The legacy of explosive violence in Syria

A Syrian man collects vegetables from a vegetable patch amongst the ruins of Baedeen, Aleppo, 2014 A Syrian man collects vegetables from a vegetable patch amongst the ruins of Baedeen, Aleppo, 2014 © AFP PHOTO/ZEIN Al-RIFAI/AMC

This article is a brief presentation of the AOAV’s report on the deadly legacy of explosive violence in Syria

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a global monitor of explosive violence, focuses on the consequences of weapon-based violence and explosive weapons on populated areas. In its recently published report “Syria in 2020: the deadly legacy of explosive violence and its impact on infrastructure and health”, AOAV examines the consequences of the extensive use of explosive weapons in Syria’s densely populated urban areas between 2017 and 2019. The report is based on data collected by the NGO Amnesty International, the World Bank and the 2019 REACH study on the humanitarian situation in Syria.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for refugee, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, more than 5.5 million people have fled Syria seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and an additional 6.6 million persons are displaced within the country amid the continuation of the  war. The war ravaging Syria for 10 years has created the largest refugee crisis since World War II and constitutes one of the worst global humanitarian crises. 

The report focuses on the impact on the health of Syria’s population due to the massive use of explosive weapons. Indiscriminate attacks on populated areas, resulting in the destruction of civilian infrastructure, affected particularly health facilities and water networks but the explosive violence also created mountains of rubble (in Aleppo, nearly 15 million tons of rubble by 2017) which cause environmental concerns for 2020. 

As three-quarters of the attacks took place in urban areas, the use of explosives has seriously damaged or destroyed thousands of civilian infrastructures, including homes, schools and health facilities. In Aleppo, almost 36 000 buildings were damaged and in Raqqa over 13 000. Ghouta and Homs witnessed a similar level of destruction. In particular, AOAV underlines that the damage to “infrastructure is a cross-cutting issue that impacts on all elements of life”, such as health. As a result of the conflict, until 2017, about half of the medical facilities were destroyed or damaged which led to shortages of medical supplies and a lack of health workers. The report further describes the deliberate and unlawful attacks on polyclinics, hospitals and medical centers in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, which have witnessed the highest level of damage in the health sector. Health infrastructures have been specifically targeted and used for military purposes despite being prohibited by the international humanitarian law and the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 2286. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Physician for Human Rights has documented nearly 400 attacks on 269 hospitals,  estimating that “16 percent of all health facilities were completely destroyed, and 42 percent were damaged partially”. This caused a rapid deterioration of health conditions for thousands of civilians trapped in urban areas and had a devastating impact on treating injuries caused by explosive weapons. However, the breakdown of the health system did not only affect the number of direct fatalities caused by the fighting but also patients requiring regular medical care, such as maternal and child care, mental health services, chronic conditions, etc..

The use of explosive weapons in urban areas poses serious health risks since the dust generated by the explosions of buildings contains a mixture of materials, including metals, cement and silica. The exposure to large amounts of this dust “can have both [a] physical and chemical impact on [the]health”, causing skin and throat irritation, serious long-term threats to respiratory health, etc. Years of war turned cities into rubble and ravaged towns and  it is estimated that in Aleppo it would take an estimated 26 million "truck-kilometers" to clear the accumulation of rubble, while in Homs about 2 years of work and 2.3 million "truck-kilometers" could be necessary to clear the debris. However, “these are academic calculations” as the removal of debris poses several challenges: it is costly, takes time to clear and the funds and equipment to carry out the work are not yet available. Moreover, the process entails environmental risks, such as carbon dioxide emissions and the pollution of water resources, and therefore AOAV underlines the importance of ensuring the integration of the environment into recovery plans.

The report also considers “explosives among the debris” and AOAV is concerned about the extensive levels of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Syria. While little data exists on the UXO contamination across the country, AOAV draws its estimates on the number of unexploded weapons on information from the US-led coalition. From June 2017 to October 2017, the coalition fired 30 000 artillery rounds during operations to oust ISIS from Raqqa, and, applying a 10% failure rate of modern weapons, this would result in around 3 000 UXO in only one city. As organizations and experts lack funds to clear the debris, it is most likely civilians who will carry this out themselves in 2020. AOAV has warned about the deadly legacy of UXO in Raqqa, stating that “while IEDs are likely to cause injuries”, people are actually getting killed by UXO due to their explosive weight. The unexploded bombs dropped by coalition forces continue to contaminate the cities, posing lethal dangers to residents: an estimated 1 000 persons were killed by explosives between October 2017 and April 2018 in Raqqa’s affected areas, “with many more dying before reaching medical care, and so going unrecorded”. The Head of the Programme and Coordination UNIT at UNMAS Syria told AOAV that clearance operations in Syria could take decades -at least 50 years- due to the larger explosive content as  compared  to the past and the high number  of undetected unexploded bombs several metres deep in the earth.

AOAV concludes that tons of debris will continue to contaminate the air, water and land resulting of which the number of persons affected by the consequences of the use of explosive weapons in densely populated urban areas will increase. Due to the challenges faced by clearing operations and rebuilding, AOAV recommends that humanitarian agencies prioritize the safety of Syrians because they will begin to clear rubble by themselves in no time. The agencies are called upon to minimize the exposure of civilians to toxic dust and to reduce the contamination of the soil and water supplies as otherwise “the Syrian conflict will continue to claim more lives”.


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Author: Silvia Luminati

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