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Intelligence brief: The use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government

by Steve Hathorn, Chris Abbott and Kirsten Winterman
The aftermath of an alleged barrel bomb attack on Daraya, southwest of the Syrian capital, Damascus, 5 February 2014 (Photo: Fadi Dirani/AFP/Getty Images)
The aftermath of an alleged barrel bomb attack on Daraya, southwest of the Syrian capital, Damascus, 5 February 2014 (Photo: Fadi Dirani/AFP/Getty Images)

Summary

  1. Barrel bombs are a type of improvised explosive device (IED) consisting of a suitably-sized container filled with an explosive payload and shrapnel, chemicals, oil or other content to increase its destructive capacity, which are dropped from a helicopter or cargo aircraft.
  2. Barrel bombs have been widely used by the Syrian military since the uprising began in 2011. Evolving designs and tactics have resulted in barrel bombs of greater destructive power being dropped indiscriminately on populated areas.
  3. There are a number of possible motives for the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs, but it is likely that their role as an effective weapon of terror is driving the ongoing widespread deployment of these weapons.
  4. Barrel bombs are a simple design that can be made from easily-obtainable components, which makes them more attractive than conventional bombs for use as a weapon of terror, as they can be widely deployed at a low cost.
  5. Barrel bombs are being dropped from Soviet/Russian-made Mil Mi-8/17 (Hip) transport helicopters and Mi-24/25 (Hind) attack helicopters in the majority of cases identified in Syria.
  6. Spare parts for these helicopters are almost certainly coming from existing stores or being cannibalised from unserviceable aircraft. It is also highly likely that they are coming from Oboronprom and other Russian suppliers.
  7. It is likely that the Syrian government is able to purchase spare parts from commercial suppliers in former Warsaw Pact countries without facing sanctions, or from corrupt Western companies willing to evade sanctions. It is also possible that it is able to obtain spare parts from friendly countries that have their own fleet of Mil helicopters, such as Iran, or countries that produce Mil helicopters under license, such as China.
  8. Although Syria is known to possess a number of French-made Aérospatiale SA-342s (Gazelle) and possibly some US-made Bell Huey-type helicopters (from Iran), the Gazelle’s are not able to carry barrel bombs and there are no known incidences of Hueys being used to drop barrel bombs.
  9. It is therefore unlikely that targeting helicopter manufacturers or spare-part suppliers will be an effective advocacy strategy for international non-governmental organisations wishing to put pressure on the Syrian government to end its use of barrel bombs.

This intelligence brief was prepared for an international network of humanitarian and human rights organisations.

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