Listen to the interview here:
The Syrian conflict has claimed more than a 100,000 lives, forced millions of people to leave their homes, and reduced cities to rubble. That’s according to Action on Armed Violence.
AOAV works to reduce and hopefully prevent the impact of conflicts around the world, and lately they have been taking a closer look at Syria where explosive weapons have shaped the dynamics of the fighting.
Robert Perkins is their Senior Weapons Researcher.
“It is now three years pretty much to the week that the conflict first started. In 2011 there were a series of protests which the Syrian government responded to with the actual use of explosive weapons, pretty early on. This is unusual; it’s not very common for a government to deploy such heavy weapons, that aren’t really used for domestic law enforcement, among its own people. And that rapidly escalated into a series of increasingly violent face-offs, standoffs.
And everyone knows the story of how the conflict developed over the next two years. The use of explosive weapons steadily escalated, and in February 2012 we saw the first situation where they were used in a wholesale sense in a populated area. In the city of Homs the steady bombardment that month killed more than 640 civilians.
And that was a turning point from which we haven’t really looked back.
And three years down the line the conflict has continued to develop at the cost of more than 100,000 lives, many of whom are civilians.”
Are we seeing the use of these weapons by both sides?
“Very much so, yes. It’s by no means just the regime who are using explosive weapons, and heavy explosive weapons at that.
At first this wasn’t the case, but for well over a year that’s definitely been the case that all parties are using explosive weapons.”
What exactly is an explosive weapon? Could you describe some of them for us?
“It’s a good question because they’re not an obvious category to understand first off.
It’s anything that affects an area with blast and fragmentation effects. It includes air-dropped bombs, and the barrel bombs we’ve seen a lot of recently are an example of that; it includes things like rockets, mortars, and artillery shells; and it also includes the improvised bomb, which have caused a large number of civilian casualties both in Syria and elsewhere.
All of these weapons share the same central characteristic in that they are unable to limit their effects to one single person, which is why they have been such a problem, and why they been the driver of the crisis in Syria.”
How would you compare the crisis in Syria to other conflicts in the world?
“The use of explosive weapons in Syria has been much more intensive than anywhere else in the world at the moment, though we’ve seen examples in recent years in 2006 in the Gaza Strip [sic. Lebanon], and 2008 in Sri Lanka for example. Also in Iraq and Afghanistan for example these weapons are widely used. My organisation Action on Armed Violence records the casualties of explosive weapons around the world from English-language media sources.
Both last year and also in 2012 we recorded a casualty from an explosive weapon in 58 different countries. So they are widely used weapons, but in Syria it is more intense than anywhere else in the world, judging from our data alone. As an indication of that, 89% of the casualties that we’ve recorded from explosive weapons in Syria have been civilians; unarmed people, innocent people. That is much, much higher than the rest of the world, even though that number is high too. In the rest of the world not including Syria, that percentage drops to 75%. So that’s one example of how significant these weapons have been here.”
Aren’t these weapons very expensive?
“Yes, I suppose they are, but Syria had an extremely well-stocked arsenal of these weapons before the war started. They had one of the biggest stockpiles of weapons and platforms to use them in the Middle East and North Africa, anywhere in the world basically, and that had been built up over a long time.
What’s important to note is that these aren’t necessarily new, flash, smart weapons, they are weapons that date back to the 1960s and 70s in many cases and mostly bought from the former Soviet Union, and they’ve been built up over a very long period of time.
And they’re being used as I said earlier by both regime and the opposition. A lot of the weapons that the opposition are sourcing are coming directly from the regime’s stockpiles, either stockpiles that have been raided or have been seized during combat. But these weapons are also being made now by both the government and the opposition forces themselves. Both sides are using makeshift, DIY weapons to supplement their existing arsenals.”
What lessons can we learn from this situation in Syria?
“There is a lot that can be learnt, and a lot that needs to be done both in Syria and elsewhere. We need to do everything we can to prevent another situation like this emerging.
My organisation is part of something called the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and we believe that it is of paramount importance that states begin to challenge and explore their own practices around the use of these weapons. For far, far too long it’s been accepted that explosive weapons, weapons that affect an area, can be used where civilians are gathered, and the casualties that result from that are simply unfortunate collateral damage.
And this can be seen even in Syria where three years down the line people approach it with a sense of great fatigue. Even here, where it is never un-shocking what is happening in Syria, but even here people are just acknowledging the impact on civilians with barely a shrug. And that has to stop.
We’re not calling for a ban on these weapons, we recognise that will probably never happen, but we are calling for states to take on their own practices and raise the threshold of acceptability around their use in places where civilians could be affected.”
Robert Perkins, a Senior Weapons Researcher with Action on Armed Violence, and author of the report Syria: Three years in, a country torn apart by explosive violence.
To read more about AOAV’s work on Syria and the impact of explosive weapons go to
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.