As Peace Talks Inch Along, Deadly Firebombs Plague Syrians

What 'barrel bombs' reveal about the Assad regime's war on civilians.

Men react near a site hit by barrel bombs dropped by government forces on al-Katerji district in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 21. (Photo: Hosam Katan/Reuters)

Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

While the Assad regime's negotiators are sitting down with representatives from the various rebel factions in the peace talks known as Geneva II this week, the regime is waging an increasingly brutal air assault campaign against civilians, using an advanced form of a crudely made ordnance known as a "barrel bomb."   

In some of the most dramatic and disturbing video footage emerging from Syria, the devices drop so fast you can hardly see them. But the explosions they send forth—massive fireballs and huge mushroom clouds of shrapnel and debris—demonstrate the barrel bombs' lethal bursts.   

Though these devices have been deployed frequently all across the country for at least a year, things have taken a troubling turn in recent weeks: In a bid to inflict maximal damage on noncombatants, the regime appears to have been working hard to improve the scope, technical sophistication, and efficiency of barrel bombs. 

“If Assad can breed terror and panic amongst the civilian population, it makes things harder for the rebels,” says Michael Lewis, an Ohio Northern University professor who studies the laws of armed conflict.

With civilians weary of years of assault by Assad, and now the destruction wrought by the barrel bombs, rebels may lose the public support they need. That's the strategy, anyway. Some speculate the barrel bombs are a sign of the Syrian regime's weakening and desperation, though that is hard to quantify.

At first, regime helicopters took to the skies over rebel territories and, flying at relatively low altitudes, rolled the bombs—typically filled with nails, petrol, TNT, and metal shards that fragment—onto specific targets, giving them the kind of military precision they couldn’t get with jet fighters or ground-based missile systems. The rebels soon struck back, shooting down regime helicopters with surface-to-air missiles called MANPADS. Changing tack, the military helicopters retreated to higher altitudes, where the missiles couldn’t strike, and began a more indiscriminate and haphazard bombing approach, one in which civilians and their neighborhoods would become the primary targets.

At least 32 people were killed after Syrian air forces dropped barrel bombs on the Al Sahara village of Aleppo, Syria, on January 30, 2014  (Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In the Damascus neighborhood of Daraya, for instance, the government has waged a relentless bombing campaign that has left the area in ruins.

“The intensity of the use of DIY barrel bombs on Daraya in Damascus is extremely notable. There must have been dozens, if not hundreds, of them dropped on the area by now,” says Eliot Higgins, who runs a blog called Brown Moses that has documented the violence in Syria in extraordinary detail since hostilities began.  

Higgins points out that the barrel bombs have become much more efficient killers in recent weeks. The first bombs, for instance, were lit with “wick fuses,” which Syrian soldiers lit with cigars from inside the helicopters and then rolled out the cargo doors. The problem was that the bombs sometimes exploded before impact or, equally problematic, landed and burst apart without exploding at all.

In recent weeks, Higgins says, the bombs have been carrying what are called “impact fuses,” which are more likely to explode on impact and cause maximum damage. The military also has begun adding tail fins to limit tumbling and increase the chances of detonation. “It’s much more effective, and combined with their greater size, it’s a powerful combination,” says Higgins. 

Meantime, Higgins has also noted that the new bombs all seem to have the same design, which suggests they’re being made at a central location and then transported to bases for deployment. 

“It's an excellent terrorist weapon,” says Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, chair of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation on Capitol Hill. “It's filled with nails, fuel, debris that creates terrible wounds. And it's just part of their whole project to terrorize the population, to frighten them.”  

It’s not the first time we’ve seen barrel bombs. Argentine pilots dropped barrels of oil on British ships during the Falklands war in 1982. The damage was minimal, but to Lewis, Assad’s use of the crude weaponry suggests a kind of desperation is sinking in.  

“It’s odd for a state to be resorting to something like this,” he says. “They have access to far more accurate and lethal weaponry. So this is deliberate, and maybe it’s an indication that they are doing this for the effect of terror.”

In addition to the improved delivery systems, the bombs have been getting bigger, migrating from roughly 100-pound loads to upwards of 2,000 pounds and in at least one case, a 3,000-pound giant, possibly fueled by a mobile gas tank. 

The evolution of these barrel bombs is documented in a fascinating post on Higgins' Brown Moses Blog. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t make for easy reading.)

In a recent guest post, Richard Lloyd, a warhead technology consultant at Tesla Laboratory Inc., explains his reasoning that the bombs are becoming more deadly to humans with a mathematical formula. 

Discussing the new and improved barrel bombs, Lloyd writes, “The probability of incapacitating a person is computed with this equation: P=1−e−a(mv3/2−b)n.”

That analysts are looking at these kinds of numbers leaves little doubt that the Assad regime is as well. In terms of the violence coming out of Syria, the bluntness of these calculations—and the crudeness of the weaponry behind them—may be the most horrifying development yet.

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