Imagine taking a deep breath then submerging yourself in water. Then imagine having all of the oxygen forced instantaneously from your body. Try to inhale again. But instead of cold water filling your lungs, toxic, flammable particles start killing you from the inside out.
Such suffering and death is distressing and inhumane. That is what is inflicted by a thermobaric bomb, sometimes called a “vacuum bomb”. They first appeared in modern form in the 1960s and have been refined ever since. Russia, the US, China, India and many others have them.
Thermobaric bombs use different combinations of heat and pressure to produce different high explosive effects. An initial explosion produces a pressure wave powerful enough to flatten buildings or penetrate into cave or other structures. At the same time, the explosion will disperse highly flammable fuel particles around its vicinity.
These, often aluminium-based, particles ignite a fraction of a second later and burn at very high temperatures. The two blasts combine for maximum effect. They use up all the oxygen in the surrounding air, creating a vacuum – hence “vacuum bomb”. The resulting vacuum can be powerful enough to rupture the lungs and eardrums of anyone nearby.
It is brutally clear why Vladimir Putin and his ally Bashar al Assad might use these weapons. Thermobaric bombs are highly destructive with fearsome, direct physical effects. In opposition-held areas, civilians are just as likely to be affected as combatants. The indirect effects are also desirable from Syrian and Russian government perspectives. Local communities are terrorised into submission or displaced, joining the millions of refugees seeking sanctuary elsewhere.