Barrel bombs in Syria: Weapons of mass civilian expulsion

Ryan O’Farrell writes: Over the past six to eight months, barrel bombs have become a major topic of discussion concerning the grinding civil war in Syria. Crude improvised explosive devices, barrel bombs initially took the form of oil drums filled with TNT, gasoline and shrapnel, detonated by a cigarette-lit detonation cord. These were indiscriminate, almost wholly inaccurate weapons, unable to target much of anything after being pushed out the back of transport helicopters, and often detonating long before or after they hit their targets, due to improper timing on the burning safety fuse. These seemed to be weapons of a desperate military, one unable to supply its air force with modern weapons for air strikes, and one resorting to transport helicopters for lack of ground-attack platforms.

But as the use of barrel bombs has expanded, and indeed massively so, their design has become standardized and their strategic value has become more clear. As their use has evolved, the use of barrel bombs has become one of the clearest illustrations of an important aspect of the Syrian government’s urban warfare strategy as it advances on the various rebel groups which had seemingly come so close to toppling it.

The Syrian military, while backed by formidable airpower, armor and even highly-adept foreign fighters from groups like Hezbollah, has a limited capacity for seizing urban areas. Rebels have often been able to turn built-up areas like Old Homs, Darraya, Jobar and eastern Aleppo city into nearly impenetrable fortresses. In such mazes of wrecked apartments, narrow alleyways and endless supply tunnels, rebels equipped with little more than light weapons have consistently been able to hold off major Syrian Arab Army advances almost indefinitely. For instance, Darayya, in the southern suburbs of Damascus, remains in rebel hands after more than two years of fighting, repeated offensives by the government, and virtually uncountable airstrikes and artillery barrages. Attacks on the almost entirely surrounded town have cost the government thousands of casualties, while the town remains in rebel control.

In response to this, the government began adopting different tactics, particularly in the suburbs of Damascus, in the Spring of 2013. Rather than attempting costly and largely ineffective assaults on fortified urban areas to seize them outright, the SAA instead began encircling them. Indeed, most of the southern suburbs of Damsascus, particularly those in the vicinity of the Sayyeda Zainab shrine and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, were surrounded and besieged by the end of last summer. Since then, starvation and blocking medical supplies has been a brutally effective weapon in winning the besieged districts’ submission. Several neighborhoods and towns in the Damascus suburbs, such as Moadamiyah, Qaboun, Barzeh, and Al-Qadam have reached ceasefire agreements with the government, usually in return for food and some level of autonomy where the former rebel fighters remain in control. It is in this context, encirclement, siege, starvation and finally ceasefire, that we must look at barrel bombs, and thus discern the principles behind their use. [Continue reading…] (H/t EA Worldview)

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