One month ago, the United Nations Security Council passed its a resolution demanding for the first time that all sides in the Syrian civil war halt the targeting of civilians and allow much needed humanitarian aid free passage. A pair of new reports — one from the United Nations, the other via Human Rights Watch — released on Monday show that neither demand is currently being met.
Under the Council’s resolution, all parties in the conflict were to have ceased “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs.” That urging, according to Human Rights Watch, only comes after thousands of civilians were wounded and killed in heavily populated areas such as Aleppo during government attacks on opposition controlled areas. Using satellite photos, the advocacy group spotted at least 340 sites within Aleppo that were damaged in the time between last November and February — most of which showed signs of being the target of so-called “barrel bombs.”
Barrel bombs, described frequently as “crude” makeshift oil drums filled with explosives and shrapnel, have seen a huge upswing in use in the Syrian civil war over the past six months, unleashing a storm of fire on the unsuspecting civilians they’re used against. “Use of barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods has done the expected: killed hundreds of civilians and driven thousands from their homes,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a release. “If these indiscriminate dumb weapons managed to hit a military target, it would be sheer luck.” According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, most of the areas in which the bombs were detonated had no military targets in the immediate area, highlighting the Syrian government’s lack of care about international law related to civilians in combat.
That hasn’t stopped following the Security Council’s resolution, refugees fleeing into Turkey told Human Rights Watch in mid-March. These civilians, along with those displaced within Syria, told one HRW researcher of “almost daily indiscriminate air attacks on residential and commercial areas in Aleppo, mostly by barrel bombs, far, they said, from any conceivable military target. The residents spoke consistently about seeing helicopters drop barrel bombs over them, the characteristic noise of the bombs while dropping and of seeing unexploded bombs, and remnants of what were clearly barrel bombs.” According to several witnesses, one such attack occurred on February 23 — only a day after the Council’s resolution passed.
The other half of resolution 2139 ordered all parties to allow humanitarian aid to reach the estimated 9.3 million Syrians still within the country who require food, medicine, and other supplies from the outside world. Around 3.5 million of those remain in hard to reach areas. In what was hoped to be a sign of the Council’s will being met, a U.N. shipment of aid rolled across the Turkish-Syrian border for the first time in the conflict’s three years. But the first report to the Council from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon shows that he is not particularly impressed with its implementation so far.
Approximately 220,000 civilians in and around Homs and other areas of Syria remain besieged, the report says, with the Syrian government blocking the vast majority of that number from receiving supplies. The report also documents several instances where “aid convoys either could not proceed or were prevented from carrying essential items, such as medicines.” In the latter case, a convoy in rural Damascus was held at a government checkpoint for hours, with government officials removing medical supplies from the trucks prior to their departure “on the basis that there were no functioning health facilities” in the government and opposition-held locations. And despite pledges from both the government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition to comply with the resolution, neither has shown much interest in follow through.
Medical supplies in particular continue to require case-by-case negotiation between the U.N. and Syria to enter the country, with several convoys cleared for entry later delayed at government check-points. “I think it’s small steps,” Dr. Richard J. Brennan, Director of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response at the WHO, said when asked recently whether President Bashar al-Assad has been seen adhering to the Council’s demands. “So one of the requirements of the resolution is tracking the implementation, so there’s a lot more advocacy and work to be done. It’s a first step.”
Assad’s first step would need to be met with many others to bring Syria into compliance with the resolution it would seem. Along with the violations on the humanitarian front, the report confirmed “there were continued reports of artillery shelling and air strikes, including the use of barrel bombs, by Government forces.” In the resolution’s closing clauses, the Security Council expresses its “intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance with this resolution.” Given the split between the permanent members of the Council — with France, the United Kingdom, and U.S. on one side, and China and Russia on the other — its not clear whether the Syrian government will face the measures promised in light of their continued defiance of the U.N.’s demands.