Since the Syrian army entered Syrian cities in mid-2011, most cities have been divided between regime-controlled areas and armed opposition-controlled areas. Syrian city inhabitants are the primary sufferers of this division. This division is present in Aleppo, which is divided into Eastern and Western sections, and in the Damascus region, with damascene suburbs and the area surrounding Gota primarily under armed opposition control, and the province’s center and capitol under regime control.
The regime has arbitrarily dropped barrel bombs on neighborhoods outside of their control, destroying property and killing and wounding large numbers of civilians. In response to this, armed opposition groups are bombing areas under regime control (in Damascus and Aleppo), using poorly-directed mortar shells and homemade explosives, all with high margins of error. Opposition groups’ shelling may cause less destruction than that of the regime, but they still qualify as indiscriminate attacks—in breach of international law.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) works to record evidence of these violations and collect the names of these victims. In pursuit of this objective, the SJAC has held meetings with witnesses and victims’ families in regime-controlled areas in Aleppo and Damascus, in order to document the opposition groups’ indiscriminate shelling operations. These operations involve indiscriminate shelling and missile attacks on civilian areas, allegedly with the aim of targeting regime security forces, the military, and secret police staying in these areas.
One of the most used types of missiles, called the “hell cannon,” first appeared in Syria in 2013. It is a basic homemade shell constructed from household gas cylinders and containing the remains of debris, glass fragments, and shrapnel. They a range of up to 2 kilometers and cause a powerful explosion, which spreads deadly shrapnel across a circle with a radius of about 200 meters.
These shells are falling on Aleppo on a daily basis — one to two a day. Many times these fall on houses or public transportation, incurring high civilian casualties and destroying considerable public and private property.
Mortars are another commonly used form of arms in indiscriminate shelling. Mortars have targeted civilian areas in Aleppo daily — between 10 and 15 shells per day — since a year and a half ago. These mortars have a large margin of error — it is very difficult to aim them accurately given that they are made and launched in a homemade fashion. They have a longer range than the aforementioned hell cannons, but they are less destructive and may not explode as often.
Other forms of shelling involve small homemade projectiles, which use slingshots to launch. These do not reach beyond several hundred meters, and their impact is less devastating than that of the hell cannons and mortars described above.
There is not much time available to film, photograph, document, or investigate the details in the places where projectiles fall. The government forces rush to close the place, preventing photography until the place is completely cleaned, and clearing out corpses before they leave. The government often hides the results of bombing incidents — the state media generally does not cover the number of victims. Many witnesses spoke of their inability to risk filming what they were seeing, for fear of being arrested.
SJAC works diligently to document, in-depth and at the source, these bombings and their results. SJAC reminds all parties in the conflict that the Geneva Convention’s Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I explicitly prohibits indiscriminate attacks, defined as “of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without discrimination.” 1 Such attacks, the article specifies, may “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” 2
The striking party is never exempt from considering potential harm to civilians — even when their opponents place legitimate military targets in or near populated areas. 3