by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
The barrel bomb has become the most notorious weapon in the Syrian Civil War, namely the Battle of Aleppo. An unguided bomb composed of a barrel-shaped metal container filled with explosives and sometimes chemicals, oil, and shrapnel, this example of state terrorism has fueled much of the mass migration from Syria to Europe and elsewhere. Barrel bombs have a long history spanning Israel, the United States, Sri Lanka, Croatia, and Sudan, a gruesome reminder of war’s barbarity.
The first engineers of barrel bombs lived in Mandatory Palestine, where Jews and Muslims fought one another and the British government for authority. The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel (Irgun), a Zionist revolutionary movement often regarded as one of the first terrorist organizations in modern history, used these explosives to thwart British ambitions and efforts in the Holy Land. The Israeli Air Force would then bomb Palestinians with the same weapons during the First Arab–Israeli War.
Though barrel bombs developed in the Middle East and would remain prominent there into the twenty-first century, their use spread further into Asia. Joseph Trevithick detailed for War Is Boring how the United States Air Force in Vietnam pounded strongholds of the National Liberation Front (Việt Cộng):
Army crews kicked the incendiary drums out of Chinook helicopters onto suspected enemy camps. They strapped white phosphorus smoke grenades to the cylinders to set them alight. The Air Force took the concept one step further and tried to start raging forest fires in Viet Cong base areas. The flying branch used fire barrels as well as normal incendiary bombs.
Thereby, the United States Air Force pioneered dropping barrel bombs from helicopters as the Syrian government often does. Even so, The Washington Post distinguished between America in Vietnam and the Syrian government in its own civil war: “The barrel bombings in Vietnam were not aimed at heavily populated areas, and did not exact the human costs that the Assad regime probably has in its desperate fight with rebel forces.” Barrel bombs in Vietnam showed an advanced counterinsurgent with air supremacy and high technology flaunted its superiority over scattered, weakened insurgents.
Barrel bombs would evolve into cheap, effective weapons for the Third World to fight the many insurgencies that plagued it. The Sri Lankan Armed Forces used barrel bombs to strike the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the Jaffa Peninsula during the Sri Lankan Civil War. “The strafing, from Bell-412 helicopter gunships, is relatively state-of-the-art, with sudden swoops disrupting funeral processions, emptying streets, picking off old men at crossroads,” described historian William Dalrymple. “But as the Sri Lankan Air Force has no modern bombers, the bombing is a lot less hi-tech. […] The slow, lumbering aircraft carry home-made three-hundred-kilogram bombs, packed into wooden barrels. These are rolled manually out of the cargo hatch — simple, but effective nonetheless.” The Sri Lankan government defeated the Tamil Tigers with brutality and simplistic characteristic of conflicts between failed states and terrorist organizations, barrel bombs forming part of the Sri Lankan military’s strategy.
As ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils inspired barrel bombs as a weapon of convenience, the Yugoslav Wars saw their use by separatists fighting the federal government. Human Rights Watch noted Croatian rebels using boiler bombs, variants of barrel bombs, against Serbian soldiers, even dropping some from a makeshift air force.The Sudanese government, known for its campaigns against non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities, dropped barrel bombs on civilians in regions controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army during the Second Sudanese Civil War and regions controlled by the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army during the War in Darfur. This technique has continued during the latest fighting in Kurdufan and near the Blue Nile. Barrel bombs have become strategic weapons for clearing cities, towns, and villages of rebel sympathizers, aping a Western ideal of counterinsurgency: removing the insurgents from their civilian supporters. However cheap and effective this method may be, human rights have suffered for it.
Barrel bombs have earned the Syrian government deserved notoriety in the international community. An Alawi colonel long considered a war criminal likely masterminded their use by the Syrian Arab Air Force, hoping to retake rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo. They have even hit hospitals as the Syrian military tries to punish civilians who support the Syrian opposition. When the Syrian Arab Air Force seems to be refining its tactics with a double tap — dropping a barrel bomb, then waiting for first responders to gather, then dropping another barrel bomb — it may be reluctant to stop them.
The Iraqi government is mimicking its Syrian counterpart, striking the territory of the Islamic State with barrel bombs at least six times June and July last year. These bombings have continued into this year. The Iraqi government, like the Syrian government, has acted with impunity. The U.S. and other Western countries continue to arm and defend it as Iran and Russia do the Syrian government. The international community has yet to challenge the use of barrel bombs in Syria with military might. Without it, this war crime will likely continue for months to come.