More than a dozen boys were killed at a mosque bombing in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo last week. Days earlier, a barrel bomb blast took out seven people in the city’s Ansari quarter. All in all, the weapons are estimated by officials to have killed more than 700 people in Syria in six weeks.
Barrel bombs -- crude, makeshift oil drums filled with explosives that are typically dropped from helicopters -- have seen unprecedented use in recent weeks as the Syrian government escalates its assault on rebel-held areas of Aleppo.
And they’ve attracted international outrage to match the death tolls, signaling the brutality of the Assad regime.
“Each and every barrel bomb filled with metal shrapnel and fuel launched against innocent Syrians underscores the barbarity of a regime that has turned its country into a super magnet for terror,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement last week as the fatality count climbed. Washington Post blogger Max Fisher wrote as much in December when he identified the bombs as evidence of Assad’s “narrow and obsessive pursuit of mayhem and destruction as seemingly official strategy.”
So what makes barrel bombs so much deadlier than more conventional weaponry? And how have they emerged so suddenly?
Actually, they aren’t quite new. Eliot Higgins, a prolific blogger who has been covering the Syrian civil war for several years under the pseudonym “Brown Moses,” traces their use in Aleppo to August of 2012, after which they spread across the country. Early incarnations were little more than spare containers filled in with explosives and scrap metal and lit with a wick fuse, making the bomb liable to explode mid-air.
“What's changed with the recent improvements to the DIY barrel bombs is they've become far more reliable,” Higgins explained in an email to Newsweek. “It’s much larger, with an estimated weight of up to 2,000 pounds, and has a DIY impact fuse, so it’s more reliable.”
Concerningly, the same design has appeared in explosives across the country; the less effective earlier models differed wildly depending on where they were made.
“It may also suggest these bombs are being manufactured in central locations and transported to do different airbases from those locations.”
What isn’t in question is that the new bombs have far exceeded their predecessors in intensity and terrifying frequency of use.
“In terms of the effects these weapons have, they really are similar to conventional weapons,” said Robert Perkins, an explosive violence researcher who works for London organization Action on Armed Violence.
Perkins cautioned that some regular air bombs are being falsely reported as barrel bombs, given how popular the term has become. But the crude explosives have unquestionably increased in use and accuracy, and their size can be staggering. “Some of the analyses you see out there suggest they can hold as much as 3,000 pounds of explosives, which is enormous and dwarfs even the bigger bombs.”
When they are dropped from helicopters, they emit a loud, tearing sound, spurring nearby civilians to run and “hide waiting for their death,” as one activist described it to Fox. A recent video by the group SyrianZero depicts the terror.
But the recent terror stems only partly from the size factor.
“It’s more because of the amount they’re being used,” Perkins added — a factor that stems from how easy the weapons are to build. “I saw one report saying that they dropped 17 in one district on Saturday. Even if you account for high failure rate, you're going to have a lot of explosions [and] a catastrophic impact in a populated area.”