The Syrian civil war is now in its third year, and the country's citizens continue to suffer. The warring sides are stuck in a stalemate, millions of Syrians are now refugees, and the United Nations stopped counting casualty figures as the death toll passed 130,000. The West's attempt at a peace deal was a total shambles, and even if there were an end in sight, the country's infrastructure is so badly damaged that it would take decades to repair. Essentially, everything is 100 percent fucked.
To make matters worse, the Syrian regime has changed its tactics, now using starvation as a weapon of war and increasingly dropping “barrel bombs” in an attempt to cripple the opposition. These bombs aren't exactly accurate, and the blasts have killed countless civilians, prompting John Kerry to label their use as the "latest barbaric act of the Syrian regime."
With dozens of fatalities attributed to these bombs on a daily basis, the Syrian air force seems to have found itself a successful and low-cost tool for causing widespread destruction in opposition-controlled areas. I caught up with munitions expert Eliot Higgins to talk about the latest in cheapskate warfare.
Graphic content warning: At least 20 people were killed in Aleppo on Saturday, February 8
VICE: Last time we spoke, the UN was still debating the Syrian chemical weapons debacle. Can you update me on what's happened since then?
Eliot Higgins: The Syrian chemical weapons program is being dismantled, with the equipment and munitions already being destroyed. All that remains is the chemicals, a mix of mustard gas and precursors to various chemical agents, including sarin. The process is going slowly, with only a small percentage destroyed so far.
So the Syrians haven't been keeping to their promised schedule? Are they cooperating?
Currently they're behind schedule, and it appears that transporting the chemicals has proved to be more of a challenge than was expected by many people. Whether or not the government is cooperating is questionable, but there are certainly plenty of reasons on the ground that could explain the delay.
John Kerry recently came out in condemnation of the regime’s use of barrel bombs. Can you tell me more about those?
The term "barrel bomb" has been used as a bit of a misnomer in the media and by activists. In my experience, activists have used the term to refer to both conventional bombs dropped by aircrafts, and DIY bombs, pushed out the back of transport helicopters. Recently we've seen a big increase in the use of DIY barrel bombs, in particular in Darayya, Damascus.
How are they designed?
When barrel bombs were first identified back in August of 2012, they really didn't have a consistent design beyond being barrel shaped objects — bins, large pipes, etc. — filled with explosives and scraps of metal. They were detonated using a wick fuse, like you'd see on a stick of dynamite, which was lit in the helicopter before it was pushed out the back. The problem with this was that it had a tendency to detonate prematurely, or too late, so I'd come across videos of them exploding mid-air, or smashed to pieces on the ground.
Recently we've seen a new type of DIY barrel bomb, which is much larger than the type used previously. This type is about six feet long, and three feet wide, has fins welded to the back and an improvised impact fuse. The fins ensure the barrel bomb lands on the fuse, making the bomb far more reliable, and its increased size makes it extremely powerful.
How powerful are we talking?
Enough to severely damage a small apartment block, for example.
How accurately can a barrel bomb hit a target from the sky?
Not very. They're dropped from very high up, so it's not like you can target specific buildings.
So it would be fair to say these bombs are being dropped indiscriminately over civilian populations?
I would say so. It's not like you can hit a specific target with any accuracy, but of course, it really comes down to where they're being used.
Where have they been used most?
At the moment it seems like dozens are being dropped on Daraya, Damascus every day. It appears they load the helicopters at the nearby Mezzeh airbase and are dropping them in pairs.
Given everything you've said, would their use in this manner constitute a war crime under the Geneva Convention?
Potentially, yes — although I think a lawyer would be better equipped to answer that question.
Okay. How has the war in Syria in general progressed since we last spoke?
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) have now begun to fight with other opposition groups, which is a major development. It's unclear where that will lead, but it has obviously taken pressure off the Syrian government in some areas. Broadly, I would say the conflict is in a stalemate, with both sides making small progress in various parts of the country. But there's still no end in sight.
Helicopters bombed the city of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, on February
What’s going on with the opposition right now?
The Islamic Front are doing pretty well. They were formed in November of 2013 and brought together a lot of Islamist groups. There are many different armed groups in Syria, however, and they don't always do a great job of holding together.
Is there anything more in particular that you can tell me about the barrel bombs?
I've been tracking the use of DIY barrel bombs in Syria since they first appeared in August of 2012. It's really only recently that we've seen this new type being used, and they are really hammering Daraya with them in the last month or so; there are probably dozens being dropped each day. The problem with tracking their use is, as I mentioned before, activists tend to use the term "barrel bomb" to describe conventional bombs as well, so reports of injuries and deaths due to barrel bomb use aren't very useful for collecting data.
Why do you think the regime started using them in the first place?
There are various theories, but I suspect it's to make the most out of their transport helicopter fleet, which would otherwise just be sat around doing nothing. Their transport helicopter fleet outnumbers their attack helicopter fleet by quite a bit, so it makes the most sense to me.