Barrel bomb developments in Iraq and Syria

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.


6 thoughts on “Barrel bomb developments in Iraq and Syria

  1. OK, details: the checkpoint is north of Hama and 9 km from the airport. I’m trying to get a good fix on this, as Hama was my base for some time and would like to have the map clear in my mind.

    As an aside, the photo in the link shows fighters with a recoilless rifle. Now, I have a friend who is upset that we are supplying TOW missiles, aka advanced American military technology, to the fundamentalists; I consider the TOW to be 40 year old technology, functionally equivalent to the 106 mm recoilless rifle under battlefield conditions current in Syria and not something to get particularly upset about considering all the other hardware changing hands. Would you have an opinion, or should we quarrelsome bastards put a cork in it?

    1. Isn’t the TOW an anti-tank weapon? I’m sure you know more about the weapons systems than I do, but what really worries me is the anti-aircraft stuff. Nusra or IS with anti-tank weapons can make life hard on an army that comes after them, but it’s airpower that really tilts the battlefield toward governments and away from extremist networks. Plus there’s the nightmare threat of a couple of IS or AQ guys setting up outside an American airport with a MANPADS.

      The flip side of that, though, is that without negating Assad’s airpower edge it’s hard to imagine removing him from power or even getting him to negotiate.

      1. Fifty points for Gryffindor! TOW is a wire guided anti-tank missile that gives a very high chance of one shot/one kill even at very long ranges. Yet a decent gunner can get the tank after a small number of shots on the 106 mm, and shells are practically free compared to missiles.

        Interestingly, my friend is dismissive of MANPADS because he does not consider air power to be a decisive factor in the fighting while I consider it to be a (potentially) very disruptive technology: the simple threat engendered by their very existence, potentially anywhere on the battlefield, cripples a valuable weapon in Assad’s arsenal – the very thinking that led Reagan (spit!) to send Stingers to Afghanistan to kill Russians.

        But here is where I despair: is there a scenario where Assad negotiates a peaceful transfer/sharing of power? I look at the horizon and see bloody stalemate, with the joker of one side or the other getting such a boost of external aid that it crushes the other once and for all.

      2. It seems like the window for a negotiated settlement is closed, if it was ever really open.

        Assad saw what happened to Gaddafi when he lost to his rebels, saw what happened to Mubarak when he surrendered to his rebels (before Sisi got his life sentence overturned), and came to the (logical, from his point of view) conclusion that it was fight or die. So he escalated the early protests by responding with overwhelming force, and now we’re 3.5 years in and it’s hard to see how Assad could ever really run the country again after he’s basically massacred tens of thousands of its citizens. But the rebels are plagued by the fact that, if Assad was taken out of the equation tomorrow, they would immediately fall to fighting amongst themselves for control. Even if they wanted to negotiate with Assad, who would do the negotiating? What if all the various factions didn’t agree on the talks? That’s already prevented at least one attempt at talks and would likely squash any future attempts as well.

        We haven’t helped, as you might imagine. I give Obama a lot of credit for advancing real talks with Iran where the previous crowd was too busy planning airstrikes on Tehran, but he really screwed up on Syria. Insisting that Assad had to go emboldened the rebels and probably had them expecting a Libya-esque intervention, but he said that before we knew that there were some very unsavory elements among the rebels (elements that had, we now know, also been present among the Libyan rebels, but we never bothered to check that out before we rushed in). So Obama found himself having completely disavowed the possibility of a power-sharing settlement, only to get gun-shy when he figured out that “Assad remains in power” was only the second-worst possible outcome. Then he had to start floating these fantasies wherein we would aid the “moderates” but in a way that somehow only benefited them and not the extremists, but meanwhile doing nothing at all because there was no way we could realistically thread that needle.

        We should have pushed for immediate talks and a negotiated settlement from the beginning, not this tough-guy “Assad must go” crap. As usual, we talk before we think. At least we realized our error before we’d committed any actual resources to the fight.

      3. I think MANPADS are a given if we decide to escalate the aid, because Assad’s clearest edge has been in terms of airpower and because the most visible image of human suffering to come out of the conflict has been the barrel bomb attacks, which could presumably be drastically reduced if the rebels had any kind of air defense. The barrel bombs are what Western audiences have fixated on, so that’s what we’ll target. But really, talk about inviting blowback.

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