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Activists Want the US to Warn Syrian First Responders About Incoming Barrel Bombs

The Syria Campaign has launched a petition that calls for the US to release radar information so that civilians and rescuers know when attacks are imminent.

by Lara Whyte
Feb 28 2015, 8:50pm

Photo by Hosam Katan/Reuters

Many Syrian children have watched their destruction buzz across the sky toward them in the form of an airplane loaded with barrel bombs, crude weapons made from oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks filled with explosives and scrap metal.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has dropped no fewer than 5,150 barrel bombs on Syria, killing more than 12,100 people. The organization says civilians have accounted for 96 percent of the victims, and about half of them have been women and children.

Now, in an effort to staunch the bloodshed, the Syria Campaign, an organization that works with first responders that scramble to help rescue victims of the barrel bomb attacks, is appealing for help from the US-led coalition that is fighting against the Islamic State.

In lieu of enforcing a no-fly zone — which would effectively stop the Assad regime from dropping the bombs — the Syria Campaign is calling for the US to release radar information so that civilians and rescuers can know when an attack is imminent.

"If the international community is not yet prepared to stop the bombs with a 'no-fly zone' the least they can do is provide radar information to help civilians flee those barrels," the Syria Campaign's James Sadri said in a statement. "If the US just picked up the phone to these rescue teams, countless innocent lives could be saved."

Specifically, the Syria Campaign wants the US and its allies to communicate with the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer group that rescues people trapped in the rubble created by barrel bomb explosions. The White Helmets already scan the sky with binoculars to watch for incoming helicopters, but Sadri said radar alerts would provide "vital minutes" that could save countless lives.

The Syria Campaign has launched an online petition to generate support for their radar request. By Saturday afternoon, the campaign had already attracted online signatures from citizens in countries around the world, including the US, UK, Syria, Iraq, France, and Germany.

Related: Video shows children being pulled from rubble after barrel bombs hit in Syria. 

In an interview earlier this month with the BBC, Assad denied that his forces use barrel bombs, calling the allegations "a childish story."

"We have bombs, missiles and bullets," Assad was quoted as saying. "There is [are] no barrel bombs, we don't have barrels."

But compilations of video footage that show barrel bombs being dropped are easy to find on YouTube. The weapons are as devastating as they are imprecise. Human rights groups and the United Nations have both called their use a war crime.

Despite the difficult conditions created by the conflict, the UN has managed to compile reams of information about barrel bombs, which are a relatively new dirty weapon. The UN found that the Syrian government uses the explosives "liberally," tracing their origins back to August 2012 in city of Homs, where the weapons were blamed for thousands of civilian deaths.

The UN findings support the view that the Assad regime is deliberately going after civilian networks and infrastructures in areas that are viewed as disloyal. Targets of barrel bomb attacks have reportedly included facilities that supply food, medicine, and other types of aid.

"Barrel bombs are regularly dropped on crowded areas, such as bakery lines, transportation hubs, apartment buildings and markets," the UN reported. "Aid distributions have also been targeted."

Related: Ghosts of Aleppo. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

The UN waited a year and a half from the first documented use of barrel bombs before adopting a resolution against them. Not that the UN action mattered much: According to the SNHR, 1,950 barrel bombs have killed more than 6,400 people since the resolution was adopted in February 2014.

"The same as with any new weapon, government forces cautiously waited for the international community's response as the Syrian government deems the international community's silence or condemnation a red light to use and employ this weapon on a larger scale," the SNHR wrote in a report published last year.

The SNHR detailed an attack on October 1, 2012 in Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria, where a helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on a two-story home, causing it to collapse. The attack reportedly killed 32 civilians wounded 120 others with shrapnel.

Syria has been embroiled in a civil war since March 2011, when peaceful protests for democracy and rights descended into a dark crackdown on dissent by Assad. More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict, and nearly half of the country's 22 million citizens have been displaced. The fighting has also led to the formation of some of the world's most violent groups, including the Islamic State.

For Syrians stuck between the barbarity of the Islamic State and the tyranny of Assad, barrel bombs rain down with terrifying frequency.

The Syria Campaign says the explosives are dropped from planes that fly as high as four miles above their intended targets. The weapons are so imprecise that they are not used on the front lines due to the risk posed to regime forces.

Related: United Nations says Syria is willing to stop Aleppo bombardment. 

Khaled Harah, a civilian volunteer with the White Helmets, has become adept at recognising the many varieties of destruction brought by the bombs.

"They fill the barrels with TNT, with other metal parts and stones and nails," Harah explained to VICE News in a statement relayed by the Syria Campaign. "We now so much experience with them we can tell the size of each barrel based on the extent of the destruction. A barrel of 500 kilograms destroys an area including almost 10 civilian buildings — full of civilians including women and children."

In April 2014, the UN found evidence that the Syrian government used chemical versions of barrel bombs.

Activists in Beirut told VICE News the bombs have pushed civilian populations away from their homes and toward the "relative safety" of the front line, deep into Islamic State territory. In addition, the weapons have served as a recruiting tool for the Islamic State and the al Nusra Front, a group affiliated with al Qaeda. Some Syrians increasingly see the militant groups as the only army capable of defeating Assad — or at least the only ones willing to try.

"The barrel bomb is now the biggest killer of civilians in Syria," Syria Campaign activist Anna Nolan told VICE News. "If the international community will not stop the bombs with a no-fly zone, the least they can do is provide radar information to allow rescue workers to warn communities. Even a few minutes makes a difference. The US is not passing on information that would save lives."

Follow Lara Whyte on Twitter: @LaraWhyte