Still on the subject of Syria, Assad has been striking Aleppo for the last couple of weeks using a particularly brutal contraption known as a “barrel bomb.” These are exactly what they sound like: big metal barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel, dropped from a helicopter with a lit fuze timed to go off at or near the ground. They’re not new weapons; Brown Moses has been tracking their use since last August. They are a crude makeshift weapon, not the kind of thing you spend major resources manufacturing with precision. They’re also an indiscriminate weapon of minimal tactical use against armed fighters; they’re instead a weapon of mass terror, intended to be strewn across an urban area to inflict high civilian casualties. The need for Syrian helicopters to drop these weapons from higher and higher altitudes to avoid rebel air-defense weaponry, again documented by Brown Moses here, has made the bombs less accurate but maybe more terrifying, since even the Syrian forces dropping them don’t really know where they’ll land from that height. Their use against massed civilian crowds certainly constitutes a war crime, which probably doesn’t matter since there’s no chance to bring Assad to justice for them (or anything else) in the foreseeable future.
I think that the use of these crude barrel bombs says something about the argument, which we’ve talked about before, that it was actually the rebels, and not Assad, that was behind the sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August. One of the principle arguments against the idea that the government was behind the attack has been the crudeness of the shells used, the “Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks” as Brown Moses (who’s really quite good and should be read by anybody who cares about what’s happening in Syria) has named them. It was assumed that the Syrian government, with a professional army and open supply lines to both Iran and Russia, would not need to resort to such cobbled together ordinance. Well, turns out they’ve been dropping explosive metal barrels filled with nails and scrap metal on crowds of civilians for over a year now; clearly they’ve been in the “cobbling together crude weaponry” business for some time now. The case for the Syrian government having carried out the attack, whether under orders from Assad or not, still seems pretty strong.