Beirut, Lebanon (HRW) – The Syrian–Russian joint military operation in Syria has included the use of internationally banned cluster munitions in at least 14 attacks across five governorates since January 26, 2016. The attacks killed at least 37 civilians, including six women and nine children, and wounded dozens.
The International Syria Support Group, a group of 17 countries and three organizations that is scheduled to meet on February 11 should make protecting civilians and ending indiscriminate attacks, including with cluster munitions, a key priority, Human Rights Watch said.
“Any solution of the Syrian crisis needs to address ongoing indiscriminate attacks,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “A good place to start would be a commitment by Russia and Syria to stop using cluster munitions.”
The surge in cluster munition use has taken place in the context of intensified Russian and Syrian military action to establish control over key strategic territory in the governorates of Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Homs, and Hama. The recent offensive around Aleppo has caused at least 20,000 people to flee towards the Turkish border. At least seven attacks also took place as government and anti-government forces met for peace talks in Geneva, which were suspended on February 3.
In the 14 documented cases, Human Rights Watch both interviewed at least one local source who was a witness to the attack or its immediate aftermath, and identified the type of cluster munition used by reviewing photographs or videos. Casualty numbers are based on name lists provided by medical personnel, local responders, and journalists.
The real number of cluster munition attacks is most likely higher, Human Rights Watch said. Local activists have reported at least eight additional attacks since January 26, including providing photographs and videos of remnants, but Human Rights Watch was not able to reach witnesses to those attacks.
Some of the cluster munition attacks in recent weeks occurred in the northern governorate of Aleppo, near Nubbul and Zahraa, where government and pro-government forces attempted to break the siege imposed by armed opposition groups, including the Nusra front, on the two majority-Shiite towns.
In Anadan, seven kilometers from Zahraa, cluster munitions and other weapons were used in an air attack that also struck a field hospital on January 27, killing a nurse; two first responders and a local media activist said. A local television report shows fragmentation damage and flat tires on an ambulance and minivan–indicating cluster munition use–as well as the clearance of AO-2.5 RT/RTM submunitions.
Other cluster munition attacks have been recorded in pockets of opposition-controlled territory in government-controlled areas. For example, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on January 27, an aircraft dropped cluster munitions on Kafr Laha, a town in opposition-controlled territory near the city of Homs that is surrounded by Syrian government forces.
The journalist sent Human Rights Watch a list with the names of casualties. The list includes the names of 6 people, including a woman and 2 children, who were killed in the attack, and 59 people, including 13 women and 27 children, who were wounded.
Other witnesses, including a first responder, confirmed that six or seven people had been killed. All three witnesses said that those killed and injured were civilians. Graphic video that the Homs Media Center posted on YouTube shows injured people, including several women and children, being brought to a makeshift hospital for treatment.
Human Rights Watch received photographs taken by local people showing the remnants of an RBK-500 series bomb and its payload of ShOAB-0.5 submunitions. Three witnesses said there were no fighters or military targets near the impacted area.
Cluster munitions are delivered from the ground by artillery and rockets, or dropped from aircraft and contain multiple smaller submunitions. A total of 118 countries have banned cluster munitions due to the harm caused at the time of attack and because their submunitions often fail to explode and threaten civilians and military alike, until cleared and destroyed. Syria and Russia should join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch previously documented at least 20 cluster munition attacks by the Russian-Syrian joint operation between September 30, 2015, when Russian aircraft began its military operations in Syria, and December 14.
Two types of the cluster munitions used in recent attacks were air-dropped and another two were ground-launched. Human Rights Watch was not able to determine whether the air-dropped cluster munitions were dropped by Russian or Syrian aircraft, or both.
At a news conference in Moscow on December 23, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian military, denied allegations that the air force has stockpiled cluster munitions in Syria, stating that “Russian aviation does not use them” and “there are no such weapons at the Russian air base in Syria.” However, the Conflict Intelligence Team open-source research organization has identified cluster munitions in photographs and video taken at Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in Syria by Russian media and the Russian Defense Ministry since the beginning of Russia’s air campaign. Based on an analysis of the distinctive physical characteristics of the weapons, Human Rights Watch has confirmed the identification of RBK series cluster bombs being loaded onto aircraft taking off from the base. On November 14, 2015, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a photo from its Syria operation that shows an Su-25 in flight with its munition visible. A Human Rights Watch weapons expert identified the munition as an RBK-500 ShOAB-0.5 cluster bomb.
Minutes after the January 27 cluster munition attack in Kafr Laha using RBK-500 series bomb and ShOAB-0.5 submunitions, a witness on the ground photographed a military aircraft that he said was flying near the attack site. He shared the photograph with Human Rights Watch which identified it as an Su-25. The photographer said that this was the only aircraft he saw in the air at the time of the attack. According to publicly available information, the Su-25 is not in service with Syrian forces. Russian forces have deployed at least 12 Su-25 to their airbase in Syria.
Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the Cluster Munition Coalition and serves as its chair. On October 1, the global campaign warned Russia against using any cluster munitions in Syria due to the “foreseeable and preventable” danger posed to civilians.
“Whether or not Russia dropped these cluster munitions, it is operating jointly with the Syrian government and as such has a responsibility to ensure that Russian-Syrian operations are not using indiscriminate weapons,” Houry said. “Russia should immediately ensure that cluster munitions are never again used in Syria, whether by its own or Syria’s forces.”
Human Rights Watch has documented the use of four types of cluster munition since January 26.
This report prepared by Human Rights Watch.