Videos and photographs taken last weekend in the city of Saraqeb, in northwestern Syria, show the unmistakably bright trails produced by incendiary weapons. The ZAB incendiary submunitions used in the attacks are delivered by RBK-500 bombs and contain thermite, a flammable substance that ignites and burns intensely for up to 10 minutes. The attack occurred just a few kilometers from the scene of an apparent chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.
Attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which Syria has not ratified.
Russia is a party to the protocol and since 2015, its aircraft have participated in a joint operation with Syrian government aircraft that has included attacks using incendiary weapons. Last June, Russia Today broadcast footage taken at the Russian air base at Hmeymim that showed RBK-500 ZAB-2.5S/M incendiary bombs being mounted on a Russian SU-34 fighter-ground attack aircraft.
Last December, Russia acknowledged mounting concerns over civilian harm from incendiary weapons, but did not address its role in their use in Syria. Russia expressed skepticism over calls to discuss why the protocol is failing to deter new use and instead promoted its call for “rigorous and unconditional implementation.” As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has informed us, Russia sees “improper use” as the reason civilians are being harmed by these weapons.
Russia often praises the CCW for striking “the proper balance between legitimate defense interests of states [and] humanitarian considerations.” Yet, as Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams told states at CCW last year, the worsening conflict in Syria shows how “perceived military necessity has obliterated humanitarian concerns.”
Lebanon became the 114th country to ratify CCW Protocol III on April 5. Its neighbor Syria ought to be next. The best course of action for other countries concerned about civilian harm in Syria is to condemn such use of incendiary weapons and embrace the relevant international law, including through pressing for the enforcement by Russia of the protocol in Syria.