Syria's Use of Incendiary Weapons; Memorandum to Convention on Conventional Weapons Delegates November 2013

Syria's Use of Incendiary Weapons
Memorandum to Convention on Conventional Weapons Delegates
November 2013
Table of Contents
Map •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 2
Summary •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 3
Recommendations •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 4
I. Overview of Use •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 5
II. Types of Incendiary Weapons used in Syria ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 6
Incendiary Submunitions ......................................................................................... 7
Incendiary Bombs .................................................................................................. 9
III. Civilian Harm from Syria's Use of Incendiary Weapons ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 9
Attack on al·Bab, Aleppo ....................................................................................... 10
Attack on Quseir, Hams ......................................................................................... 11
Attack on Urm al-Kubra, Aleppo ............................................................................. 12
Attack on Da'el, Daraa ........................................................................................... 16
IV. International Law •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 17
Annex 1: List of deaths, Urm al·Kubra Attack ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 20
Annex 2: Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol III and its Status ••••••••••••••••• 21
Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a
flammable substance. These weapons cause extremely painful burns that are difficult
to treat, and also start fires that can destroy objects and infrastructure. Field
investigations, witness accounts, and videos and photos reviewed by Human Rights
Watch indicate that the Syrian Air Force carried out at least 56 incendiary weapons
attacks from November 2012 through September 2013. Human Rights Watch and the
Violations Documentation Center in Syria have documented four separate incendiary
weapons attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least 41 civilians and the wounding of
71 others.
Syria is not party to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) or its
Protocol III banning the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in areas with
"concentrations of civilians.'" Given the international standard represented by CCW
Protocol III on incendiary weapons, Human Rights Watch opposes any use of incendiary
weapons in populated areas by any party at any time. Human Rights Watch considers
Syria's air strikes using incendiary weapons in or near civilian population centers to
violate international humanitarian law, orthe laws of war, because they are inherently
indiscriminate. Deliberate or reckless indiscriminate attacks are war crimes.
One year ago, Human Rights Watch renewed its call for a review of the 30-year-old CCW
protocol on incendiary weapons, which has not been examined since its adoption.>
Human Rights Watch noted that in the previous two years, an increasing number of
governments had raised concerns in letters and in statements at CCW meetings about
the dangers posed by incendiary weapons and the inadequacy of the protocol.3
Yet on November 16,2012, the final day of the annual meeting of CCW states parties,
countries did not agree to take up work on incendiary weapons. That same day, in the
Damascus suburb of Daraya, one of the first attacks in Syria involving an incendiary
weapon was recorded. Syria has continued to use incendiary weapons through the first
, The full title of the CCW is the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons
which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects.
2 Steve Goose, Human Rights Watch , "Statement on the CCW's Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons," Geneva, November
15, 2012, http://www .h ews/ 2012/ 11/ 15/ statem ent-ccws-protocol-iii-in cend iary-weapons.
3 A total of 25 states made statements or wrote letters expressing a willingness to take up the issue, and representatives
of other states had articulated similar positions in private conversations. See: Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law
School's International Human Rights Clinic (lHRC), Memorandum to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW)
Delegates: Government Positions on Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons, November 12, 2013_
http://www.h news/2012/ 11/12/government-p ositions-protocol-iii-incendiary-weapon s; Human Rights Watch,
Napalm, White Phosphorus & the Case to Ban Incendiary Weapons, video November 2012.
I. Overview of Use
Field investigations, witness accounts, and a review of videos and photos indicate that
the Syrian Air Force has carried out at least 56 attacks using incendiary weapons since
November 2012 in 8 of the country's 14 governorates.4
Human Rights Watch has reviewed 88 videos that provide a range of evidence of these
56 attacks involving one or more incendiary weapons, including flaming incendiary
submunitions dispersing in the air and/or burning on the ground, remnants of the
bombs and canisters that carried the submunitions, scenes of the aftermath of attacks,
and casualties consistent with the use of incendiary weapons. It is likely that more
incendiary weapon attacks have occurred, but have not been documented.
Human Rights Watch identified the specific type of incendiary weapon in 47 of the 56
attacks. The majority (44) showed evidence of lAB-2.s incendiary submunitions from
RBK-2So lAB-2.sM bombs, while two attacks involved the use oflAB-soo unitary
incendiary bombs, and one involved lAB-lOO-lOs bombs.
One of the first documented attacks in Syria involving the use of an incendiary weapon
occurred on November 16,2012 in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, which had been
bombarded by Syrian forces in the preceding weeks. An anti-government activist told
Human Rights Watch that he filmed several videos showing lAB-2.s incendiary
submunitions being dropped on Daraya:
Warplanes began bombing Daraya with these flammable bombs on November
16 - that was the first time we saw these bombs. I saw MiG warplanes releasing
small bombs that would catch fire while they were still in the air and keep on
releasing some kind of gas [smoke] after it comes in contact with a building or
ground. The gas-like material it produces has a very bad smell, like an acidic,
metallic smell.
The activist described another attack on Daraya on December 1,2012 involving the use
of lAB-2.s submunitions:
On December 1 at around 10 a.m., I was with other activists in the media center
when we heard a MiG warplane circling above us. When we went outside, we
saw the warplane releasing a very big bomb, which produced an explosion, and
then the bomb released things like fireballs producing smaller explosions. I
4 The attacks were recorded in the governorates of Damascus (16), Horns (11), Deir ez-Zour (8), Aleppo (7), Idlib (5),
Daraa (4), Hama (4), and Latakia (1).
use of surface-launched incendiary weapons.? Little is known about Syria's stockpiles
of su rface-launched incend iary weapons, such as mortar bombs and rocket warheads_
From photographs and videos of remnants, witness accounts, and other evidence,
Human Rights Watch has identified at least three types of air-dropped incendiary
weapons used by Syrian government forces, all lAB-series (Zazhigatelnaya
Aviatsionnaya Bomba)8 incendiary aircraft bombs manufactured by the Soviet Union:
• RBK-2So lAB-2.S bomb containing 48 lAB-2.S submunitions.
• lAB-soo unitary bomb.
• lAB-lOO-lOS containing nine cylindrical incendiary cartridges.9
Forty-four of 47 attacks recorded on video where the specific type of incendiary weapon
could be identified showed evidence of lAB-2.S submunitions, while two incidents
involved the use of a lAB-soo unitary bomb and one involved a lAB-lOO-lOS.
Human Rights Watch reviewed the markings on the bombs and the
submunitions/cartridges contained inside them, and compared them with Soviet
weapons manuals, and determined that the incendiary weapons were manufactured in
the 1970S and early 1980s at state munitions factories in the Soviet Union.
While the Soviet Union and Russia manufactured other types of incendiary weapons,
Human Rights Watch has not found any evidence of their use in Syria.1o
Incendiary Submunitions
Human Rights Watch has documented extensive use in Syria of the RBK-2So lAB-2.SM
incend iary bomb and its lAB-2.S submunitions, including in a strike on a school in
Quseir in Homs governorate on December 3,2012.
The RBK-2So bomb is a 2So-kilogram Soviet-made aerial bomb first manufactured in
1955." The RBK-2S0 lAB-2.SM contains 48 lAB-2.S submunitions that are 60mm in
7 N. R. lenzen·lones, " Likely Evidence of White Phosphorus use in Syria," post to The Rogue Adventurer (blog), December
17, 2012, http: / /rogueadventu rer.CO m I 2012 I 12 I 17 Iii kely·evi d en ce·of·wh ite·ph osphorus·use·i n ·syria/wp_syria_2012·
ariel·schalitl (accessed October 28, 2013).
8 " Zazhigatelnaya Aviatsionnaya Bomba" translates to "incendiary aerial bomb."
9 The term " cartridge" is used to distinguish the content of the ZAB·lOO·lOS bomb from the submunitions in the RBK'2S0
lAB·2.SM. It appears that the cartridges ignite upon impact, while the incendiary submunitions ignite upon release.
10 RBK·soo ZAB·2 .S bomb containing S1 ZAB·2.S submunitions, RBK·soo ZAB·2 .SSM bomb containing S4 ZAB·2.SSM
submunitions. and the ZAB'2S0'200 unitary bomb containing 68 kilograms of an unspecified incendiary agent. While
there is no evidence that these types have been used in Syria, Russia also produces two types of "fire bombs" called ZB·
sooGD and ZB·sooSHM, reportedly filled with an unspecified incendiary gel loaded into the bomb through a fill plug.
Standard international reference books state that these weapons are comparable to the napalm bombs used by US
forces in Southeast Asia in the 1970S.
Incendiary Bombs
Human Rights Watch has documented the use of lAB-soo bombs-a Soo-kilogram
(1,102-pound) unitary bomb-in an attack on Urm al-Kubra in Aleppo on August 26,
2013, and in an attack on Haysh in Idlib around February lS, 2013.
Four lAB-lOo-lOS bombs-a 100-kilogram (22o-pound) bomb-were used in al-Bab in
Aleppo, each containing nine cylindrical incendiary cartridges.
The items contained in the lAB-lOo-lOS bomb-described here as "cartridges"-appear
to function on impact, while the lAB-2.S incendiary submunitions appear to ignite as
soon as they are released from the RBK-2So lAB-2.S bomb.
There is a large degree of uncertainty regarding the nature and composition of the
incendiary fillings in both the lAB-l00-l0S and lAB-soo bombs. Some sources assert
that the filling is a jellied fuel mixture, similar to napalm it its composition and effects.
Other sources are more vague and circumspect about the type of incendiary filling. It
appears that for the lAB-soo bomb, a small central explosive charge bursts the
weapon upon impact and a small initiating charge of white phosphorus ignites the rest
of the incendiary fill.
Little information is publicly available on air-dropped Soviet-era incendiary weapons.
Additional technical data that would clarify the terms and functions of these weapons
is needed.'s
III. Civilian Harm from Syria's Use of Incendiary
Incendiary weapons cause burns that are difficult to treat, especially in conflict areas
lacking adequate medical facilities, and the treatment itself can be excruciating.'9
Incendiary weapons also cause fires that can destroy civilian infrastructure. Their widearea
effect means they are prone to being indiscriminate when used in populated
,Sin particular, Human Rights Watch would welcome more technical information regarding the function of the fuzing
system, brusting mechanism, the method used to achieve ignition, and the exact composition of the incendiary
compounds contained in each type of munition.
'9 For more information on the harm caused by incendiary weapons, see Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School's
International Huma'n Rights Clinic, Memorandum to Convention on Conventional Weapons Delegates: The Human
Suffering Caused by Incendiary Munitions (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011),
http ://www .h rw .orgl sites I d efau It/fi les I related_m ateriall 2 oll_a rm s_i n cen d i ari espasth a rm an d use. pdf.
material, are another identifying feature of the lAB-l00-10S bomb. A video posted on
YouTube on November 29,2012, also shows the unexploded munition.22
At the time of the attack, several hundred people were lining up to get bread outside a
bakery located next to the warehouse, according to workers in the bakery. During the
site visit on December 14, Human Rights Watch established that one incendiary bomb
had ignited just over a concrete wall from the crowd of people. During the site visit,
which took place around 2 p.m., several hundred people again were standing in line
waiting for bread. One of the workers in the bakery told Human Rights Watch:
These bombs were different from other bombs. The explosion was smaller, but
there was a lot of smoke_ The smoke lasted for perhaps 15 minutes. Four or six
people were injured by fragments, as they waited in line for bread. There were a
lot of people outside. More than now.23
During the visit by Human Rights Watch, there were about a dozen Free Syrian Army
fighters on the street and in the courtyard of the warehouse. Human Rights Watch was
not able to identify the contents of the warehouse.
Attack on Quseir, Horns
According to two local activists and video footage, an incendiary weapon attack on a
school and neighboring homes in the center of the town of Quseir in Homs governorate
wounded approximately 20 civilians on December 3,2012.24
A video uploaded on December 3 from Quseir shows what appears to be an airstrike
involving incendiary submunitions filmed from a distance, 25 while another video
uploaded that same day shows burning lAB-2.S submunitions on the grounds of
Ghaleb Radi School in the center of Quseir.26 Using satellite imagery, Human Rights
Watch located the school shown in the video.
An activist from Qusair told Human Rights Watch that the strike injured at least 19
civilians, and the incendiary submunitions severely burned at least eight homes.
22 "[al-Bab: one of the death barrels after shelling]," video clip, YouTube, November 29,2012, (accessed February 1,2013).
23 Human Rights Watch interview, al-Bab, December 12,2012.
24 Unless noted all information in this case study is from: "Syria: Incendiary Weapons Used in Populated Areas," Human
Rights Watch news release, December 12,2012, https:/ /,weaponsused
25 "[Qusair bomb by MIG warplane onto city December 3,2012]," video clip, YouTube, December 3,2012, ?v=G rwZPF6 N n 9 M.
26 "[Qusair warplane bombs the city with strange type of shells]," video clip, YouTube, December 3,2013, tch ?v=d swx7jO Of3w.
sustained minor burns on their hands when they attempted to put out the flames on
the students with their own hands.
The school, the Iqraa Institute, served intermediate and secondary students, including
displaced people from other towns. The school was a single-story building located on a
street with large homes and mUlti-story buildings. When the attack occurred students
were preparing fortheir secondary exams and some teachers were present.
Witnesses reported seeing a plane "roaming in the skies" during the attack.29 They
described the aircraft as a MiG fighter jet, possibly a MiG-23.
Dr. Ahsan wrote to Human Rights Watch in an email:
Some people had spotted a MiG in the sky circling. Whilst the students were in
class, they heard a very loud bang. The MiG had dropped a bomb onto a
building 50 meters up the road. It had hit a three-story building and penetrated
two floors, coming to rest on the floor accommodated by the family of the first
patient I received at the hospital-the 8-month-old baby who was the only
patient from the first bomb.
Eyewitnesses told Dr Ahsan that the MiG circled and dropped a second bomb outside
the window of one of the classrooms. The worst injured patients were those who had
been in that classroom and in the courtyard outside, she said.
The eyewitness described fire falling like rain. He described a bomb falling,
hitting the ground and then plumes of flame rising up and then falling back
down like rain drops, burning everything it landed on.
A female student who witnessed the attack confirmed that the plane had dropped two
bombs. She told NBC News: "As we were going inside the classroom, it hit again. I
didn't hear anything. We just saw people burning .... My classmates were burning. It felt
like Judgment Day."30
Video footage filmed after the attack appears to show how an incendiary bomb
penetrated the roof of an apartment building and fell through to the first floor. 31 Videos
and photos also show the remnants of an incendiary bomb in the courtyard outside the
29 Human Rights Watch Skype interview with local activist, October 24, 2013.
30 Elizabeth Chuck, "Doctor: Napalm·like attack on Syrian schoolkids was 'apocalyptic'" NBC News. August 30, 2013, ews/ 2 013 /08/30/202620 21-d octo r· n a palm·1 i ke·a tta c k ·on ·syria n· sc h 00 I ki ds·was·
31 "[Has humanity died? Banan Art Production],"video clip, YouTube, August 27,2013, 0:40·0:S8. the video shows the damage caused to the structure
caused by the bomb.
Anas Said Ali was taken to a hospital in Turkey. He had 70 percent burns and
suffered infections. He died two weeks later from complications caused by the
severe burns.
The majority of male patients Dr. Ahsan treated had between 40 to 70 percent of their
bodies covered in second- to third- degree burns.
Dr. Ahsan said that "a heavy, acidic, burning smell hung over the patients_" When she
visited the school two days later "the ground directly hit by the bomb was still smoking
and the area hot ... The same acidic, acrid smell hung over the school and in the rubble
where the bomb had hit."
In its online database, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria lists 37 "martyrs"
or dead from the attack, using statistics provided by Altarib Hospital: 15 boys, 14 men,
6 girls, and 2 women. Where the ages were recorded, all the children killed were
between 14 and 18 years except for a 6-year-old boy. (See Appendix 1)
A representative of Al Altarib Hospital informed the VDC that the hospital received
about 50 victims of the attack with second- or third-degree burns, as well as "10
charred bodies," and said the final total was 40 dead. According to the VDC, at least
five injured children died atthe Syrian border with Turkey "due to the delay of
A BBC crew filming in the hospital at the time of the attack captured the devastating
injuries in a piece that was broadcast on August 29,2013.33 In a follow-up piece
broadcast a month later, the BBC visited some of the victims receiving treatment in
One of the young women seen in the BBC film screaming in pain with burns covering
her face and neck was 18-year-old Siham Kanbari. According to Dr. Ahsan, Kanbari
suffered second- and third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body. She died in a
hospital in Turkey on October 20.
A September 16,2013 statement by the head of the Independent International
Commission of Inquiry on Syria cited the attack and stated, "There is no evidence of
32 Violations Documentation Center in Syria, A Special Report on the Use of Incendiary Bombs In Aleppo and Dara'a
Governorates (VDC, 2013),·English.pdf.
33 "Syria crisis: Incendiary bomb victims 'like the walking dead,'" BBC News, August 29,2013,·23892594·
34"Syria: Agony of victims of 'napalm·like' school bombing," BBC News, September 29,2013,·24288698.
or second-degree burns, including her face. Yomna lost family members in the attack,
including her pregnant aunt, and 8-year-old sister, Yamama Muhannad Nasir, and 2-
year-old brother, Alaa Muhannad Nasir.39
According to the VDC, the bomb landed in an area with "no military presence" at the
time of attack. A local witness told the VDC that "there was not a Free Army, nor any
rebel battalions in the district; not even a military location; all the residents were
IV. International Law
Human Rights Watch considers the Syrian government's air strikes using incendiary
weapons in or near civilian population centers to be inherently indiscriminate in
violation of international humanitarian law, orthe laws of war. Customary international
humanitarian law during non-international armed conflicts, such as in Syria, prohibits
attacks that are indiscriminate-that is, attacks that do not or cannot distinguish
between civilians and combatants.40 Individuals who deliberately or recklessly conduct
indiscriminate attacks are responsible for war crimes.41
The Syrian government's use of incendiary weapons shows the urgent need to
universalize the international instrument that deals explicitly with incendiary
weapons-Protocol ilion Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons
to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). It also demonstrates the
need to ensure that the protocol is strong enough to prohibit states parties from
committing such attacks and to stigmatize the munitions so that states not party
hesitate to use them in the future.
Syria has not agreed to be bound by the Convention on Conventional Weapons or its
Protocol III. As of October 25,2013, a total of 107 states-including all five permanent
members of the UN Security Council-were party to the protocol.42
States adopted Protocol III "in orderto assure complete protection of civilians from
incendiary weapons."43 However, loopholes and inconsistent restrictions have limited
39 Facebook post, September 14.2013, https:/ /
40 See International Committee of the Red Cross, Customary International Humanitarian Law, (Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ. Press, 2005), rule 12, citing First Additional Protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, art 51(4)(a).
41lbid., rule 156, p. 599.
42 See the annex for the list of 107 states parties to CCW Protocol III. Ten CCW states parties have not consented to be
bound by Protocol III: Burundi, Cameroon. Dominican Republic, Israel, Monaco, Morocco, South Korea, Turkey,
Turkmenistan, and Zambia.
43 Letter from Valentin Zellweger. Director for International Law, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, to Human
Rights Watch, March 22, 2011.
bringing de facto incendiary weapons, such as munitions containing white
phosphorus, within the ambit of the CCW.
In October 2013, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria warned that "there is a
growing fear" that the government's use of incendiary weapons "becomes an ordinary
occurrence" if states do not swiftly act to enforce international law on the weapons.
All governments that care about the protection of civilians should urge Syria to cease
its use of incendiary weapons immediately and work to universalize and strengthen
Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons.
Annex 2: Convention on Conventional Weapons
Protocol III and its Status
Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the
Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III), adopted October 10,1980,1342 U.N.T.S. 171,
entered into force December 2,1983.
Article 1
For the purpose of this Protocol:
l."lncendiary weapon" means any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to
set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat,
or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on
the target.
(a) Incendiary weapons can take the form of, for example, flame throwers,
fougasses, shells, rockets, grenades, mines, bombs and other containers of
incendiary substances.
(b) Incendiary weapons do not include
(i) Munitions which may have incidental incendiary effects, such as
illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems
(ij) Munitions designed to combine penetration, blast or fragmentation
effects with an additional incendiary effect, such as armour-piercing
projectiles, fragmentation shells, explosive bombs and similar
combined-effects munitions in which the incendiary effect is not
specifically designed to cause burn injury to persons, but to be used
against military objectives, such as armoured vehicles, aircraft and
installations or facilities.
2. "Concentration of civilians" means any concentration of civilians, be it permanent or
temporary, such as in inhabited parts of cities, or inhabited towns or villages, or as in
camps or columns of refugees or evacuees, or groups of nomads.
3. "Military objective" means, so far as objects are concerned, any object which by its
nature, location, purpose or use makes an effective contribution to military action and
whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling
at the time, offers a definite military advantage_
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
El Salvador
Holy See
South Africa
South Korea
Sri Lanka
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States

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