Three years ago almost to the day, a group of high school students were busy preparing for exams when an incendiary bomb fell on their school. Survivors later described “fire falling like rain.”
At least 10 students were killed on the spot, charred beyond recognition by the bomb’s flammable contents, a jellied fuel mixture similar to napalm in its composition and effects. Those who survived were in agony, many with their clothes, hair, and skin burned off. Five victims died while being evacuated to Turkey for treatment. Siham Qambari, 18, received burns to over 70 percent of her body. She died in a Turkish hospital seven weeks later.
The attack on the town of Urm al-Kubra in Syria’s Aleppo governorate killed at least 37 civilians – mostly children with an average age of just 16 – and injured 44. This painful tragedy is worth recalling three years on as air-dropped incendiary weapons continue to be used in attacks on civilian areas of Syria, burning their victims and starting fierce fires that are hard to extinguish.
There has been a sharp increase in the use of incendiary weapons in Syria since Russia began its joint military operation with government forces almost one year ago. Human Rights Watch recorded at least 18 incendiary weapons attacks between June and August this year, and reviewed reports of another 40 possible attacks. The actual number of attacks is likely far higher as many go unrecorded.
Due to their notoriety, there is a tendency to view incendiary weapons as illegal weapons, but under current law their legality is determined by how they are used. Protocol III of the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in civilian areas. It was created in the wake of the Vietnam War and outrage generated by photographs of Kim Phuc and other children burned by United States napalm bombs.
But given this protocol by itself has so clearly not ended unlawful attacks on civilians, states should use the CCW’s five-year review conference in December to take meaningful action on these weapons. Most pressingly, states should improve on the weak language proposed by the United Kingdom for the conference declaration, which meekly “note concerns” at “allegations” that bombs like these have been used in civilian areas.
Failure to do so risks condemning hundreds more Syrians to the horrors of incendiary weapons.