Why the Assad regime barrel-bombs its own civilians

by Rik Rutten*

Bombing civilians without distinguishing supporters and opponents from bystanders is said to be ineffective, or even counterproductive. Then why have air raids become such a hallmark feature of the military strategy of the Assad government in the Syrian civil war? A look at the geography of violence shows: even when regimes target entire towns instead of individuals, their targets are chosen rather than random. Bombings do not only demolish the supposed enemy’s strongholds, they also send a message to the civilians living under their control.

aleppo
Late October, a bomb hit a school in the small Syrian town of Haas: 35 people died (Shaheen, 2016). Even within a conflict that has already claimed over 400,000 lives (Al Jazeera 2016) , this attack appeared particularly senseless: targeting innocent schoolchildren, far away from the battlefield, with neither the Russian nor the Syrian government willing to claim responsibility.

The bombing of a school is a typical example of indiscriminate violence. It is a method of killing that is not only widely seen as illegitimate and inhumane, but is also commonly described as an irrational strategy. When the punishment of civilians is not tailored to their individual acts (like joining or helping a rebel group), violence becomes, in the words of Stathis Kalyvas (2004), “at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.” If that does not make intuitive sense, imagine the choices of a civilian in a war zone. When surviving the war is all one hopes for, a government that kills rebels and revolutionaries sends a strong signal: to stay alive, stay aloof. But what about a government that targets everyone whatever side they support, including some of its own supporters? Now, being an innocent bystander is no longer without risk. Instead, if the rebels are strong enough to offer protection from the government, they may be an ordinary citizen’s best bet for survival.

What happens in war may look gruesome and inhumane, but what explains it is rarely irrational. According to Kalyvas (and nearly every other scholar of warfare), much of the violence that we see in war is in fact carefully crafted, driven by attempts to punish and control citizens or by a desire to settle an old score or grudge. But if that is true, what can ever be the intended rationale for barrel-bombing places like Haas? Schoolchildren are highly unlikely to be rebel supporters, bombs are by definition unable to target anyone with secure precision, and its location is far removed from the battlefield.

Tracing evidence

 Intentions are notoriously hard to track down. In a civil war like Syria’s, that is all the more true. There is no mind-reading device that can tell us what goes on in the brains of President Bashar al-Assad and the commanders of the Syrian Arab Army. And it takes little understanding of PR and communications to see why no government representative has admitted to arbitrarily killing ordinary civilians, let alone as a thought-through method (indeed, Assad has denied dropping barrel bombs, using chemical weapons, and striking an aid convoy, Channel4 2015,  Chicago Tribune 2016, Bouchaud 2015).

Instead, we have to turn to those things that are out there in plain sight: the decisions that Syria’s government takes. In this case, that means zooming in on the airstrikes. When and where did they strike – and whom did they hit? As it turns out, the records provide us with lots of information here. In the midst of a chaotic war, Syria’s casualties have nevertheless been documented well. In most cases, local organisations have been able to trace at least the name and birthplace of a victim, as well as their cause of death and their status as either military or civilian.

 If any part of Syria is a likely contender for random violence, it is the governorate of Idlib in the country’s northwest, roughly wrapped around the road between Aleppo and Damascus and including the town of Haas. As rebel strongholds like Homs and Daraya have been retaken by the Syrian army, and while Aleppo suffers under a siege, Idlib as a whole has remained under control of a handful of rebel factions since June 2015.
In other words, Idlib does not feature a single battlefield. And yet, over 1900 Syrians have been killed in the past year and a half by the Syrian regime, in cooperation with the Russian army. While the place of death is not always known, putting the information on the place of birth of the victims on the map  gives a rough idea of where the bombs fell.

 What the map tells us

It is no surprise that the largest number of casualties comes from Idlib city, the governorate’s capital and its largest city, where 308 civilians were killed. But other places are puzzling: large towns in the north came away relatively unscathed, while the villages south of the capital were struck to a disproportionate degree. One of those villages, Fatteerra with a population of only 2,715, lost 22 civilians to airstrikes. It is also only 10 km away from Haas, the site of the school bombing (which happened after the numbers had been collected and is therefore not included).

Bombings.png

If some small villages were heavily hit while cities elsewhere escaped the havoc, there may be more than randomness at work. A look at the locations of the strikes reveals a telling pattern. Fatteerra, Haas and several other heavily-hit municipalities all lie in the Orontes valley, a fertile farming region and a hotbed for rebel support. It includes places like Kafr Nabl, once called the ‘conscience of the revolution’ (McEvers, 2013) and now one of the heavily-hit dots on the map. Further north, the town of Jisr al Shugur (fewer than 50,000 inhabitants) had a history of popular protest already before the revolution erupted; it suffered 166 casualties since mid-2015.

Meanwhile, the opposite is true for some of the more peaceful towns in the north. The earlier-mentioned town of Al-Dana featured demonstrations in favour of the Assad-led government, and so did the town of Salqin. “I am ashamed to say that the town is mainly pro-Assad,” one opposition activist in Salqin told Al Jazeera , “but this is the reality” (Atassi, 2013).

Idlib is no exception, nor is Syria at large: scholars like Laia Balcells (2011) have written about the same pattern, from the FARC insurgency in Colombia, to the Spanish civil war to World War II. Even if armies cannot pick and punish individuals in places over which they have no control, they can seek out larger populations for the same purpose. When they strike those places where the rebels are most revered, the bombs of the regime do not only kill potential “strong enemies” but also set an example for civilians to quit supporting the insurgent and to convince their sons, friends and neighbours to do the same. If the rebel forces being targeted are unable to provide any protection from the attacks, their support may dwindle even faster. In the best-case scenario for the regime, civilians may even turn upon the rebels that remain and demand push for them to leave their town or village entirely.

 This leads to an ugly conclusion. Civilians may end up as targets in civil wars because of the little power they have to choose sides, even though they are often too powerless to change much about their situation. Understanding this logic does in no way serve as its justification, but should instead help in finding ways to better protect civilians from suffering the horrors of indiscriminate violence, and to confront the regimes that commit them.

*Rik is a student at the Master Programme in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University.

REFERENCES
  • Balcells, Laia (2011). “‘Death is in the Air: Bombings in Catalonia, 1936-1939.” Revista Espanola de Investigaciones Sociologicas, 136, 25-48.
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