April 11, 2013

V. Cluster Bomb Attacks

Human Rights Watch site visits, interviews with witnesses, and videos posted on YouTube  show that the Syrian Air Force has dropped cluster bombs in populated areas in the governorates of Aleppo, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Homs, Latakia, and Damascus Suburbs on hundreds of occasions.[97] In December 2012 Human Rights Watch visited three sites that had been hit by cluster bombs and confirmed their use.

Cluster munitions explode in the air, sending dozens, even hundreds, of submunitions or bomblets over an area the size of a football field.

A majority of the world’s nations have comprehensively banned the use of cluster munitions in all circumstances through the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which became binding international law on August 1, 2010. Syria is not a party to the convention and did not participate in the 2007-2008 Oslo Process that led to the creation of the treaty, which bans the use of cluster munitions and requires destruction of stockpiles, clearance of areas contaminated with unexploded submunitions, and assistance to victims.

Given the international standard being established by the ban convention, Human Rights Watch opposes any use of cluster munitions by any party at any time. From a legal perspective, for those that have not joined the convention and continue to use cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch presumes cluster munition strikes in or near civilian population centers to be indiscriminate. Cluster munitions, large weapons that consist of dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions, have a wide-area effect. Furthermore, the models used in Syria cannot be precisely targeted at specific military objectives and, in particular, the submunitions are almost always unguided. As a result, when cluster munitions are fired into civilian areas, civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure are extremely difficult to avoid.

Cluster munitions therefore violate the rule that prohibits attacks that use a method of warfare that cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Thus even for those countries that have not joined the ban convention, when used in populated areas, cluster munitions should be presumed indiscriminate in violation of international law.

In addition to three attack sites in the governorates of Aleppo and Latakia where Human Rights Watch observed unexploded bomblets, an initial review of available information has identified at least 119 locations across Syria where at least 156 cluster bombs have been used between October 2012 and March 2013.[98] While there have been reports of individual cluster bomb strikes since July 2012, the Syrian armed forces significantly increased the use of cluster bombs delivered by aircraft starting in October 2012.[99] Two months later, in December, the Syrian armed forces began using surface-launched rockets containing cluster munitions.[100]

For some of these attacks, Human Rights Watch was able to interview victims, residents and activists who filmed the cluster munitions to confirm the location and circumstances of the attacks. In each video, Human Rights Watch identified cluster bombs or bomblets that had been dropped by aircraft, including helicopters.

Arms experts have identified three types of air-dropped RBK cluster bombs, one containing 150 AO-1SCh antipersonnel fragmentation bomblets, one containing ShOAB0.5 bomblets, and one containing 30 PTAB-2.5M anti-armor bomblets.[101] Each RBK-250-275 AO-1SCh cluster bomb creates a destructive footprint of 4,800 square meters (52,000 square feet), about the size of a football field, according to a standard international air-launched weapons reference guide.[102] The munitions identified were produced in the Soviet Union.[103] In most of the reviewed videos, the visible physical damage to the bombs and the submunitions show them to have been air-delivered.[104]

To ensure that the videos publicly posted showed unique incidents, Human Rights Watch analyzed the types of submunitions deployed, the factory data and production data on the individual bombs and submunitions, the characteristics of the locations where the strikes took place, and the particular damage to the individual bombs and submunitions found. In a number of incidents, phone interviews with witnesses and victims provided additional confirmation of the strikes. Using these points of analysis, a database of unique strike incidents was built, showing a significant rise in the use of cluster munitions by the Syrian forces starting from October 9, 2012.

In the three cluster bomb attacks Human Rights Watch researched through site visits, Human Rights Watch researchers or local residents discovered unexploded bomblets after the attack. Videos posted on YouTube and analyzed by Human Rights Watch show multiple examples of cluster munition bomblets failing to explode on initial impact. This would leave duds that acted like landmines and could explode when handled, posing grave dangers to civilians.[105] In November 2012, for example, one man was killed and one injured when they tried to remove a bomblet that was stuck in the ground in a town in Homs governorate.[106] Human Rights Watch also reviewed videos that showed Syrian children playing with unexploded cluster bomblets, and that children have been killed when unexploded bomblets detonated.[107]

Cases of Cluster Bomb Attacks Documented by Human Rights Watch

Al-Najiya, Idlib, December 15

Just 30 minutes before Human Rights Watch arrived at the village of al-Najiya in Idlib governorate on December 15, a helicopter dropped a cluster bomb on a residential area in the eastern part of town. Although there were many civilians in the town, there were no injuries reported, as most of the civilians had managed to seek shelter before the bomb struck. Three bomblets failed to explode. Human Rights Watch’s examination of the unexploded bomblets established that they were PTAB-2.5M anti-armor bomblets.[108]

A defector from the army who had arrived to disarm and collect the unexploded bomblets told Human Rights Watch that this was the second time that helicopters had dropped cluster munitions in the area. The first time, the cluster bombs had landed in the hills outside town, he said.[109]

Mare`, Aleppo, December 12

Around 3 p.m. on December 12, 2012, a jet dropped four cluster bombs on the town of Mare`, killing four civilians, including one child, and injuring 27. [110] Local residents gathered at least seven unexploded submunitions, some of which were examined by a weapons expert who concluded that an RBK-250 bomb containing PTAB-2.5M anti-armor bomblets had been used. [111] Several videos posted on YouTube show the aftermath of the attack. [112]

Human Rights Watch visited Mare` in the morning of December 12 and again two hours after the attack. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that the people killed in the attack were all civilians.[113] While Human Rights Watch observed a handful of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in the town, they did not see a significant FSA presence. The area that was struck by the cluster munitions also included a school, which FSA fighters had been using when Human Rights Watch visited the town in August 2012. Human Rights Watch did not observe any FSA activity in the school during visits to the town in December. An opposition-run detention facility located on the school premises had also been moved.

Abu Hilal, Idlib, November 27, 2012 [114]

On the morning of November 27, 2012, cluster munition air strikes at Abu Hilal, two kilometers west of the northern city of Idlib, killed at least 12 civilians and wounded at least 10 more according to Human Rights Watch phone interviews with two local residents and a journalist who visited the site four days after the attack. They said that the dead included two women and one child. In the first air strike, at least 10 civilians at an olive oil processing facility were killed and more than 10 were wounded when an aircraft dropped two cluster bombs, the residents said.[115] A separate strike on a nearby olive grove killed two women working there. A journalist who visited the site four days after the attack told Human Rights Watch that the 10 people who were killed at the processing facility were local farmers who had brought their olives there for pressing, and that he saw no signs of military activity or weapons at the site.[116]

Analysis by Human Rights Watch of video footage posted online by Syrian activists of the scene and on the date of the attack indicates that the Syrian Air Force used RBK-250 bombs containing PTAB-2.5M anti-armor bomblets in the attack.[117] Human Rights Watch established the location of the air strike on the olive oil processing facility by matching video from the scene to satellite imagery. A local resident told Human Rights Watch that there was no activity by the FSA “near or around” the facility.[118]

Deir al-`Assafeer, Damascus, November 25 [119]

On November 25, a jet dropped at least three cluster bombs on a playing field in the Saraya neighborhood in the eastern part of Deir al-`Assafeer, near Damascus, killing at least 11 children and injuring others.[120] Two residents told Human Rights Watch by phone that the cluster bomb strike occurred as a group of at least 20 local children were gathered in a field where they usually play. One witness said:

Around 2:50 p.m., a MiG-23 appeared in the sky. I was 100 meters away from the playground. I looked outside and saw the MiG hovering around and then release six cluster bombs as it flew away. I saw two breaking in half. Then I heard a series of small explosions. It sounded like fireworks but of course louder. Then I heard people screaming and running toward the playground. I followed them with the rest of the men who were with me. When I reached the playground, I saw five children dead and many others wounded. The severely injured children were taken to nearby hospitals and the ones with lighter wounds to a field hospital.[121]

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there was no FSA base near or around the area at the time of the attack. “There is no FSA equipment, machinery, or anything else around the fields or near the farmlands,” one resident told Human Rights Watch.[122] Another said: “There were no FSA vehicles or machinery visible.”[123] Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm independently or otherwise the presence of any fighters or military objectives, but the large number of children playing outside at the time of the strike would be consistent with the absence of any fighting in the immediate area.

A Human Rights Watch analysis of videos posted online by Syrian activists of the scene of the attack indicates that Syrian forces used at least three RBK-250-275 AO-1SCh cluster bombs in the strike.[124]

Kansba, Latakia, November 2012

In November 2012, a helicopter dropped at least two cluster bombs on the outskirts of the village of Kansba in Latakia governorate. One bomb failed to release its bomblets and was still lodged into the soft ground when Human Rights Watch visited on December 17, 2012. The second bomb dispersed its bomblets over an area with no houses about 200 meters from the center of the village. Human Rights Watch examined six small craters in the ground where the bomblets had exploded. The police told Human Rights Watch that they had gathered three unexploded bomblets and destroyed them.[125] Photos of the bomblets shown to Human Rights Watch indicate that they were PTAB-2.5M anti-armor bomblets.

Souran, Aleppo, October 30

Around 7:30 p.m. on October 30, a jet dropped at least one cluster bomb on the edge of Souran, injuring three civilians, according to local residents. One member of the local relief committee who was in the area during the attack spoke to Human Rights Watch; he said that he first thought that the jet was attacking them with its machine-gun because he heard many small explosions.[126] Afterwards, however, they realized it was a cluster bomb attack because they found eight bomblets that had failed to explode because they fell on soft ground.

Human Rights Watch examined the site of the attack and documented damage to buildings and streets consistent with the use of cluster bombs.[127] Photos and videos of the bomblets provided by local activists and reviewed by Human Rights Watch show eight PTAB-2.5M anti-armor bomblets.[128]

Eastern al-Buwayda, Homs, October 9-18

Between October 9 and 18, four cluster bomb attacks on the village of Eastern al-Buwayda, near Qusayr, in Homs governorate, wounded at least four people, according to local residents, including two of those wounded. Hamza, a local resident and activist, told Human Rights Watch that the first cluster bomb attack on this village occurred on October 9, when a helicopter dropped a cluster bomb near the house of Umm Nazir, a 60-year-old woman, injuring her and her son. A neighbor described the attack:

It was around 3 p.m. when I heard one small explosion and then a series of explosions, but not very loud. The house didn’t shake when the bomb hit the street. Buildings around where the cluster bomb was dropped…only had small holes but they were not very deep. The cluster bomb hit a street with 10 buildings. The buildings are inhabited, but most residents were not hurt. One woman called Umm Nazir was injured. Her house was 20 meters away from where we found the tail of the bomb. Her 30-year-old son was with her in the same house and was injured. He had injuries all over his body from shrapnel, but they were not deep or severe.[129]

“Hamza” sent Human Rights Watch two videos showing an elderly woman, whom he identified as Umm Nazir, lying in a makeshift hospital with both her legs amputated. Hamza sent Human Rights Watch footage of remnants of the bomb that he says was used on October 9.

Residents said that a helicopter dropped another cluster bomb on Eastern al-Buwayda at approximately 5:30 p.m. on October 16, but there were no casualties. According to local residents, a helicopter dropped another cluster munition on Eastern al-Buwayda, wounding three young men the next day, on October 17, at around 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Human Rights Watch interviewed two men who said they had been wounded by the cluster munition attack: “Hakim,” 27, and “Ayham,” a 22-year-old army defector. Hakim said:

We were standing at the door of a house watching the helicopter hovering over us. Suddenly, I saw something drop from the helicopter. We did not know what to do, so we started running toward the olive trees. Suddenly, I heard a quick succession of explosions and found myself wounded by shrapnel in my back, arms, and side. I was taken to the field hospital, but my injuries were not very severe.[130]

Ayham told Human Rights Watch that he was more seriously injured as he was behind Hakim: “It was as if someone was firing a machine gun. I was injured in my back.” Hakim and Ayham shared with Human Rights Watch a video showing them wounded and being treated at the field hospital for wounds consistent with their evidence. According to a local activist, FSA fighters found four unexploded bomblets from the October 17 strike and disarmed them, a very dangerous activity.

“Abu Habib,” an activist from Qusayr, told Human Rights Watch that a helicopter dropped a cluster bomb on his town at about 11 a.m. on October 18, but that nobody was injured or killed.

In several videos of unexploded bomblets posted on YouTube, Human Rights Watch identified AO-1SCh antipersonnel fragmentation bomblets.[131]

[97] Human Rights Watch has also found that Syrian forces have used soviet-made ground-based BM-21 Grad multi-barrel rocket launchers to deliver 122mm cluster munition rockets containing submunitions of the DPICM-type (dual purpose improved conventional munition) since at least early December. For more information on ground-launched cluster munitions, see “Syria: Army Using New Type of Cluster Munition,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 14, 2013 http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/14/syria-army-using-new-type-cluster-munition.

[98] “Syria: Mounting Casualties from Cluster Munitions,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 16, 2013, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/03/16/syria-mounting-casualties-cluster-munitions.

[99] “Syria: Despite Denials, More Cluster Bomb Attacks,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 23, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/23/syria-despite-denials-more-cluster-bomb-attacks. In addition to two incidents in July, Human Rights Watch received information about four likely incidents in August. While cluster munitions can also be fired by rockets, mortars, and artillery, cluster munitions in incidents documented by Human Rights Watch in Syria have been delivered by aircraft.

[100] “Syria: Army Using New Type of Cluster Munition,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 14, 2013 http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/14/syria-army-using-new-type-cluster-munition.

[101] In addition to cases documented in this report, see “Syria: Mounting Casualties from Cluster Munitions,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 16, 2013, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/03/16/syria-mounting-casualties-cluster-munitions.

[102]Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons (Issue 44), pp. 422-423.

[103] The identification was made by a review of the markings on the bombs and the submunitions contained inside them, as well as a comparison with the Soviet manuals for the weapons. The munitions identified were manufactured in the 1970s and early 1980s at Soviet state munitions factories. The most numerous submunitions identified are AO-1SCh antipersonnel fragmentation bomblets, and all appear to have been manufactured at a Soviet factory corresponding to the marking code of 55. No country other than the Soviet Union is known to have produced the RBK-250 series cluster bombs, or AO-1SCh and PTAB-2.5M bomblets. Human Rights Watch has no information to indicate that Syria acquired these munitions recently.

[104] The cluster bombs show the wearing away of the paint of the suspension lugs that attach the bomb to the rack of the aircraft, as well as the extension of the ejection rod that breaks apart from the bomb after it is dropped. The physical damage to the stabilization fins on both types of cluster submunitions found in the videos indicates the aerodynamic force exerted on them and the deformation that occurred when they hit the ground. In many of the videos, the force of bombs and submunitions hitting the ground has caused them to be solidly lodged in the earth.

[105] As of October 23, 2012, Human Rights Watch had identified the use of 46 cluster bombs in 35 cluster bomb strike sites. In these attacks, Human Rights Watch identified 136 unexploded bomblets. See: “Syria: Despite Denials, More Cluster Bomb Attacks,” Human Rights Watch news release.

[106] Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 25, 2012. See also: Photograph from “Homs.Up.To.Date.News” Facebook group, November 21, 2012, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=744714&l=ed18cdf8d8&id=274193632687921 (accessed February 13, 2013).

[107] VDC database casualty entry for “Mahmoud Awad al-Aloush,” VDC Database, December 16, 2012, http://www.vdc-sy.org/index.php/en/details/martyrs/48009 (accessed January 12, 2013).

[108] Human Rights Watch site visit, al-Najiya, December 15, 2012.

[109] Human Rights Watch interview, al-Najiya, December 15, 2012.

[110] Those killed were: Bahaa Omar al-Hajji, Rami Ahmad Nasr (child – 15), Ismaeel Mohammad Najjar, and Mohammad Soheil al-Farrouh. Human Rights Watch e-mail correspondence, December 14, 2012; Human Rights Watch interview, Mare`, December 20, 2012; VDC lists all four victims, although spelling sometimes differ. See also: C.J. Chivers, “Syria Unleashes Cluster Bombs on Town, Punishing Civilians,” New York Times, December 20, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/21/world/middleeast/syria-uses-cluster-bombs-to-attack-as-many-civilians-as-possible.html?_r=0 (accessed January 30, 2013).

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with C.J. Chivers, senior writer, New York Times, who writes extensively on conflict and weaponry, Antakya, December 12, 2012.

[112] See for example: “[Side effects of the bombing - Mare `12-12],” video clip, YouTube, December 12, 2012, http://youtu.be/8JripW9jcbY (accessed January 31, 2013); “[One cluster bombs dropped - Mare `12-12],” video clip, YouTube, December 12, 2013, http://youtu.be/5pL7T98cS4c. 

[113] Human Rights Watch interview, Mare’, December 12, 2012.

[114] Human Rights Watch first reported the attack on November 29, 2012. “Syria: Evidence Shows Cluster Bombs Killed Children,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 29, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/11/27/syria-evidence-shows-cluster-bombs-killed-children-0.

[115] Those killed included: Al Hajj Eidou, Malik Eidou (child), Abdel Latif Hamdan,Abdel Latif Abdelqader  Fa’our, Sho’ban Abdel Karim Hamdan, Ibrahim Ziyad Hamadan, Kasser Abdel Hamide Fa’our, Khadoor (female – first name unknown), Wissan Ali Hbeiter, Bashar Khamiss, Mohammad Ramadan. One woman’s name is not known. Human Rights Watch interview with international journalist, December 4, 2012; “[In Idleb – Martyrs],” video clip, YouTube, November 27, 2012, http://youtu.be/_SR83KMXOKA (accessed January 31, 2013); VDC Casualty Database.

[116] Human Rights Watch phone interview with German journalist, December 4, 2012.

[117] “[In Idleb the devastation caused by warplanes],” video clip, YouTube, November 27, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSKb_f31LUI&feature=youtu.be (accessed January 30, 2013).

[118] “[Idleb - olive oil press and the remains of the martyrs],” video clip, YouTube, November 27, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d23tC50IGKI&feature=plcp (accessed January 30, 2013).

[119] See: “Syria: Evidence Shows Cluster Bombs Killed Children,” Human Rights Watch news release.

[120] On a video showing the aftermath of the attack, a resident who lives next to the field says that at least six children died in the field from the attack: Shahd al-Lahham al-Omar, 4, Mamdouh Shehab, 11, Mohammed al-Shafouni, 11, Roba Youssef al-Ali, 13, and two other unnamed children. “[New massacre in the village of Deir al-`Assafeer by cluster bombs],” video clip, YouTube, November 25, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5wWZ6yGCZ8&feature=youtu.be (accessed January 30, 2013). According to local residents, a second cluster bomb remnant was found less than 50 meters away from the field and killed four children in a house: Mohamad Bassel al-Lahham, 5, Eman al-Lahham, 12, `Adnan al-Hussein, 7, and `Anoud Mohammed, 12. An old man was also severely wounded. Human Rights Watch phone interview with local activist, November 26, 2012. A third cluster bomb remnant was found in the farmland 150 meters from the field where the children were playing. The cluster bomb killed Zeinab Othman, 12, and one of her parents. The family was working in the farmland at the time, a resident said. Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 25, 2012. The VDC database also lists eight names, but indicates that 10 children were killed in total. 

[121] Human Rights Watch phone interview with local activist, November 26, 2012.

[122] Ibid.

[123] Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 25, 2012.

[124] “[New massacre in the village of Deir al-`Assafeer by cluster bombs],” video clip, YouTube, November 25, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5wWZ6yGCZ8&feature=youtu.be (accessed January 30, 2013).

[125] Human Rights Watch interview, Kansba, December 17, 2012.

[126] Human Rights Watch interview with local member of relief committee, Souran, December 12, 2012.

[127] Human Rights Watch visit to Souran, December 10, 2012.

[128] Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[129] Human Rights Watch phone interview, October 18, 2012.

[130] Ibid.

[131] “[Eastern al-Buwayda: Extracting a missile that did not explode from the ground],” video clip, YouTube, October 10, 2012, http://youtu.be/j4tW_PhqZY4 (accessed January 30, 2013); “[Cham Damascus suburbs al-Buwayda: one of the missiles that fell on the city],” video clip, YouTube, October 9, 2012, http://youtu.be/xkVVNV1GDr4 (accessed January 30, 2013); “[Homs: throwing cluster bombs on al-Buwayda],” video clip, YouTube, October 16, 2012, http://youtu.be/jAreoQGjJZ8 (accessed January 30, 2013); “[Homs-Eastern Bwuayda - cluster bombs],” video clip, YouTube, October 16, 2012, http://youtu.be/-Bk1QcpZcEY (accessed January 30, 2013).