An advanced type of Russian cluster munition was used in an airstrike southwest of Aleppo on October 4, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The use of the weapon near the village of Kafr Halab raises grave concerns that Russia is either using cluster munitions in Syria or providing the Syrian air force with new types of cluster munitions to use.
New photographs and videos also suggest renewed use of air-dropped cluster munitions as well as ground-fired Russian-made cluster munition rockets as part of the joint Russian-Syrian offensive in northern Syria.
“It’s disturbing that yet another type of cluster munition is being used in Syria given the harm they cause to civilians for years to come,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Neither Russia nor Syria should use cluster munitions, and both should join the international ban without delay.”
Most countries have banned cluster munitions due to the harm the weapons cause at the time of attack and because their submunitions often fail to explode on deployment and pose a threat until cleared and destroyed. Cluster munitions can be delivered various ways: fired by artillery and rocket systems or dropped by aircraft.
The Kafr Halab attack coincides with a surge of video and photographic reports of air-dropped and ground-launched cluster munition attacks in the governorates of Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib since Russia started its air campaign in Syria on September 30.
Photographs reported to have been taken in the countryside near Kafr Halab and posted online by local media on October 6 show the remnants of SPBE sensor fuzed submunitions, the first reported use of this cluster munition in the war in Syria. The Russian-produced weapon descends by parachute and is designed to destroy armored vehicles by firing an explosively formed slug of molten metal downward after the vehicle is detected by a targeting system.
Videos posted online by a local media outlet two days earlier and reportedly filmed in the same geographical area show explosions in mid-air consistent with attacks with SPBE submunitions. No casualties have been reported from the attack near Kafr Halab.
Human Rights Watch cannot conclusively determine whether Russian or Syrian forces were responsible for the attack. Neither country has banned cluster munitions.
Human Rights Watch has documented the use of cluster munitions in the war in Syria since 2012. Syrian government forces began using air-dropped cluster bombs in mid-2012 and then cluster munition rockets in attacks that are believed to be continuing, while the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) used cluster munition rockets in the second half of 2014. No other group is known or reported to have used cluster munitions in Syria.
The ground attack aircraft and helicopters deployed by the Russian Federation in its military operation in Syria are also capable of delivering other types of Russian-made RBK-series cluster bombs containing PTAB, AO, and ShOAB type explosive submunitions, the same types that Human Rights Watch has previously documented the Syrian air force using.
Data collected by Cluster Munition Monitor 2015 – the annual survey issued by the Cluster Munition Coalition in September – shows that there were at least 1,968 casualties from cluster munition attacks and unexploded submunitions in Syria from 2012 until the end of 2014. The vast majority of those recorded as killed were identified as civilians.
A total of 98 countries have joined the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, including Colombia, Mauritius, and Somalia in the past month. The treaty prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, and requires the clearance of cluster munition remnants within 10 years, as well as assistance for victims of the weapons.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions requires each state party to “make its best efforts to discourage States not party … from using cluster munitions.” More than 140 countries have condemned the use of cluster munitions in Syria, including more than 48 countries that are not parties to the treaty. Most condemned their use via national statements, as well as by joining resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council.
Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the Cluster Munition Coalition and serves as its chair. On October 1, 2015, the global campaign warned Russia against using any cluster munitions in Syria due to the “foreseeable and preventable” danger posed to civilians.
Evidence of New Cluster Munition Attacks
Human Rights Watch was not able to conduct on-the-ground research to examine impact sites and remnants and collect other data. To confirm the use of cluster munitions in the villages noted below, researchers examined multiple photographs and videos taken by various sources listed below. Additionally, on October 6, the independent research organizations Armament Research Services and Bellingcat published reports identifying the SPBE sensor fuzed submunition and RBK cluster bomb that deploy it as the weapons used in air attacks on Kafr Halab on October 4.
Kafr Halab, Aleppo
Photographs reportedly taken in Kafr Halab and posted online on October 6 by the Shaam News Network, a local media outlet opposed to the Syrian government, show remnants that Human Rights Watch has identified as SPBE sensor fuzed submunitions. A video posted by the same media outlet to Facebook on October 4 that it said was filmed in Kafr Halab shows munitions dispersing in mid-air and creating more than 24 small detonations. Another video posted to YouTube on October 4 by the Shaam News Network shows a fixed-wing attack aircraft dropping a bomb that ejects submunitions as it travels in the air, but does not indicate the location where the video was filmed.
No casualties have been reported from the attack on Kafr Halab.
According to a catalogue of Russian-made ordnance and munitions, the parachute-retarded SPBE sensor fuzed submunition is designed to destroy armored vehicles by firing an explosively formed slug of molten metal downward after the vehicle is detected by a targeting system. According to standard international references, including Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, an authoritative reference publication, each SPBE sensor fuzed submunition weighs 15.6 kilograms.
While no photographs are available showing remnants of the bomb that delivered the SPBE sensor fuzed submunitions in Kafr Halab, they most likely originated from an RBK-500 SPBE cluster bomb, which is the only type of air-dropped bomb capable of delivering this type of submunition. Each air-dropped RBK-500 SPBE bomb contains 15 SPBE sensor fuzed submunitions.
The SPBE submunition descends by parachute and is designed to detect and destroy armored vehicles. ©2015 Shaam News Network
The RBK-500 SPBE cluster bomb is banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. It is similar to the United States-produced CBU-105 sensor fuzed weapon used by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition during 2015 in Yemen. That weapon is also prohibited by the ban treaty.
On October 6, Armament Research Services and Bellingcat both published research identifying the SPBE sensor fuzed submunition and RBK cluster bomb that most likely deployed it as the weapon used on Kafr Halab on October 4 based on the same source materials available to Human Rights Watch.
A payload of five SPBE sensor fuzed submunitions can also be ground-delivered by a 300 millimeter (mm) 9M55K6 rocket fired by the BM-30 Smerch multi-barrel launcher to a distance of up to 70 kilometers. However, Human Rights Watch has not seen any visual evidence of remnants of 300mm rockets in the vicinity of Kafr Halab.
A video posted on October 7 by the media office of the Revolutionary Command Council in Hama, a coalition of armed group factions, that the videographer identifies as being shot in the town of Keferzita, northwest of Hama, shows smoke trails of ground-fired rockets launched from the direction of Jabal Zayn al-Abidin and multiple subsequent explosions of submunitions in the town. Another video posted hours earlier by a different YouTube channel, Kafrzita, and filmed from a different location, shows the same strike. A photograph posted online on October 7 by the Yalla Souriya blog with a title stating it was taken at Keferzita shows remnants of the distinctive tail section of a 300 mm Smerch artillery rocket.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented Syria’s use of the BM-30 Smerch multi-barrel launcher to deliver antipersonnel fragmentation submunitions, including at Keferzita in February 2014.
Ma'saran village, Idlib
Photographs and a video posted online by local activists on October 7, 2015, with title text that says they were taken at Ma'saran village in Idlib governorate, northeast of Ma'rat al-Nu`man, shows at least one unexploded AO-2.5RT submunition and the remnants of an RBK-500 canister which can contain up to 108 submunitions.
On October 8, Reuters published a photograph taken in Ma’saran that shows a first responder handling unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions that local activists told Reuters were used in an attack by the Russian air force on October 7.
In June 2013, the Brown Moses blog, which catalogs weapons used in Syria, identified AO-2.5RT submunitions in photographs it said were taken in Harbnafeh, Hama governorate. Since then, unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions have been recorded visually by media outlets and activists at various locations in Syria, but not their delivery system. These submunitions can be scattered from a KMGU dispenser affixed to a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter and also delivered by the RBK-500 AO-2.5RT cluster bomb.