The dramatic rise and stark brutality of ISIS has shifted worldwide attention away from the conflict in Syria, but a new report this week provides a bitter reminder that attacks by the Syrian government on its own citizens are continuing unabated as the war enters its fifth year.
A Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday highlighted the Syrian government’s continued use of barrel bombs — cheap, crude and indiscriminate weapons made out of barrels filled with oil, explosives or shrapnel — against its civilian population, despite a United Nations Security Council resolution passed last year that specifically banned their use.
The rights group documented at least 450 new bombing sites in the area of Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, and more than 1,000 in Aleppo province, home to the nation’s second largest city. The report found most of the sites showed signs of being hit by barrel bombs, although some may have been caused by rockets, missiles or other aerial attacks.
More than 6,000 civilians — including 1,892 children — have been killed by barrel bomb attacks since the U.N. resolution passed last February, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, fueling concern that the international campaign against ISIS has allowed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to continue its abuses unchecked. In total, more than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war and more than 10 million have been displaced; 3 million have left the country entirely.
“The Human Rights Watch report and the situation it depicts are indicative of the fact that though all Western attention right now seems to be focused on ISIS, the Syrian war continues with the same levels of brutality and bloodshed,” said Syria analyst Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that focuses on preventing and resolving armed conflicts.
In a rare interview with the BBC this month, Assad denied that his forces carried out indiscriminate attacks on civilians, dismissing reports of barrel bombs as a “childish story.” “When you shoot, you aim,” said Assad. “When you aim, you aim at terrorists in order to protect civilians.”
But outside experts say that the Syrian government has continued to use barrel bombs all over Syria. The Human Rights Watch report documented barrel bombs that struck near or on medical facilities, and residential areas with schools, mosques and markets.
“Draining the sea to kill the fish”
In a separate report issued this month, victims told the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria that the government’s aerial bombardments were part of a broader strategy in opposition-held territory of “draining the sea to kill the fish.”
The strategy, detailed in the U.N. report, includes imposing a siege by encircling a territory, setting up checkpoints and choking off the flow of food and medical supplies. Anyone trying to break the siege risks arrest and possible imprisonment and torture, while residents stuck in the besieged area are exposed to bombing or shelling by the government.
The regime uses barrel bombs, and siege and starvation tactics as “collective punishment” to raise “the levels of desperation in opposition-held areas to the point where local populations pressure rebel groups to accept local cease-fires,” according to Bonsey.
Both tactics also undermine support for the rebel groups, according to analysts. “If you can’t get food in, you can’t feed your own people. So starvation has been very effective,” Robin Wright, a senior fellow and distinguished scholar of Middle East studies at the Wilson Center, told FRONTLINE.
And the impact of barrel bombs is not just physical. It’s also psychological.
“It’s terrorizing. Barrel bombs are very effective in diminishing the interests of people in fighting,” Wright said. “If you’ve ever seen someone who suffered from a barrel bomb, it’s very gruesome, it’s very bloody, and it leaves you scarred for life … There’s no way for the rebels to fight back against it.”
While there isn’t a clear list of areas besieged by the Syrian government, the European Commission on Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection estimated in January that 4.8 million of the 12.2 million Syrians that need humanitarian assistance are in hard-to-reach or besieged areas.
The rise of ISIS has also allowed the Syrian regime and its allied militias to redouble their efforts in fighting other rebel groups, including some of the moderate fighters backed by the U.S. and Gulf states.
“The rebels have all but fallen apart,” Wright said. “They are no longer a viable force to put enough pressure on Assad to get him to the negotiating table.”
The collapse of the moderate rebels has been so dramatic, that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who once stronglysupported arming them, has publicly backed away from his stance. In an interview with McClatchy this month, he estimated that there were no more than 20,000 moderate rebels, and said they were “very much fighting defensive battles.”
Bonsey suggested that the world’s attention shifting to ISIS has also politically emboldened Assad because the alternative — ISIS expanding its territory inside Syria — would be much worse.
“The threat of ISIS provides a way out [for Assad] because the regime believes that over time the U.S. and other countries backing the opposition will eventually conclude that the regime is a necessary partner on the ground in confronting this jihadi threat,” Bonsey said.
Added Wright, “The outside world’s decision to focus on ISIS has ironically lessened the pressure on Assad. And he’s getting away literally with murder on a daily basis.”