On Monday, Human Rights Watch said it had evidence that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni militant group making headway across Syria’s north and east, had used cluster munitions in battle with Kurdish YPG forces near the predominantly Kurdish city of Ayn al-Arab, in Aleppo province.
“Based on reports of local Kurdish officials and photographic evidence, [ISIS] forces used cluster munitions on July 12 and August 14 during fighting around the Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab,” the monitoring group said.
A senior Kurdish official from the town told HRW that four YPG combatants and an 11-year-old had been killed in the attacks, which are the first known use of cluster munitions by ISIS. The extremist group has been fighting the YPG in the area for more than a year.
HRW said it did not know how ISIS had acquired the cluster munitions. We asked Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director, to weigh in on the dangers posed should ISIS – known for its brutal methods – be in possession of a cache.
Syria Deeply: How concerned are HRW and other groups about the potential for destruction if ISIS has stockpiled cluster munitions?
Mary Wareham: ISIS has been attacking the villages surrounding Ayn al-Arab for at least six months now. There’s been quite a fight there between ISIS forces and the Kurdish defenders of those towns, the YPG.
We’re concerned with the use of cluster munitions anywhere in the world, and we’re especially concerned with Syria because they have been in use there for so long now – more than two years. The main problem is that these munitions have a wide dispersal when used. They are launched over a wide area and it can be hard for the user to separate targets from civilians. So they cause an immense amount of harm.
They also leave a legacy of unexploded ordinance. The ammunition that fails to detonate on the ground just sits there and becomes a de facto land mine, that when handled will explode. We’ve seen casualties caused by these bombs ranging from when they are first launched and explode, to years later when the remnants detonate. The remnants will remain in Syria and become part of a global mass problem of unexploded ordinance.
To compare, Vietnam and Cambodia are still trying to clear this kind of ordinance more than 40 years after it was first dropped. So this is why it’s so important to ban cluster munitions in Syria.
Most cluster bombs used in Syria have markings on them that indicate a date of manufacture. The ones we documented were dated 1992, more than 20 years old. We have no information on how ISIS might have acquired them. Often when they take over positions held by the regime, they take over their weapons. So there’s a chance they could have done that. The cluster bombs that the Syrian armed forces have been dropping were all manufactured in the Soviet Union back in the 1980s. Those are the predominant date stamps we’re seeing on the remnants.
Syria Deeply: How concerned are you about potential future use of cluster munitions by ISIS?
Wareham: If you have weapons, generally you want to use them. We’re seeing the use now, and it will happen again and again if there’s not attention and condemnation. And the regime is still using them too. They’ve caused immense harm to civilians and damaged and destroyed infrastructure. But they are prohibited by more than 100 nations, and we’re trying to establish [rules] against stockpiling and trade of such weapons.