In the newly released report, Human Rights Watch chronicles the increasing use of air strikes in the ongoing conflict in Syria, representing a shift from the early days of fighting. Since the beginning of the conflict, an estimated 70,000 Syrians have died, mostly at the hands of government security forces.
Among the targets that the Assad regime is said in the report to have focused on include those with no military value, but instead represent areas where civilians would meet in large numbers. This includes eight documented air strikes on four bakeries throughout Syria, all while people waited in bread lines away from active fighting between the government and rebel fighters. In once instance, a government helicopter circled a bakery near Aleppo, before dropping two bombs in the immediate vicinity, killing at least twenty-three civilians and injuring another thirty.
Another issue at play is technological inferiority in the skies, compared to, for example, the accuracy that U.S. air power displays. The Syrian Air Force’s lack of precision also plays a role in increased civilian casualties:
Four Syrian Air Force officers who defected told Human Rights Watch that the Syrian Air Force does not have the technology to identify and target specific military objectives in urban areas. They believed their commanders nonetheless ordered air strikes in cities and towns, in part to instill fear in the civilian population in opposition strongholds, and also to deprive the opposition of its support.
Civilian casualties are always possible, even when using the most sophisticated technology, as NATO uses in Afghanistan. As Human Rights Watch points out, however, the intentional targeting of civilians by the Syrian government (PBS’s Frontline has recently documented on such case) violates international law. “In village after village, we found a civilian population terrified by their country’s own air force,” said Ole Solvang, a Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher who visited the sites and interviewed many of the victims and witnesses. “These illegal air strikes killed and injured many civilians and sowed a path of destruction, fear, and displacement.”
Human Rights Watch’s report comes out as the United States continues to grapple with what role it should play in ending the strife in Syria. So far, the Obama administration has spent $385 million on humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians alone, and recently reportedly agreed to provide greater amounts of non-lethal assistance to Syria’s rebels. Calls for the United States to provide weapons to the certain parts of the Syrian opposition or establish a No-Fly Zone in Syria have increased in volume in recent weeks, even as one rebel groups’ ties to Al Qaeda have increased.