Part of the challenge with documenting the fast-moving war in Syria is that research can become outdated as soon as it’s published. For example, last Thursday, Human Rights Watch issued a new report on more than 47 cluster munition attacks by the Syrian government’s joint operation with Russia on opposition-controlled areas over the past two months, killing and wounding dozens of civilians.
But that same day news of yet another cluster munition attack came in, this time from Maarat al-Numan in Idlib, reportedly killing one and injuring several.
And the harm from these attacks is not over. Cluster munitions are dropped from aircraft or delivered from the ground by artillery and rockets, and contain multiple smaller submunitions or bomblets that often fail to explode upon impact and become de facto landmines. Syria is littered with unexploded ordnance, including cluster munition remnants, that will endanger anyone who comes upon them for years to come.
Fortunately, volunteers from Syria Civil Defense were in Maarat al Numan last Thursday and able to clear and destroy the Russian-made unexploded AO-2.5RT/RTM submunitions.
Russia has yet to respond to the compelling evidence of its involvement in the cluster munition attacks in Syria or the call to stop using these inherently indiscriminate weapons.
The US has not commented on the latest evidence of harm from the cluster munitions either. But last October, the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve coalition, which operates against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, criticized Russia’s “irresponsible” use of cluster munitions in Syria.
And this week, the US confirmed that it is not using cluster munitions in Syria. This week, an US Air Force spokesperson told The Washington Post: “We have not employed cluster munitions in Operation Inherent Resolve. This includes both U.S. and coalition aircraft.”
Neither Human Rights Watch nor any other members of the international Cluster Munition Coalition has seen evidence that the US or its partners are using banned cluster munitions in Syria. But this admission of no use provides all the more reason for the US to speak out against the cluster munition attacks in Syria.
The US continues to forcefully maintain that cluster munitions have military utility, but with the exception of a single 2009 strike in Yemen, the US has not used cluster munitions since 2003, in Iraq. Under a 2008 Department of Defense policy directive, the US is destroying more than 99.9 percent of its existing stocks of cluster munitions—all except those that are supposed to result in less than 1 percent unexploded ordnance. The US last budgeted funds to produce new cluster munitions in 2007 and since then, it has only manufactured cluster munitions for foreign sales.
The CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon manufactured by Textron Systems is currently the only cluster munition that the US claims to meet the 1 percent standard. This weapon is prohibited by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, but the US is not among the 119 countries that have joined the convention – nor is Saudi Arabia or other countries that have received these weapons.
However, Saudi Arabia’s use of the CBU-105 in Yemen during the past year in its coalition operation against Houthi forces, which are in control in Yemen’s capital and other parts of the country, shows how these weapons are not functioning in ways that meet the 1 percent reliability standard. There is also compelling evidence that Saudi Arabia is violating the US export law requirement that recipients of US cluster munitions not use them in civilian areas.
In May, the US suspended cluster munition transfers to Saudi Arabia, due to concern at reports that Saudi Arabia is using cluster munitions “in areas in which civilians are alleged to have been present or in the vicinity” according to an administration official.
The Economist reported incorrectly on July 26 that Congress later “reinstated” the cluster munition transfers to Saudi Arabia. On June 16, a proposed legislative amendment to prevent US funds from being used “to transfer or authorize the transfer of any cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia” came very close to passing – with 40 Republicans lining up against the measure – by a vote of 204-216. The failure to legislate the suspension does not affect the Obama Administration’s policy decision, which remains in place.
August 1 marks six years since the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force, becoming binding international law. The US may not have signed the treaty, but recent US actions show it is sensitive to the pressure of the stigma that the treaty is creating against these weapons.
Now it should go a step further. The next US president should immediately revisit the 2008 policy and work with Congress to enable the US to join the international ban treaty.