An Anatomy of a Mortar StrikeWide-Area Impact Report

Mortar fire on the Syrian-Jordanian border: an overview

This report is part of a series of case studies that make up an analysis of the wide area effects of certain explosive weapons and the concern about their use in populated areas. The report – Wide-Area Impact – can be read hereA video of mortar use can be seen here. An infographic covering this form of weapon can be seen here. An overview of the weapon type in consideration can be read here. And a map of the strikes can be seen here. A case study of the attacks can be read here.

One of the characteristics that unites most explosive weapon types and makes them so integral in contemporary military strategies is that they are delivered from range. Whether dropped from a plane or fired from a rocket launcher on a remote hillside, explosive weapons can often be launched from a great distance.

This distancing effect separates the operator from the target, and protects them from return fire. It also shields them from the blast impact of the weapons they have themselves launched.

This distancing effect, however, presents significant challenges to civilian protection. The use of inaccurate weapon systems in populated areas puts civilians at danger even when such weapons are launched at a legitimate military target.

Explosive weapons can miss a target because they lack either accuracy or precision, or both. If a weapon is imprecise but accurate each munition will likely land within a broad designated area, but they will not fall close to each other with regularity. If a weapon is fired with precision but without accuracy, munitions will land close together, but not necessarily near the target.

If a weapon lacks either precision or accuracy, as with many conventional indirect-fire systems, munitions are more likely to land haphazardly across a wide area. Explosive weapons that cannot be delivered with either accuracy or precision may fall short, wide or long of an intended target. They can land seemingly at random – falling without warning on civilian homes, shops and other key infrastructure. In a populated area, each munition that fails to exactly hit its target can mean death or injury to nearby civilians. A failure of even a few metres can mean an entire family is wiped out.

One group of explosive weapons that is particularly concerning in this regard are those that can be delivered by a process called indirect-fire. Indirect-fire is where a weapon can be launched without the operator necessarily having a clear line-of-sight to the target. Explosive weapons commonly delivered this way include heavy artillery, rockets and mortars.

Weapon type under investigation
Mortars, which fire distinctive fin-tailed munitions from a smooth-bore tube mounted to a base plate on the ground, are one of the most frequently reported explosive weapon types. They consistently cause a high level of harm to civilians and are a prominent weapon of concern in AOAV’s monitoring. Each year since 2011, mortars have killed and injured thousands of civilians; each year more than 90 per cent of all recorded casualties of mortar use globally have been civilians.

This percentage is either the highest or second highest across all AOAV’s explosive weapon types (depending on the year). On average four out of every five mortar incidents recorded by AOAV took place in a populated area. This is again one of the highest frequencies across all explosive weapon types and suggests a strong correlation between use in populated areas and resulting civilian impact.

Inaccuracy and imprecision are difficult concepts to illustrate using AOAV’s explosive violence recording methodology. AOAV does record information on targeting but can only do so under limited conditions. Between 1 January 2011 and 31 July 2015 AOAV coded 89 mortar attacks with a reported armed actor target. Half of these incidents took place in a populated area.

Even when armed actors were targeted by mortars in populated areas, civilians made up 95 per cent of the deaths and injuries recorded by AOAV. This fell dramatically to just 14 per cent in other areas. This suggests strongly that, while it is possible for mortars to achieve a military objective, in populated areas they are far more likely to affect civilians than armed actors.

In this case study AOAV investigates how the use of inaccurate weapons in and near populated areas puts civilians at risk.

Country under investigation
Between 1 January 2011 and the 30 June 2015, mortars were reported to have killed and injured 8,554 civilians in at least 29 countries. Easy to come by, transport and use, they are ubiquitous in many of the most violent conflicts and security crises around the world. But in no conflict are they more common or devastating in recent years than in Syria. The Syrian civil war has waged since March 2011, when the government of Bashar al-Assad began a crack down against civil uprisings in cities across the country. In the last five years, thousands of civilians have been killed, many as a result of the use of explosive weapons like mortars, rockets, missiles and barrel bombs, that has characterised this brutal conflict.

As the dynamics of the conflict have changed, the one constant has remained the repeated widespread use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. Between 1 January 2011 and the 30 June 2015, over half of all of civilian deaths and injuries from mortar (4,552 or 53 per cent of 8,554). In 2014, AOAV recorded 1,910 civilian deaths and injuries from 115 mortar attacks in Syria. Nine of these attacks hit schools in Syria, killing and injuring 254 people. Mortars are used by many parties to the conflict including the Syrian army and fighters allied to the group known as Islamic State. So inaccurate are these weapons that Syrian-fired mortars have not just killed and injured civilians in Syria. The fighting has spilled over into neighbouring countries, endangering civilian populations living across the border including Syrian refugees.

Five countries share land borders with Syria: Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In all five, AOAV has recorded deaths and injuries from mortar fire originating within Syria. The fact that people are being killed outside Syria’s borders by weapons fired from within Syria at apparent targets also within Syria is a sharp illustration of the profound levels of inaccuracy inherent in this weapon system.

Such inaccuracies are not, of course, confined to the Syrian borders. Border populations around the world often come under fire from mortars and other indirect-fire weapons. AOAV has recorded 196 incidents of cross-border shelling around the world between 1 January 2011 and the 30 June 2015.

These events spanned 25 different countries and territories. These include disputed borders (e.g. Cambodia and Thailand, India and Pakistan), and spill-over violence (e.g. Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, Burma and China).

Mortar and other inaccurate weapon use on the Syrian-Jordanian border
AOAV’s field investigations in September 2015 charted 15 explosive weapon strikes that crossed the Syrian border into Jordan between 2012 and 2015.

The majority of the strikes seem to have been from mortar attacks. In some cases it was not clear if mortars were indeed responsible, despite being described by locals as such. Some appear to have been either homemade ‘Grad’-style rockets or were manufactured ground-launched projectiles of unknown origin. It is hard to establish what weapons were used as the Jordanian military deployed quickly to the scene and the munitions were deposed of. The Jordanian military declined AOAV’s request for an interview.

This case study shows the rising impact of explosive weapons on the Jordanian border. This investigation catalogued one strike in 2012, two in 2013, one in 2014 and 11 strikes in 2015, highlighting the rising threat of humanitarian harm along the Jordanian- Syrian border in 2015.

Geographical location
Of these 15 strikes, the nearest recorded impact occurred 1.7 km away from the Syrian border (case study 13 – see AOAV website for more).41 The furthest strike from the Syrian border was just under 7.5 km away (case study 14).42 The most northern strike in this case study at GPS 32.66849, 35.9416 (case study 15).

The most southern strike at GPS 32.5213, 35.99725 (case study no. 14) – about 17 km away. In total the land impacted by strikes in this case study covered an area of about 60 square kilometres. There was no discernible military or strategic target within that area.

It was not determined – nor was it within the scope of this report to do so – who was responsible for attacks that fell in Jordanian soil.

The locations of the impacts clustered around two border towns, Ramtha and its immediate environs (nine strikes) and Tourra (four strikes), about twenty minutes drive to the north. This record of strikes is based on locally-sourced evidence, media reports and official statements. It does not constitute a definitive summary of all trans-border use of explosive weapons, as many strikes land in fields and are not reported or widely known about. Where possible a date, a GPS location and a name of a family whose property or persons were damaged in the strike was recorded by AOAV.

This report aims only to highlight the trends of such attacks. All case studies and more is available here.

Civilians and infrastructural harm
AOAV investigated fifteen strikes which between them killed one civilian and injured another 12. The wounds ranged from the superficial to ones that required extensive surgery. Property damage was recorded in 12 of the 15 strikes, with three strikes landing in fallow ground.

It was almost impossible to verify what type of mortar bombs were used in each and every attack on Jordanian soil. The fluid and anarchic nature of the fighting, combined with poor levels of media coverage, means that munitions evidence was extremely limited. What can be recorded is the pattern of harm wrought by indirect-fire weapons. Many of those interviewed described symptoms of psychological injury, such as sleep disruption, significant strain on intra-familial relationships or panic attacks.

The structural damage caused by these explosive weapons varied. Many strikes damaged roofs, with some suffering visible damage if the projectile penetrated walls and entered communal living spaces. Unlike aerial strikes, however, the strikes did not collapse buildings or reduce structures to rubble. Some of the incidents would have incurred significant casualties had these shared rooms been occupied at the time.

Financial compensation for the strikes varied from family to family. Those who were wounded in the strikes all received free medical aid from the Jordanian government. The family of the man who was killed in the first case study (see below) was both compensated and the funeral partly paid for. However, while the immediate physical harm (and in some cases psychological harm) incurred by those impacted by the strikes was treated free of charge, victims of the  strikes noted that their work and family life were disrupted – a reality that resulted in financial and emotional damage that was not compensated.

Furthermore, those who did not suffer physical damage but did suffer psychological harm were not offered therapeutic treatment by the government.

There were also some instances where repairs to structural damage was paid for by the Jordanian government, although in many cases the damage done was not deemed severe enough to require assistance.