Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. These weapons cause extremely painful burns that are difficult to treat, and also start fires that can destroy objects and infrastructure. Field investigations, witness accounts, and videos and photos reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that the Syrian Air Force carried out at least 56 incendiary weapons attacks from November 2012 through September 2013. Human Rights Watch and the Violations Documentation Center in Syria have documented four separate incendiary weapons attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least 41 civilians and the wounding of 71 others.
Syria is not party to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) or its Protocol III banning the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in areas with “concentrations of civilians.” Given the international standard represented by CCW Protocol III on incendiary weapons, Human Rights Watch opposes any use of incendiary weapons in populated areas by any party at any time. Human Rights Watch considers Syria’s air strikes using incendiary weapons in or near civilian population centers to violate international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, because they are inherently indiscriminate. Deliberate or reckless indiscriminate attacks are war crimes.
One year ago, Human Rights Watch renewed its call for a review of the 30-year-old CCW protocol on incendiary weapons, which has not been examined since its adoption. Human Rights Watch noted that in the previous two years, an increasing number of governments had raised concerns in letters and in statements at CCW meetings about the dangers posed by incendiary weapons and the inadequacy of the protocol.
Yet on November 16, 2012, the final day of the annual meeting of CCW states parties, countries did not agree to take up work on incendiary weapons. That same day, in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, one of the first attacks in Syria involving an incendiary weapon was recorded. Syria has continued to use incendiary weapons through the first nine months of 2013, inflicting civilian casualties, but there has been little international outcry and no diplomatic efforts on these weapons.
All governments that care about the protection of civilians should urge Syria to cease its use of incendiary weapons immediately and should work to universalize and strengthen Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons.