As the Syrian opposition tears itself apart in the country’s rebel-dominated north, the regime of President Bashar Assad is wasting no time pushing for advantage near the capital. On Sunday, the rebel-dominated suburb of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, sustained a prolonged assault with what appeared to be the standard missile and mortar attacks used throughout the war. But at least one corner of Daraya was hit by a more unorthodox weapon that is becoming more common by the day: the so-called barrel bomb. Essentially an improvised bomb made of explosives stuffed into an oil barrel or similar receptacle and pushed out of a helicopter, the weapon’s seemingly Looney Tunes origins conceal one of the most devastating and indiscriminate weapons in Assad’s arsenal. Packed with shrapnel and extra incendiaries like oil, and usually triggered on impact, the large payload all but guarantees widespread destruction.
In an age in which a modern army’s large-scale weapons are generally expensive and precisely targeted missiles are designed to, in theory, avoid civilian casualties, the government’s use of barrel bombs is a throwback to another era, when an indiscriminately dropped bomb’s destructive power was just as valuable as the fear it elicited in a helpless population. Footage coming out of Daraya, first reported by Syrian-war-weapons expert Eliot Higgins, who blogs and tweets under the name Brown Moses, telegraphs that fear, as shaky mobile-phone videos track a helicopter’s passage across the sky over Daraya, then follow the descent of a free-falling projectile to its ultimate detonation. At least one amateur cameraman is wounded in the subsequent blast, interrupting his narration of events with a prayer to God and an involuntary, “Argh, my leg!”
In this video, posted by the opposition Daraya Revolution media site, the narrator gives the date and location while filming a helicopter dropping an item, which he describes as a “barrel bomb” over the Daraya skyline. It later detonates. It is impossible to independently verify the footage.
The Daraya drop and detonation filmed from another angle and posted by the same opposition organization.
First deployed against the opposition-dominated city of Homs in August 2012, barrel bombs didn’t really gain prominence until December of last year, when scores of the improvised devises were dropped on the city of Aleppo, killing more than 500. Though an estimated 46 rebels were killed in the bombardment, most of those hit were civilians, in civilian areas, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group with reporters on the ground and links to the opposition.
The deployment in civilian areas of barrel bombs, which cannot be targeted, could be considered a war crime, according to Human Rights Watch, which released a report about their use in Aleppo. The Syrian government routinely denies that it uses such weapons, but U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland confirmed their deployment in December, telling journalists in a discussion about the regime’s use of Scud missiles that “we’re seeing use of another egregious weapon. It’s kind of a barrel bomb, which is an incendiary bomb that contains flammable materials.”
Barrel bombs may be an inexpensive alternative to more sophisticated missiles, but few take their use as a sign of the regime’s diminishing conventional arsenal. Instead, it’s interpreted as an indication of the government’s determination to win, whatever the cost.
— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut