The agony of remembering the violence



Over the last nine years, human rights organizations have documented the intensive and frequent use of cluster munitions in most Syrian governorates, targeting dozens of cities and towns, including both residential and agricultural areas. 

The essay aims to elaborate the aim of the widespread and excessive use of cluster munitions by the Syrian government and its ally Russia against civilians in the Idlib region, particularly between 2019 and 2020. Further, the paper will highlight briefly the impact of cluster munitions on the Northwest Region of Syria from an "urbicidal” perspective, which is not only limited to the direct impact on the lives of civilians, but also concerns the after-effects in terms of damage to agricultural fields, residential buildings, school, water and sanitation systems, and other facilities essential to people's lives.  

Against this background, the essay argues that the Syrian government's ultimate expression of power resides in the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die in the last rebel-held areas. To kill or allow to live constitutes the limits of the Syrian’s government sovereignty while under the pretext of resistance and the war against terror it makes the murder of the enemy portrayed as terrorists/insurgents its primary and absolute objective. However, it does not only focus on killing per se but also on mutilating its population. Thus, to exercise sovereignty is to exercise control over mortality and the ongoing threat of maiming. To analyse the above, I will focus my theoretical discussion on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower (1976), Achille Mbembe’s theory of "Necropolitics" (2003) and Jasbir Puar’s “the right to maim” (2017). 

Remnants of URGAN 9M27K missile used by Syrian Regime forces


The northwest region of Syria (Idlib) had been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens who were displaced in multiple displacement waves starting at end of 2012. However, indiscriminate attacks, improvised explosive devices, and cluster munitions started posing a major threat to the Idlib region, leading to a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

Tens of thousands of people, including civilians and fighters, were transported in buses to Idlib. They came from Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs or Daraa - areas that were handed over to government forces in surrender deals or military defeat- while many of them had already been forced to flee their homes multiple times. Over half of the population were children, and widowed women-headed households (ReliefWeb 2018)

The military situation in Idlib is quite complex: Turkey supports the Syrian rebels, while Russia backs the Syrian government's campaign to retake the area. The main armed group operating there is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)[1], which insists to be independent with no links to any external entity. It is listed as a terrorist organization by the US, UN and Turkey. Pro-government politicians such as Fares Shehabi says that HTS is affiliated with al-Qaeda despite its denials. "They carry al-Qaeda flags, they practice al-Qaeda methods," he said (Ali 2020). That was used as an excuse to heavily attack the area despite the number of civilians who live there and have been displaced from other rebel-held cities to Idlib.

This is of major concern to the civilians living in Idlib. The United Nation (UN) estimates that it is home to 3 million people, including 1 million children. More than 40% of these come from other areas previously held by opposition forces. The UN says the air and ground attacks in Idlib have been causing both "massive waves" of displacement and "major loss of civilian life"[2]. (Ali 2020)

Idlib is the last rebel-held territory in Syria, nine years after the start of the uprising. The situation in Idlib is characterized by a constant flow of displaced people. Overcrowded camps and temporary shelters are everywhere and are largest near the Turkish border—many people have fled the fighting several times. The city faced several attacks between February 2019 to February 2020[3]. It started with Russia resuming airstrikes on Idlib and surrounding rebel-held areas that killed over 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib in one day. Turkey deploys advanced drones, armour, and artillery and has inflicted major losses on regime forces. (CrisisGroup 2020).

Russia has actively supported the use of these internationally-banned weapons by Syrian government forces and has not denied its direct involvement. Indeed, Russian cluster bombs were on full display at a Moscow exhibition in 2019 commemorating the government’s participation in the joint military operation in Syria. (ClusterMunitionMonitor 2020).

Between life and death

Cluster munitions pose a humanitarian threat to civilians both at the time of use and after the conflict has ended because of their wide-area effect and the inaccuracy and unreliability of the submunitions. At the time of use, cluster munitions can kill and maim civilians. After use, submunitions that have failed to explode threaten civilians who come into contact with them, either accidentally or deliberately. And, in practice, cluster munitions have often been used in the vicinity of civilians, against fixed targets, isolated vehicles, or in a counter-fire role.[4] (ClusterMunitionMonitor 2020)

Cluster munitions consist of hollow weapons designed to explode into the air and disperse large numbers of bomblets or submunitions over a large area, with the modern types being dispersed across an area of approximately 2,500 square meters. Cluster munitions are launched either by ground platforms and artillery systems or by warplanes or helicopters.

These munitions are indiscriminate and inaccurate, and their precision can be affected by weather and other environmental factors. (SNHR 2020).

The Syrian government uses the indiscriminate and inaccurate feature of the munition as an excuse to target the civilian. Moreover, the Syrian government insisted that no civilians in the city were killed but only “terrorists” despite all reports showing otherwise. The systematic use of Cluster munition in oppositional areas, especially in Idlib has proven that its main aim is to eliminate the opposition in order to liberate the country, As Assad said in a televised speech that hinted at Turkey's threats to intervene if the advances by the Syrian army continue “The liberation of the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib is continuing apart from some empty voices which is coming from the north,” (SouthChinaMorningPost 2020).

Cluster munitions turned into landmines kill or maim civilians and inflict serious injuries[5], with hundreds of pieces of shrapnel penetrating the victims’ bodies, and potentially leading to amputation of bodily organs, and rupturing of veins and arteries, as well as inflicting injuries to the ears and eyes that can leave victims wholly or partially deaf or blind. However, these munitions do not cause significant widespread material destruction, such as that inflicted by barrel bombs, scud missiles, and vacuum missiles, which can cause serious property damage, and ensure the killing and injury of as many people as possible in the surrounding area. That might attract more attention than only eliminating bodies, which have been classified as terrorists by the government’s discourse.

Against this background I am using Puar’s analysis who refers to the consequences of being disabled as worse as being deadand sometime wose tha being dead by referring to occupied Palestine as a case study. She says “the consequence of believing that disability is worse than death is simple: ‘not killing’ Palestinians while rendering them systematically and utterly debilitated is not humanitarian sparing of death. It is instead a biopolitical usage and articulation of the right to maim.” (Puar 2017, 108). The Syrian situation is as bad because of the state practices of the right to kill and to remain the people under threat to be killed or become disabled due to the long-lasting and unpredictable effects of cluster munitions as a means of attacking Idlib.

This makes it impossible to survive safely in these areas; making the cluster bombs one of the most prominent causes of forced displacement, along with the violent military attacks using various munitions and the military advancement of the Syrian-Russian alliance forces on the ground, which has affected more than 900,000 people since December 1, 2019, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (SNHR 2020)

The hazard of cluster munition remnants will remain even if Internal Displaced people (IDP) consider returning to their areas, making these munitions an additional threat and an impediment to their possible return putting them under siege in the Idlib area. As Mbembe puts it “The state of siege is itself a military institution. It allows a modality of killing that does not distinguish between the external and the internal enemy. Entire populations are the target of the sovereign.” (Mbembe 2003, 11–40)

Adding Foucault’s formulation of biopower here as a means to divide people into those who are made live and those who are let die. Biopower according to Foucault is a kind of a mechanism for "protecting" populations, but acknowledges that this protection often manifests itself as a “subjugation of non-normative populations” (Foucault 2003, 43-64). While Mbembe's concept of necropolitics acknowledges that contemporary state-sponsored death cannot be explained by the theories of biopower and biopolitics, stating that "under the conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred." (Mbembe 2003, 11–40). In addition to that, necropolitics is the right to expose other people (including a country's own citizens) to death. Mbembe's view of necropolitics also include the right to impose social or civil death, the right to enslave others, and other forms of political violence. (Mbembe 2003, 11–40)

The continuum of violence from the state against their own people cannot only be explained by the concepts of biopolitics and necropolitics, because of the dichotomy of living and dying. Here Jasbir Puar offers an alternative by assuming that discussions of biopolitics and necropolitics must be intertwined, as “the latter makes its presence known at the limits and through the excess of the former; the former masks the multiplicity of its relationships to death and killing in order to enable the proliferation of the latter.” (Puar 2017, 32–79)

Given the interpenetrations of sovereign and biopolitical power, in this case, mapping what forms the sovereign right to take life or maim is critical. As Puar puts it "The sovereign right to maim implicates all of the other vectors at once— make die and make live (because in some cases debilitation can be harnessed into “compliant” disability rehabilitation), as well as let live and let die, a version of slow death, a gradual decay of bodies that are both overworked and under-resourced". (Puar 2017, 139)

Although it is difficult to determine the number of injuries caused by cluster munition explosions since its first use. We can say that many people have been left behind in Syria, rejected as citizens, facing a closed Turkish border and limited access to humanitarian organizations, dying slowly or left behind maimed, disabled with wounds and missing limbs and no treatment or even access to it in the name of the Syrian state. Their disability, a “souvenir” from the Syrian government while remaining at risk of being killed or further maimed. The Syrian government makes itself clear: it wants to leave the “non-obeying” citizens in agony and remind them of the day they dared to be against it. Being against the sovereign will not be forgotten, a lesson being taught to the whole population.

Infrastructural warfare

Dozens of towns and villages have been captured by Syrian forces including a key strategic highway, the main economic artery through Syria from north to south, linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. The Syrian-Russian alliance forces aim at using cluster munitions to completely paralyze life in the areas under attack, with the areas targeted being effectively transformed into minefields due to the presence of hundreds of cluster submunition bomblets that failed to explode on the initial impact. From a "Necropolitics" aspect, Mbembe was clear that necropolitics is more than a right to kill, he writes of the asymmetric war against infrastructure, or the “war on life support,” as he calls it; the war on life itself, on the state capacity to preserve and nourish life. (Mbembe 2003, 11–40)

The impact of cluster munitions attacks on the Northwest Region of Syria is not only limited to its direct impact on the lives of civilians, but also in relation to the after-effects in terms of damage to agricultural fields, residential buildings, water and sanitation systems, and other facilities essential to people’s lives. In a quick estimate the Earth need tens of years to recover. Rebel areas banished through the sovereign power to exclude; the Syrian rebels isolated through disciplinary power of confinement in a certain province to deprive them of their basic rights like freedom of movement within the country and make the life impossible through what biopolitically Foucault called, “freedom is nothing else but the correlative of the deployment of apparatuses of security.” (Foucault 1978, 48)

Meanwhile, civilians living in areas affected by cluster attacks will not be able to live in safety until the lethal bomblet remnants of these munitions in the areas around their homes, and in their streets, markets, schools, hospitals and farmlands are identified and completely cleared. Therefore, most of the residents of areas that are targeted by cluster attacks are subjected to forced displacement to the north out of the country and away from the government held area, due to the impossibility of life and maintaining a feasible livelihood in these areas, This makes these areas uninhabitable compared to government-controlled areas.

After the attack and in light of weather conditions in Syria, especially in winter, with heavy rain and snow[6], the process of clearing the areas of mines and bombs is becoming an even more urgent issue since the remnants already sink into the mud caused by the torrential rain, or be buried under the snow, making them completely hidden landmines unthinkable to locate and liable to inevitable consequences. (SNHR 2020)

These remnants constitute a major obstacle to the return of displaced persons, the movement of aid workers and Civil Defense rescue workers and their vehicles, as well as posing a threat to the process of reconstruction and development. The images decimated urban corridors from across Syria have circulated widely in news media, highlighting the fact that the destruction of the built environment has extended well beyond military targets or “collateral” damage including, for example, entire residential neighborhoods. (Panetta 2016, 118-135)

The destroying of the infrastructure is also known as “Urbicide” the concept that can be broadly understood as the deliberate destruction of the built environment (Panetta 2016). The term has been deployed to resist placing the large-scale destruction of the built environment into the “conceptual dustbin” of “wanton destruction”. Although the term urbicide has not been widely employed in the Syrian context, various organizations have documented instances of urban destruction that could easily be understood as such. Numerous reports by groups such as UN agencies have detailed the deliberate destruction of residential neighborhoods by both the Syrian army and opposition groups.[7] (Panetta 2016, 95-161)


The use of cluster munitions by the Syrian Regime forces led by the Syrian government and its ally Russia violates both the principles of distinction and proportionality in international humanitarian law and is considered a war crime. Nevertheless, the Syrian government has been immune from accountability due to its Russian ally’s status as a permanent Security Council member. The door is open for it to use whatever weapons it desires in an internationally prohibited manner against populated areas. The children and people of Syria have suffered hundreds of limb amputation and disability cases because of the cluster munitions used by Syrian/Russian regime forces on a horrendous scale and intensity and over large areas. Paradoxically, Russia is the producer of cluster munitions and still keeps using them in Syria while being a party in the dialogue for peace and political transition in Syria.

Hence, the Syrian government's ultimate expression of power resides in the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die in the last rebel-held areas. However, it not only focuses on killing per se but also on mutilating its population; those who have been disabled deviate from the norm; they are the insurgents and terrorists. They became disposable bodies, and they become non-normative. Thus, to exercise sovereignty is right to exercise control over life and death, over the way of life and how to die, and all possible in between.


[1] Idlib has been controlled by a number of rival opposition factions since government forces lost control of the province in 2015. The main armed groups operating there are:1. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, a jihadist alliance), 2. National Liberation Front (Turkish-backed rebel alliance), 3. Hurras al-Din (pro-al-Qaeda HTS offshoot), 4.Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, Chinese Uighur-dominated jihadist group). In January 2019, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance of jihadists groups, launched a large-scale offensive against rival rebel groups in the area. HTS has now become one of the strongest militant groups in northern Syria. It largely controls Idlib province, including the provincial capital and the border crossing with Turkey at Bab al-Hawa. In 2016, al-Nusra Front declared that it had severed formal ties with the al-Qaeda network and renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The following year, it merged with several small jihadist groups fighting in Syria and formed HTS.  Although HTS insists it is independent and not linked to an external entity, the UN, US and Turkey consider it a group associated with al-Qaeda and list it as a terrorist organisat.

[2] At least 1,710 civilians have been killed, including 337 women and 503 children, since the conflict's escalation in northwest Syria in April 2019

[3] Since July 2012, the date of the first documented use of cluster munitions in Syria up to February 25, 2020, at least 492 cluster munition attacks, the record of the attacks is distributed according to the perpetrator party as follows: Syrian Regime forces: 248, Russian forces: 236, Russian/ Syrian attacks: eight. These cluster munition attacks have resulted in 1,030 civilians killed, including 382 children and 217 women. Furthermore, due to the explosion of munitions left from previous cluster munition attacks, 357 civilians at least killed, including 107 children and 31women documented. 

[4] Many experts seem to agree that, unlike, anti-personnel mines, cluster munitions are not inherently indiscriminate. But, by their very design, cluster munitions have an indiscriminate wide-area effect that can make them difficult to target accurately.

[5] These munitions often fall far short of the intended military target and are dangerous in their implications, which extend far beyond the era of war and conflict. In addition to the victims killed as a result of the immediate explosion of cluster munitions at the time of the attack, between approximately ten and 40 percent of these munitions remain unexploded but live, posing a lethal danger. The danger of cluster munitions on the children of the Syrian people today and in the future, because the munitions are often brightly coloured and shiny, meaning they can attract the curiosity of children, making them the most vulnerable group.



[6] The locations where Syrian-Russian alliance forces used cluster bombs are essential to warn the peoples in these areas and expedite unexploded ordnance. If that happened, thousands of hectares can be cleaned in Syria, which is polluted with remnants.

[7] According to Chris Chivers (2013), in northeast Syria, some families have moved into underground shelters, which, some sources allege, include former pens for livestock, Roman ruins, and even crypts. The targeting of medical facilities and schools has led staff to build subterranean operating rooms, and Entire schools are likewise being reconstructed underground, all that resulted in "Submersion of urban life."


•    Ali, Zulfiqar. 2020. BBC Reality Check. February 18.
•    ClusterMunitionMonitor. 2020. 11th Annual Edition, International Campaign to Ban Landmines–Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC).
•    CrisisGroup. 2020. Idlib Between September 2015 and May 2020: A Timeline. May 15.….
•    Foucault, Michel. 1978. Security, territory, population. Franve: St Martin's Press. pp.43-64
•    Foucault, Michel. “Lecture 17 March 1976”, in: Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976, New York: Picador 2003, pp. 239- 264.
•    Mbembe, Achille. 2003. "Necropolitics." Public Culture (Duke University Press) pp. 11–40.
•    Panetta, Deen Sharp and Claire. 2016. Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings. Volume 5 of Urban Research, Terreform, Incorporated, pp. 118-135.
•    PUAR, JASBIR K. 2017. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham; London: Duke University Press. pp. 95-161.
•    PUAR, JASBIR K. 2017. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham; London: Duke University Press, pp. 32–79.
•    ReliefWeb. 2018. Updates Syria. September 12. republic/10-things-you-need-know-about-idlib-province-syria-today.
•    SNHR. 2020. The Syrian Regime Repeatedly Uses Cluster Munitions Against Residential Neighborhoods in and Around Idlib Governorate, Constituting War Crimes. Syrian Network For Human Rights, Syrian Network For Human Rights.
•    SouthChinaMorningPost. 2020. World / Middle East. February 18.….