Damascus, Syria (HRW) – An advanced type of Russian cluster munition was used in an airstrike southwest of Aleppo on October 4, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The use of the weapon near the village of Kafr Halab raises grave concerns that Russia is either using cluster munitions in Syria or providing the Syrian air force with new types of cluster munitions to use.
New photographs and videos also suggest renewed use of air-dropped cluster munitions as well as ground-fired Russian-made cluster munition rockets as part of the joint Russian-Syrian offensive in northern Syria.
“It’s disturbing that yet another type of cluster munition is being used in Syria given the harm they cause to civilians for years to come,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Neither Russia nor Syria should use cluster munitions, and both should join the international ban without delay.”
Most countries have banned cluster munitions due to the harm the weapons cause at the time of attack and because their submunitions often fail to explode on deployment and pose a threat until cleared and destroyed. Cluster munitions can be delivered various ways: fired by artillery and rocket systems or dropped by aircraft.
The Kafr Halab attack coincides with a surge of video and photographic reports of air-dropped and ground-launched cluster munition attacks in the governorates of Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib since Russia started its air campaign in Syria on September 30.
Photographs reported to have been taken in the countryside near Kafr Halab and posted online by local media on October 6 show the remnants of SPBE sensor fuzed submunitions, the first reported use of this cluster munition in the war in Syria. The Russian-produced weapon descends by parachute and is designed to destroy armored vehicles by firing an explosively formed slug of molten metal downward after the vehicle is detected by a targeting system.
Videos posted online by a local media outlet two days earlier and reportedly filmed in the same geographical area show explosions in mid-air consistent with attacks with SPBE submunitions. No casualties have been reported from the attack near Kafr Halab.
Human Rights Watch cannot conclusively determine whether Russian or Syrian forces were responsible for the attack. Neither country has banned cluster munitions.
Human Rights Watch has documented the use of cluster munitions in the war in Syria since 2012. Syrian government forces began using air-dropped cluster bombs in mid-2012 and then cluster munition rockets in attacks that are believed to be continuing, while the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) used cluster munition rockets in the second half of 2014. No other group is known or reported to have used cluster munitions in Syria.
The ground attack aircraft and helicopters deployed by the Russian Federation in its military operation in Syria are also capable of delivering other types of Russian-made RBK-series cluster bombs containing PTAB, AO, and ShOAB type explosive submunitions, the same types that Human Rights Watch has previously documented the Syrian air force using.
Data collected by Cluster Munition Monitor 2015 – the annual survey issued by the Cluster Munition Coalition in September – shows that there were at least 1,968 casualties from cluster munition attacks and unexploded submunitions in Syria from 2012 until the end of 2014. The vast majority of those recorded as killed were identified as civilians.
A total of 98 countries have joined the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, including Colombia, Mauritius, and Somalia in the past month. The treaty prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, and requires the clearance of cluster munition remnants within 10 years, as well as assistance for victims of the weapons.