Skip to main content

Syria: Under a Barrel

Why the world must stop Bashar al-Assad from indiscriminately raining crude barrel bombs down on Syrian civilians.

Published in: Foreign Policy

KILIS, Turkey — It had been nearly a year since I had last returned to Kilis, a Turkish town right on the border with Syria, but it was easy to see the changes: The flow of foreign journalists and international NGO workers entering Aleppo's countryside had dried up, while more Syrians had poured in. The local hospital was being expanded and new buildings were rising across town.

Yet the hotel where I stayed was eerily quiet, dank, and dusty -- abandoned by journalists and aid workers, whose work in northern Syria had been made too dangerous by extremist armed groups operating in the area. The ice cream freezer that seemed so popular last time was pushed into a dark corner. The streets were full of political flags, signs of the upcoming Turkish local elections. They were full of people too -- Syrians who have rented homes and shopped at the markets in this town. By some accounts, the population has doubled in size since the refugee influx. One local aid worker told me that in the past five months alone, since the Syrian government began its aerial assault on Aleppo, 5,000 to 6,000 families from the northern Syrian city had poured into Kilis.

But it was the Syrians themselves who had changed the most. They came from the same northern towns as those whom I had met on previous trips -- Marea, Tal Rifaat, Hreitan, Aleppo, and others. However, they didn't talk any longer about revolution or struggling to achieve freedom and democracy in Syria. They talked about their misery, the corrupt people making money off their desperation. Ever hospitable, they offered me sweet, light tea -- and once, in an even more desperate sign of the times, tea with no sugar at all. But they were angry and abandoned.

Most were leaving Syria because of the barrel bombs that were raining on Aleppo and the countryside. These unguided, high-explosive bombs -- which are cheaply produced locally and filled with explosives, scrap metal, nails, or other material to enhance fragmentation -- are pushed out of helicopters, dropped on densely populated areas by the Syrian army. Used in this way, the bombs are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants, making the attacks unlawful under international humanitarian law. "If he left us one corner to hide in," one woman exclaimed, "we would stay."

The attacks had become so frequent that many civilians had concluded that the government was intentionally hitting them. One local group, the Violations Documentation Center, estimates that 2,321 civilians have been killed by barrel bombs in Aleppo since the aerial campaign began in November.

The Syrian refugees sometimes lashed out at me, the face of the international community for them. Once, to my sad surprise, a discussion about the international community's response to the conflict, or lack thereof, set off a burst of tears from a refugee twice displaced from Aleppo who was past my father's age. He has seen more death and misery than most lives can hold: "A father came looking for his son who was riding on the minibus taxi that was hit [with a missile]," he said, describing one attack through tears. "All he found was the license plate.

That's it. There was nothing else left."

The women were no different. I made the case about the need for more documentation of the abuses in Syria, but they argued with me: "What is the point? The entire world already knows we are dying," one said. "The whole world is watching us, and with deep regret, they are doing nothing," another said. Where is the humanitarian aid, they wondered? 

I visited one home where nearly 100 people lived, having smuggled themselves into Turkey to escape barrel bombs. They paid approximately $20 apiece to a smuggler to escape, and they had little else. With Turkey's refugee camps stuffed to their limit, the refugees were sleeping 20 people to a room in residential areas of Kilis and were receiving no humanitarian assistance. They were only eating, they told me, because of the kindness of strangers.

The parents clung closely to their children and cried over the ones they had lost. One mother had lost contact with her son who was forcibly conscripted in the army -- "I don't know anything about him" -- while her other son was fighting with the rebels. Mothers asked for help in finding replacements for their children's missing limbs, treatment for paralyzed arms and legs.

The children spoke to me too. "They are using the barrel bombs to kill people," a 9- year-old who had lost both her legs told me. "I am learning how to walk through physical therapy. I want to go to school again.”

Their words, words we've been echoing for over three years now, haunt me: If the barrel bombs stopped, we would all go home. No one is helping us. How can you help me?

A legal mechanism does exist to help these people. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Feb. 22 that for the first time condemned these indiscriminate assaults on civilians -- including through the use of barrel bombs -- and demanded that the Syrian government stop them. The resolution stressed that violations against civilians "may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity" and expressed the Security Council's intent "to take further steps in the case of non-compliance with this resolution."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will report on the implementation of the resolution on March 28. When he does, he needs to carry the voice of these refugees to the halls of the Security Council. Meanwhile, Security Council members need to make clear that the resolution is more than words on paper --rather it's a commitment to these men and women to take action to stop the unlawful attacks against them.

The Security Council can and should do more to stop the widespread abuses in Syria, including by imposing an international arms embargo against the Syrian government and all groups responsible for systematic crimes. No country should be allowed to support the mass displacement, killing, and arbitrary detention that is characteristic of the government's unlawful attacks against the civilian population. Nor should they send weapons to extremist groups that are implicated in widespread or systematic human rights abuses.

The Security Council should also refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Doing so could deter future abuses and send a clear message to the Syrian government -- as well as combatants on all sides in this war -- that those responsible for grave abuses will be brought to justice.

The Security Council's words and condemnations meant little to the refugees with whom I spoke, since the Syrian government had so far failed to comply with the international community's demands. As a young man, maybe even a boy, told me:

"We are not waiting for the Americans. We are not waiting for anyone. We trust in

God. There is no one with us but God.”

It's time to finally send a message to these Syrians that they are not alone.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country