The legality of Barrel Bombs: A short analysis

Deadly Blasts Rip Through Aleppo, Syria (by Robert Riches on November 14, 2012 via The Loquitur)

Author: Johannes Sender

The topic of specific weapons, not being weapons of mass destruction, get little coverage in popular media. In the past years, especially under the influence of the on-going civil war in Syria, one kind of weapon appears more regularly in international media: the so-called barrel bombs, often used by the Syrian armed forces of Bashar Hafez al-Assad. This article written by Johannes Sender, Master’s Student in International Security and Law,  will provide a short analysis of barrel bombs under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including what has to be considered for a potential legal or illegal use.


 AP: Additional Protocol (to the Geneva Conventions)

BB: Barrel Bombs

DIY: Do It Yourself

IHL: International Humanitarian Law

GC: Geneva Conventions

What is a Barrel Bomb and how is it used?

As described by a weapons expert[1], so-called Barrel Bombs (BB) as used by the Syrian government are mostly do-it-yourself containers filled with explosives, fuel and e.g. metal parts dropped out of helicopters by the Syrian army. Evidence suggests that especially in the early parts of the conflict the BB’s were mostly dropped from low attitude, allowing hitting specific targets. However, since different groups in Syria became able to fight helicopters with the use of manpads (Man Portable Air Defence System), practice has been changed and BB attacks are now nearly exclusively from high attitude, which makes it nearly impossible to hit a specific target. Regarding reports about the use of Barrel Bombs it has to be mentioned that there is tendency in Syria and in the media to call every bomb thrown from a helicopter a Barrel Bomb. This is insofar important as the Syrian forces also use “regular” bombs which have different qualities and effects.

Example of Barrel Bombs used by Syrian Government Forces. Copyright Stratfor 2014/Source: Brown Moses Blog (via Business Insider)

What do the Geneva Conventions state?

The Geneva Conventions do not offer a specific prohibition of exact weapons, but a general set of rules and guidelines to actions and methods prohibited under IHL. Art. 50 of the 1st Geneva Convention is hereby naming extensive destruction that is not justified by military necessity as a grave breach of IHL[2].

The 4th Geneva Convention deals with the role of civilians in armed conflict. As reflected in art. 33 it prohibits collective punishment and measures of intimidation or terrorism[3]. The first additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, art. 35.2), adds the prohibition of weapons causing unnecessary suffering. Art. 33 names the necessary distinction between the civilian population and combatants as a basic principle. Thus art. 51 also prohibits spreading terror among the population, as well as methods or means which cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Further, art. 51 states that attacks that treat several military targets in a civilian area as one target is indiscriminate and therefore prohibited. Following art. 52, military objectives are hereby limited to those objects that make an effective contribution to military action and whose destruction offer a definite military advantage[4].

The Hague Conventions On Land Warfare & Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

The Hague Conventions on land warfare introduced rules regarding the land warfare in armed conflicts, the convention is meanwhile considered customary law. Regarding the prohibition of certain weapons it states in art. 23 e) that arms, projectiles and material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering are prohibited as well as g) destroying of the enemy’s property without necessity to do so[5]. The Declaration of St. Petersburg of 1868 to the effect of prohibiting the use of certain projectiles in wartime, as one processor to the Hague Conventions, moreover states: “That this object would be exceeded by the employment of arms which uselessly aggravate the sufferings f disable men, or render their death inevitable; That the employment of such weapons would, therefore, be contrary to the laws of humanity[6]. Additionally, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) mainly prohibits three different kinds of weapons: 1) Weapons that leave non-detectable parts (via x-ray) in the victim’s body, 2) use of mines, booby-traps and other mine-like devices and 3) the use of blinding laser weapons[7].

The Law, the Weapon and the Use

In order to elaborate on the barrel bombs, the weapons itself as well as their potential use will be applied to the legal norms regarding weapons and warfare. We start the discussion with taking the convention of the prohibition of certain weapons into account. Barrel bombs don’t fall under blinding-laser weapons. Nor do they leave undetectable parts in the victim’s body. An exception to this case would e.g. be the use of Glass in Barrel Bombs, which would violate the undetectable parts paragraph – however so far most sources do not describe Glass being part of the used bombs. The only way they could fit into the prohibition scope of the convention is if they would be considered a part under the headline of “use on land of the mines, booby-traps and other devices”. Since BB are not considered mines nor boob-traps, the question is if they fall under definition of “other”. Art. 2. names devices including improvised explosive devices designed to kill, injure or damage they limit to those which are manually-emplaced and actuated manually, by remote control or automatically after a lapse of time. The devices hereby refer to arms similar to mines, e.g. IED, and exclude hereby barrel bombs.

Both The Hague land warfare convention (art. 23 e) and the 4th Geneva Convention (art. 35.2) mention the prohibition of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering[8]. As elaborated earlier and as can be reviewed in different sources, Barrel Bombs are considered to be so-called DIY bombs that in practice are containers filled with explosives and e.g. steal fragments[9]. It could be argued that under the aspect of the prohibition of unnecessary suffering, the use of such bombs filled with steel fragments might be prohibited as such could be seen as an unnecessary aspect of the weapon’s effect. As a counter-argument, the question would be to what degree the filling of the bomb with steel fragments is worse than a normal bomb impact that produces a certain amount of shrapnel when hitting a target. Though, the wilful filling of the bomb might be seen as special perfidious and cruel aspect of the weapon. Evidence for a popular agreement to a prohibition this practice of BBs is found in UNSC resolution 2139 condemning the practice of barrel bombs in Syria[10]. This also raises the question of the ability of the weapon to discriminate between civilians and combatants since shrapnel makes the impact of the weapon less controllable – we will come back to this aspect of discrimination. In the previous part, we looked at the direct attributes of the weapon. Now we will review the warfare to which the weapon is connected.

While barrel bombs at the beginning of the conflict in Syria were often dropped from low attitude, this practice changed with the ability of rebel groups to shoot helicopters from low attitude, so that barrel bombs in the last years of the conflict were nearly exclusively dropped from a high attitude (around 2,000 metres)[11]. While a drop from a low attitude can be directed at a specific target, a drop from high attitude cannot longer be precise, especially if no fixed drop-height as well as no fixed measurement of the object is applied.

The practice of barrel bomb drops raises several issues. One is the basic principle of IHL – distinction. As the AP states in art. 48 states, the need to distinguish between the civilian population and combatants as well as between civilian objects and military objectives, is a basic rule of IHL[12]. One can argue that barrel bombs as such are not indiscriminate, since they can be dropped from low attitude, making it possible to hit specific targets. However, observation of late practice may strongly support the argument that an attack with barrel bombs from high attitude is by definition an indiscriminate attack since it makes an effective distinction impossible. This argument is highly supported by the evidence that those attacks often take place inside of cities, populated with civilians. This leads us towards more issues. Art. 50 of the first GC hereby names extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity as a grave breach[13]. Besides the missing discrimination, one can also discuss military necessity of the attacks since they’re not longer directed at specific military targets and occur outside of actual battles where they could give an military advantage. The attacking forces can even be accused to violate art. 51 of the AP. Hereby the spread of terror among the civilian population and methods of combat not directed at a direct military objective as well as being excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated[14]– due to the fact that some of the attacks with BB from high attitude were carried out over several days[15]. Art. 52 of the AP provides that military objectives are limited to those, which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action. Civilian cities without military compounds can be hardly seen as such – even in the fight against rebel and insurgence groups and especially if the weapon cannot hit with precision.

The situation concerning Barrel Bombs remains complex. While barrel bombs are not specifically named to be prohibited, they may or may not fall under the prohibition of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering. Even if barrel bombs are not prohibited through their nature, there is evidence for the assumption that the raw practice and nature of its use is violating IHL. While their use from low attitude may be lawful, the use from high attitude is violating several aspects of IHL. This is especially connected to the fact that it is not longer possible to control the weapon to the amount that it hit specific targets – which violates the basic principle of distinction as well as other aspects of the protection of civilians. The use in specific cases or as a strategy may even fulfil the requirement towards terrorism against a population. The use of barrel bombs would hereby rather fulfil requirement war crimes or crimes against humanity (in internal conflicts) if used under the described conditions – still a UNSC resolution demanding the stop of the use of barrel bombs may point towards a (future?) prohibition.

[1]Lloyd, 2013

[2]Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field , 1949

[3]Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1949

[4]Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 1977

[5]Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 1907

[6]The Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive Projectiles Under 400 Grammes Weight, 1864

[7]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, 1980

[8]Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 1907 & Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1949

[9]Lloyd, 2013 & Enyclopedia of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

[10]UNSC, 2014

[11]ibid. & Human Rights Watch, 2014

[12]Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 1977

[13]Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field , 1949

[14]Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 1977

[15]Human Rights Watch, 2014


One thought on “The legality of Barrel Bombs: A short analysis

  1. Pingback: Sean Spicer: If you gas a baby or attack civilians with barrel bombs, you’ll see a response from Trump - Big Sky Headlines

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