Skip to main content

The gruesome toll of deadly cluster bombs in Syria

By Mary Wareham, Special to CNN
January 21, 2013 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Human Rights Watch says cluster bombs were used on Syrian town of Latamneh
  • Cluster bombs release dozens of smaller bombs, which can maim or kill long after impact
  • Syrian regime has previously denied cluster bombs on civilians

Editor's note: Mary Wareham is the Arms Division's Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch and chief editor of 'Cluster Munition Monitor 2012.'

(CNN) -- It was cloudy the afternoon of January 3 when residents say the cluster bombs fell on the Syrian town of Latamneh.

Three rockets containing the cluster munitions fell in nearby fields, apparently doing no harm, but a fourth landed on the street between residential buildings. Its impact was devastating.

Read more: Journalists die amid Syrian clashes

One man was driving down the street when submunitions from the rockets exploded, killing him instantly, residents said. Fifteen civilians walking down the street or in their homes were wounded, including women and children, according to two residents and video evidence. Residents said that an hour after the attack, a submunition that had failed to detonate on impact killed a man who tried to remove it from his yard. It exploded in his hands.

Mary Wareham
Mary Wareham

Since mid-2012, Human Rights Watch and others have reported several times on civilian casualties caused by Syrian use of air-dropped cluster bombs, but Latamneh and other recent attacks are the first known instances of Syrian use of ground-based cluster munitions. The rockets were apparently launched from the vicinity of nearby Hama airport, which is under government control.

Evidence we have seen suggests that Syrian government forces delivered the 122mm cluster munition rockets containing submunitions using a BM-21 Grad multi-barrel rocket launcher, a truck-mounted system capable of firing 40 rockets nearly simultaneously with a range of 4 to 40 kilometers (2.5 to 25 miles). Grad rocket launchers are notorious for their inability to be accurately targeted due to their lack of a guidance system. This exacerbates the danger from the wide-area effect of the submunitions the rockets contain.

More: Syrian regime denies use of cluster bombs

Homes, people bombed in Syria
Syrian city caught in crossfire
Inside the life of a Syrian rebel

Many countries, including Lebanon and Cambodia, have experienced civilian casualties from similar types of submunitions, both at the time of attack and from submunitions that didn't explode on initial impact. Each submunition is the size of a D-cell battery with a distinctive white ribbon, and the design of their fuze system makes each one very sensitive and liable to detonate if disturbed.

After years of civilian harm caused by cluster munitions, Israel's massive use of the weapons in southern Lebanon in 2006 helped propel governments into action. Working with civil society groups such as Human Rights Watch and international organizations, a broad-based coalition of like-minded governments sought to do something to reduce the unacceptable harm caused by cluster munitions.

Read more: Moscow suspends consular operations in Aleppo

The resulting Convention on Cluster Munitions, adopted May 30, 2008, comprehensively prohibits cluster munitions and requires their clearance and assistance to victims. A total of 111 nations, including many former users, producers, and stockpilers of the weapon, as well as countries contaminated by cluster munition remnants, have embraced the ban convention.

Yet there has been limited interest in the Middle East and North Africa regions, where just three countries—Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia—are onboard the treaty banning cluster bombs. Some nations, such as Jordan, say they need more time to study the convention's provisions, while others including Egypt, Iran, and Israel have produced, imported, exported, and stockpiled cluster munitions.

Read more: Envoy: 2013 could bring 100,000 deaths in Syria

The 122mm cluster munition rockets used by Syria bear the markings of the Egyptian state-owned Arab Organization for Industrialization and an Egyptian company called Sakr Factory for Development Industries. Syria could have bought these cluster munitions from Egypt, received them through military cooperation, or acquired them another way. With no transparency, it is impossible to say how or when they were made or transferred, though it is likely Syria acquired them long ago.

Syria's relentless use of cluster munitions, including in populated areas, is yet another sign of its blatant disregard for international law and the protection of its own civilians. Syria's use of cluster munitions runs counter to the new international standard being created by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, rejecting any use of the weapons.

The preventive impact of the convention and the standard it is establishing can already be seen as countries that have joined the ban rapidly destroy their stockpiles of cluster munitions.

In Syria, every time the government has used cluster munitions and other explosive weapons, a lethal legacy of unexploded ordnance is created. Given the terrible humanitarian impact, all governments, regardless of their position on joining the ban convention, should press Syria to stop using cluster munitions.

Read more: 'Innocence' survives 11 hours under bomb rubble in Syria

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT