Denied, But Deployed
Since 2012, cluster munitions have been regularly used in the Syrian conflict, with a wealth of open source evidence showing their use despite repeated denials. As with other kinds of weaponry, patterns of cluster bombing already observed across Syria were played out in east Aleppo, increasing in frequency within the city in the last six months of 2016. At least twenty-two incidents were reported in Aleppo city between July and December 2016.
Like so many other weapons used by the Syrian and Russian forces in the conflict, cluster munitions are intrinsically indiscriminate. They have been banned in 116 countries. In the words of the Cluster Munition Coalition, which argues for a worldwide ban, “Anybody within the strike area of the cluster munition, be they military or civilian, is very likely to be killed or seriously injured.”
The types of cluster munitions used in the conflict have been thoroughly documented, with numerous videos and photographs shared by groups and individuals from across opposition-controlled Syria. From 2012 to the end of 2015, at least 2,221 cluster munition casualties were reported in Syria. A wide range of types were used across the country before Russia joined the war in September 2015; following the Russian intervention, previously undocumented cluster munitions began to be recorded at attack sites.
Using a range of open source evidence, including investigations published by various NGOs, it is possible to verify the repeated use of cluster munitions in Aleppo city.
The Use of Cluster Munitions in Syria
Cluster munitions are designed to scatter explosive submunitions over a wide area. They are intrinsically indiscriminate weapons. Neither Russia nor Syria has signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibiting their use; however, the use of indiscriminate weapons in densely-populated civilian areas is illegal.
According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, Syrian forces used at least 249 cluster munitions in ten out of Syria’s fourteen governorates between July 2012 and July 2014. This number only reflects incidents in which remnants of cluster munitions were recorded and identified, so the actual figure may be higher. According to the same source, 2,221 people in Syria were killed or wounded by cluster munitions between 2012 and the end of 2015.
Witnesses to the Syrian conflict have documented the use of a wide range of cluster munitions. Types identified include unguided air-dropped munitions such as RBK-500 series cluster bombs, surface-to-surface rockets, including the 122mm Sakr rocket, and 9M55K 300mm rockets launched by the modern Russian BM-30 multiple rocket launcher.
When Russia began its air campaign in September 2015, previously undocumented cluster munitions began to be recorded at attack sites, in particular the AO-2.5RTM, ShOAB-0.5M, PTAB-1M, and SPBE submunitions used with RBK-500 cluster bomb casings.
Following reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other organizations about the use of cluster munitions in Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied any and all use of cluster munitions by Russian forces, stating “Russian aviation does not use them,” and going as far to claim were “no such munitions at the Russian air base in Syria.”
Concerning the suppositions on cluster bombs. Russian aviation does not use them.
Russian MoD spokesman Igor Konashenkov, December 23, 2015
These denials were exposed as false when photographs and video from Russian media, including Kremlin broadcasters Sputnik and RT, as well as the MoD’s own photographs, showed cluster munitions at the Russian air base in Syria, and even loaded onto Russian aircraft. As detailed above, RT was later caught editing footage posted on their YouTube channel, removing footage of cluster munitions mounted on Russian jets at their airbase in Syria.
Following the airstrike on the M10 hospital on October 1, local activists shared a photograph of a clearly identifiable RBK-500 PTAB-1M bomb casing from the site, with its identification numbers still legible.
When Russian unexploded ordnance removal teams began their work in eastern Aleppo, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a photograph showing the unexploded remains of AO-2.5RT/RTM submunitions, confirming their use in Aleppo.
The use of cluster munitions by both Russia and the Assad government in the Syrian conflict is therefore confirmed by a large body of evidence, including numerous images published by numerous groups, among them official Kremlin outlets.
Cluster Munitions in Aleppo
In so many ways, Aleppo represents a microcosm of the broader conflict. Strategies and tactics developed across Syria in five and more years of fighting were brought to bear on the few square miles of the densely-populated city—including the use of cluster munitions.
Open source evidence and investigations by various NGOs have gathered information on repeated use of cluster munitions in Aleppo city over four years of fighting. In the second half of 2016, at least twenty-two incidents were reported in Aleppo city, based on data gathered from open sources and data provided by groups operating in opposition-controlled areas.
According to data from Syrian Civil Defense, nineteen adults and three children were killed in these attacks, with sixty adults and twenty children injured. The Syrian American Medical Society stated in their report The Failure of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 in Preventing Attacks on Healthcare in Syria that between June and December 2016 there were nine instances of cluster munitions being used against medical facilities. Reports of these attacks came with additional visual data that in some cases allowed the aftermaths of the attacks to be geolocated to specific locations in Aleppo city.
Photographs from the site of the M10 hospital in Aleppo, for example, show the clearly identifiable remains of a RBK-500 PTAB-1M bomb. As discussed elsewhere, the hospital was repeatedly bombed in late September and early October
Case Study: The al-Salahin District
On July 9, 2016, reports appeared on YouTube and Facebook of cluster bombs being used in al-Salahin district in Aleppo city and striking a gas station, triggering a fire. The incident is remarkable for the amount of footage recording it, allowing for a precise geolocation of the site, the identification of the cluster munitions used and the presence of children at the scene.
A video showing the aircraft carrying out the attack was published by Halab News Network on July 9.
The video captured the moment the bomb fell into the district, with sufficient landmarks to allow for a firm geolocation of the site. The witness who filmed the video was standing in a cemetery in front of “Maqam Ibrahim al Salihin.”
… then moved to a stand of palm trees near the attack site.
A separate video published on YouTube by user “احمد qwaszx احمد” the same day showed a fire at a gas station in the same district.
A third video, published on YouTube by the user “dibo madraty” on July 10 also mentioned an attack targeting a gas station in al-Salahin district. The second video showed a minaret with smoke rising behind it.
These features together confirm the exact locations of the strike, and the cameraman, as shown on the annotated image below:
The Halab news network video also showed children running away from the site:
A separate video posted online by the Aleppo Media Center showed a man holding a cluster submunition ShOAB-0.5. The buildings marked in the background are the gas station and domed roof identified in the satellite image above.
The footage also showed cluster bomb submunitions consistent with a ShOAB-0.5.
Footage of RBK-500 ShOAB-0.5 bombs can also be seen in a Ruptly video, filmed in November 2015, of an Su-24 bomber flying out of the Hmeimim base in Syria.
The sequence above demonstrates that an aircraft dropped a ShOAB-0.5 cluster bomb on the al-Salahin district on July 9, 2016, endangering the lives of civilians, including children. Reports from the ground claimed that the aircraft was Russian. This has not yet been verified. Russian bombers at the Hmeimim air base have been filmed carrying RBK-500 ShOAB-0.5 bombs, but the Syrian government has also used them.
While cluster munitions, chemical weapons, and incendiaries are the most notorious types of munitions used to attack eastern Aleppo, other air-dropped munitions have also been used. The vast majority of these munitions are unguided “dumb bombs,” as opposed to laser- or GPS-guided “smart bombs”: they rely on the skill of the pilot, rather than technological support, to accurately hit targets. This may account for the many examples of bombs destroying seemingly worthless targets, or the many near misses near hospitals.
A typical explosive bomb widely used in the conflict is the FAB 500-ShL high explosive, parachute-retarded bomb. The use of this bomb has been documented through videos and photographs from across Syria showing FAB 500-ShLs that have failed to explode embedded in the ground, such as this example from Fardous district in Aleppo:
Another type of unguided munition used in the conflict is the ODAB-500 series thermobaric bomb. These bombs are part of a family of weapons known as volumetric weapons, dispersing fuel into the air around the bomb moments before detonation. The fuel then ignites, creating a large fireball and causing a powerful shock wave. These weapons are potentially devastating when used in densely populated areas, such as Aleppo city, and, as with other weapons used in the conflict, unexploded examples present the best evidence of their use in Aleppo:
While the FAB and ODAB bombs represent only a small selection of the bombs used in the Syrian conflict and used to attack opposition-held Aleppo city, it is fair to say the vast majority of bombs used in the conflict are unguided munitions, with only a fraction of the munitions used by the Syrian and Russian air forces being guided bombs or missiles.
In the final months of the siege of Aleppo, increasing numbers of claims of the use of “bunker-buster” munitions emerged from local groups and organizations working in Aleppo. A bunker buster is a munition that is designed to penetrate hardened targets, or targets buried underground. The Syrian Air Force has used BetAB series bunker bombs for the length of the conflict, and the Russian Ministry of Defense has confirmed their use by Russian jets in Syria.
Benyam Dawit Mezmur, Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, stated in October 2016 that “children are being killed and maimed. Airstrikes are hitting the few remaining hospitals. The use of bunker-busting bombs means children cannot even safely attend schools that are underground.” Organizations including Save the Children, SAMS, and Human Rights Watch have alleged the use of bunker busters in Aleppo.