14 Mar 2014

What happened in Syria when the world was not watching

With the eyes of the world on Ukraine, an escalated campaign of barrel bombings by the regime of Bashar al-Assad has led to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children in Syria.

A child pulled from the rubble – the aftermath of an Assad regime barrel bomb attack – is as poignant an image as any of humanity’s strength in the face of brutality (see video, above).

The child survived the attack – but there are hundreds of videos posted online, from this year, showing people who were not so lucky.

It has been three years since the Syrian civil war began, and the number of human rights abuses being committed by both the Assad regime and armed opposition groups have been escalating.

Those who want to see the conflict grow… are using this opportunity to commit worse human rights abuses. Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International

Kristyan Benedict, UK campaigns manager at Amnesty International, told Channel 4 News: “Since the start of the year, and during the Geneva talks, there was an escalation in the indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian regime including, but not exclusively, the use of barrel bombs.”

Mr Benedict says the escalation in indiscriminate attacks during the Geneva II talks, in January this year, was a message from the Assad regime and the armed opposition groups that they were not going to follow the diplomatic path.

However, more recently there has been another opportunity for the Assad regime, and other groups, to carry out atrocities.

Though hundreds of miles apart, the events that have been happening in Crimea have made it easier for the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Syria.

“Those who are hurting civilians the most are those who are committing and justifying human rights abuses,” Mr Benedict said.

“..Those who want to see the conflict grow and who have an interest in conflict, are using this opportunity to commit worse human rights abuses.”

Out of the spotlight

The events in Ukraine have turned the media spotlight away from Syria, and have strained diplomatic relations with Russia, a member of the UN Security Council.

This week UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon implored international powers to work harder to end the Syrian crisis. A statement said that Mr Ban “deeply regrets the inability of the international community, the regions and the Syrians themselves to stop this appalling conflict”. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Syria and Geneva II mediator, has echoed these sentiments.

The video of the child in the rubble was filmed on 25 January, in Aleppo. It was a day when the world was watching protesters fill Kiev’s Independence Square and President Viktor Yanukovych offering job positions to opposition leaders in a bid to diffuse the growing unrest.

What many people were not watching was Aleppo – a city that has been the focal point of President Assad’s barrel bombing campaign.

Hundreds of videos posted online, largely by activist and rebel groups, show huge numbers of people who were not as lucky as this little girl.

Warning: the below video, a composite of activist videos showing barrel bombing and the after effects, includes images that viewers may find distressing.

Channel 4 News cannot show some of the video footage, which often includes severed limbs and mutilated corpses, because it is too distressing to watch. However, the footage we can show speaks to the mass destruction of lives and neighbourhoods that is taking place.

The barrel bomb is just that, a barrel filled with TNT and shrapnel. When it explodes the shrapnel sprays around the blast zone killing anyone in its path.

But the horrific simplicity of this weapon should not lead you to underestimate its devastating power. Barrel bombs typically carry between 1,000kg and 1,500kg. On impact, within a 250m radius, everything is destroyed – buildings are flattened, cars are torched, civilians die.

The barrels are so large the air roars as they plummet to earth – the briefest of warnings before mayhem hits.

And in 2014 their use has dramatically escalated.


Data from activist groups suggests that between the 25 December and 10 February, 556 barrel bombs were dropped on Aleppo – where most barrel bomb attacks have been taking place. Since 10 February nearly double that amount has been dropped, more than 1,000 barrels, on Aleppo.

It is estimated that a total of between 5,000 and 6,000 barrel bombs have been dropped during Syria’s civil war, killing at least 20,000 people. 1,600 of these deaths have taken place in Aleppo in the last month alone.

Syria’s regime uses barrel bombs in locations it is trying to “crack” – rebel strongholds where it is deemed this most ruthless of weapons is necessary to achieving the military’s goals.

In Darayya, a key district of Damascus under rebel control, 284 barrels have been dropped since 10 February (compared to 200 before). In a 72-hour period at the beginning of this week, 40 were were dropped.

Assad’s soldiers have also been keen to take the town of al-Zarah – a strategically important town that is located on a highway connecting Homs and Tartus. In the past two weeks 175 barrel bombs have been dropped on the town. On 8 March Syrian government troops took control of the town.

‘Yet another war crime’

William Hague has called the use of barrel bombs “yet another war crime” being carried out by the Assad regime, and has called on the Syrian regime to “cease” their “barbaric” use.

The British foreign secretary welcomed a recent UN Security Council resolution aimed at allowing aid to reach the people of Syria.

It follows other human rights abuses that have been taking place this year – including campaign of forced starvation in place like the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

The UN’s Relief and Works Agency has been prevented from entering Yarmouk for two weeks – something that Mr Benedict says occurred “almost simultaneously” alongside events in Crimea. He described how people in the Yarmouk camp, where 20,000 are trapped, forage for leaves and grass to eat.

And Mr Benedict says that though the recent resolution was welcome, the UN Security Council and the Friends of Syria Group, which comprises countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UK and the US, are “failing” the people of Syria.

He points to UN calls for funding to support the victims of this conflict both inside and outside the country, and how such calls have not been adequately answered. Total funding for these pledges currently stands at 12 per cent.

“They are not putting their money where their mouth is”, he told Channel 4 News.

Mr Benedict says Amnesty International wants to see a “more robust” response from the UN Security Council or individual governments to the human rights abuses taking place in Syria.

“In terms of a long term solution, long term stabilisation efforts, starting to reconstruct the country, moving towards elections – that is a long way away,” he said.

“Nothing is going to happen without the abuse to civilians being stopped.”

Standing with Syria

And something needs to happen – over 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, including 10,000 children. Around half the country’s population have been forced to leave their homes.

For something to happen, the eyes of the world need to return to Syria. Campaign groups have attempted this in recent weeks with YouTube videos.

A video from Save the Children, a “second-a-day” video showing what the Syrian civil war would be like as experienced by a UK child, has gone viral – with nearly 26 million views in a week.

Another video, featuring artwork from Banksy, a voiceover by Idris Elba and music from Elbow, is being promoted by a range of charities.

The video calls for people the stand with Syria, and is promoting the hashtag #withsyria.

You can see the videos below.