First, fire falls from the sky. Then come the excruciating burns and the flames that refuse to be extinguished.
Adding to the Job-like sufferings of Syrian civilians in areas like the divided city of Aleppo, the use of airborne incendiary weapons in the country’s chaotic, multisided war is an increasingly well-documented phenomenon, despite being illegal under international law.
At least 18 times over a nine-week period this summer, incendiary weapons were deployed in joint Syrian-Russian military operations in civilian areas including opposition-held parts of Aleppo and Idlib governorates in northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said in a report Tuesday.
And those numbers are conservative, the New York-based rights group says. Some 40 other such attacks were reported, it said, but the group cited only those that were supported by video and photographic evidence.
“I saw with my own eyes two strikes … blocks of flame were falling from the sky,” Ala Abdel Aziz Hmeidan, who lives in Idlib city, told the group. “Buildings were on fire. Rocks were on fire.”
That attack, on Aug. 7, left two civilians injured, witnesses told the group, which documented a dozen injuries from the weapons between June 5 and Aug. 10.
Incendiary weapons and munitions work by using the chemical reaction of a flammable substance to produce intense heat and fires that resist all efforts to put them out. That makes them not only a source of horrific burns, but disproportionately destructive to objects and infrastructure.
“They’re particularly cruel injuries,” said Mary Wareham, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division. With only the most rudimentary war-zone medical care available, victims may spend weeks in agony, ending up either dying or struggling to cope with lifelong effects of deep and extensive burns.
Syria is not a signatory to the protocol banning the use of incendiary weapons in civilian-populated areas. Moscow in the past has denied use of such weaponry in civilian areas in Syria, and it did so again Tuesday. But the report cited “compelling evidence” that Russian warplanes were either being fitted with incendiary payloads or flying supporting missions for Syrian government aircraft armed with the weapons.
Incendiary weapons have distinctive signatures, including bright-burning trails that are highly visible as the munitions are air-dropped, and fires on the ground that blaze until they burn themselves out, sometimes setting off larger conflagrations in nearby cars and buildings.
“The fire was so bright, you could see it from outside the city,” civil-defense volunteer Mouti Jalal, from near Idlib, told the group in describing an Aug. 9 attack. “Everyone saw it.”
Part of the problem, rights advocates say, is that international protocols governing use of such weaponry date back to the Vietnam era and need updating and toughening. Human Rights Watch hopes to make some headway toward that at a United Nations gathering at the end of this month of in Geneva to discuss modifications to the 1980 treaty.
“The Syrian government and Russia should immediately stop attacking civilian areas with incendiary weapons,” said Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division, adding that “all countries should condemn their use in civilian areas.”
Incendiary weapons attacks in Syria have been reported as far back as 2012, but their use has increased “significantly” in the nearly 11 months since Russia began joint military operations with the Syrian regime, rights groups say.