Dumb Bombs: Why One Rule for Assad, Another for the Saudis?

1102_Bombing Syria
Residents inspect damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the main field hospital in the town of Douma, in Damascus October 29. There have been a growing number of disturbing allegations of Russia using indiscriminate airpower in Syria, the author writes. Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

If you watch U.S. government press conferences, you will occasionally come across a moment of incidental but illuminating honesty. One such moment occurred on October 28 during a routine press briefing with Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the command element for the war against the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS).

Col Warren was asked about the growing number of disturbing allegations of Russia's indiscriminate use of airpower in Syria. Just the day before, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, "it appears the vast majority of [Russian] strikes, by some estimates as high as 85 percent to 90 percent, use dumb bombs."

Warren echoed Carter's assessment, claiming that, "Russians have chosen to use a majority of really, just dumb bombs, just gravity bombs, push them out the back of an airplane, and let them fall where they will."

Col. Warren went further to castigate Russia for its use of one particular type of ordinance: "You know, there's been reporting that the Russians are using cluster munitions in Syria, which we also find to be irresponsible. These munitions have a high dud rate, they can cause damage and they can hurt civilians, and they're just, you know, not good."

That cluster munitions are "not good," except as a reliable method for killing noncombatants outside of an intended target field, is a well-known and established fact. According to one UN estimate, the failure rates for cluster munitions vary from between 2 and 5 percent (according to manufacturers) to between 10 and 30 percent (according to mine clearance personnel). They were subsequently banned by the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, which entered into force in August 2010 and has been endorsed by ninety-eight states parties.

Notable states that have refused to sign and ratify the convention include those that consistently uses airpower to achieve their military objectives, such as Russia, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.

The latter has led a relatively indiscriminate bombing campaign of its own in Yemen against Houthi rebels and innocent noncombatants. For over seven months, the United States has strongly endorsed and supported this air campaign by providing in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support, analytical support for target selection and a redoubling of arms sales and contractor support for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—over $8 billion authorized by President Obama in the last seven months alone.

One of the munitions that GCC air forces have used to kill civilians is U.S.-supplied cluster munitions—the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons , which are manufactured by the Textron Systems Corporation. According to Human Rights Watch, in one attack alone in either late June or early July, ten civilians were killed and thirty wounded, and many of the submunitions were unexploded, lying on the ground in villages and hanging from trees.

Of course, the GCC countries have also used a number of other bombs, whether smart or dumb, in a manner that is both indiscriminate and militarily ineffective. Just this past Monday, a Doctors Without Borders hospital was bombed, injuring one staff member, threatening the lives of civilians, and leaving 200,000 people without access to medical care.

So what have U.S. government spokespersons had to say about Saudi Arabia's use of cluster munitions and indiscriminate airpower in Yemen?

On August 20, State Department spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby stated that the administration had "discussed reports of the alleged use of cluster munitions with the Saudis" and considered them "permissible" if they are "used appropriately and according with those end-use rules."

The White House and Department of Defense have barely mentioned it or even been asked. When questioned about civilian casualties by Saudi air operations in Yemen on October 7, White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded, "We have routinely urged the coalition to appreciate the need to prevent civilian casualties."

Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes claimed similarly on September 3, "We have to hold all of ourselves to the highest possible standard when it relates to preventing civilian deaths, and that will continue to be a part of our dialogue as it relates to Yemen."

If cluster munitions are "not good" for Russia to use in Syria, why are they acceptable for Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen, especially since there are many examples of civilian deaths caused by them?

Now, that's a good question for reporters to ask at the next press briefing.

Micah Zenko is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (Basic Books, 2015).​

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