Recent Escalation of Tactic Threatens Civilians
(Kilis) – The Syrian government launched at least four ballistic missiles that struck populated areas in the city of Aleppo and a town in Aleppo governorate during the week of February 17, 2013. The attacks killed more than 141 people, including 71 children, and caused immense physical destruction.
The extent of the damage from a single strike, the lack of aircraft in the area at the time, and reports of ballistic missiles being launched from a military base near Damascus overwhelmingly suggest that government forces struck these areas with ballistic missiles. Human Rights Watch visited the four attack sites, all in residential neighborhoods. Human Rights Watch found no signs of any military targets in the vicinity of any of the four sites, which would mean that the attacks were unlawful.
“I have visited many attack sites in Syria, but have never seen such destruction,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, who visited the sites. “Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the Syrian government finds ways to escalate its killing tactics.”
Human Rights Watch compiled a list of those killed from cemetery burial records, interviews with relatives and neighbors, and information from the Aleppo media center and the Violations Documentation Center, a network of local activists.
Around midnight on February 18 a missile struck the Jabal Badro neighborhood in Aleppo, killing at least 47 people, including 23 children. According to local residents, government forces started shelling the attack site about 20 minutes after the missile struck, wounding several people. Just before 6 p.m. on February 22, a missile struck the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood in the eastern part of Aleppo, killing at least 13 people, including eight children. Just minutes later, a missile struck the Ard al-Hamra neighborhood close by, killing at least 78 people, including 38 children.
The three neighborhoods, all in the eastern part of Aleppo, were controlled by the opposition. While opposition fighters move throughout opposition controlled areas, there had been no ground fighting in these neighborhoods for months, local residents said. The opposition military headquarters known to Human Rights Watch are in other neighborhoods.
At the time of the attacks, many people who had initially fled the fighting in August 2012 had returned to the area, as well as people displaced from other parts of the Aleppo governorate. There is ongoing fighting around Aleppo’s international airport, south of the neighborhoods that were struck, but local residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch at each of the sites attacked said that there had been no bases for opposition fighters in the vicinity and that opposition fighters had staged no attacks from these neighborhoods. During its visit, Human Rights Watch confirmed that there was active fighting close to the airport, but not in these neighborhoods.
The fourth missile attack documented by Human Rights Watch struck Tel Rifat, a town in Aleppo countryside, around 9:30 p.m. on February 18, killing three people, including two girls. While there has been no ground fighting in Tel Rifat for months, Aleppo residents told Human Rights Watch that government forces at a nearby airport under attack by the opposition have repeatedly shelled the town, causing the majority of residents to flee. During previous visits Human Rights Watch met with opposition commanders in Tel Rifat, but never in the area that was struck. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that no fighters had been there.
Human Rights Watch research indicates that at least 141 people, including 71 children, were killed in the four attacks. Human Rights Watch was not able to establish the first name of six of the 141 documented casualties.
The total casualty number is probably higher, Human Rights Watch said. Since many families left the areas after the attack and buried family members in surrounding villages, the records are probably incomplete.
Relatives at the attack sites told Human Rights Watch that they continued to search for people believed to be still buried under the rubble. During Human Rights Watch’s visit to the attack site in Ard al-Hamra on February 24, two days after the attack, local residents found the body of a woman who had been buried under the rubble. A family member told Human Rights Watch that they were still looking for other members of her family.
In each site, the attack had completely destroyed 15 to 20 houses and significantly damaged many more.
Human Rights Watch did not find weapons remnants at the attack sites, and so was unable to identify the exact weapons used. However, a group of local activists in the Damascus countryside reported on their Facebook page that they had observed missiles being launched toward the north before three of the four strikes.
At 9:38 p.m. on February 18, the local coordination council in Yabroud posted on its Facebook site that it had observed a “scud missile” in the sky over Yabroud at 9:05 p.m., heading toward northern Syria. Witnesses in Tel Rifat told Human Rights Watch that a missile hit the town around 9:30 p.m. on February 18.
Likewise, on February 22, the Yabroud coordination council reported that it had seen three “scud missiles” flying northward around 5:30 p.m. Just before 6 p.m., the Yabroud council reported that missiles had hit Aleppo. Human Rights Watch has not documented any warning of the attack that hit the Jabal Bardo neighborhood in Aleppo shortly around midnight on February 18.
The level of destruction and witness statements describing a single explosion at each site is consistent with the use of ballistic missiles. Witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that they did not see or hear any airplanes before or after the attack, which makes it unlikely that the attacks were airstrikes.
Syria stockpiles several types of ballistic missiles according to the authoritative publication Military Balance 2011 by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
A Syrian government official denied that the authorities had used Scud-missiles against the opposition. Several videos from different dates posted on YouTube, however, show Syrian military forces launching ballistic missiles. In addition, a weapon used in an attack on Belioun in Jabal Zawiyeh in December, 2012, has been identified as a Luna-M ballistic missile (also called FROG-7), according to identification marks on the remnants.
Syrian government forces used ballistic missiles for the first time in December 2012, the New York Times reported. Since then, activists have counted more than 30 attacks with such missiles before the attacks documented in this report. Several of them have landed in fields without causing any damage, they said. Activists in Yabroud have claimed on their Facebook page that the government has launched the missiles from the nearby al-Nasiriyeh air base, north of Damascus city. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists, have accused the 155th Brigade based near Damascus of launching the missiles.
“Using ballistic missiles against its own people is a new low, even for this government,” Solvang said. “There was no sign of fighters or their bases in these areas, only civilians, many of them children.”
Statements by Witnesses to the Attacks:
“Mohammed,” who lives in the Ard al-Hamra neighborhood in Aleppo city that a missile hit on February 22, told Human Rights Watch:
I was having evening tea last night [February 22] with my brother as I used to every evening in his house. Just after I had left at 9:15 p.m. the sky was lit up by a tremendous flash and all air was sucked away. The explosion was deafening. When I ran back, my brother’s house was gone. We managed to find my five young nieces and nephews, aged between 3 and 17 years old. They were all dead under the rubble. We still have not found my brother. When will somebody stop this madness?
“Mahmoud,” who lives in the Ard al-Hamra neighborhood in Aleppo city, told Human Rights Watch:
My sister and I were sleeping while my mother was cooking when the missile struck. I woke up by something hitting me in the face. I didn’t understand what had happened. It was dark, and it was very hard to breathe. I could speak with my sister, but we couldn’t move because of all the debris from our house that had collapsed. We just prayed and thought about our family. After three hours they finally managed to get us out and take us to the hospital. But it turned out that my mother and brother had died.
“Ahmad,” who lives in the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood in Aleppo city attacked on February 22, told Human Rights Watch:
I was standing a couple of hundred meters away in the main street when the explosion happened. My whole family was in our house. Other relatives live in the surrounding houses. I ran to our house and started searching through the rubble. My wife and our 7-month-old daughter died. The rest of my family and relatives were just wounded. We found about 10 bodies in the rubble.
“Abdullah,” who lives in the Jabal Badro neighborhood in Aleppo city, told Human Rights Watch:
That was once my grandfather’s house - next to those of my two uncles. There is nothing left. My own house is over here and it is also destroyed. 27 of my relatives are dead or badly wounded. I am alive because I had left my house the minute before the tremendous, lightning blast. The regime has not only killed or maimed my family, but everyone I know.