GAZIANTEP, Turkey — “They call these the terrorists,” a volunteer rescue worker shouts as he holds a child in a burial shroud, one of four toddlers killed Sunday by a barrel bomb dropped by the Syrian government on a teaching center in the Seif al Dawla district of Aleppo. The scene, posted on YouTube, joins thousands of others rarely watched by the wider world. When freelance journalist Zaina Erhaim arrived shortly afterward, two little girls traumatized by the blast and the blood and gore all around them cried out to passers-by, “So, we haven’t died?”
Another day and another government airstrike on insurgent-held districts in the benighted historic city of Aleppo; what was once the proud commercial capital of Syria is now suffering an intensifying blitz from the Syrian regime, and according to a report released today by Amnesty International, the attacks amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The city of Aleppo and the villages around it have long been the targets of aerial bombardments by government forces. The regime’s weapon of choice is the cheaply produced, improvised barrel bomb — oil barrels, fuel tanks or gas cylinders filled with explosive, fuel and metal fragments to magnify their lethal effect and dropped by helicopters. According to the Violations Documentation Center, an independent non-profit organization, 3,124 civilians (and only 35 fighters) were killed in barrel bomb attacks from January 2014 to March 2015 in Aleppo province.
Since January “government forces launched continual attacks using barrel bombs and other imprecise explosive weapons on areas populated with civilians, including at least 14 public markets, 12 transportation hubs and 23 mosques, and on civilian objects, including at least 17 hospitals and medical centers and three schools,” Amnesty says in its report, “Death Everywhere.”
Medical workers in rebel-controlled areas claimed at the weekend that Syrian regime helicopters have dropped barrel bombs full of chlorine gas twice on the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province. Political activists say a child was killed and 40 people injured. The latest suspected attack came just days after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was ready to investigate multiple allegations of chlorine attacks in recent months but would need the Syrian government’s go-ahead.
Last month, in a closed-door meeting the U.N. Security Council heard first-hand accounts from Syrian doctors of alleged chemical weapons attacks in March in the village of Sarmin.
And the rate of the regime’s airstrikes is increasing, prompting rising fury among Syrian rebels and civilians living — subsisting may be a more appropriate word — in Aleppo at not only Syrian President Bashar al Assad for the air raids but at the West, and most specifically Washington, for not stopping them by imposing a no-fly zone on northern Syria.
U.S. officials say they have not ruled out a no-fly zone — long demanded by Turkish authorities, too. “We are still considering establishing a no-fly zone,” says a senior State Department official in an e-mail exchange. But the official, who declined to be identified for this article, said many obstacles “need to be navigated” before that happens, and he acknowledged that enforcing a zone would be a major step-up in U.S. engagement in the region that the administration is reluctant to take. “The focus is the Islamic State; not Assad,” he admitted.
For weeks administration officials have resorted to the formulaic “we have not ruled out” response to the no-fly zone question. And last month White House press secretary Josh Earnest scrambled to play down Turkish claims that Washington and Ankara was close to agreeing an “air-exclusion” zone inside Syria. The Turks want a safe haven on the other side of the border to reduce the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey. Ankara’s idea is their troops would police the haven on the ground while American warplanes patrol above.
Even the buffer the Turks envisage wouldn’t have the geographic reach Syrian rebel leaders and civilians want and wouldn’t extend to protecting Aleppo or, for that matter Idlib, recently seized by insurgents. But administration officials worry a large exclusion zone would pull U.S. warplanes further into the conflict and eventually invite an Assad response, says an Ankara-based European diplomat.
Administration officials prefer publicly to place negotiations about a no-fly zone in the context of overall strategic discussions with the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and to suggest the hold-up is because of differences with Ankara. And the European diplomat, who asked not to be named in this article, says those differences come down to the U.S. not really wanting a no-fly zone, but wanting to persuade the Turks to allow U.S. warplanes striking at the Islamic State to use the NATO air base at İncirlik; and the Turks refusing until Washington agrees to carve out a buffer zone in northern Syria.
But consideration of a no-fly zone goes back long before the rise of the Islamic State or the appointment of John Allen by the Obama administration as the lead coordinator for the international coalition against ISIS. The retired Marine general has been discussing an air exclusion zone with Turkish officials since his first trip to Turkey in November last year.
France first proposed a no-fly zone in 2012, which then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was reported to view favorably. Back then and throughout 2013 the White House rebuffed the French, as well as calls from U.S. lawmakers in both parties for an exclusion zone. Administration officials argued enforcing such a zone would drag the U.S. into a shooting war with Syria since it would likely require taking out of Assad’s air defense assets.
Although there is now acceptance inside the Pentagon that the Syrian air defense system may not pose much of a threat, the White House has not shifted its position since.
U.S. warplanes bombing Islamic State positions inside Syria are careful to avoid any chances of midair entanglements with Assad’s pilots by sending out radio announcements indicating the general zone they will be flying in and warning all other aircraft to stay clear, according to a former US National Guard pilot, who has been in contact with American pilots currently flying sorties in Syria.
In March, former U.S. official Fred Hof noted at a think tank event in Washington that whether a no-fly zone happens or not “all comes down to the decision of Obama.” And there are no signs he is ready to reverse policy and take a significant step that would deprive Assad of his main battlefield advantage over the insurgents—airpower.
In the meantime, the Syrian regime is stepping up its air blitz on rebel-held areas in northern Syria with Aleppo taking the brunt of the air-raids. In its new report, Amnesty says: “Civilians in opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo have been bombarded in their homes, hospitals, schools, public markets and places of worship in air attacks launched by government forces.”
For its study Amnesty International focused on eight barrel bomb attacks in Aleppo and found that they killed at least 188 civilians; only one fighter was recorded among the fatalities. “Meanwhile, the Syrian government has failed to acknowledge that its aerial bombardment campaign in Aleppo has resulted in a single civilian casualty and has insisted that air attacks have targeted only ‘terrorists,’” according to the report.
In an interview earlier this year with the BBC, Assad denied his air force drops barrel bombs, calling that “a childish story” and later saying “there are no barrel bombs.” But Amnesty concludes the aerial bombardment campaign conducted by government forces on Aleppo deliberately and systematically targets civilians who are not directly participating in hostilities. “Such a systematic attack on the civilian population, when carried out as part of government policy. as appears to have been the case in Aleppo, would also constitute a crime against humanity,” the rights group says.
For civilians in Aleppo the daily attacks have turned their lives into a living nightmare. “We are in the circle of hell in Aleppo,” a civil defense volunteer recently told Amesty. “The streets are filled with blood. The people who have been killed are not the people who were fighting. There is no solution for the ones who are left,”
According to a surgeon from a hospital in the city’s al Sakhour neighborhood, “barrel bombs are the most horrible and hurtful weapon… [We deal with] multi-trauma, so many amputations, intestines out of the body, it’s too horrible. We have seen incredible things. We have not seen these types of injuries in any medical book.”