There’s some interesting news out of Syria, where it seems some rebel faction (Lebanon’s Daily Star says it includes elements of the Nusra Front, which presumably rules out Islamic State participation, but doesn’t say anything beyond that) has just captured a checkpoint
about 9 km outside of Hama. So what, you ask? Or maybe you don’t, I shouldn’t assume. Anyway, Hama is a city of about 300,000 (pre-war) that sits just north of Homs in the center of Syria’s eastern corridor (the heavily populated strip running from Damascus in the south to the Mediterranean coast and border with Turkey in the north. What makes Hama important is its military airport, from which Assad’s forces fly a considerable number of sorties, particularly helicopter sorties. At this point, unless it’s responding to a direct assault by IS or the other rebels, a “helicopter sortie” in Syria pretty much means a barrel bomb strike.
Now, the rebels have almost no chance of actually taking Hama from Assad, particularly not because he’ll fight tooth and nail to hold on to that airport. But the longer they can set up that close (9 km away) to it, the higher the likelihood that they can arrange some kind of attack on the airport that puts a serious crimp in the air campaign and the barrel bomb attacks. It may not amount to much more than an inconvenience, but it’s something. The other thing this advance may accomplish is causing Assad to divert forces away from his offensive against Aleppo, which he’d love to take but which is a lower priority for him than maintaining Hama’s airport.
Meanwhile, the increasingly lame-duck Maliki government has apparently decided to follow Assad’s lead and start dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas (specifically Fallujah) under Islamic State’s control, according to Human Rights Watch. Barrel bombs are a weapon of intimidation and collective punishment. They have no value against enemy fighters but are great at striking big crowds of civilians who you might want to punish for supporting (or allegedly supporting) those fighters. That kind of thing is called a “war crime” nowadays. Assad uses them for the same purpose, but he pretends that he has no choice but to manufacture such crude weapons because his government is under arms sales embargoes. Everybody knows that this is bullshit, but at least it’s a pretense at a justification.
Maliki, who is getting weapons from the US, Iran, Russia, basically everybody, doesn’t even have Assad’s lame excuse for using these things. He’s just availing himself of the opportunity to wipe out some uncooperative civilians (remember that Fallujah was in rebellion well before IS got there). The fact that these kinds of tactics will only further inhibit any chance of reconciliation if and when IS is finally beaten doesn’t seem to matter.