Barrel Bombs Rein Down on Syria: 100 years of indiscriminate bombing

As the Syrian Civil War enters its fifth year one of the host horrific practices – in a conflict notable for its levels of barbarity – is the use of barrel bombs by President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. These improvised devices are being used on an increasingly regular basis, leading to devastating casualties amongst the civilian population.

The deployment of barrel bombs is yet another sinister tactic by the Assad regime
The deployment of barrel bombs is yet another sinister tactic by the Assad regime

A recent article by the Action on Armed Violence group compared the use of barrel bombs with the First World War Zeppelin raids carried out by the Germans on the UK. ‘Have Things Really Changed?’ the article asked. It is certainly a question worth considering.

Indiscriminate Targeting

Barrel bombs comprise rudimentary containers – such as oil drums – filled with explosives and various items of shrapnel. They are simply pushed out of planes and helicopters and left to fall in an unspecified area deemed troublesome by the attacking force, where they are activated by an impact fuze. This attacking force is usually directed by a national government, which tends to have a monopoly on air space within its given territory.

Source: Stratfor
Source: Stratfor

Zeppelin raids, which began in 1915, were also marked by their lack of accuracy. Incendiary bombs, grenades, and even some high explosive bombs were chucked overboard with the aim of hitting a general area.

Whilst the Zeppelin attacks understandably terrified the British population, they were not designed simply to devastate civilian areas. Rather, they had strategic objectives and whilst the haphazard nature of this early form of aerial warfare must be acknowledged, the Zeppelins were targeting British industry and supply routes within their range. The concentration of First World War bombing on London and the coastal port towns highlights this.

Barrel bombs, however, have been used as an indiscriminate weapon to inflict maximum pain on civilian populations deemed non-compliant by the government. This has certainly been the case in Syria, as it has previously been in Sudan, where the government in Khartoum pioneered this tactic to terrify its restive provinces.

Level of Damage

Barrel bombs cause huge amounts of damage because of their high explosive capacity and the secondary effects of shrapnel and metal blast. Images of the devastation caused by these weapons in Aleppo, for instance, testify to their monstrous capabilities.

Many of the munitions dropped from Zeppelins caused little significant material damage. Early high explosive bombs were not particularly destructive on their own, whilst incendiary bombs were designed to start fires and the damage caused by dropping grenades was negligible.

That said, Zeppelins had large payloads which, when used in one go, could inflict considerable damage on an urban area. Given in the inherent bombing inaccuracies of the time, this often led to the destruction of residential properties and civilian fatalities.

Housing damaged by a Zeppelin raid on Ramsgate in 1915
Housing damaged by a Zeppelin raid on Ramsgate in 1915


The use of barrel bombs is inexcusable, not to mention illegal. Furthermore, those using this dreadful method of aerial warfare are fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Not only have barrel bombs been used in Sudan, Iraq and Syria in recent years, but the USA used canisters of herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, both the RAF and Luftwaffe used barrels of explosive incendiary devices during the Second World War and, of course, there were the earlier Zeppelin raids.

Therefore, precedents can be found for the type of indiscriminate warfare being perpetrated by the Assad regime, its destructive effects to civilian areas are well-known and therefore its use is morally reprehensible.

Whilst the Zeppelin raids can hardly be judged as ethically acceptable, they were a new type of warfare, the effects of which were largely unknown. The Italians had undertaken some early bombing raids in Libya prior to the First World War but nobody knew the potentially devastating impact of aerial bombardment.

Taking aim during WWI Source: IWM
Taking aim during WWI
Source: IWM

Furthermore, press coverage during the days of the Zeppelin is incomparable with today’s 24-hour media and this, coupled with wartime censorship, means the full effects of the German raids were not quantified until after the war.

Have Things Really Changed?

No. Indiscriminate bombing is the same today as it was a century ago. The circumstances in which it is being undertaken, however, have greatly altered.

The Germans were at war with the UK when the Zeppelins launched their raids in a bid to gain an advantage over their adversary, their capacity for destruction was largely unknown and, despite rudimentary aiming, targets were strategic in nature, not civilian.

This is a significant difference from bombing and maiming your own citizens, incapable of self-defence, simply because they live in the wrong area or had the audacity to protest against an unrepresentative and undemocratic government.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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