“Should I spread my family out through the house so if a barrel bomb hits we won’t all die together or should we all stay together in the same room in order to die together? Should I sleep in the basement in case a barrel bomb hits, or on the top floor so I don’t suffocate if the barrel bomb turns out to contain poison gas?”
The words above were published on the facebook page of one of the organisers of the Planet Syria campaign just a few days ago, following a poison-gas attack by the regime against the town of Sirmin in the Idlib countryside. Such questions are not rhetorical or exaggerations designed to highlight how difficult life is for Syrians as a result of the bombardment they are subjected to on an almost daily basis: similar questions occurred to me during my last visit to my hometown of Atarib in the Aleppan countryside (only a few kilometres away from Sirmin) where just days before my arrival a bombing by a regime airforce jet in the town centre had resulted in the deaths of more than thirty people, all of them civilians. My sense of impending death grew once I arrived and heard the details of what happened from my mother who lives just one street away from the site of the explosion. This only increased my obsessive worrying over where the best place to take shelter might be in the case of aerial bombardment and what the probability of my dying was wherever I found myself.
The regime is well aware of the impact of fear, of death due to random bombardment, on the life style of Syrians in areas outside its control, where everyone is too preoccupied with minute-to-minute survival to think of the future, and where the sound of regime jets can be heard a number of times in a single day even if their target isn’t to be found in the area—just so they can spread fear and block any opportunity to create safe zones that would allow the growth of alternative administrative systems to overturn the equation of “Assad or the country burns”.
This was confirmed by the results of a survey undertaken by workers for the Planet Syria campaign, which canvassed 277 non-violent activists to find out what issues need to be focussed on in the current situation in Syria. It found a consensus on the urgent need to stop the use of barrel bombs and other weapons of indiscriminate murder and the importance of engaging in genuine peace talks that might contribute to ending the daily killings by reaching an equitable political agreement.
It is interesting to observe the reactions of decision makers and others involved in Syria whenever the need to stop the use of barrel bombs is mentioned. Despite the existence of a resolution from the Security Council, issued with the agreement of all its members (including Syria’s allies, Russia and China) more than a year ago, and despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad had denied the existence of barrel bombs in an interview with the BBC, the majority of these decision makers choose to avoid—while knowing how important it is—any mention of the importance of implementing the UN resolution calling for an end to the use of barrel bombs, which are regarded as the weapon responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths, not to mention the destruction of houses and infrastructure and the internal displacement and exile of vast numbers of Syrians. Maybe the main reason for this lack of will to shed light on this important topic goes back to their feeling that the only viable approach would be military intervention in order to impose a no-fly zone, against a backdrop of the total absence of international will to engage in such an operation. But these decision-makers fail to appreciate a number of points here, the most important being:
- The failure to raise the topic of preventing the regime from using barrel bombs actually helps the regime use them, given the absence of any international pressure on either the regime or its allies—even of a moral nature.
- The lack of any attempt to implement the UN resolution concerned with stopping the use of barrel bombs empties all UN resolutions of their content and leaves them just ink on paper, as can be seen clearly by the regime’s use of barrel bombs containing poison gas in Sirmin less than two weeks after Security Council Resolution 2209 was issued, banning the use of poisonous gases in Syria, including chlorine, under threat of measures being taken in accordance with Chapter Seven, which permits the use of force.
- The failure to stop barrel bombs helps Islamic State promulgate its propagandistic discourse, in which it portrays itself as the only actor concerned with defending Islam and capable of bringing an end to the crimes of the Assad regime.
- Preventing barrel bombs does not necessarily entail the use of military force; the Syrian regime has shown on more than one occasion that it is prepared to abandon its most important strategic cards when it senses true pressure. In 1998, Hafez al-Assad exiled Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), due to Turkey threatening the use of military force against Syria. In 2005, Bashar al-Assad agreed to pull the Syrian army out of Lebanon when pressure mounted following assassination of then Lebanese prime minister, Rafic Hariri—not to mention Bashar al-Assad relinquishing his chemical weapons stockpile in 2013 when the Americans threatened military action.
- Stopping barrel bombs will help strengthen civil, non-violent activism, curb displacement and exile, assist in the fight against extremism and speed the move towards a political solution.
This campaign was named Planet Syria because of the feelings of isolation and solitude felt by the majority of Syrians. Though many sympathise, this silent sympathy alone is not enough. We all, inside and outside Syria, have a moral and ethical responsibility to put pressure on all parties to bring a halt to the use of barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons, to work to find a just political solution, and to ensure that those living out on Planet Syria sense that we can hear their cry and stand with them.