“Assad or We Burn The Country”
“Assad or we burn the country” was a popular pro-government slogan, scrawled on the walls by government-aligned “shabeeha” militia in the early days of the uprising, but it came to refer, colloquially at least, to the “scorched earth” strategy used by the government’s forces. Footage of Old Homs, evacuated in May 2014, showed an early indication of the lengths and levels of destruction to which the regime would go when attempting to regain control of an area.
Incendiary attacks had long been reported from the countryside outside Aleppo city: HRW recorded over sixty attacks between November 2012 and the end of 2015. The use of fire as a weapon increased after Russian forces entered the conflict in 2015. In the second half of 2016, however, over a dozen attacks were reported in the city itself. Aleppo burned, literally as well as figuratively.
Using open source investigative techniques, it is possible to examine the mounting evidence of the use of incendiary weapons as reported by activists and journalists, and as documented by human rights advocates.
What are incendiary weapons?
Incendiary weapons are designed to burn or set fires. They have a number of military uses, such as anti-personnel strikes or destroying sensitive equipment. A fundamentally indiscriminate weapon, they can cause intensely painful burns to anyone caught in their path, soldiers, and civilians alike. The incendiary material is designed to penetrate plate metal, and can thus go far beyond destroying human skin. Though often referred to as bombs, they are in fact not explosives, as they use ignition instead of detonation to start and maintain the fire.When I saw the first ambulance arrived, I started crying... We had been waiting for this moment for the… Click To Tweet
The most common ingredient of modern incendiary weapons is thermite, which is composed of aluminum and ferric oxide. This substance takes a very high temperature to ignite, but can then burn through steel. Another common incendiary is white phosphorus; primarily designed to create smoke, it can cause agonizing burns to people caught by it, and to those treating them. Between 1980 and 2016, incendiary weapons were used or reportedly used in at least seventeen different conflicts. In 2016 alone, the United States used white phosphorus munitions in Iraq, while the Saudi Arabia-led coalition used these weapons in Yemen. However, according to HRW, by far the most prolific use of incendiary weapons in 2016 was by the Assad government and its Russian ally in Syria.
The use of incendiary weapons, in itself, is not illegal. However, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWC), concluded in 1980, lists prohibitions or restrictions on the use of certain conventional weapons that may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects. Protocol III regulates the use of incendiary weapons; Article 2 of that protocol bans the use of any incendiary weapons on civilian objects, and the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons on military objects in residential areas. Russia is a party to the Convention, while Syria is not.
Increase In The Use of Incendiary Weapons in Syria
The use of incendiaries in Aleppo mirrors a broader pattern of use elsewhere in Syria: 2016 saw a dramatic increase in their use across the country.
HRW has conducted extensive work on this subject. On December 12, 2016, the group released a report documenting civilian suffering from incendiary weapons used in Syria since 2012, focusing on their increased use during the preceding year’s joint operations by Syrian government and Russian forces.
Between June 5 and August 10, 2016, HRW reported that incendiary weapons were used at least eighteen times on targets in the opposition-held areas of Aleppo and Idlib provinces; no fewer than nine incidents above opposition-held east Aleppo were reported in September. In the words of HRW’s report, “For at least a few weeks in mid-2016, incendiary weapons were used almost every day in attacks on opposition-held areas.”
As with hospital strikes, reports of incendiary strikes have been vigorously denied. In late 2015, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesperson of the Russian MoD, explicitly denied the use of incendiary weapons and accused Amnesty International of “fakes” and “clichés” in a report alleging their use.
However, Kremlin TV station RT (formerly Russia Today) published a striking piece of evidence on June 18, 2016, from Hmeimim, a primarily Russian air base southeast of the city of Latakia. Footage of the Russian defense minister visiting the base also showed RBK-500 ZAB-2,5S/M incendiary cluster weapons being mounted on a Russian Su-34, a fighter ground attack aircraft operated only by Russia in Syria. Each such weapon contains 117 ZAB-2,5SM incendiary submunitions. The specific part of the video showing the incendiary cluster weapons was later cut out of a version of the video report uploaded to YouTube by RT.
As with the hospital strikes, some of the reported incendiary attacks have been documented in detail and can be independently verified. One such attack occurred between the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh in Homs province on the night from October 1 to October 2, 2016. Local pro-opposition media uploaded a video to their Facebook page that purportedly showed the moment of impact of the incendiary weapon.
In the days following the incident, the Syrian Civil Defense—the White Helmets—published photos on their Facebook page claiming to show weapon fragments. Using reference photos and inscriptions on those remnants, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of Russian digital forensic researchers, positively identified the weapon as a RBK-500 ZAB-2,5S/M incendiary cluster bomb.
The Cyrillic inscriptions on the casing read “RBK 500 ZAB-2,5S/M.” ‘ZAB’ is an abbreviation of the Russian Зажигательная Авиационная Бомба (“incendiary aviation bomb”).
The weapon remnants resembled reference photos of the cluster and submunitions available from open sources. A large remnant strongly resembled the “lid” (nose part) and cylindrical casing of an RBK-500 series cluster bomb, and the smaller remnants were identified as two different types of incendiary submunitions: the ZAB-2,5S and the ZAB-2,5(M). These specific types of weapons were not documented prior to Russia’s intervention in Syria, leading CIT to conclude that the airstrike was likely conducted by the Russian Air Force. CIT was not able to establish whether the buildings targeted had been inhabited: if they had, the group argued, the attack would have been illegal under the convention.
Besides the RBK-500 ZAB-2,5SM incendiary cluster weapons, HRW has recorded the use of three other types of air-dropped incendiary weapons, all part of the Soviet-produced ZAB series: RBK-250 ZAB-2.5 cluster bombs, each containing 48 ZAB-2.5 incendiary submunitions; ZAB-100-105 cluster bombs, each containing 48 ZAB-2.5 incendiary submunitions; and ZAB-500 unitary incendiary bombs.
Incendiary Weapons In Aleppo
The east of Aleppo city also suffered under incendiary weapons attacks. Between September 22 and September 30, 2016, HRW recorded the use of incendiary weapons in the Aleppo neighborhoods of al-Kallaseh, Bustan al-Qasr, al-Asilah, al-Mashhad, and al-Sha’ar. Thirteen incendiary attacks in total were reported on opposition-held districts of the city in the last four months of the year, according to the Syrian Archive.
As one example, incendiary weapons were reportedly dropped in the al-Masshad neighborhood in Aleppo’s city center on August 7. According to the White Helmets, the attack injured a child. The specific type of incendiary weapon used in the attack could not be identified, but photos showing at least four incendiary submunitions burning on the ground in a narrow street were published online by a Syrian activist.
The Syrian Archive documented several other incendiary weapons attacks in Aleppo in the last four months of the year. In September alone, videos claimed to show the use of incendiary weapons in the 1070 area on the night of September 2, in an unknown location on September 21, in Bustan al-Qasr on September 22, in the al-Bab road district on September 23, on the al-Salahin district on September 24, on the al-Mashhad, al-Fardous, and Bab al-Nayrab districts on September 25, and on the al-Sha’ar district on September 30.
Case Study: The al-Mashhad and al-Qaterji Attacks
On September 25, 2016, another incendiary weapon attack was reported in al-Mashhad. A video reportage published by Baladi News on YouTube and Twitter provided a clear shot of a weapon remnant, which it was possible to identify as ZAB-2,5S/M ammunition by comparing the remnants with reference images of ZAB-2,5S submunitions.
Similar submunitions were spotted two days earlier in the al-Bab road area, and five days later in the al-Sha’ar district. It cannot be established whether the buildings on fire, allegedly through the incendiary weapons, were used for civilian or military purposes.
Three weeks later, on the night of October 14, 2016, an incendiary weapon attack was reported in Aleppo’s al-Myassar district. Radio Hara FM, a local broadcasting stadium operating from Aleppo city, published a video at 00:27 local time (UTC+2) on October 14, 2016, claiming to show the attack. The accompanying descriptions accused Russia of a phosphorous attack. The video showed at least six fires in a park, on a street, and on a residential block. The scattered pattern and intense but localized burning were consistent with incendiary attacks recorded in other areas.
The same video was re-uploaded to Facebook by Halab Today TV, claiming the attack did not take place in the al-Myassar district, but in the neighboring al-Qaterji district. Neither of the videos, nor other open sources, mentioned casualties.
The Radio Hara FM video can be geolocated to the exact location, which is on the border of a public garden between the al-Qaterji and al-Myassar neighborhoods—hence the disagreement. High-resolution satellite imagery obtained via DigitalGlobe allows for the geolocation by cross-referencing with the buildings and location of trees seen in the video. Burn marks can be discovered on the rooftops when comparing before and after satellite imagery, though no larger destruction could be observed.
With regard to the date, it may well be that the attack occurred in the early morning of October 13, 2016, instead of early on October 14: Mohamed al-Khatib, a journalist based in Aleppo, already mentioned an incendiary weapon attack on the al-Qaterji neighborhood in the early morning in a tweet at 3:43 local time (UTC+2).
Though local reports claimed white phosphorous was used, it is more likely that the video recorded the burning of incendiary thermite submunitions. According to HRW, many incendiary weapon attacks in Syria have been misreported as (white) phosphorus or napalm. The little fires scattered around the buildings and public garden in al-Qaterji were also attributed to a phosphorus attack, but this may well have been a thermite weapon—a type of incendiary weapon witnessed more frequently in Aleppo city.
However, this question mark over the exact chemicals used does not extend to the residential nature of the areas that they were used against. Multiple videos, posted from east Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, showed the burning remnants of incendiary submunitions that had been dropped on residential areas. The Syrian Archive has collected visual evidence showing the use of RBK-500 ZAB-2,5S/M incendiary cluster bombs, whose remains were captured by a number of witnesses in Aleppo city.
This body of evidence comes from multiple sources, is consistent across multiple dates and locations, and is in line with further evidence from across Syria. The fire-bombing of Aleppo was not an isolated incident: it was part of a larger pattern. The phrase “Assad, or we burn the country” may have begun as a slogan, but it took on a grim reality.