Barrel Bombs: A tool to force displacement in Eastern Aleppo
Tahrir Souri – Ryan O’Farrell
But as the use of barrel bombs has expanded, and indeed massively so, their design has become standardized and their strategic value has become more clear. As their use has evolved, the use of barrel bombs has become one of the clearest illustrations of an important aspect of the Syrian government’s urban warfare strategy as it advances on the various rebel groups which had seemingly come so close to toppling it.
The Syrian military, while backed by formidable airpower, armor and even highly-adept foreign fighters from groups like Hezbollah, has a limited capacity for seizing urban areas. Rebels have often been able to turn built-up areas like Old Homs, Darraya, Jobar and eastern Aleppo city into nearly impenetrable fortresses. In such mazes of wrecked apartments, narrow alleyways and endless supply tunnels, rebels equipped with little more than light weapons have consistently been able to hold off major Syrian Arab Army advances almost indefinitely. For instance, Darayya, in the southern suburbs of Damascus, remains in rebel hands after more than two years of fighting, repeated offensives by the government, and virtually uncountable airstrikes and artillery barrages. Attacks on the almost entirely surrounded town have cost the government thousands of casualties, while the town remains in rebel control.
In response to this, the government began adopting different tactics, particularly in the suburbs of Damascus, in the Spring of 2013. Rather than attempting costly and largely ineffective assaults on fortified urban areas to seize them outright, the SAA instead began encircling them. Indeed, most of the southern suburbs of Damsascus, particularly those in the vicinity of the Sayyeda Zainab shrine and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, were surrounded and besieged by the end of last summer. Since then, starvation and blocking medical supplies has been a brutally effective weapon in winning the besieged districts’ submission. Several neighborhoods and towns in the Damascus suburbs, such as Moadamiyah, Qaboun, Barzeh, and Al-Qadam have reached ceasefire agreements with the government, usually in return for food and some level of autonomy where the former rebel fighters remain in control. It is in this context, encirclement, siege, starvation and finally ceasefire, that we must look at barrel bombs, and thus discern the principles behind their use.
Barrel bombs have most famously been used in Aleppo. Indeed, it is by far the most frequent location in which they are used, and by far the location in which they cause the greatest casualties. Since their use massively accelerated in December 2013, the barrel bomb campaign has killed some 3178 civilians, according to the opposition Violations Documentation Center.
Indeed, the vast majority of documented casualties from barrel bombs are civilians, with only 47 of the more than 3000 deaths being rebel fighters. Most of the neighborhoods targeted have been almost entirely populated by civilians. Fighters typically gravitate towards the still-raging front lines in the city, which are rarely – if ever – targeted by barrel bombs, whose extreme inaccuracy greatly risks hitting the government’s own troops. In fact, much of the movement of civilians has actually been towards the front lines as a result, as those areas – despite being the scene of vicious and seemingly endless combat – are less risky for civilians fearing random death from the skies. In addition, many barrel bombs have either targeted civilians gatherings like markets or bus stations, while other attacks have featured "double-tap" strikes in which a second bomb is dropped 10-15 minutes later, causing many casualties amongst first responders. Rebel fighters do sometimes take refuge in civilian areas, the regime uses this as a justification for the indiscriminate attacks.
In addition to this high number of deaths, and perhaps even more important to analyzing the strategy of barrel bombs’ deployment, is the fact that they have also led to the flight of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the rebel-held eastern half of the city.
It is the barrel bombs mass expulsion of civilians that is most important to understanding their use, especially when analyzed in the context of the government’s slow but seemingly unstoppable encirclement campaign around the eastern side of the city. Indeed, it is no coincidence that as the government’s forces have advanced north of the airport to Sheikh Najjar industrial city and then even further to relieve the besieged government troops in the Aleppo Central Prison, the past six month’s mass barrel bomb attacks have emptied much of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. One rebel held neighborhood, Karm Al-Maysar, has had 95% of its population flee to the countryside. For if Aleppo is finally encircled, a prospect which looks more likely than ever, it would constitute one of the largest sieges in a war that has become typified by them, rivaling the encirclement of East Ghouta.
According to activist Imad Syrian, more than 22,000 families were displaced from the Sha’ar neighborhood alone, while the majority of the displaced were from the Masakin Hanano neighborhood. According to Imad, more than 200,000 people fled Masakin Hanano. Meanwhile Abu Al-Majd, one of the field activists in the Maysar neighborhood, estimated the number at 60,000 people, most of whom went to the countryside of Aleppo.
And if we look at the specific neighborhoods that are most heavily attacked, we see patterns that may indicate the government’s future plans for retaking the city. Massive concentrations in Myassar, near the western edge of the government-controlled airport, and Sheik Lufti and Al Marjet, close to active fighting in Aziza village, appear to show barrel bomb attacks concentrating in lines from those government controlled areas in the eastern countryside to government positions in the western half of the city. Without access to high-level Syrian military commanders it is impossible to know for certain, but a reasonable theory of these deployments is that these lines of destruction will be the SAA’s lines of advance into the city itself. Never particularly good at urban combat, the Syrian Arab Army looks to be expelling the population and leveling much of the eastern half of the city in preparation for advances that would split the eastern half of the city into smaller pieces. This is very much in line with their tactics and strategies in the Damascus suburbs, in which advances cut off rebel-held areas in preparation for siege, and ultimately surrender.
As with the government’s other siege operations, all food, medical supplies and other essentials would be cut off within east Aleppo, with little discrimination between militant and civilian. An encirclement that also trapped east Aleppo’s hundreds of thousands of civilians would thus necessarily starve such massive numbers, thus precipitating the single largest humanitarian disaster of the entire war. To prevent such an event, to clear the civilians from east Aleppo and avoid the massive international pressure that would come with starving them, barrel bombs appear to have been used as a mass civilian expulsion tool. By expelling hundreds of thousands from their homes under the threat of random death, injury and massive property destruction, the government has set the stage for his troops to surround and besiege rebel-held Aleppo. If they manage to do so, and it looks increasingly likely that they will, they will initiate what will likely be the largest illustration of their siege tactics to date. And barrel bombs have served as an extremely effective, albeit horrifically cruel, means of clearing the path to do so.