Russian-backed offensives by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Aleppo province and elsewhere in the country over the past two weeks were aided by internationally banned cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch reported on Monday.
Investigators confirmed the use of the weapons in at least 14 attacks in Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Homs, and Hama governorates since January 26. At least 37 civilians, among them six women and nine children, were killed according to Human Rights Watch, but the group said both the number of attacks and death toll was likely higher.
Cluster bombs are considered particularly dangerous to civilian populations because they unleash an array of smaller bomblets that fall over a wide area and strike indiscriminately. The bomblets also have a high failure rate, often leaving a trail of unexploded ordnances that may later kill or maim those in the vicinity. The weapons are outlawed under a 2008 United Nations convention, but it hasn't been ratified by Russia, the United States, or Syria.
At least half of the attacks referenced by Human Rights Watch occurred during brief and ultimately failed UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva that were suspended on February 3. Since then, opposition representatives and their Western backers have lambasted Moscow for the vital support it has provided government offensives — most critically in Aleppo province, where the capital city is now nearly completely surrounded by regime forces and allied militias, including Hezbollah fighters, and where supply lines to Turkey have been cut off.
Stephen O'Brien, the UN's humanitarian chief, estimated on Monday that 80 percent of some 30,000 people who had fled Aleppo city in the past week are women and children.
The fourteen incidents outlined by Human Rights Watch on Monday came on top of an additional 20 cluster munition attacks that the group reported between the start of Russia's air campaign in Syria on September 30 and December 14 of last year.
On December 23, a spokesperson for Russia's Defense Ministry denied that Moscow was deploying cluster bombs in Syria, and assailed a separate report on their use by Amnesty International, which they called full of "fakes and cliches."
"Russian aviation does not use them," insisted Russian Major-General Igor Konashenkov. "There are no such weapons at the Russian air base in Syria."
But Human Rights Watch said that Russia's own media and Defense Ministry have disseminated images that appear to show the presence of cluster bombs either at Russia's Hmeymin airbase or loaded onto planes. The advocacy group said it was able to corroborate the use of cluster munitions since January 26 by speaking with local witnesses and reviewing video footage taken at the site of alleged attacks. Other groups, including the citizen journalist investigative site Bellingcat, have matched munitions found on the ground in Syria to those pictured in Defense Ministry reports and the Russian media.
On Monday, investigators said that they had documented the deployment of four types of cluster munitions: two that were dropped from the air and two launched from the ground. Human Rights Watch said that it couldn't determine if either the Russian or Syrian armed forces — or both — were responsible for their use. The recent uptick in reports of cluster munitions closely matches the period after Moscow began an air campaign in Syria, however.
"Whether or not Russia dropped these cluster munitions, it is operating jointly with the Syrian government and as such has a responsibility to ensure that Russian-Syrian operations are not using indiscriminate weapons," said Nadim Houry, Human Right Watch's Middle East director. "Russia should immediately ensure that cluster munitions are never again used in Syria, whether by its own or Syria's forces."
Human Rights Watch called on the International Syria Support Group, which includes Russia as well as Iran, the US, and Saudi Arabia, to make the protection of civilians and the cessation of indiscriminate attacks, including with cluster munitions, a key priority when it meets in Munich on February 11.
While the US has raged against Russia's role in this year's fighting — Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that Moscow was killing "women and children — the furor over cluster bombs specifically could prove awkward for Washington. In recent months, several groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented the use of American-made variants of the weapons by Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen.