Special Reports  ::   Flash Report: The Use of Barrel Bombs in Syria

 Flash Report:  The Use of Barrel Bombs in Syria

An Indiscriminate Weapon, Thousands of Civilian Casualties

The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC)

June 26, 2015


On February 22, 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2139[1], demanding, in its 3rd article, that "all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment" and referring to barrel bombs as an example. However, the increased numbers of victims – documented by names and full information by the VDC – show that the barrel bombings increased after the UN ban. Despite the short-term impact of the resolution on the Syrian government, leading to a decrease – for a while – in the use of barrel bombs, the government went back to using this indiscriminate weapon to a greater extent. For example, in March 2014, our center documented 249 civilian casualties by name and with full details. In April 2014, the numbers increased dramatically to 511 casualties. Hundreds of civilians continued to fall victim to this brutal weapon.

The first months of 2014 witnessed an unprecedented displacement movement from the targeted areas, especially from Aleppo, as we mentioned in a previous report[2] issued last year. By corroborating information from dozens of credible sources and conducting interviews with direct witnesses, including with supervisors at the internal displacement camps, we concluded that more than 500 000 people were displaced from Aleppo ( between January and March 2014). More than half of them fled to the northern and western provinces, a few thousands fled to the western part of the city held by Syrian government forces and tens of thousands sought refuge in camps in Turkey.

This flash report presents the most significant data that the VDC was able to produce since the issuance of resolution 2139 on February 22, 2014, and covers the period until the end of May 2015. The methodology of our report was to rely on numerous interviews conducted with survivors of barrel bomb attacks, including media professionals and reporters, doctors, civil defense workers and defectors[3] of the Syrian Air Forces. One defecting lieutenant colonel described in detail the nature of the barrel bombs that the Syrian government forces drop on populated areas. He distinguished between two kinds of barrel bombs: the first resembles the normal barrels (the circular cylinders) and the other is a square container. The two kinds of barrels are packed with high explosive substances such as TNT and C4, as well as with metal fragments, nails and shrapnel to achieve maximum destruction in the targeted area. The defense factories in Sfeera are some of the main places where these weapons are manufactured.

Our researcher in Daraa, Alaa al-Faqeer, took a photograph of an unexploded barrel bomb in Dael city in June 2014. It was 150 cm long, 70 cm diameter and was estimated to weigh hundreds of kg.  This barrel (opened on impact and) was packed with substances including diesel; it appeared to have two detonators and a metal wire, possibly to facilitate dropping it from the helicopters. Al-Faqeer provided us with the images that show the primitive manufacturing of the barrel and its unguided nature.

This photograph shows the unexploded barrel bomb of Dael city, mentioned above. The bomb opened on impact, revealing TNT and C4 inside of it (white powder).


"They care no more about death. Aleppo residents look at helicopters hovering over their heads and wait for the barrel… they either die or survive, but always expect an imminent death"

With these words, activist Nuha Ghreir, member of the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), described the situation of Aleppo residents after her one-month field visit to the city in May 2015. She briefed the VDC team working on the present report on the daily violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) and the continuous shelling the city is undergoing, particularly by the Syrian government’s helicopters, which deliberately and indiscriminately drop barrel bombs on densely populated areas every day.

In his interview[4] with the BBC on February 10, 2015, Bashar al-Assad denied the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian Army. However, the VDC has documented the killing of 6589 civilians from the beginning of the Syrian crisis until the end of May 2015, due to the indiscriminate use of these barrel bombs in various Syrian governorates, cities and towns. The largest number of victims was reported in Aleppo

Although the Security Council resolution 2139 explicitly banned the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, 3831 civilians were killed by this weapon since its adoption in February 2014.

Moreover, at the beginning of 2015 almost one year after the Security Council passed the resolution, barrels of a new kind -loaded with chlorine toxic gas- started being dropped by helicopters on many governorates including Hama, Idlib, Damascus Suburbs, Qunaitera and Aleppo, injuring and claiming the lives of dozens of people. Of those attacks, our center could document 51 and issued an investigative report[5]  on the matter. 

1. Governorates and Regions Targeted with Barrel Bombs

Aleppo has suffered the largest number of barrel bomb attacks since November 2013 especially on its eastern neighborhoods and northern suburbs after they came under the control of the Syrian opposition forces. Our center was able to document 2166 civilian killed in Aleppo alone before the issuance of the UN resolution and 2366 between February 22, 2014 and the end of May 2015.

The VDC has been closely monitoring lethal barrel bomb attacks on populated areas. The charts hereunder show the number of civilian casualties caused by barrel bombs in Syria before and after the adoption of 2139 for the whole country and broken down by governorate.

2. Testimonies of Shelling Survivors, Civil Defense Workers and VDC Reporters:

Ammar Ahmad Salmo[6], 31, general director of the civil defense in Aleppo, said that the city is exposed daily to barrel bombs, especially early in the morning when the residents are asleep. He added that although these barrel bombs are cheap weapons, they have the capacity of destroying buildings in a single strike, as was the case in the Masakin Hanano neighborhood in Aleppo. Half of this neighborhood has been destroyed by barrel bombs.

Salmo said: "The civil defense teams are accurately documenting the numbers of attacks, barrels, victims and casualties in several cities and towns in Syria including Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Damascus suburbs, Daraa, Latakia suburbs and Hama. We have more than twenty documentation offices in Aleppo alone. During May 2015 only, we were able to document the use of 268 barrel bombs in Aleppo and its suburbs in 127 airstrikes launched by the Syrian government Air Forces. These attacks resulted in over 500 casualties. As for the wounded, we documented 188 children, 119 women and 546 men. However, in recent months, we have been woken up by the sounds of so called “Fil[7] rockets”, surface-to-surface missiles that have a similar destructive ability to that of the barrel bombs'. These rockets are launched from areas under the control of Syrian-government forces. We were able to document the indiscriminate use of 245 Fil rockets on opposition-held areas in May 2015."

Thousands of barrel bombs fell in populated areas in many other governorates, especially Idlib, Daraa and Homs. The Syrian government has also begun using this weapon in new governorates such as Hasaka and Deir Ezzor, which had not been shelled by barrel bombs before resolution 2139.

Rashed al-Sarah Abu Saeed, VDC field reporter in Deir Ezzor,  reported that the Syrian government forces have carried out about 160 airstrikes on the cities and towns of the governorate from March 2014 until the end of May 2015. However, the use of barrel bombs only started in April 2015 in that governorate. Our reporter confirmed that none of those barrel bombs targeted opposition headquarters or ISIS positions. On the contrary, they appeared to have been dropped randomly on populated areas.

Doctor Hamza al-Khateeb, director of Quds Hospital in Aleppo, has treated numerous barrel bomb victims for minor and severe injuries. Head and spine injuries are particularly common among Doctor al-Khateeb’s patients. Similarly, fractures and amputations constitute more than 20% of the injuries. “In many incidents, especially during particularly deadly barrel bomb attacks, we had to transfer the injured to Turkey due to the lack of medical equipment. For example on 12 May 2015 in Jesr al-Haj Lafi in Aleppo a barrel bomb fell on a busy bus station causing many civilian casualties. We received more than 50 injured in the hospital that day. We immediately had to transfer 20 of them to Turkey due to the severity of their injuries.” Dr. al-Khateeb adds:

"In particularly severe barrel bomb attacks, I can have 50 to 100 wounded arrive to my hospital; almost 25 % of them are women, 20 % children while the rest are adult men. 5 % of these cases die immediately and 5 % lead to complete paralysis"

Furthermore, our reporter in Idlib, Mosab Shibib, said that recently the government forces have been dropping gas cylinders, normally used in houses, on neighborhoods and civilians. These cylinders, filled with explosive substances andshrapnel, are dropped from helicopters like the barrel bombs. On 2 June 2015, a government helicopter dropped more than 23 domestic gas cylinders bombs on Maarat No'aman, which led to massive destruction and killed four people including three children. Al-Maarra Now, a media office that covers and documents human rights violations in the city, provided images of this attack.

An Image of a domestic gas cylinder bomb. The Syrian government air force dropped 23 of these bombs on Maarat No'aman on 2 June 2015

An Image of the shrapnel (sharp metal pieces) used by the Syrian forces to pack the handmade bombs

An image of the destruction caused by the gas cylinder bombs dropped on Maarat No'aman city on 2 June 2015


A map showing the number of civilian casualties by barrel bomb attacks in the Syrian governorates after Resolution 2139.

[1] UN Security Council (2014), Security Council resolution 2139 (2014), 22 February 2014, S/RES/2139 (2014).

[2] VDC Syria (2014), ‘A Special Report on the Recent Air Attacks on Aleppo: Potential Death Falling from the Sky…’ accessible at http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/1394885517#.VYwHKflVhHw

[3] lieutenant colonel (S, Sh), a flight engineer who defected from a military airport in Syria, refused to disclose all the details of his identity out of fear for some of his relatives who are still inside Syria. He stated that in many cases, people familiar with certain regions were dispatched to locate the areas that would be targeted.


[4]BBC (2015), ‘Syria conflict: BBC exclusive interview with President Bashar al-Assad’ accessible at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31327153

[5] VDC Syria (2015) ‘Flash Report Syria: Chemical Attacks on Idlib’ accessible at: http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/1427567200#.VYwI0PlVhHw

[6] During the interview with Mr. Salmo, a barrel bomb fell a few blocks away from where he was in the Salah Eddin neighborhood.

[7] Arabic for ‘elephant’. As VDC activist Nuha Ghreir reported, this kind of weapon might have been given this name because its sound resembles that of an elephant

لأية ملاحظات أو أسئلة يمكن التواصل معنا عبر بريدنا الالكتروني

للاطلاع على تقاريرنا السابقة باللغة العربية

للاطلاع على تقاريرنا السابقة باللغة الإنكليزية