In an attempt to penetrate the military jargon and shed light on the impact President Assad’s weaponry is afflicting each day in Syria, the Syria Direct team has compiled a guide to some of the heavy weaponry that the regime employs against its citizens.
TNT Barrel Bomb
The Syrian Air Force developed the TNT barrel bomb as a cheap but devastating means of inflicting widespread human and structural damage. This class of 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 the back of a helicopter. Accuracy is not the barrel bomb’s strong point, so as with the cluster bomb, destruction is indiscriminate.
A Syria Direct source, who is from a village outside Daraa who has since fled the country, witnessed TNT barrel bombs strike the eastern part of his hometown in June 2012. The regime, engaged in battle with rebel fighters there, had cut electricity for two days when it decided to drop barrel bombs.
“There were two helicopters sent to patrol, and then later a third returned and dropped the TNT bomb on a building,” he said. “I was at a distance, and within three seconds I felt the air push me back from the direction of the bomb.”
The source sought refuge in a bomb shelter in the western part of the town along with 60 other people. Later, when he went to inspect the damage, he says that a section of the building had been torn clean off, as if the building had been “bitten” by the bomb.
A Syrian Army soldier aboard a regime helicopter lights the fuse of a TNT bomb with his cigarette. Video courtesy of Douma City Revolution in Syria.
A barrel bomb hits Busra Al-Sham, in Daraa Province. Video courtesy of Rick Francona.
Cluster bombs eject roughly 100 small, round “bomblets” that scatter around a target area and then explode. Like land mines, they are dangerous and difficult to remove. Cluster munitions are unpredictable in their destruction and strike over a wide area, so the regime has used them to slaughter civilians indiscriminately.
In March 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that the regime had used at least 156 cluster bombs in 119 locations across Syria over the previous six months. The report cited a recent wave of cluster bomb attacks in Deir Jamal in early March that killed 11 civilians and wounded 27 more.
“The initial toll is only the beginning,” said Steve Goose, director of HRW’s arms division, “because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward.”
The vacuum bomb is a type of thermobaric weapon characterized by its long duration of explosion compared with other bombs. The uniquely devastating explosion, created by aluminium powder contained within the bomb, is multi-phased: first, the bomb strikes the target, usually a building, exploding and releasing the powder. This in turn creates a powerful vacuum that draws the air and surrounding debris back towards the explosion site. The combination of these phases can cause both structural damage to a building and is highly lethal to humans. The bomb’s efficacy is notoriously unpredictable, and varies depending upon conditions at the target.
When vacuum bombs are dropped, there is nowhere to hide, says Bassam al-Ahmad, a spokesman for the Violation and Documentation Center (VDC) in Syria. He says that the regime employs bombs specifically when targeted buildings are known to have basements or bomb shelters, as the aluminum gas explosion will reach the farthest depths of even the most secure buildings.
Vacuum bombs are gruesome to the point of controversy. According to a 2008 reported published in the newspaper The Australian about British use of vacuum bombs against the Taliban in Afghanistan, “the cloud of burning aluminum powder means victims often die from asphyxiation before the pressure shreds their organs.”
Throughout the Syrian crisis, citizen journalists have documented vacuum bombs being dropped from regime helicopters, striking urban targets.
Vacuum bombs can simultaneously incinerate buildings – or in this case, tanks – and suffocate whoever is inside. Video courtesy of SuperAws.
The Scud missile is a type of Soviet tactical ballistic missile which is shorter in range but more dynamic than most rockets because they are accurate and easily transported. Tactical ballistic missiles are relatively cheap, so the regime can afford a large stock of Scuds. Scuds are typically launched from the ground to target other land-based targets, such as military bases or even cities.
“Scud missiles result in mass destruction, especially to buildings, and leave dozens dead in the targeted neighborhood,” says Bassam al-Ahmad, the VDC spokesman.
Because the FSA lacks adequate air defense systems, these missiles are highly effective against rebel-held targets. Rebel sources also claim that the regime has used Scuds as vectors for its chemical weapon attacks.
The regime’s 155th brigade, nicknamed the “Scud brigade” shown launching a Scud in a video provided by a defector from the brigade. The 155th, based in the Damascus suburb of Qutaifa, is believed to possess around 700 of these Scud missiles. Video courtesy of Alnabk Men.