Explosive weapons in Syria

6 February 2012

The use of explosive weapons in Syria over the past several months has been an indicator of crisis unfolding and civilian protection being gravely eroded.  The escalation of heavy explosive weapon use in Homs shows a blatant disregard for civilian safety.

The first reports of explosive weapons being used in Syria (25 April 2011 according to English-language data gathered by Action on Armed Violence)[1] were a stark indication that the government was employing force well beyond that considered appropriate for policing. In May 2011, the UN Humanitarian Chief told the Security Council that: “In Syria reports of the deployment of tanks and shelling of residential areas are alarming.” Human Rights Watch also reported residential areas being shelled in Homs from April to August 2011.[2]

Since April 2011, use of explosive weapons has been one of the drivers of civilian harm with AOAV recording 937 civilian casualties during 2011. The majority of the casualties from explosive weapons in Syria in 2011 occurred during an upsurge in the violence in July and August. This data does not provide the full picture as it relies on media reports, which have been limited due to lack of access for foreign journalists.

The reports over the past few days of widespread use of explosive weapons, including artillery, rockets and mortars, in the city of Homs provide a stark illustration that the situation is getting much worse for civilians. Such weapons can be impossible to target accurately when fired into densely populated locations, and their area of effect means that civilians are anyway likely to be hit by blast and fragmentation.

Access to information on the violence is Syria is limited by the Syrian government. BBC correspondent Paul Wood is one of the few foreign journalists inside Homs. He reported from Homs on 6 February that: “hundreds of shells and mortars have been fired at this place during the day. As I write this, the windows of the house we are in are still reverberating from the impact of a shell, probably in the next street. People in this part of Homs say these attacks are the worst they have known since the beginning of the uprising, almost a year ago. The bombing has been going on for several days now.”[3]

Regarding civilian casualties, Wood reported that: “Most of the casualties we have seen were civilians. We were at a field clinic on Sunday during a mortar attack lasting several hours. A teenaged boy was brought in with horrific injuries, most of his face gone. In the corridor, a woman was screaming. Her only son had just been brought in on a stretcher, his left foot severed by the blast. […] Civilians are certainly paying the price. In the field clinic, a man was carefully wrapping the body of a seven-year-old girl in a white sheet. She had been killed when a mortar fell on her home. They wrote her name on the shroud, Nuha al Manal.”[4]

Use of explosive weapons in populated areas generally results in severe and lasting harm to civilian populations due to the direct deaths, injuries and psychological trauma, the damage to infrastructure and the presence of unexploded ordnance. The use of explosive weapons is now likely to be one of the major drivers of humanitarian harm in parts of Syria affected by the on-going armed violence.

The use of explosive weapons to target civilian populations is unacceptable in any circumstances and must cease. The use of explosive weapons such as mortars and artillery into areas where civilians are concentrated presents a grave risk to civilian life. The Syrian Government should immediately end such indiscriminate forms of attack.

[1] See Action on Armed Violence, Explosive Violence Update: Syria, published 19 May 2011.

[2] See Human Rights Watch, ‘We Live as in War: Crackdown on Protesters on the Governorate of Homs, Syria,’http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria1111webwcover_0.pdf, accessed 6 Feb 2012.

[3] ‘Syria crisis: Army steps up Homs shelling,’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16902819, BBC News website, accessed 6 Feb. 2012.

[4] ‘Syria crisis: Fear and abandonment in under-fire Homs,’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16912756, BBC News website, accessed 6 Feb. 2012.

Posted in: Conference statements, Explosive weapons, Protection of civilians,
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