Inside the U.N.’s New Effort to Stop Assad’s Gruesome Barrel Bombs

Barrel bombs have given the Syrian strongman an inexhaustible supply of cheap, deadly weapons. Washington and Paris hope to get them out of Assad’s hands.


Washington and Moscow worked together to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution targeting Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Now, the United States and its allies are turning their attention to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of the crude but deadly barrel bombs that are emerging as the signature weapon of the Syrian civil war.

Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch maintain that barrel bombs — a do-it-yourself concoction of explosives and metal fragments contained in an oil canister — inflict far greater suffering on Syrians than the Islamic State and chemical weapons combined. The Assad government sometimes drops dozens of them per day onto the rebel-held cities of Aleppo, Daraa, and Idlib.

In February 2014, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution demanding that the Syrian army, or any other combatants, cease the indiscriminate bombardment of heavily populated areas with barrel bombs. The measure led to an initial decline in the number of Syrians killed by the bombs, but the number of dead and wounded increased from 249 casualties in March 2014 to 511 the following month, according to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, an independent organization of Syrian activists which briefed Security Council members in June. All told, the group said that 3,831 people have been killed by barrel bombs since the resolution’s passage in early 2014. It is impossible to independently verify those numbers.

France has initiated a diplomatic push at the U.N. for a resolution that would raise the possibility of the imposition of unspecified penalties against Syria if it continued to use barrel bombs. It would also create a monitoring team that would track the use of barrel bombs and report about it to the U.N. Security Council.

France, Britain, and the United States have been engaged in closed-door negotiations on the draft barrel bomb resolution for weeks, but the United States had asked France not to push for a vote until after Washington had secured Russia’s support for Friday’s U.N. Security Council resolution on chemical weapons, which passed unanimously. It’s not clear when France will press for a Security Council debate on the barrel bomb initiative.

Human Rights Watch applauded Friday’s passage of a resolution aimed at identifying those responsible for carrying out chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but said stopping the barrel bombs from falling was just as important.

“[Friday’s] resolution marks an important step to stop chlorine attacks, but the real test will be whether the council can stop the Syrian regime from using barrel bombs, which account for a much larger portion of the civilian death toll and serve almost no military purpose,” said Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch’s U.N. representative and crisis advocacy director.

It’s far from clear that Russia would support a new move by the Security Council to penalize Syria for its continued use of barrel bombs. Asked by a reporter to comment on the destruction and death wrought by the weapons, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said simply, “We are not dropping them.”

Assad’s continued use of barrel bombs was also a central focus of a new letter that Robert Ford, the Obama administration’s former Syria envoy, and 14 other activists and Syria watchers sent to the White House.

In the missive to President Barack Obama obtained by Foreign Policy, Ford pressed the administration to devise and implement a military plan designed to protect civilians from bombs the Syrian air force is dropping from above.

“The constant barrel bomb attacks by government forces and the displacement, death and dehumanization endured by millions of Syrians has created a miasma of human misery that is hard for those of us who have been in the field to describe adequately,” the authors wrote.

The signatories — which included Fred Hof, a former Obama administration official charged with working on a political transition in Syria — said that the United States should be prepared for “the potential for a limited use of force” to combat Assad’s barrel bomb attacks.

The letter also expressed frustration that the administration’s military focus in the conflict is on combatting the Islamic State, rather than the Assad regime. “We urge that the protection of Syrian civilians — both for humanitarian reasons and for the purpose of combatting extremism — become a centerpiece of your foreign policy,” wrote the authors.

Last month, Turkey and the United States came to a vague agreement on a military plan to force Islamic State militants out of a swath of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, but it has yet to materialize. The agreement coincided with Turkey’s decision to allow the United States to use its Incirlik air base in southern Turkey to launch attacks against Islamic State targets in Syria.

While a number of groups in the humanitarian and NGO community support the notion of an “anti-Islamic State zone” for civilians, others fear it could do more harm than good. One concern is that Turkey could use the establishment of such a zone as an excuse to turn away refugees on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border: shoving them all into a new ad hoc refugee camp in Syria. “Under no circumstances would these ‘safe areas’ justify sending refugees back against their will or turning the displaced away at the border,” said Daniel Gorevan, Oxfam’s campaign lead on the Syria crisis.

Others worry that under current conditions, with some 200,000 people displaced in northern Syria border areas, refugees will lack sufficient protection from external attacks by warring parties. The nightmare scenario could become an atrocity akin to the massacre in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war when more than 8,000 people were killed in a so-called “safe zone” created by the U.N. Security Council.

Back at the U.N., meanwhile, Churkin said that he hoped Friday’s agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons “will translate into our continued joint work on the political front.” Churkin said that the 15-nation council is seeking to finalize a statement endorsing an effort by the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to bring Syria’s government and opposition figures together for talks.

Churkin said that Russia has been pressing the United States and Washington’s European allies to cooperate with Syria in forging a united international effort against the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. Syria, he noted, had cooperated with a Russian- and U.S.-brokered plan to destroy the bulk of its chemical weapons program and should be given a chance to participate in the new counterterrorism push as well. “So, if we could do it then, why can’t we do it now?” he asked.

Churkin said that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have been in close contact on Syria, and “there is a greater commonality and understanding of the complexity of the situation.”

Still, the Russian diplomat said Washington and its allies were still unwilling to enlist Assad in the fight against the Islamic State.

“Our Western colleagues do not yet accept the need to focus first and primarily on the terrorist threat in Syria and Iraq during the struggle against ISIL,” Churkin said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “The United States and other Western countries … do not want to involve the Syrian government in that joint struggle, which in our view is wrong.”

Photo credit: BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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