From Nov. 2013 to Feb. 20, 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) studied aerial imagery of what it calls the government’s “indiscriminate,” large-scale barrel bombing campaign on opposition-held areas of Aleppo.
In a new report, the group said the unguided high-explosion bombs landed in “damage sites [that] were widely distributed across almost all neighborhoods under opposition control, with a majority falling in heavily built-up residential areas far from the front line.” Thus far, the campaign has killed over 2,000 civilians and resulted in one of the largest refugee streams since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.
We asked Lama Fakih, HRW’s Beirut-based Syria-Lebanon researcher, to weigh in on what’s happening.
Syria Deeply: What’s new and different about this campaign?
Lama Fakih: In terms of what’s new, what we have done is analyze satellite imagery from Nov. 2013 to Feb. 20, 2014. What the imagery reflects is that the aerial bombardment of Aleppo that’s been ongoing these past months is unlike what the area has been subject to before. There are more damaged sites – 340 distinct sites in Aleppo city – that are widely distributed, across all the neighborhoods. The majority are falling in very built up residential areas far from the front lines.
Not only is this bombardment more indiscriminate and aggressive than what we’ve seen previously, it has continued despite the Feb. 22 U.N. Security Council resolution that demanded that the government cease its indiscriminate attacks. What we’ve done on recent missions to the Syrian-Turkish border is speak to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and understand from them how these bomb attacks have terrorized them, killed hundreds and displaced thousands more who are now living in dire conditions in camps. What we know is that the aerial bombardment has continued despite the resolution.
SD: Which areas are being hit the most? Are there new areas being targeted?
Fakih: There are some areas that have borne the brunt. Masaken Hanano [in the northeast of the city] is where we’ve seen dozens of attacks. Witnesses describe how the attacks would happen multiple times every single day in areas far from any military targets, and in other cases described what they felt was the targeting of areas where civilians gathered: bus depots, areas where people were going to catch microbuses, the vegetable market, places that people would gather in large numbers for commercial purposes and schools.
SD: Are you seeing a new wave of fleeing civilians?
Fakih: There are certainly large numbers fleeing. At the Bab al-Salama IDP camp there are 16,000 IDPs. There are also three other camps that have been built in the past few months. I was told by camp administrators that each houses 15,000 people. In Kilis, humanitarian workers said that they had seen an influx of 5,000 or 6,000 families since this bombardment began.
SD: Why might the government have expanded its offensive to these new areas?
Fakih: It’s difficult to speculate about the government’s military strategy. We have seen that they are trying to shift Aleppo’s front lines by any means necessary. They have engaged in operations there that have been completely indiscriminate.
SD: Does barrel bombing have a unique effect on the civilians who are exposed to it?
Fakih: One thing that was really striking was the high level of trauma that each person I spoke to manifested. This included women, children and men. In one case I met a nine-year-old girl who had been caught in a barrel bomb attack while trying to flee to the basement with her relatives. The bomb killed her cousin and resulted in the loss of one of the girl’s legs. Her other leg was later amputated. I spoke to her mother about the challenges they had in getting physical therapy for her so she’d be able to move around, go back to school. I spoke to Palestinian men from Aleppo city who said the entire population of their refugee camp had been displaced as a result of this round of attacks.
SD: What is HRW’s focus in the weeks ahead?
Fakih: The people I speak to continue to look towards us as their window to the international community. We are really looking now to the Security Council to do what it said it would do in the resolution from Feb. 22. One step it could take would be to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government and other groups found to be responsible for war crimes in Syria.