AMMAN: Syrian government representatives threatened to withdraw from Geneva peace talks on Friday, yet another setback in a week of drama and sideshows that have elicited much fanfare and media coverage, but little in the way of actual progress.
For Syrians in the opposition who have lived with an inflexible family dynasty for more than four decades, the turn of events in Geneva is hardly surprising. Fighters and activists say that not only does the regime have no intention of stopping attacks on civilians and rebels, they are stepping them up, particularly with the use of barrel bombs.
“We find that before every meeting, conference or peace talk, the bombardments and rate of attacks go up,” said Suzan Ahmed, an opposition activist outside Damascus.
“All of that is to put more pressure on people to accept the truce that the regime is forcing.”
Nearly 1,700 barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters since the war began have killed at least 2,800 across Syria, according to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
“Barrels of death”
Moderate Syrians in the opposition continue to hold protests across the country every Friday. Last week, the protests were dubbed “The Friday of Barrels of Death and International License for Them.”
The Syrian Air Force developed the TNT barrel bomb as a cheap but devastating means of inflicting widespread human and structural damage. The makeshift bomb can vary in form, but the general idea is to stuff TNT, oil, and metal shrapnel into a cylindrical object – anything from an oil drum to a water tankard – light the fuse, and push the object out of a helicopter. Accuracy is not the barrel bomb’s strong point, so as with the cluster bomb, destruction is indiscriminate.
“This is a cheap way of delivering a load of explosives from weapons that don’t necessarily lend themselves typically to delivering that size of explosive,” said Firas Abi Ali, a Middle East analyst at British-based research firm IHS.
In Aleppo, regime forces used barrel bombs in a devastating series of bombardments last month, killing more than 500 people, most of whom were civilians, in a two-week period. That is because “if a barrel bomb falls on an open area, it will destroy everything within a one-kilometer radius,” said Brigadier General Manaa’ Rahal, the FSA’s military leader in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. When the regime drops barrel bombs on buildings, “they can penetrate downward five or six floors.”
“The regime developed barrel bombs with Russian assistance to achieve greater destruction,” said Rahal, who defected from the Syrian army, where he served as a general, in August 2011.
“They put chunks of iron, screws, scissors and screwdrivers in a container, then add the explosive materials.”
Following weeks of barrel bombs across rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo, the FSA nevertheless rejected a truce in Syria’s second-largest city that was recently proposed by Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi during his last visit to Moscow.
Hamid al-Quradi, head of the FSA Joint Command’s media office, explained that the conditions of the truce are impossible: “Is there any truce in the world that would lead you to leave the lands which you control for the sake of a ceasefire?” he said. Opposition forces currently control most of Aleppo.
Other barrel-bomb targets include rebel-held areas around Hama and Latakia, but especially in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs Towns such as Daraya, Zabadni, Khan al-Sheih and the Yarmouk camp in south Damascus have been barrel-bombed, and yet, not one has surrendered.
On January 16th, rebels shot down one of Assad’s warplanes in Darayya after the already war-scarred town, the scene of intense battles for more than a year, was subjected to barrel-bomb attacks every day since January 11th.
Rebels downed a regime airplane in Daraya, Outer Damascus on Thursday. Video courtesy of تجمع قوى الثورة.
Barrel bombs “violate international humanitarian law on the indiscriminate shelling of highly populated areas, on the targeting of military personnel, not only civilians, and is clear evidence that the use of this type of bomb is only to cause as much damage as possible to civilians,” said Mohammad al-Abdallah, a prominent Syrian activist and former political prisoner now based in Washington. Al-Abdullah currently serves as Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC).
“The Assad regime sends these barrels as a message to rebel-held towns that have refused the so-called truce,” said activist and English-speaking blogger Qusai Zakarya, who is currently trapped with thousands of Syrian civilians behind a regime blockade in Moadhamiyet a-Sham. The Outer Damascus town negotiated a truce with regime forces last month that would allow food in for starving civilians, but Zakarya and other activists maintain that the blockade is firmly in place.
Silence in Geneva
Despite the surge in barrel-bomb use, the topic only came up at the Geneva conference this week after a pro-opposition Syrian journalist cornered Information Minister Omar al-Zoubi as he sought to exit the building, asking repeatedly: “Why are you dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo?” The minister refused to respond.
The Syrian government announced on 27 November that it would participate in the talks, but added that its official delegation would not be going “to hand over power to anyone.”
“The regime heads toward Geneva II with barrel bombs and malicious blockades… it has left no room for dialogue, except for those who only represent themselves,” the Islamic Front said in a statement earlier this week.
Activists interviewed for this article pointed out that Assad’s regime has not adhered to the tenets of Geneva I, and hold out little hope the government is serious about ending the war.
“If Assad had a serious intention to implement Geneva’s conditions, these crimes would not occur on the ground,” said Iman al-Huda, 30, a reporter with the opposition Sham News Network in Damascus.
“We need to see the mechanism of Geneva II implemented on the ground so the Syrian people will be convinced that the regime is aiming for a political solution as well,” said Bebers al-Tewali, a Homs-based activist whose Bab al-Sebaa’ neighborhood has been blockaded by the regime for 20 months.
Barrel bombs, said al-Telawi, are just another deadly tool in the regime’s strategy.
“It’s the same message the shabiha have used since the beginning of the revolution,” said al-Talawi. “‘Assad or we burn the country.’”
Mohammed Ali contributed reporting from Amman. Jennifer Collins contributed reporting from Berlin.