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“New levels of brutality” in Syria says new UN report

Cities turned into ghost towns.  Syria today.

Cities turned into ghost towns. Syria today.

The news is again full of speculation about possible chemical weapon use in Syria after France said on Tuesday it was “certain” that the nerve agent sarin had been involved in attacks in the country. The claim came on the same day that the United Nations released a new report from human rights investigators on the ground in Syria. That same report could only say that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used” in March and April, but it was impossible to say what agents had been used, or who was behind the attacks.

In truth, these assessments, particularly the UN’s, don’t move the debate on much further than what was already known. Yet chemical weapons dominated coverage of the UN’s report, which was much wider in its scope and far more forceful in its other conclusions.

Front-and-centre is a catalogue of human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed using explosive weapons. The report prominently describes how Syrian government forces have continued a brutal and often indiscriminate campaign of shelling, using a wide variety of weaponry. And, in a concerning development, it also notes that armed opposition groups are also beginning to adopt the tactic of shelling towns and villages.

“Government forces conduct their military operations in flagrant disregard of the distinction between civilians and persons directly participating in hostilities. Extensive aerial and artillery capabilities continue to be deployed. Increasingly even less precise weaponry such as surface-to-surface missiles, thermobaric bombs and cluster munitions are being used.” – United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” 4 June 2013.

Also highlighted in the report are particularly egregious patterns of explosive weapon use in populated areas, including the repeated bombing of hospitals, and the government’s use of shelling to forcibly displace people seeking refuge.

Qusair is the latest town to experience the devastation caused by explosive weapons. The latest news was that the town had been retaken by Syrian government forces after rebels were driven out by a day-long rocket barrage. Video footage released this week also testifies to the utter destruction of large sections of the town. Hundreds of civilians are reported to be wounded, without access to medical care.

“Qusair itself is described as a ghost town, heavily damaged and filled with the sound of bombs. People are hiding in bunkers or, even worse, in holes that they’ve dug,” said UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.

More than 80,000 people have been killed by violence in Syria. The reality is that for the most part civilians are being killed or severely injured by the ‘everyday’ weapons of this war. Mortars, rockets and artillery, air-dropped bombs, grenades are being used every day and nationwide. These are the common tools of violence that along with gunfire are causing the most widespread suffering in Syria.

And that suffering invariably impacts non combatants. Action On Armed Violence found that in 2012, 91% of the casualties of explosive weapons in Syria reported in English-language media were civilians. Data recorded in 2011 and 2012 by the Centre for Documentation of Violations (VDC) in Syria estimated at least 15,276 people were killed by attacks which may have involved explosive weapons (categories which they use include ‘explosive’, ‘shelling’, ‘plane shelling’) of which 14,209 were civilians. This is approximately a third of the total casualties recorded by the VDC at this point.

Intervention is most likely to take the form of increasing the supply of arms to the warring parties, and the EU has already amended its embargo so that this becomes an active possibility. The conclusions of the UN report show most clearly that the use of explosive weapons by any party is leading to “brutal” violations in Syria. The supply of new arms under any motivation is likely to further fuel such brutality.

The UN was clear to warn explicitly against any plan to further fuel the violence by sending arms to Syria, saying; “There is a human cost to the increased availability of weapons. Transfers of arms heighten the risk of violations, leading to more civilian deaths and injuries… Increased arm transfers hurt the prospect of a political settlement to the conflict, fuel the multiplication of armed actors at the national and regional levels and have devastating consequences for civilians.”

Focusing concern so narrowly on chemical weapons is arguably misplaced when it is explosive weapons that are causing much greater harm in Syria. When this concern is used as a justification to actually send more explosive weapons into the country, that focus becomes perverse, as sending more arms into Syria will only serve to entrench and perpetuate the suffering of civilians.