Syria and the Use of Cluster Munitions: Why It Matters.
We’re in the field and busy with our own work on other stories and jobs-in-progress. But as we make headway I have been asked repeatedly for two days about the reported use of cluster munitions by Syrian government troops.
So have they been used? The quick answer: This is a good question, to which the answers are not yet clear. We’ll get to why in a moment.
But first, a digression to answer another important question that many readers no doubt have. This: Why might it matter if the loyalist military has released RBK cluster-munition dispensers from aircraft over opposition-held ground, especially if there are no verified reports yet of their submunitions killing anyone? Certainly the Syrian government has many other means of killing, and it is using these other means in verifiable ways. Much of the most shocking violence in Syria, after all, has been committed by rifles and mortars and the other ordinary tools of organized violence. And yet an on-line debate now churns about the videos purporting to show evidence of cluster-bomb use. Why so much effort to answer the question, while people are dying each day from other weapons?
This is a good question, too. And it deserves a considered answer. Fortunately, there is one.
Like many people who study tactics or follow the arms trade, I sometimes am uncomfortable with the breathless attention given particular weapon systems over others. In Libya, to use a recent example from the Arab Spring, all sorts of people near and far from the war routinely made exaggerated claims of violence or dressed up their weapon descriptions, as if somehow the weapon sounded more sinister, the violence associated with it was more grave. Meanwhile, the tally of wounded and killed grew each day, with the preponderance of the victims meeting their fates via the use of common military killing tools.
And yet irrefutable evidence of cluster-bomb use in Syria would matter, just as it would matter anywhere this category of weapon turns up, whether with verifiable victims or no. The reason is not just the obvious one, which is routinely heard — that these weapons in many cases (though not all cases) have high dud rates, and the unexploded submunitions are particularly sensitive to disturbance and handling, making them a special and indiscriminate hazard to civilians (and eventually to clean-up teams). That answer is certainly true. But the fuller reason goes deeper, into the psychology of any combatant that would resort to such arms.
Cluster munitions evoke powerful emotions and intense public reactions. If the Assad government’s use of cluster munitions is verified, then loud outcry will rise in foreign capitals and from N.G.O.s. Their use could also be expected to harden the resolve and deepen the anger of the anti-Assad opposition. You can rest assured that the government in Damascus knows these things. The cluster-bomb conversation is a mature conversation; governments with inventories of these munitions know its rhythms well. Arab governments do not need anyone to tell them how resonant the use of cluster bombs against Muslims and Arabs has been, whether it was Israel’s use in 2006 in Lebanon or Libya’s use against its own citizens last year. Use cluster bombs and be prepared for outcry, and to be cast as a pariah, and to hear even louder calls for your banishment from the table of civilized folk. So any decision by the military and government leadership in Damascus to arm aircraft with cluster munitions and release them into the conflict would have to be made knowing that this step - even if it caused no casualties — would provoke these kinds of denunciations and more international outrage. It would signal a regime crossing another psychological threshold, and a willingness to escalate another notch.
And therein would be some of the significance. To verify the Syrian government’s use of cluster munitions would be to mark a hardening posture by the regime, a willingness to assume more risk and weather more scorn.
So, then, back to the circular conversation of the moment. Has the use of cluster munitions in Syria been verified?
Last we checked, it had not been. People are creeping toward conclusions, some of which appear to be getting stronger. But the videos posted on-line thus far have served more to underline both the promise and the frustrations associated with the documentary tools of citizen video journalism than to settle forensic questions. They do not yet establish cluster-munition use.
Human Rights Watch was quick to follow Brown Moses’s fast and solid identification and drive-by analysis of videos showing the weapons under discussion, the RBK/AO-1 pairing, which forms a cluster-munitions system of Soviet provenance. (An aside regarding tradecraft in the gentlemen’s game of tracking arms and the arms trade: surprisingly, HRW pumped out its press release without attribution to the Brown Moses blog, which HRW’s press release largely echoes.) But while the first videos driving the discussion are clear enough to work out an I.D. in minutes, they are not rich enough in context for us to say with certitude that cluster bombs have actually been used. They show what might have been unarmed bomblets arranged on the ground, after having been manipulated and rearranged by the videographer or someone in his company. Cluster bombs typically are carried toward their target by a container that releases them in flight. They then typically arm as they descend and explode upon (or after, if they have a timed, anti-handling or magnetic fuze) impact with the ground. Were these submunitions in the video the contents of an RBK dispenser that failed to open in flight, and slammed into the ground, breaking up and heaving its bomblets nearby? Or is this some other sort of show?
The second bit of video purports, according to its producers and the voice of a witness, to present a cluster-bomb strike against a building in Daraa. Again, the video raises questions. The building and its environs do get struck by multiple high-explosive munitions virtually simultaneously, while helicopters capable of releasing RBK dispensers fly overhead. But are these really cluster bombs, or is this an S-5 rocket barrage, or something else? Syria’s transport and attack helicopter fleet carries pods of S-5 rockets, so S-5’s are naturally a suspect whenever multiple explosions occur in a fairly tight grouping while these helicopters are engaging nearby. But again, the video is not quite of the necessary quality for quick or easy answer. One reason: We’ve seen a lot of S-5 rockets fired; they tend to leave visible smoke trails as their propellant burns. Those trails are not visible in the video. But the distance, the quality of the lens, the glare and the attack angle relative to the videographer and to the target is such that these trails might simply have been very hard to record on video. And the (possibly related) videos that show a pair of what might be the impact sites (here is one) do not much help, in part because how can we know that the impact sites are really related to the same strikes? [UPDATE: I finally had more time and a brighter screen setting, and a look at the original video on a brighter screen allows for more slightly detail to emerge. I also had a chance to talk at length with a career Syrian Mi-17 helicopter pilot, about the weapons, tactics and training involved when Syrian Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters are used in attack roles, at least up through June, when he defected. I lean toward this video showing an S-5 rocket attack. That’s not a final judgement. But it’s where I’d vote now if I had to, which I don’t, as the line below still summarizes my take.]
In other words, the question is open.
What all of this shows, again, is the limits of this kind of video, even if these videos have been honestly made, which they may have been. As we work on other things we can’t spend all day, or multiple days, on this. But we can be assured of one thing. If cluster munitions are in fact now in use in this war, more evidence will surface and the identifications will be made. There are many things about cluster-bomb use that are predictable. One is that cluster bombs, once released, do not do one thing well, and that is this: Hide.
And we are reminded of something else. When it comes to settling these kinds of questions, the Internet is an engaging place. But there is nothing - nothing - quite like independent field work and crater analysis. It can put this sort of time-consuming exercise to bed, in a snap, the way the real does over the virtual, every time.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS
Top left, a 32-pod launcher of S-5 rockets. Top right, one member of the RBK cluster-bomb family of cargo bombs; this is a Soviet-designed canister that holds the submunitions until it opens and releases them in flight. Bottom, an AO-1 submunition.