effect in December 2014. This was established to regulate the global trade of arms. Many countries are signing it and becoming subject to its rules and regulations. The important thing now is to have the UN Security Council act in enforcing its implementation to prevent the sale of outlawed weapons and the illegal sale of weapons to non-state actors or to countries subject to sanctions.

Source: Al Jazeera