Syria

Cluster Munition Ban Policy

Last updated: 05 September 2023

Summary: Non-signatory Syria has not taken any steps to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions as it sees military utility in the weapon as evidenced by its use. Syria last participated in a meeting of the convention in 2011. Syria abstained from voting on a key annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution promoting the convention in December 2022.

Syria is not known to have produced or exported cluster munitions, but it has acquired them and possesses stocks. The Syrian Armed Forces used cluster munitions repeatedly in 2012–2021, and again in 2022 with the support of Russia. Syria’s cluster munition use has caused widespread harm and has been met with strong international condemnation.

Policy

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

Syria has shown little interest in the convention and has not taken any steps to join it. The Syrian government commented publicly once on the matter, in 2011, when it expressed appreciation for the convention and described cluster munitions as “criminalized by humanity” but said it “cannot sign” the convention “due to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.”[1]

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

Syria participated as an observer at the convention’s Second Meeting of States Parties held in Beirut, Lebanon in September 2011. This was its first and, to date, only participation in a meeting of the convention.

In December 2022, Syria abstained from voting on an important UNGA resolution that urged states outside the Convention on Cluster Munitions to “join as soon as possible.”[2] Syria has not explained why it has abstained from the vote on the annual UNGA resolution promoting the convention since it was first introduced in 2015.

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

Production, transfer, and stockpiling

Syria is not known to have produced or exported cluster munitions, but has imported them and possesses a stockpile.

There is no publicly available information on the types and quantities of cluster munitions stockpiled by Syria. Based on documented use, Syria possesses at least 13 types of cluster munitions, as listed in the following table.[3]

Types of cluster munitions used in Syria since 2012[4]

Type

Cluster munition

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

Missile

9M79 Tochka ballistic missile with 9N123K warhead, containing

9N24submunitions

50

Russia/USSR

Projectile

3-O-8

14

Russia/USSR

Dispenser

BKF AO-2.5RT

96

USSR

BKF PTAB-2.5KO

12

USSR

                    Note: USSR=Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Use

Syrian government forces used cluster munitions extensively during 2012–2020, though reports of cluster munition use were infrequent in 2021. New use was recorded in November 2022.

On 6 November 2022, eight civilians were killed and at least 75 others injured when the Syrian government, with Russian military support, used cluster munitions in attacks that hit the Maram camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Kafr Jalis, and another four IDP camps in the northwestern governorate of Idlib.[5]The attacks used 220mm 9M27K-series Uragan rockets containing 9N235 or 9N210 fragmentation submunitions. Human Rights Watch (HRW) previously reported the Syrian government’s use of this type of cluster munition rocket, including during an attack on an IDP camp on 9 October 2015.[6]

Previously, the last evidence of cluster munition use in Syria was by government forces near Aleppo on 14 March 2021, but subsequent attacks could have gone unreported.[7] In northeastern Syria, the head of the Tal Tamr Military Council reportedly alleged that Turkish-backed armed groups used cluster munitions while shelling the village of Um Kef, near Tal Tamir in al-Hasakah governorate, on 4 June 2022.[8] The Monitor was not able to independently verify the alleged attack or determine whether cluster munitions were used.

At least 687 individual cluster munition attacks were recorded in Syria from July 2012 until March 2021.

Syrian government forces have been primarily responsible for use in the country, though Russian and Syrian government forces have used many of the same aircraft and weapons, and frequently carry out operations together. There is strong evidence that Russia stockpiles cluster munitions in Syria at its airbase in Hmeymim, southeast of Latakia city, and has used them in Syria since October 2015.[9] Russia has not explicitly denied its involvement in using cluster munitions in Syria, but claims that cluster munitions have been used in accordance with international humanitarian law and not indiscriminately.[10]

All except two types of cluster munitions used in Syria since 2012 were manufactured by the Soviet Union or its successor state, Russia.[11] The Syrian Air Force has used an array of RBK-series cluster bombs.[12] More advanced RBK-500 SPBE bombs, containing SPBE sensor-fuzed submunitions and a ground-fired 240mm 3-O-8 rocket-assisted mortar projectile, were used in Syria after Russia began its joint operations in the country in September 2015.[13]

Syrian government forces have used ground-launched cluster munitions, deploying multi-barrel rocket launchers to fire 122mm SAKR cluster munition rockets containing dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM) submunitions.[14] Since 2014, Syrian government forces have used Smerch 9M55K and Uragan 9M27K-series surface-to-surface rockets, which contain 9N210 or 9N235 submunitions and are fitted with self-destruct mechanisms.[15] Syrian government forces have also used Tochka 9M79-series ballistic missiles with 9N123K cluster munition warheads.

There is no evidence to indicate that the United States (US) or its partners have used cluster munitions in Syria.[16] The Islamic State used cluster munition rockets in Syria in 2014, and may have used them since.[17] It has not been possible to determine with confidence if other non-state armed groups (NSAGs) in Syria have used cluster munitions.[18]

Responses to use of cluster munitions

The Syrian military has denied possessing cluster munitions and rarely responds to or comments on reports of its use of the weapon.[19] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has not explicitly denied Russia’s involvement in the use of cluster munitions in Syria, but in 2016 claimed that cluster munitions have been used in accordance with international humanitarian law and not indiscriminately.[20]

The civilian harm caused by the use of cluster munitions in Syria has attracted widespread media coverage, global public outcry, and condemnations from more than 145 states.[21] In September 2022, at the Tenth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Geneva, States Parties adopted a report that expressed “grave concern at the increase in civilian casualties and the humanitarian impact resulting from the repeated and well-documented use of cluster munitions since the Second Review Conference.”[22] During the course of the meeting, many countries and the European Union (EU) publicly condemned or expressed grave concern over new use of cluster munitions, with at least four countries citing Syria as the key country of concern.[23]

Since May 2013, the UNGA has adopted ten resolutions condemning the use of cluster munitions in Syria.[24] Since 2014, states have also adopted more than 18 Human Rights Council resolutions condemning the use of cluster munitions in Syria.[25] The United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Syria has issued numerous reports detailing cluster munition attacks by Syrian government forces.[26]



[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 77/79, 7 December 2022.

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

[4] At the outset in 2012, markings on cluster munitions used indicated they were produced in the 1970s and 1980s; while since September 2015, most of the cluster munitions used in Syria bear production dates from 1989 into the early 1990s. Most RBK-500 SPBE cluster bombs were manufactured in 1990 and 1991.

[7] According to Syria Civil Defense, cluster munitions were used in attacks on Al-Hamran and Tarhin villages, east of Aleppo, on 14 March 2021. See, The White Helmets (SyriaCivilDef), “The regime and Russia's shelling on Tarhin and Al-Hamran villages east of #Aleppo yesterday has left unexploded cluster bombs that threaten the lives of civilians in the area. The #WhiteHelmets UXO teams scan the area to locate and destroy any unexploded cluster bombs.” 15 March 2021, 16:31 UTC. Tweet.

[9] Russian and Syrian government forces use many of the same aircraft and weapons and frequently carry out attacks jointly. However, Russia is the only force in Syria to operate Sukhoi SU-25 and SU-34 fighter-ground attack jets that deliver RBK-series cluster bombs. Amnesty International, HRW, and others have compiled credible evidence, including videos and photographs, documenting SU-25 and SU-34 jets near or involved in attacks on sites where cluster munitions were used. See, 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.

[10] In 2016, Russia provided HRW with a three-page position paper on the use of cluster munitions in Syria that claimed, “no cases of indiscriminate use of air weapons have been registered so far in the course of the counter-terrorist operation in Syria,” and concluded that “the question of the involvement of the Russian military personnel in the cases of indiscriminate CMs [cluster munition] use in Syria [is] totally inappropriate.” See, “Russia’s Position on the Use of Cluster Munitions in Syria,” position paper annexed to letter to HRW from Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 9 December 2016. In the cover letter, Lavrov states, “I expect our paper to be taken into account during the preparation of future Human Rights Watch reports on the activities of the Russian military personnel in the fight against terrorism in Syria.”

[11] Cluster munition rockets manufactured in Egypt have also been used in Syria, while the Islamic State has used cluster munition rockets of unknown origin containing a dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM)-type submunition called “ZP-39” in Syria.

[12] The 250kg 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. 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.

[14] It is unclear 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. See, HRW, “Syria: Army Using New Type of Cluster Munition,” 14 January 2013.

[15] Armament Research Services, “9M27K Series Cargo Rockets in Syria,” 22 February 2014; and HRW, “Syria: New Deadly Cluster Munition Attacks,” 18 February 2014.

[16] 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 United Kingdom (UK). It listed nine coalition nations participating in US-led airstrikes in Syria: Convention on Cluster Munitions non-signatories Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, and United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as States Parties Australia, Canada, and France. See, US Department of Defense press release, “Airstrikes Hit ISIL Terrorists in Syria, Iraq,” 30 September 2015. In 2016, a spokesperson for the US Air Force’s Central Command told the Washington Post, “We have not employed cluster munitions in Operation Inherent Resolve. This includes both U.S. and coalition aircraft.” Email from Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Writer, The Washington Post, 27 July 2016. See, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Despite denial, ‘growing evidence’ Russia is using cluster bombs in Syria, report says,” The Washington Post, 28 July 2016.

[17] In 2014, Islamic State forces used an unknown type of rocket-fired cluster munition that dispersed DPICM-like submunitions with a distinctive red nylon ribbon called “ZP-39.” HRW, “Syria: Evidence of Islamic State Cluster Munition Use,” 1 September 2014. Markings on some of the submunitions indicate that they were manufactured in 1993. See, Eliot Higgins (EliotHiggins), “The markings on what’s assumed to be a Sakr submunition suggests the designation is ZP39, made in 1993.” 4 April 2014, 17:27 UTC. Tweet.

[18] There is evidence that opposition forces have repurposed unexploded submunitions for use in air-delivered and ground-emplaced improvised explosive devices (IEDs). When activated by a victim, such devices are considered antipersonnel landmines prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty. A video uploaded to YouTube on 26 March 2014, reportedly documenting arms captured by government forces from rebel groups, shows submunitions prepared for use as IEDs. The video is no longer available online.

[19] 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 Command said the Syrian Army does not possess such bombs.” See, “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’affairs ad interim, Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic to Japan, to the Japanese Campaign to Ban Landmines (JCBL), 7 March 2013.

[20]Russia’s Position on the Use of Cluster Munitions in Syria,” position paper annexed to letter to HRW from Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 9 December 2016.

[21] More than 145 countries, including 53 non-signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, have condemned the use of cluster munitions in Syria via national statements and/or by endorsing resolutions or joint statements.

[22] Convention on Cluster Munitions, “Final report of the Tenth Meeting of States Parties,” 19 September 2022.

[23] Belgium, Germany, Mexico, and Norway, in addition to the EU.

[24] See, for example, “Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic,” UNGA Resolution 75/193, 16 December 2020. 

[25] Human Rights Council, “Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic,” A/HRC/52/L.16, 27 March 2023.