Indiscriminate Aerial Attacks on Aleppo
Indiscriminate aerial attacks have rained down across Syria throughout the conflict. In Aleppo, they began in 2012. They increased significantly in December 2013, and when Russia entered the conflict in earnest in September 2015, and once again through the final months of 2016, both the number of attacks and the variety of weapons used expanded.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Aleppo was hit by 4,045 barrel bombs in 2016, with 225 falling in December alone. A record of attacks compiled by the first responder organization Syrian Civil Defence, known as the ‘White Helmets’, covering the period from September 19, 2016 until the evacuation in mid-December showed 823 distinct reported incidents, ranging from cluster-munition attacks to barrel bombs. By comparing satellite images of the east of the city taken on October 18 with those taken on September 19, HRW was able to identify 950 new distinct impact sites—an average of more than one blast an hour, day and night, for a month.
Over the course of the year, the SNHR recorded 506 civilian fatalities from barrel bomb attacks, including 140 children and 63 women. Separately, the Violations Documentation Center recorded the death by military action of 3,497 civilians in Aleppo from June to mid-December 2016.
This evidence was gathered by multiple, independent witnesses using a variety of sources, from on-the-ground contacts up to satellite photographs. The sources reinforce and corroborate one another. They reveal a collage of thousands of mostly indiscriminate attacks, and their devastating impact on life and death in Aleppo during the siege.
The scale of attacks on Aleppo makes it almost impossible to compile a robust and verified record of every attack on the city. But drawing on a broad range of information, it is possible to see that an extensive aerial campaign was waged in Aleppo, and that a high proportion of the munitions deployed against the city and its population were indiscriminate.
The indiscriminate strikes were not one-sided: armed opposition groups also engaged in rocket attacks on civilians in western, government-held Aleppo. Casualty numbers are more difficult to find, but the SNHR reported sixty-four civilian deaths during the period from April 20 to April 29, 2016, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded seventy-four civilian deaths during the opposition offensive to break the siege of Aleppo in late October 2016. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks is equally disturbing, and subject to analysis and judgement under the same international laws as any other attack on civilians in the conflict. However, there is little equivalence between the two sides when considering the scale and resources employed in the conflict.
Using satellite imagery of Aleppo from 2010 through to 2016, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT) was able to identify 33,521 damaged structures by September 18, 2016. The damage is primarily located in opposition held areas of east Aleppo, and the countryside.
Every indiscriminate attack is worthy of investigation. However, for the sake of brevity and specificity, the following chapters will focus in detail on particularly pernicious sub-categories of the attacks on east Aleppo: strikes on hospitals and medical facilities; incendiary weapons; cluster munitions and other explosive munitions; and chemical weapons.