Syria

Cluster Munition Ban Policy

Last updated: 09 August 2016

Summary: Non-signatory Syria has expressed minimal interest in the convention and has not taken any steps toward accession. It participated in one meeting of the convention in September 2011. It abstained from voting on a UN resolution on the convention in December 2015.

Syria has denied possessing or using cluster munitions, but its forces have used them extensively since mid-2012. At least 325 cluster munition attacks have been recorded in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates in the four-year period to July 2016, but the actual number is far higher because not all use is documented. At least 13 types of air-dropped and ground-launched cluster munitions have been used in the conflict as well as an unknown submunition that Islamic State (IS) first used in cluster munition rockets in 2014 in northern Syria. After Russia began its joint military operation with Syrian government forces on 30 September 2015, the use of cluster munitions increased significantly. The ongoing cluster munition use in Syria has generated widespread media coverage, public outcry, and condemnations by more than 140 states.

Policy 

The Syrian Arab Republic has not acceded to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The Syrian government has commented publicly once on the question of accession. In September 2011, its representative informed a meeting of the Convention on Cluster Munitions that Syria views cluster munitions as “criminalized by humanity” and said, “We appreciate the international effort to ban these weapons, but cannot sign due to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.”[1]

Unlike other non-signatories, Syria abstained from the vote on the first UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution on the Convention on Cluster Munitions on 7 December 2015, which urges states outside the convention to “join as soon as possible.”[2] Syria did not explain why it abstained on the non-binding resolution that 139 states voted to adopt.

Syria did not participate in the Oslo Process that created the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Syria’s participation as an observer in the convention’s Second Meeting of States Parties in Beirut, Lebanon in September 2011 marks its first and only attendance at a meeting of the convention.

Syria is not party to the Mine Ban Treaty or the Convention on Conventional Weapons.

Production and transfer

Syria is not known to have produced or exported cluster munitions.

Stockpiling 

Based on evidence of cluster munition use by government forces since 2012, Syria has imported or otherwise received at least 13 types of cluster munitions made by two countries, as the table below shows. The circumstances of when and how the Syrian government obtained these cluster munitions, including their quantities, are not known.[3]

In addition, it is not clear how IS (also called ISIL) obtained cluster munitions rockets of unknown origin containing a DPICM-type submunition called “ZP-39” that it first used in northern Syria in the second half of 2014.

Types of mluster munitions used in Syria since 2012

Type

Cluster munition name

Number of submunitions

Country produced

Bomb

RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M

42

USSR

RBK 250-275 AO-1SCh

150

USSR

RBK-500 AO-2.5RT/RTM

108

Russia/USSR

RBK-500 PTAB-1M

268

USSR

RBK-500 ShOAB-0.5

565

USSR

RBK-500 SPBE

15

Russia

Rocket

Uragan (9M27K-series)

30

Russia

Smerch (9M55K)

72

Russia

SAKR

56 or 72

Egypt

Missiles

9M79 Tochka with 9N123K warhead

50

Russia/USSR

Projectile

3-O-8

14

Russia/USSR

Dispenser

BKF AO-2.5RT

96

USSR

BKF PTAB-2.5KO

12

USSR

 

Use of the RBK-500 SPBE bombs and the 240mm 3-O-8 rocket-assisted mortar projectile was first documented in Syria after Russia entered into a joint operation with Syrian government forces on 30 September 2015 (see Use section below).

Use

From July 2012 until July 2016—a period of four years—at least 360 cluster munition attacks have been recorded in Syria.[4] Since mid-2012, Syrian government forces have used cluster munitions in multiple locations across 10 of the country’s 14 governorates.[5]

Cluster Munition Monitor 2014 reported at least 249 cluster munition attacks from July 2012 until July 2014. The frequency of reported use of cluster munitions decreased significantly in the second half of 2014 and first three-quarters of 2015.[6] It increased again when Russia began its joint operation with Syrian government forces and at least 76 attacks were recorded between 30 September 2015 and 20 July 2016.[7]

Use by joint Russia-Syria operation

Russia has denied using cluster munitions in Syria since beginning its joint military operation with Syrian government forces on 30 September 2015, but its response is unconvincing. There is growing evidence that Russia stockpiles cluster munitions at its airbase at Hmeymim, southeast of Latakia City in Syria. There is compelling evidence that Russia is using cluster munitions in Syria and/or directly participating with Syrian government forces in attacks using cluster munitions on opposition-held areas of governorates such as Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib, and on armed opposition groups.

Russia’s joint military operation with Syria has seen the first use of two more types of cluster munitions. Advanced air-dropped RBK-500 SPBE cluster bombs containing SPBE sensor fuzed submunitions have been used since October 2015 and ground-launched 3-O-8 cluster munition projectiles containing O-10 submunitions have been used since December 2015.[8]

A remarkable number of cluster munitions appear to have been used and failed, given the high numbers of unexploded AO-2.5RT/RTM and ShOAB-0.5 submunitions from RBK-series bombs recorded after attacks.

Several air-dropped RBK-series cluster munitions used since 30 September 2015 bear markings showing they were produced from 1989 into the early 1990s, particularly the RBK-500 SPBE cluster bombs, which appear to have been manufactured in 1990 and 1991. This appears to be a noticeable shift from before the Russian intervention, when production markings on the cluster bombs used in Syria showed they were produced in the 1970s and 1980s.[9]

The United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) have said that Russia is using cluster munitions in Syria, including in a 16 June 2016 attack on coalition-backed armed opposition forces near the Syrian al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq. Photographs released by the forces attacked show RBK-500 AO-2.5RT/RTM cluster munition remnants.[10] The US Department of Defense claimed that Russian forces conducted the attack.[11] In a statement, the Russian Ministry of Defense appeared to acknowledge responsibility for the attack, but did not address the reported use of cluster munitions.[12]

It is challenging to determine conclusively if Russian or Syrian government forces are responsible for individual attacks, as they use many of the same aircraft and weapons and frequently carry out offensives together. However, Russia is the only force in Syria to operate Sukhoi SU-25 and SU-34 fighter-ground attack jets used to deliver RBK-series cluster bombs. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and others have compiled credible evidence, including videos and photographs, documenting SU-25 and SU-34 near or involved in attacks near sites when cluster munitions were used.[13]

There has been no evidence to indicate that the US or its partners have used cluster munitions in the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition operation against the non-state armed group IS in Syria and Iraq that began in August 2014.[14] A spokesperson for the US Air Forces Central Command informed The Washington Post on 26 July 2016 that: “We have not employed cluster munitions in Operation Inherent Resolve. This includes both U.S. and coalition aircraft.”[15]

Earlier use of cluster munitions

Initial reports of the use of RBK-series air-dropped cluster bombs containing AO-1SCh and PTAB-2.5M bomblets emerged in mid-2012, when the government began its air campaign on rebel-held areas.[16] Its use of air-dropped cluster bombs has continued since then, including RBK-500 cluster bombs containing ShOAB-0.5 submunitions and AO-2.5RT and PTAB-2.5KO submunitions for which the delivery system still is not clear.[17]

Ground-launched cluster munitions have been used since the end of 2012, when government forces first used multi-barrel rocket launchers to deliver 122mm SAKR cluster munition rockets containing DPICM submunitions with distinctive white nylon stabilizing ribbons.[18] In early 2014, Syrian government forces began to use 9M55K and 9M27K-series surface-to-surface rockets containing 9N235 submunitions fitted with self-destruct mechanisms.[19] In July 2014, the first IS cluster munition use was documented during its advance on Ayn al-`Arab/Kobani, involving a DPICM-like submunition with a distinctive red ribbon called “ZP-39” by experts.[20]

There have been multiple examples of use of 9M79-series Tochka ballistic missiles, including in an attack on Al-Najeya village on 4 December 2015.

As the Syria conflict continues to spiral, it is not possible to determine with confidence if opposition groups other than IS have used cluster munitions. There is evidence that opposition forces have repurposed unexploded submunitions as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).[21] However, no opposition group operates aircraft and none have been seen in possession of the systems necessary to deliver ground-launched cluster munitions.[22]

Responses to the use of cluster munitions 

The Syrian military has denied possessing or using cluster munitions, but usually does not respond to or comment on new use of cluster munitions.[23] IS has not responded to its reported use of cluster munitions. In December 2015, the Russian Defence Ministry stated that “Russian aviation does not use [cluster munitions]” and that “there are no such munitions at the Russian air base in Syria.”[24]

The civilian harm caused by the use of cluster munitions in Syria has attracted widespread media coverage, public outcry, and condemnations from more than 140 states.[25] Of these countries, more than 40 have made national statements condemning the use in Syria, including by the foreign ministers of Convention on Cluster Munitions States Parties Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK.[26] In February 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern at the use of cluster munitions in Syria, which he said is “killing innocent women and children.”[27]

At the UNGA First Committee on Disarmament and Security in October 2015, several countries made statements expressing concern over the use of cluster munitions in Syria.[28] The CMC also condemned the continued use of cluster munitions in Syria.[29]

At the First Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in September 2015, States Parties adopted the Dubrovnik Declaration, which affirms: “We are deeply concerned by any and all allegations, reports or documented evidence of the use of cluster munitions, including in Cambodia, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine and Yemen. We condemn any use of cluster munitions by any actor.”[30] During the First Review Conference, 29 states condemned or expressed concern at ongoing use of cluster munitions, a dozen of which specifically mentioned cluster munition use in Syria.[31]

At the June 2015 intersessional meetings of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, more than two-dozen states condemned or expressed concern at new use of cluster munitions, half of which specifically condemned the continued use of cluster munitions in Syria.[32]

UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon has described “the carnage caused by cluster munitions in Syria” as “a direct violation” of international humanitarian law.[33] However, the UN Secretary-General’s statement to the First Review Conference in September 2015 failed to condemn cluster munition or express objection to any use.

States have adopted four UN General Assembly resolutions since May 2013 condemning the use of cluster munitions in Syria, including Resolution 70/234 adopted on 23 December 2015 by a vote of 104 states in favor, which deplored and condemned “in the strongest terms” the continued use of cluster munitions.[34]

Since April 2014, states have adopted seven Human Rights Council resolutions condemning the use of cluster munitions in Syria, including five since April 2015:

  • Resolution 32/25 adopted on 1 July 2016 by a vote of 27 states in favor, which “condemns the Syrian authorities’ use of…cluster munitions.”[35]
  • Resolution 31/17 adopted on 23 March 2016 by a vote of 27 states in favor, which “condemns the Syrian authorities’ use of…cluster munitions.”[36]
  • Resolution 30/10 adopted on 1 October 2015 by a vote of 29 states in favor, which “condemns the Syrian authorities’ use of…cluster munitions.”[37]
  • Resolution 29/16 adopted on 2 July 2015 by a vote of 29 states in favor, which “condemns the use by the Syrian authorities of…cluster munitions.”[38]
  • Resolution 28/20 adopted on 8 April 2015 by a vote of 29 states in favor, which “strongly condemns…the indiscriminate use of…cluster munitions…by the Syrian authorities against the Syrian population.”[39]

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which reports to the Human Rights Council, has reported on cluster munition use several times.[40]



[1] Statement of Syria, Convention on Cluster Munitions Second Meeting of States Parties, Beirut, 15 September 2011.

[2]Implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions,” UNGA Resolution 70/54, 7 December 2015. It also abstained during the first round of voting on the draft resolution in UNGA First Committee on Disarmament and International Security on 4 November 2015. “Implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions,” UNGA Resolution AC.1/70/L.49/Rev.1, 4 November 2015.

[3] In 2004, Jane’s Information Group listed Syria as possessing some of the RBK-series air-dropped bombs as well as the KMGU dispensers, indicating that the stocks used after 2012 were not newly-acquired. Robert Hewson, ed., Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, Issue 44 (Surrey, UK: Jane’s Information Group Limited, 2004), p. 846.

[4] Since 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has researched and reported cluster munition use in Syria as part of its responsibility as chair of the CMC and ban policy editor for the campaign’s Cluster Munition Monitor reporting initiative. The information contained in this Monitor profile summarizes and updates information published in HRW reports, which in turn draw on reporting by local media and activists—including videos—and witness accounts. HRW generally only records cluster munition attacks if the attack and/or remnants were filmed to ensure visual confirmation and for which at least one other source has confirmed the use of cluster munitions. The actual number of attacks is probably much higher, as local activists reported many more incidents of what appear to be cluster munition use. This 2016 profile update draws on the newly-established Syrian Archive digital platform that collects, curates and verifies visual evidence of human rights violations. HRW has assisted the archive to identify from hundreds of videos cluster munitions used in attacks in Syria.

[5] As of July 2016, the Monitor has yet to see any evidence of cluster munition use in the governorates of Tartus, Quneitra, As-Suwayda, or Al-Hasakah.

[6] Video database searches have revealed evidence of a few dozen cluster munition attacks in the period. HRW documented IS use in July–August and an air-delivered cluster munition attack by Syrian government forces on Manbij on 21 August. HRW, “Syria: Evidence of Islamic State Cluster Munition Use,” 1 September 2014.

[7] There were at least 34 cluster munition attacks by the Russian-Syrian joint operation on opposition-controlled territory between 30 September 2015 and 8 February 2016. While it is possible that new use went unrecorded, just two cluster munition attacks were reported in March, April, and the first three weeks of May. Another 40 cluster munition attacks were recorded from 27 May–20 July 2016.

[9] Markings on the RBK-series air-dropped bombs and their submunitions, as well as a comparison with the Soviet manuals for the weapons, show the cluster munitions used in Syria until September 2015 were manufactured at Soviet state munitions factories in the 1970s and early 1980s.

[10] The New Syrian Army (@NSyA_Official), “Russians are lying with E-conference & more updates on our FB page. http://facebook.com/The.NSAy.Official/posts/255901281444601 …#NSyA #RuAF #لسنا_وحدنا,” 19 June 2016, 1:18pm. Tweet.

[13] Amnesty International, “Syria: Russia’s shameful failure to acknowledge civilian killings,” 23 December 2015; and HRW, “Russia/Syria: Daily Cluster Munition Attacks,” 8 February 2016.

[14] In September 2015, the US Department of Defense listed eight Operation Inherent Resolve coalition members conducting US-led airstrikes in Iraq: Convention on Cluster Munitions non-signatory Jordan and States Parties Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Netherlands, and the UK. It listed nine coalition nations participating in US-led airstrikes in Syria: Convention on Cluster Munitions non-signatories Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and UAE, as well as States Parties Australia, Canada, and France. Department of Defense, “Airstrikes Hit ISIL Terrorists in Syria, Iraq,” 30 September 2015.

[15] Email from Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Writer, The Washington Post, 27 July 2016. See also, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Despite denial, ‘growing evidence’ Russia is using cluster bombs in Syria, report says,” The Washington Post, 28 July 2016.

[16] The 250-kilogram class RBK-series cluster bombs can be delivered by jet aircraft as well as rotary wing aircraft, such as Mi-24 and Mi-8 series helicopters. Brown Moses Blog, “Evidence of cluster bombs being deployed in Syria,” 10 July 2012; and HRW Press Release, “Syria: Evidence of Cluster Munitions Use by Syrian Forces,” 12 July 2012.

[17] AO-2.5RT and PTAB-2.5KO submunitions are capable of being loaded into BKF cartridges and dispersed by KMG-U dispensers. The AO-2.5RT submunition can also be delivered by the RBK-500 cluster bomb.

[18] It is not known if the 122mm rockets are SAKR-18 or SAKR-36 variants, which contain 72 and 98 submunitions respectively. The design of the fuze system in this type of submunition makes it very sensitive and submunitions that fail to explode on initial impact are liable to detonate if disturbed. HRW Press Release, “Syria: Army Using New Type of Cluster Munition,” 14 January 2013.

[19] Armament Research Services, “9M27K Series Cargo Rockets in Syria,” 22 February 2014. HRW attributed responsibility for the use to Syrian government forces, stating, “It is highly unlikely that rebel forces could acquire the eight-wheeled, 43,700 kilogram launch vehicle or operate its sophisticated fire control system without significant training or time to conduct practice drills. There is no video evidence or written claims that any rebel group controls any BM-30 launchers, its similarly sized re-supply vehicle, or any 300mm surface-to-surface rockets like the 9M55K rocket.” HRW Press Release, “Syria: New Deadly Cluster Munition Attacks,” 19 February 2014.

[20] HRW, “Syria: Evidence of Islamic State Cluster Munition Use,” 1 September 2014. Markings on some of the submunitions indicate they were manufactured in 1993. Brown Moses Blog, “The markings on what’s assumed to be a Sakr submunition suggests the designation is ZP39, made in 1993,” 4 April 2014.

[21] A video uploaded to YouTube on 26 March 2014 reportedly of arms captured by government forces from rebel groups shows submunitions prepared for use as IEDs.

[23] According to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), “the General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces stressed on [15 October 2012] that the misleading media outlets have recently published untrue news claiming the Syrian Arab Army has been using cluster bombs against terrorists.” According to SANA, “the General [in] Command said the Syrian Army does not possess such bombs.” “Syria denies using cluster bombs,” CNN, 16 October 2012. In March 2013, Syrian diplomatic representatives denied the evidence of Syrian cluster bomb use. Letter from Firas al Rashidi, Charge d’affair ad interim, Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic to Japan, to the Japanese Campaign to Ban Landmines, 7 March 2013.

[24] Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, “Russian Defence Ministry commented on briefing of Amnesty International,” 23 December 2015.

[25] A total of 143 countries have condemned the use of cluster munitions in Syria via national statements and/or by endorsing resolutions or joint statements. They include 93 States Parties and signatories (Afghanistan, Albania, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovia (BiH), Botswana, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Lao PDR, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia FYR, Madagascar, Malawi, Malta, Mauritania, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Mozambique, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, the UK, and Uruguay) and 51 non-signatories (Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Dominica, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, Gabon, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Kiribati, South Korea, Kuwait, Latvia, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Mongolia, Morocco, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Turkey, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, the US, Vanuatu, and Yemen).

[26] National statements condemning the use of cluster munitions in Syria have been made by Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lao PDR, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mauritania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Portugal, Qatar, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Togo, Turkey, and the US.

[27] US Department of State, “Remarks by Secretary Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry,” YouTube.com, 9 February 2016.

[28] Costa Rica, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal.

[29] Statement of the CMC, UNGA First Committee on Disarmament and Security, October 2015.

[30]The Dubrovnik declaration 2015: Spectemur agendo (judged by our actions),” annexed to the Final Report of the First Review Conference of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, CCM/CONF/2015/7, 13 October 2015.

[31] Bosnia and Herzegovina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, and Zambia.

[32] Austria, Belgium, Burundi, Canada, Croatia, Ecuador, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Norway.

[33] Statement by the UN Secretary General, Convention on Cluster Munitions Fifth Meeting of State Parties, San José, 3 September 2014; and statement by the UN Secretary-General, Convention on Cluster Munitions First Review Conference, Dubrovnik, 7 September 2015.

[34]Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic,” UNGA Resolution 70/234, 23 December 2015.

[35] This resolution vote is not reflected in ban country profiles for Cluster Munition Monitor 2016 as it occurred after the reporting period deadline of 30 June 2016. “The human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Human Rights Council Resolution 32/25, 1 July 2016.

[36]The human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Human Rights Council Resolution 31/17, 23 March 2016.

[39]The continuing grave deterioration in the human rights and humanitarian situation in the Syrian Arab Republic,” UN Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/RES/28/20, 8 April 2015.

[40] “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” UN Human Rights Council Report, 28/69, 5 February 2015.