April 11, 2013

VII. Incendiary Weapons

During a site visit on December 14, Human Rights Watch confirmed that a jet had dropped an incendiary weapon in an attack in an industrial area in al-Bab where civilians were present on November 29, 2012. Through interviews with witnesses and analysis of videos posted on YouTube, Human Rights Watch also documented the use of incendiary weapons in four other attacks between November 16 and December 3: Daraya in Damascus, Ma`rat al-Nu`man in Idlib, Babila in Damascus, and Al-Quseir in Homs.[219] Eliot Higgins, an arms expert closely monitoring videos of weapons and munitions in Syria, has collected 55 videos showing the use of incendiary weapons, most of them in populated areas.[220]

Incendiary weapons produce extremely painful burns, often down to the bone, and can also cause respiratory damage. The burns are difficult to treat, especially in conflict areas lacking adequate medical facilities, and the treatment itself can be excruciating. Permanent scarring and disfigurement can lead to social ostracism. Incendiary weapons also cause fires that can destroy civilian infrastructure. Their broad area effect means they are prone to being indiscriminate when used in populated areas.

In its review of these videos, Human Rights Watch identified remnants of at least two types of air-dropped incendiary bombs. Markings on the remnants identify them as ZAB-series incendiary aircraft bombs (Zazhigatelnaya Aviatsionnaya Bomba) made by the Soviet Union. The first type is a ZAB-100/105, a 100 kilogram (220 pound) bomb. The second type is an RBK-250 ZAB-2.5 bomb that releases 48 incendiary ZAB 2.5 submunitions over an area the size of a football field. The specific type of flammable substance contained in these submunitions is believed to be thermite.[221] Thermite is used only for its incendiary effect and not for marking, obscuring, illumination, or other military purposes.

Syria has not joined the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which has a protocol on incendiary weapons. A total of 106 nations have joined CCW Protocol III, which bans the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in areas with “concentrations of civilians.” Human Rights Watch is advocating for stronger international restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons. A complete ban would have the greatest humanitarian impact, but at a minimum there should be no use of incendiary weapons in populated areas.

Syria is not known to be a producer or exporter of incendiary weapons. The size of its stockpile of incendiary weapons is not known.

Al-Bab, Aleppo

Around noon on November 29, 2012, a jet dropped four incendiary bombs in an industrial area where many civilians were present on the outskirts of al-Bab. According to witnesses, the bombs bounced off the roof and walls of a warehouse and landed in an adjacent courtyard and garden. Findings during a Human Rights Watch visit to the site on December 14 were consistent with the account.

According to witnesses, one of the bombs failed to ignite. Human Rights Watch examined the unexploded bomb, which had been disarmed by the local Free Syrian Army (FSA), and confirmed by the markings on the bomb that it was a ZAB 100/105. A local munitions expert showed Human Rights Watch nine cylinders that he said he had found inside the bomb. These cylinders, which contain the incendiary material, are another identifying feature of the ZAB 100/105 incendiary bomb. A video posted on YouTube on November 29, 2012, also shows the unexploded munition.[222]

At the time of the attack, several hundred people were lining up to get bread outside a bakery located next to the warehouse, according to workers in the bakery. During a site visit on December 14, Human Rights Watch established that one incendiary bomb had ignited just on the other side of a concrete wall from the crowd of people. During the site visit, which took place around 2 p.m., several hundred people again were standing in line waiting for bread. One of the workers in the bakery told Human Rights Watch:

These bombs were different from other bombs. The explosion was smaller, but there was a lot of smoke. The smoke lasted for perhaps 15 minutes. Four or six people were injured by fragments, as they waited in line for bread. There were a lot of people outside. More than now.[223]

During Human Rights Watch’s visit, there were about a dozen FSA fighters on the street and in the courtyard of the warehouse. Some FSA fighters were practicing target shooting in the courtyard. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm what was inside the warehouse. Given the concentration of civilians nearby, however, the use of incendiary weapons in this attack appears to be unlawful.

Daraya, Damascus

According to a local activist, the first documented use of an incendiary weapon in Daraya occurred on November 16. An activist in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, which had been heavily bombarded by Syrian forces in the preceding weeks, told Human Rights Watch that he filmed several videos showing ZAB incendiary submunitions being dropped on Daraya at that time:

Warplanes began bombing Daraya with these flammable bombs on November 16—that was the first time we saw these bombs. I saw MiG warplanes releasing small bombs that would catch fire while they were still in the air and keep on releasing some kind of smoke after it comes in contact with a building or ground. The gas-like material it produces has a very bad smell, like an acidic, metallic smell…
On December 1 at around 10 a.m., I was with other activists in the media center when we heard a MiG warplane circling above us. When we went outside, we saw the warplane releasing a very big bomb, which produced an explosion, and then the bomb released things like fireballs producing smaller explosions. I saw four of these fireballs. One of the fireballs hit the street right next to the media center, just 50 meters away. The destruction wasn’t very big as it hit the street, but it did cause a hole to burn in the street.[224]

A picture of the “fireball” that fell next to the media center on December 1 taken by an activist in Daraya clearly shows the remains of a ZAB-2.5 incendiary submunition.[225] According to the activist, a jet released incendiary weapons again on December 2 on Daraya. He said he filmed footage from that attack, which according to him caused no casualties, and posted a video showing a residential home on fire.[226] Both the RBK-250 bomb and the ZAB-2.5 submunitions are visible in the footage.

Three other videos uploaded by the Daraya YouTube channel “Daraya4Media,” associated with the Local Council of Daraya’s media center, also show the remains of burned-out incendiary ZAB submunitions in what appears to be a residential neighborhood. An apartment burned by the submunitions is visible in the video.[227]

Ma`rat al-Nu`man, Idlib

Human Rights Watch analyzed a video posted by “AENNetwork” from the town of Ma`rat al-Nu`man in Idlib governorate on November 20, showing an airplane dropping what appear to be ZAB-2.5 submunitions.[228] Two other videos show ZAB-2.5 submunitions burning on the ground near an apartment building and other buildings on the main Citadel Road on the western outskirts of Ma`rat al-Nu`man.[229]

The videos were posted on the official YouTube channel of the information office of the Revolutionary Command Council of Ma`rat al-Nu`man, a channel that has been posting videos from the town showing Syrian military attacks. The cameraman in each video repeatedly states that the videos were being recorded in Ma`rat al-Nu`man. Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to confirm that the two videos were filmed on Citadel Road of Ma`rat al-Nu`man.

A video activist in Ma`rat al-Nu`man confirmed to Human Rights Watch that he had filmed some of the videos that were uploaded to the YouTube channel “thesyrianrevolution.” He told Human Rights Watch:

I was in Ma`rat al-Nu`man when the three attacks occurred on November 20, 21, and 28. November 20 was the first time I saw this kind of bomb being used. They are very strange: they ignite in the air and in turn produce fire before they reach the ground.
On November 28, I saw a MiG warplane dropping a big bomb that split in half, causing a big explosion. We thought that was it, but then we saw smaller bombs light on fire just a few meters after the canister released them. The fire bombs were falling quickly. The bombs did not fall in the same place: they spread over about 200 or 300 meters. When the bombs hit the ground we heard a series of small explosions. Then when we went to see the area of impact we saw the bombs producing white smoke.
Some of the [bomblets] fell on the streets between the buildings and others fell in empty fields. Four people were wounded in the street: two civilians and two FSA soldiers.[230]

Al-Quseir, Homs

A video uploaded on December 3 from the town of al-Quseir in Homs governorate shows what appears to be an air strike involving incendiary submunitions in a populated area filmed from a distance, while another video shows burning ZAB-2.5 submunitions on the ground of Ghaleb Radi school in the center of al-Quseir.[231] Both videos were uploaded by the YouTube channel “qmediacenter” of the al-Quseir media center. Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch has located the school shown in the video.

A local activist in al-Quseir told Human Rights Watch:

The bombs hit a school called “Ghaleb Radi” Al Rifyat and several residential buildings next to it. The bombs were different than the cluster bombs. They caught fire as they were going down from the MiG warplane. I heard a big explosion and several smaller ones. We saw smoke in the air and when we arrived to the Al Rifiyat street I saw at least nine houses on fire.
Then when I reached the school I saw at least seven bombs burning on the playground and releasing white smoke that had a terrible smell. People were helping the families in the buildings that were on fire. When I went to the field hospital there were at least 20 wounded people that included women and children. I saw at least three of them severely burned like I have never seen before.
The houses of the families of Drisse, Ismael, and Rahmet were burnt. Members of the families I listed were among the injured people. I saw three of them burnt. I am sure that there was much more but I clearly remember I saw a 17-year-old boy with a burn on his back, an older man with burn on his left leg and his chest but from the right side. The third case was also a man but I don’t clearly remember where his injuries were. The three of them were from one of the families.[232]

According to the activist, there was no activity by armed opposition groups in the school, a single-story building. A second activist from Qusair confirmed to Human Rights Watch that at least 19 civilians were injured in the strike, and at least eight homes were severely burned by the incendiary submunitions.[233]

Babila District of Damascus

A video apparently from the Babila district of Damascus posted on YouTube on December 3 showed a Syrian warplane circling overhead, and then showed the remains of an RBK-250 ZAB canister near an apartment building on fire in a densely built-up area, with burning ZAB 2.5 submunitions visible on the road adjacent to the burning apartment building.[234] Throughout the video, the cameraman repeatedly states that he is filming in the Babila district of Damascus; the video was uploaded with an Arabic emblem of “Babila” superimposed.

[219] See also: “Syria: Incendiary Weapons Used in Populated Areas,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 12, 2012,  http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/12/syria-incendiary-weapons-used-populated-areas (accessed January 31, 2013).

[220] “Brown Moses: ZAB 2.5 cluster bomb sightings in Syria,” video playlist, YouTube, [N.D.], http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPC0Udeof3T5631AYbZOs5svfZokoR2m8 (accessed January 31, 2013).

[221] See, for example, Nic Jenzen-Jones, “Update: Cluster Munitions in Syria (ZAB-2.5 incendiary submunitions),” post to “The Rogue Adventurer” (blog), November 27, 2012, http://rogueadventurer.com/2012/11/27/update-cluster-munitions-in-syria-zab-2-5-incendiary-submunitions/ (accessed February 19, 2013.

[222] “[al-Bab: one of the death barrels after shelling],” video clip, YouTube, November 29, 2012, http://youtu.be/KfIIwP9O9ko (accessed February 1, 2013).

[223] Human Rights Watch interview, al-Bab, December 12, 2012.

[224] Human Rights Watch phone interview, Beirut, December 5, 2012.

[225] “[Shell containing sulfur compounds – Daraya],” video clip, YouTube, February 12, 2012, http://youtu.be/mO7vijKQeXE (accessed February 1, 2013).

[226] Human Rights Watch phone interview, Beirut, December 5, 2012. “[Daraya, Damascus Suburbs],” December 4, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/oPJFFxiOPbo (accessed February 19, 2013).

[227] “[Fire bombs thrown on Daraya],” December 4, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/iLDtEzzeL7w (accessed February 19, 2013; [Daraya: house burnt by warplane shelling], December 4, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/jlUFpWd4jRQ (accessed February 19, 2013).

[228] “[Shelling of Cluster bombs by warplane],” November 20, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/Pq_dVrPfLB4 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[229] Video on file with Human Rights Watch. (The file was originally located at http://youtu.be/A3JMz6wYx0M, but the account has since been closed).

[230] Human Rights Watch phone interview, Beirut, December 10, 2012.

[231] “[Shelling by MIG airplane on al-Quseir citry],” December 3, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/GrwZPF6Nn9M (accessed February 19, 2013); “[al-Quseir: warplane shelling the city with unidentified bombs],” December 3, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/d5wx7jOOf3w (accessed February 19, 2013).

[232] Human Rights Watch phone interview, Beirut, December 10, 2012.

[233] Human Rights Watch phone interview, Beirut, December 10, 2012.

[234] “[Babila, Damascus],” December 3, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/wzVqyjpkSWM (accessed February 19, 2013.