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Syrian civilians in crosshairs of Assad’s barrel bombs, says report

Human Rights Watch finds barrel bomb attacks continued even after a recent UN resolution condemning their use

Attacks on civilians in Syria haven’t abated despite a United Nations resolution two months ago that called on government forces and rebels to curb bombing and shelling of residential areas, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) released Tuesday.

Since a Feb. 22 resolution by the U.N. Security Council called for the end of barrel bomb attacks on civilians, HRW says it has documented 85 attacks by the Syrian government on residential areas, “including two government barrel bomb attacks on clearly marked official hospitals.” While there have been sieges and massacres across Syria, this report focuses on Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city and the center of the rebellion.

The death toll of the three-year old civil war is now estimated to top 150,000, with millions of refugees having fled the country.

Lately, the tide of the conflict seems to have turned further in the favor of the government, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces having largely cornered rebel positions and with opposition factions, some allied with Al-Qaeda, beset by infighting.

In its report, HRW urges harsher international punishments against both sides of the conflict to stop “ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Despite the ever growing body count, the weapons used by both sides remain simple in their brutality. Barrel bombs — gas canisters, oil drums or water tanks stuffed with shrapnel and explosives — used by the Syrian government terrify civilians living in rebel-held territory. Often dropped from helicopters, the bombs have fallen on apartment complexes and even hospitals in densely populated areas.

Rebels, for their part, fire improvised rockets, called hell’s cannons, at civilian areas held by Syrian government forces. In early April, according to Syrian state media reports, they killed at least 40 civilians and injured 149. But with the upper hand on the battlefield and access to air power, the government attacks have proved far more deadly.

HRW compiled its report by poring through witness accounts, news reports, activist documentation, amateur video on the ground and satellite imagery showing the before and after of the indiscriminate devastation.

Citing anti-regime activist group the Violations Documentations Center, the report says aerial attacks killed 651 civilians in Aleppo from Feb. 22 through April 22.

According to a Syrian Network for Human Rights report cited by HRW, from Feb. 22 to April 16, at least 920 civilians died in barrel bombings in Syria, mostly in Aleppo.

“Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that bombings had continued since the passage of the Security Council resolution and in some cases increased in residential areas across eastern parts of the city of Aleppo and in the countryside,” according to HRW.

One witness, whose name was changed to protect his identity, told HRW of a barrel bombing on a small bus carrying men, women and children through Aleppo. He said he witnessed several people killed, a 10-year-old girl injured and a man in his 20s with his leg blown off by shrapnel.

“Given Syria’s continuing air war against civilian areas, the Security Council should impose an arms embargo on Syria’s government, as well as on any groups implicated in widespread or systematic human rights abuses,” the report states, urging the U.N. Security Council to put in place a ban on travel and freeze assets for people “credibly implicated in grave abuses.”

The group also recommends that the U.N. “refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.”

“Companies and individuals that provide arms, ammunition or matérial to Syria or to nonstate armed groups that have been implicated in crimes against humanity or war crimes risk complicity in these crimes,” the report reads.

Russia and Iran have sold weapons to and supported Assad’s regime during the conflict, while Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sent money and weapons to opposition groups. The United States has also funneled weapons to the rebels through the CIA, according to The Washington Post. The weapons arrive alongside nonlethal aid, like food and medicine, from the West. 

Russia, a longtime ally of Assad’s, holds veto power on the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member and has shot down three resolutions on Syria over the past three years, so it would almost certainly veto any resolution to impose an arms embargo or recommend the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Nadim Houry, the Middle East and North Africa deputy director for HRW, called for international action to stem the violence.

“President Assad is talking about elections, but for Aleppo’s residents, the only campaign they are witnessing is a military one of barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling,” he said.

Assad announced his intention Monday to run for another term in June’s presidential election, a contest he’s all but guaranteed to win.

"Unfortunately, without any concerted effort by the Security Council, the indiscriminate attacks are likely to continue," Houry told Al Jazeera in an email, adding that he believes the reason for the Assad regime’s continued use of barrel bombs is that it doesn’t fear strong international action.

“I suspect [the bombings have continued] because the government knew that Russia would shield it from any further action at the Security Council and that it would face no sanctions for breaching the resolution,” he said.

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