On Friday (26 June), the Permanent Missions of France and Spain co-hosted an open meeting of the Security Council in an “Arria” format on the indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians in Syria, including barrel bombs, and how to effectively protect civilians. The Arria was organised so that Council members could hear about the impact of barrel bombs, which included briefings from Mr Nadim Houry, Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa of Human Rights Watch, Mr Bassam Alahmad, Spokesperson and Head of Research at Violations Documentation Center, and Mr Raed Salah, Director at Syria Civil Defense (or the “White Helmets”).
Summary of the speakers:
Spain’s Permanent Representative explained his regret on the inability of the international community to put an end to the suffering of Syrians, especially the indiscriminate deaths of countless civilians through the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian regime.
The Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura spoke by video on the continued indiscriminate killing of civilians in Syria, despite adoption of UNSC 2139 (S/RES/2139) to stop civilian killing, in particularly barrel bombs. Mr de Mistura noted that all parties in Syria continued with attacks on civilians, citing the latest attack in Aleppo. He concluded by stating that the Secretary General has continuously called for a political solution as a way forward in Syria, adding that in the meantime, the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government remained inexcusable.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), utilising footage of barrel bomb usage in Syria, provided a detailed explanation of materials used in barrel bombs, such as high explosives and chemicals such as chlorine. Using satellite and Google imagery, HRW has repeatedly documented attacks on schools, residential areas, and hospitals by Syrian government forces. In Aleppo alone, HRW identified 1800 major damage sites consistent with barrel bomb attacks. HRW has also documented opposition group use of locally produced rockets and car bombs in government-held areas.
Violations Documentation Center in Syria documented the increase in barrel bomb casualties in 2015, estimating that 1160 civilians, of which 160 women and 290 children, had been killed. Field documenting suggested that since the passing of Security Council Resolution 2139, the Syrian regime expanded shelling to new areas such as Al-Hasakah, and incorporated barrel bombs with new materials such as chlorine, propane gas tanks and naval mines. He added that barrel bombs represented one of the main reasons for continued civilian displacement, where civilians often have only three minutes to evacuate or be killed.
In its search and rescue efforts, Mr Salah reported that the Syria Civil Defense had saved 16,000 Syrians targeted in barrel bomb attacks. He also briefed the Council on a recent government tactic of double raids, where the same site is repeatedly attacked after rescue workers gather to search for survivors, noting that 92 rescue workers had been killed in rescue operations. Salah noted that Syrians had grown disappointed in the international community and beseeched the Council to call for an immediate end to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians.
With the panel presentations concluded, a number of Council members – Jordan, US, UK, Lithuania, New Zealand, Chile, Russia, Malaysia and China, all addressed the panel and the Council.
The United States Permanent Representative Samantha Power remarked that the number of causalities in Syria is seemingly higher than current reports, noting an escalation in fighting and the use of barrel bombs since the adoption of Resolution 2139. She advocated for a political solution and united enforcement of Resolution 2139 and called on Council members to end the impunity of the Syrian regime and hold it accountable for the crimes committed against its own civilians, adding that governments supportive of the Syrian regime were complicit in supporting violence. Finally, she asked the panel whether support from the international community on the utilisation of early warning systems would be helpful and urged the international community to support such initiatives to protect civilians, if possible.
The UK called for a firm and united condemnation of civilian casualties in Syria, sharing that in the face of continued indiscriminate shelling, the UK had provided 10 million USD in training and equipment to Syria Civil Defense and other humanitarian assistance projects, and urged other Council members to follow suit.
Lithuania focused on the work of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, remarking that impunity remained a roadblock to holding perpetrators accountable as had the Veto right of certain members which had stalled some Council member efforts to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. Lithuania also expressed concern that Council vetoes had been effectively utilised to protect perpetrators and not civilians and called for full implementation of Resolution 2139, while Chile called barrel bombs a violation of the fourth Geneva Convention and added its voice in support for stronger accountability mechanisms.
Russia identified that terrorists and rebel groups should be condemned for their attacks on civilians, adding that Russia would support all measures that protect civilians, providing it did not impede upon the Syrian government’s right to combat terrorism. Russia also pointed to the lack of consistency on the part of the Council to condemn all attacks on civilians, such as in Yemen.
China stated that the Security Council should adopt a comprehensive approach to stop attacks on civilians by all sides and to implement Resolution 2139 and called for renewed mediation efforts to end the conflict.
In concluding remarks, the panelists responded to some Council member comments and inquiries. Addressing the Russian Federations’ comments, HRW questioned whether barrel bombs had in fact helped fight terrorism, adding that barrel bomb use was indiscriminate, immoral and now counterproductive as well, as they have not reduced the expansion of ISIS or al Nusra Front, but in fact had contributed towards a radicalising effect.
The White Helmets concluded by asking for early warning systems through international coalition operation rooms to spot helicopters or equipment.