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(Washington, DC) – Syrian government forces are using a powerful type of cluster munition rocket not seen before in the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. The new use of cluster munitions is causing civilian casualties and adding to the country’s already devastating legacy of unexploded ordnance.

Evidence indicates that government forces used the rockets containing explosive submunitions in attacks on Keferzita, a town north of Hama in northern Syria, on February 12 and 13, 2014. The rocket is the largest type of cluster munition rocket to be used in Syria and contains submunitions that are more powerful and deadly than other types of submunitions.

“It is appalling that Syrian government forces are still using banned cluster munitions on their people,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Cluster bombs are killing Syrian civilians now and threatening Syrians for generations to come.”

Syrian government rocket attacks on Keferzita on February 12 and 13 killed at least two civilians and wounded at least 10 others, according to a local activist from Hama who is not affiliated with rebel groups and a doctor who spoke to Human Rights Watch.

Photographs of rocket remnants provided to Human Rights Watch by local activists who said they took them after the attack show sections of a 9M55K 300mm surface-to-surface rocket – including parts of the rocket motor, its cargo section, nose cone, and the associated connectors. Also pictured is an unexploded cylindrical 9N235 antipersonnel fragmentation submunition, the type delivered by the 9M55K rocket, with markings indicating the submunition was manufactured in 1991.

The 9M55K rocket is launched from the BM-30 Smerch (tornado in Russian), a multiple launch rocket system designed and initially manufactured by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and then manufactured and exported by the Russian Federal State Unitary Enterprise “SPLAV State Research And Production Association” from 1991 onward.

According to its manufacturer, the BM-30 Smerch has 12 launch tubes and can deliver up to 12 9M55K rockets per volley, each containing a total of 72 individual 9N235 submunitions. The BM-30 Smerch weapon system was not previously known to be in the possession of the Syrian government, and Human Rights Watch had not previously documented the use of the 9M55K rocket and 9N235 submunition in the conflict. Authoritative open-source databases on military equipment holdings and transfers by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute do not list Syria as possessing the BM-30 Smerch.

The local activist from Hama, who was present when four rockets hit the town on February 12 and 13, gave an account of the attacks to Human Rights Watch. He said that on the late afternoon of February 12:

A rocket fell on the eastern part of Keferzita on a neighborhood called al-Makassem al-Hatef. There is a small square and the rocket fell there. The rocket released small bomblets when it exploded in the air. I did not see any helicopter or warplane at the time of the attack or before. One of the rockets did not explode, and military specialists dismantled the rockets and they found dozens of bomblets. They removed the fuze from every bomblet.

The second rocket exploded halfway through in the air and released bomblets that injured people including women and children and killed one internally displaced person from nearby Mourik village. The only infrastructure damage caused was from the shrapnel. I remember seeing at least 10 injured but I was told that it was much more. I only saw injuries from shrapnel but I didn’t see any amputations.

The local activist told Human Rights Watch that he believed the rockets were launched from Hama airport just under 30 kilometers south of Keferzita, which is controlled by the Syrian government: “On February 12, in the afternoon around 4 maybe, I received a phone call from a [opposition] military source that two rockets were launched from Hama military airport. We all tried to alert the residents but not everyone was able to hide in time.”

According to its manufacturer, the BM-30 Smerch can launch 9M55K rockets from a minimum range of 20 kilometers to a maximum range of 70 kilometers.

The local activist said that the next day:

Two rockets fell on the northern area [of the village] next to al-Ma`sara road, injuring several people. There were no deaths. I saw a 65-year-old man injured by fragments in his shoulder and his son’s wife injured in the leg. Both rockets exploded but also caused limited damage to infrastructure. The rockets were also launched from Hama airport.  There were no airplanes flying before or after the attack. The injured were taken to the field hospital.

The local activist said at least 20 unexploded submunitions were collected after the rocket attacks on February 12 and 13.

A doctor in Hama told Human Rights Watch that he had also witnessed the rocket attacks on Keferzita. He said the attacks killed two civilians – a child named Abdulrahman Rami Almahmood, 3 or 4 years old, and a man named Mahmood Talal Aldaly, approximately 25 years old – and wounded 10 more civilians.

Since armed opposition groups took control of Keferzita in December 2012 the town has been targets of Syrian government air strikes, including with barrel bombs, and artillery shelling. Fierce clashes between certain rebel groups and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham(ISIS) ended after ISIS withdrew its forces from the town on January 5, 2014. The local activist told Human Rights Watch that there were no Free Syria Army (FSA) targets in the Keferzita neighborhoods hit by the rocket attacks on February 12 and 13.

Several videos that the witnesses confirm were filmed in Keferzita show evidence of the cluster munition rocket attacks on the town:

  • A video uploaded to YouTube on February 12 shows the attack and the remnants.
  • A video uploaded to YouTube on February 12 shows multiple small explosions on the town after a rocket attack.
  • A video uploaded to YouTube on February 13 shows several explosions on the town after a rocket attack.

It is highly unlikely that rebel forces could acquire the eight-wheeled, 43,700 kilogram launch vehicle or operate its sophisticated fire control system without significant training or time to conduct practice drills. There is no video evidence or written claims that any rebel group controls any BM-30 launchers, its similarly sized re-supply vehicle, or any 300mm surface-to-surface rockets like the 9M55K rocket.

Eliot Higgins of the Brown Moses blog, which tracks weapons used in the Syria conflict, has identified the BM-30 Smerch weapon system including 9M55K rocket and 9N235 submunition used at Keferzita and concluded that “it seems unlikely that the rocket could have come from any other source” than the Syrian military.” N. R. Jenzen-Jones and Yuri Lyamin of Armament Research Services also identified the weapons system and stated that, “It is not clear how Syria obtained these munitions, nor the systems required to fire them” but note that Russia is “the most likely origin of the systems in Syria.”

According to standard reference materials, the BM-30 Smerch system has been transferred to Algeria, India, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, while Azerbaijan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine either inherited or acquired the system after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Human Rights Watch has documented the Syrian government’s use of cluster munitions since 2012. With the discovery of the 9M55K rocket, a total of seven types of cluster munitions have been recorded as used in Syria during the conflict to date:

  • 122mm SAKR rockets, each containing either 72 or 98 dual-purpose antipersonnel/anti-materiel submunitions;
  • 9M55K rocket launched from the BM-30 Smerch, each containing 72 9N235 fragmentation submunitions;
  • RBK-250 cluster bomb, each containing 30 PTAB-2.5M high explosive anti-tank submunitions;
  • RBK-250-275 cluster bomb, each containing 150 AO-1SCh fragmentation submunitions;
  • RBK-500 cluster bomb, each containing 565 ShOAB-0.5 fragmentation submunitions;
  • PTAB-2.5KO high explosive anti-tank submunitions; and
  • AO-2.5RT fragmentation submunitions.

All of the cluster munitions used in Syria appear to have been manufactured in the Soviet Union except for the Egyptian-made 122mm SAKR surface-launched rocket containing dual-purpose antipersonnel/anti-materiel submunitions. There is no information available on how or when Syria acquired these cluster munitions.

The 9M55K rocket is three times as large as the other type of cluster munition rocket used in Syria (122mm SAKR rocket), while the mass (weight) of the fragments contained in the 9N235 submunitions make them more powerful and deadly than other types of submunitions. While designed to detonate on impact, each submunition has a back-up pyrotechnic self-destruct feature designed to destroy it two minutes after being ejected from the rocket, but in this attack the self-destruct feature appears to have failed to function in some cases. The body of the submunition, weighing 1.8 kilograms, is lined with two sizes of pre-formed fragments, 300 fragments weighing 0.5 grams and 95 weighing 4.5 grams. These latter fragments are about the same mass as a 9mm pistol bullet.

A total of 113 countries have signed or acceded to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, and requires the clearance of cluster munition remnants within 10 years as well as assistance for victims of the weapons. Of these countries, 84 are states parties legally bound to carry out all of the convention’s provisions, while the other 29 have signed but not yet ratified the convention. Syria has not signed the convention.

Syria’s cluster munition use has attracted widespread media coverage and public outcry. The Convention on Cluster Munitions requires each state party to “make its best efforts to discourage States not party … from using cluster munitions.” More than 100 countries have condemned Syria’s use of cluster munitions, including more than three-dozen non-signatories. Most condemned the use through a UN General Assembly resolution, while several foreign ministers have repeatedly expressed concern about the use of cluster munitions in Syria.

Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect at the time of use, and the long-lasting danger they pose to civilians. Cluster munitions can be fired by artillery and rocket systems or dropped by aircraft, and typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small submunitions, or bomblets, over an area the size of a football field. Submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines.

Since the Convention on Cluster Munitions became binding international law in 2010, three governments are confirmed to have used the weapons, all non-signatories to the convention: Syria, Libya, and Thailand.

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, the civil society campaign behind the Convention on Cluster Munitions. 

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