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“Unleash hell”: Syrian rebels reveal the latest in their explosive weapons arsenal

On my word - unleash hell: the Hell Weapon revealed.

On my word – unleash hell: the Hell Cannon revealed.

Syrian rebel fighters have revealed their latest home-made explosive weapon this month, which appears to approximate a ground-launched artillery rocket. The development of such a weapon reinforces the still-growing escalation of explosive force in the Syrian conflict, which continues even after two years of fighting.

Over four metres long, and with a warhead containing 120kg of high explosive, the Sayidna Omar gun is the biggest weapon that rebel fighters have made and deployed. It is even larger than the infamous Grad rocket.

It doesn’t have anything like the same range as the Grad, nor can it fire forty rockets at a time, but its potential to affect a wide area is startling, even in this war where the heaviest, most wildly inaccurate bombs and rockets have long been a daily reality.

According to blogger Brown Moses, who broke the discovery this week, the Sayidna Omar gun is an updated version of another fearsome-looking weapon dubbed The Hell Cannon. Videos have been surfacing in recent months that show variants of this weapon in use in Idlib and Aleppo.

A Boom Industry
Facing massive sustained bombardment from the government’s enormous arsenal of conventional weapons, rebel groups have had to become increasingly inventive in their weaponry. Bomb-makers recycle the explosives from government weapons that failed to explode the first time, and use them to make their own mortars, missiles, and roadside bombs.

It’s a literal boom-industry, born out of military necessity.

However, the steady escalation in the explosive force at the disposal of opposition fighters certainly serves to multiply the dangers for civilians. There are two reasons why this is the case. One is the nature of the weapons themselves. And the other is the influence they have on the general pattern of the conflict.

Extremely loud and incredibly close
The harm caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Syria is well-documented. Action on Armed Violence recorded 2,409 civilian casualties from improvised explosive devices in Syria in 2012.

In comparison, there is fairly limited data on the harm that the array of DIY weapons presents to civilians. It’s hard to expect journalists and civilians under attack to be able to distinguish between a mortar mass-produced by Russian state factories, and one that was made in a rebel workshop somewhere.

However, many of Syria’s conventional weapons have now either been claimed or copied by rebel fighters.

Being easy to use, and giving rebels the capacity to attack targets from a distance, mortars are one of the most commonly mimicked weapons.

Attacks with mortars in the capital city of Damascus have grown rapidly in both incidence and impact this year. In 2012 AOAV recorded 31 explosive violence incidents in Damascus that did not involve an IED. That number was exceeded in the first quarter of 2013 alone. While not every incident can be captured by AOAV, our data shows a clear trend of escalating violence in the capital city.

And whether these mortars were home-made or not barely matters; the pattern stays the same. In 27 separate mortar incidents reported in Damascus between January and April 2013, AOAV recorded 467 civilian casualties. Not a single armed actor was reported to have been killed or injured. Even accounting for under-reporting of military casualties, it’s clear that mortars – improvised or state manufactured – are not weapons that should be used in the crowded suburbs of a capital city.

The risks presented by the Hell Cannon and the Sayidna Omar gun are obvious. Both weapons boast a massive explosive yield. Neither system appears to have any kind of guidance.

If these weapons are used in populated areas, it’s going to be impossible for rebels to be able to ensure that civilians aren’t caught up in the blast.

Tit-for-tat
The other reason why these weapons endanger civilians is linked to the wider context of this war.

As rebels build weapons with a longer range, it changes the behaviour of the government forces.

The air force has already been bombing its own civilians for more than a year. To evade the reach of DIY artillery and missiles, planes must drop their bombs from even greater heights. These bombs, which themselves are mostly unguided, now have the potential to fall further from the initial target, across unsuspecting towns and villages that might not have been in range otherwise.

On the ground, reports suggest that the pattern of violence is that state armed forces retreat to their protected bases and resort to their own long-range artillery. The head of the UN’s investigators in Syria has described how the government has deployed more imprecise weaponry as the conflict has unfolded.

The outcome of all of this is that civilians are trapped in the middle of an exchange of fire , an exchange of fire that is becoming more and more indiscriminate.

The illusion of victory
“Those who supply arms to the various warring parties are not creating the ground for victory but rather the illusion of victory. This is an irresponsible and dangerous illusion, as it allows war to unfold endlessly before us”:  Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, 29 July 2013.

Both sides need to stop this headlong rush towards greater and greater explosive power. It will do nothing but rain down more death and destruction on the people of Syria.

In the short run, the threat posed by such a weapon as the Sayidna Omar gun is obvious. In the long run, the rebels who have made and used these weapons will argue that they increase their ability to bring down the Assad regime and end the fighting.

Yet while both or either side continues to entertain the delusion of a military victory this mad dash for greater range and greater power comes at the expense of protecting the people they both claim to fight for.

Civilians will continue to die. They will continue to be horribly injured. They will continue to be driven from their decaying hometowns. The need for far greater diplomatic pressure is an urgent one. The UN has to do more to shame its member states into action. Last month the head of the Commission for Inquiry in Syria berated the General Assembly for failing Syrian civilians.

When it next reports to the Human Rights Council in September 2013 the Commission needs to remind members of the devastation caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

It needs to highlight the harm caused by weapons that cannot possibly be seen as discriminate or proportionate in populated areas.

And the UN needs to listen to its message, and put pressure on all sides to come to the table rather than retreat to the factories and bases where a new hell can be unleashed on the Syrian people.