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Why the Government Has Resumed Its Use of Cluster Munitions

Human Rights Watch said that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have resumed their use of cluster bombs in Hama.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

The powerful munition, banned by 113 countries, was used, they said, on Feb. 12 and 13 in raids that killed two civilians and injured at least 10 others. 

The weapons HRW identified in Hama were Russian-made 300 mm 9M55K surface-to-surface rockets, not previously documented in use on the Syrian battlefield. It said that the rockets seen in the central Syrian city are three times bigger than barrel bombs and other cluster munitions currently in use by the government.

We asked Nadim Houry, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at HRW, and Elliot Higgins, an expert on weapons used in the Syrian conflict who blogs as Brown Moses, to weigh in on the effect the use of cluster bombs will have on the battle for Hama. 

SD: How effective are cluster bombs?

Nadim Houry: The main problem with cluster munitions is that they’re inherently indiscriminate, and so as they come down they’ll hit large areas. They’re small bombs but in terms of pure destruction, they are more indiscriminate than most other weapons because they’re going to hit more than one target at once: they can hit a field that’s quite large. That’s why they’re so problematic from an international law and human rights perspective:  they can’t distinguish between objectives. There is a growing and strong momentum internationally to ban all cluster munitions because of their indiscriminate nature.

We’ve documented government forces using them before; these are a new type, but these are the seventh type of cluster munition used by the government. This is the first time we’ve seen government forces using these. They’re ground launched and if you look at the footage, you can see all the various explosions taking place.

Elliot Higgins: It rather depends how they are deployed, and against what targets. The example I recently reported of the 9M55K rockets HRW covered seemed to be against nonmilitary targets, with civilians appearing to be the main victims, so in that instance you might say they are an effective terror weapon, but of virtually no military advantage. They end up becoming like land mines if they don’t explode; kids pick them up, someone doesn’t see them.

SD: Will they be a game changer in regards to the military situation on the ground?

EH: It seems unlikely. Cluster bombs have been used since October 2012 in large numbers, and they didn’t seem to do anything to turn the tide of the war in the favor of the government.  That seemed to come later when Hezbollah became more involved in the conflict, and the Syrian National Defense Force was formed.

NH: I don’t know if it’s a game changer. In terms of sheer destructiveness and what’s been killing a lot of people, barrel bombs have been used a lot more intensely. But cluster munitions are very dangerous, not just to opposition fighters, but to the civilians. They’re one of the indiscriminate weapons and ways of waging warfare that we’re seeing, and it shows a blatant disregard for civilians’ lives.

SD: Where is the government getting these weapons?

NH: There’s no evidence whether the Russians are supplying them, or whether the Syrians bought them on a black market. In the past, some of the cluster munitions we saw were quite old. What’s interesting is that [the government] never indicated that they had these [latest cluster] weapons. So, did they have them and never report them? Or did they manage to get them more recently?

SD: Why haven’t they been seen previously?

NH: We used to see them used a lot more. Now we’re seeing them used again. Did they get a new shipment in? Was there a decision not to use them and now they’re resuming? It’s hard to know.

We just saw a cluster munition, Egyptian-produced, being used in Yabroud. We saw a pattern where we saw an increase, up until last summer, of cluster munitions being used, then the number went down, and now we’re seeing the resumption of such use. It raises questions. Why now? We’re very worried about it because of how destructive they are.

EH: It’s unknown why the particular type covered by HRW hasn’t been seen before in the conflict. The most interesting thing about these new 9M55K rockets is they are launched by a system that the Syrian military is not known to use, so the question is, How did the Syrian government get them?

SD: Why is the regime choosing to use them? Is the cost benefit better than with barrel bombs, rockets or other air weaponry?

EH: The initial use of cluster bombs on a large scale came after a major road in Idlib was captured in October 2012, so that was possibly the moment the government felt they needed to escalate the air war. It’s unclear why these new type of rockets are now being used, especially when fighting is far more intense in other areas of the country.

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