Several major media outlets are reporting that Russia’s state-run television has broadcasted footage appearing to show Russian aircraft at its airbase in Syria equipped with “cluster bombs.” The clip was deleted from YouTube after analysts published the finding but was later restored.
In fact, the footage shows incendiary weapons mounted on a Su-34 fighter-ground attack aircraft – specifically RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM bombs – not cluster bombs. These incendiary weapons contain a substance believed to be thermite that ignites while falling, which has led witnesses of attacks to describe them as “fireballs.” The fact that this weapon ignites on release distinguishes it as an incendiary weapon rather than a cluster bomb, which contains explosive submunitions that detonate on impact.
Because of the flammable content, incendiary weapons cause excruciatingly painful burns and start fires that are hard to extinguish.
Many incendiary weapon attacks in Syria have been misreported as white phosphorus or napalm. Both of these types of incendiary weapons are notorious. Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza in 2009 drew widespread condemnation, while United States napalm attacks in Vietnam more than 40 years ago saw public revulsion that spurred nations to adopt new international law regulating their use.
Russia is one of 113 countries which have joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) protocol prohibiting the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in areas containing concentrations of civilians. Syria’s government has ignored calls to join the protocol and has used incendiary weapons since the end of 2012.
Last November, more than a dozen states, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) condemned or expressed concern at civilian harm from recent use of incendiary weapons, particularly in Syria. Russia called for “faithful observation” of the law.
In a recent letter to Human Rights Watch, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov acknowledged the “significant humanitarian damage” caused by incendiary weapons in Syria, which he blamed on their “improper use.”
The best way to avoid civilian harm from such “improper use” is to follow the letter of international law and not use incendiary weapons in civilian areas.