Syria’s embattled president announced on Monday that he was running for re-election amid the country’s civil war, even as more evidence mounts of his government’s continued use of indiscriminate force against civilians.
Even as Bashar al-Assad’s regime gears up to present a veneer of legitimacy to its elections, evidence continues to grow that the government continues to refuse to accede to international demands that it halt in its aerial bombardment of civilians. Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday accused Damascus of carrying out at least 85 strikes in civilian neighborhoods of the ravaged city of Aleppo since the passage of a United Nations resolution in February ordering the halt of such attacks. This includes, the advocacy group said, “two government barrel bomb attacks on clearly marked official hospitals. Two doctors and administrators in these facilities told Human Rights Watch that there were no military targets nearby and they believe that the government intentionally attacked them.”
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. The substantial majority of the 85 airstrike sites that HRW documented since February bore the signs of barrel bombs as their cause. “Barrel bombs, and other high explosive unguided bombs, tend to create larger zones of building destruction than is typically seen with other types of air strikes and artillery fire, often with irregularly shaped blast craters of shallow depth with scalloped edges,” the group explained.
Aleppo has been the locale of some of the most horrific scenes during the three-year long civil war, including massive destruction of civilian neighborhoods and deliberate starvation campaigns against those who would support the rebels fighting against Assad’s government. Citizens of the city last year elected a provincial council as a way to provide services that the government was no longer able or willing to provide; on Monday, the Assad regime launched a missile strike against the council’s headquarters, killing one person and injuring eight others. “As the regime continues to protect only its interests, slaughter its citizens, and suppress the aspirations of its people, we applaud models of local governance like the Aleppo Provincial Council, which is working tirelessly to support the Syrian people,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement condemning the attack on Monday. “These attacks will not deter those who are working for a better future in Syria.”
Despite the ongoing pressure from the international community and fighters within his country alike that he step down, Assad instead on Monday announced his candidacy for re-election in the June 3 balloting. At present, more than 4.2 million Syrians are displaced within their country, with another 2.6 million having fled to the surrounding region, making any sort of credible poll a near impossibility. Syria’s electoral commission also on Monday decided that those who had left the country ‘illegally,” meaning those who had been smuggled out of the country or crossed rebel-held borders into Turkey or Iraq, would be ineligible to take part in the poll.
“President Assad is talking about elections, but for Aleppo’s residents, the only campaign they are witnessing is a military one of barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling,” Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. That campaign is one that is expressly illegal under international law, as under the U.N. Security Council’s resolution in February, 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.”
Human Rights Watch did acknowledge in its report that the regime isn’t the only party continuing to take part in indiscriminate shelling: “non-state armed groups” have also been documented in taking part in the practice. The use of the term, however, doesn’t indicate which of the myriad of groups engaged in fighting against the government — which range from U.S.-backed moderate groups to fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda’s Iraqi off-shoot — are responsible for the bombings. “In one video reviewed by Human Rights Watch, fighters opposed to the government announced their offensive and warned residents to leave areas near military targets,” the rights group said. “However, at least some of the improvised weapons used are prone to indiscriminate effects when used to attack populated residential areas.”
The Security Council is due to review the implementation of its resolution at a meeting on Wednesday, and it’s expected that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will not mince words about the continued ignoring of the Council’s demands. The solution, according to HRW, is for the U.N. to finally move to place sanctions and other embargoes on the Syrian government, a task that it has managed to avoid for the entirety of the conflict. “It is time for Russia and China to stop blocking the Security Council and allow a weapons embargo on Syria’s government and other abusive groups,” Houry said. The Council should also “impose a travel ban and an asset freeze on individuals credibly implicated in grave abuses, and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court,” Human Rights Watch said. Given the lack of interest in any of these things displayed by Moscow and Beijing so far, however, it is unlikely that these options are currently on the table in New York.