As Syria’s war reaches its fourth year the images of suffering meted out against the civilian population have continued to shock the world, as social media documents almost every brutal chapter.
While the world’s attention has shifted towards Islamic State and their slick, PR-driven agitprop, the war between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels looking to oust him has raged on unabated.
This image, independently verified and reportedly taken by a Syrian activist in the city of Douma on 12 February, is among the most shocking shared on social media in this conflict. Taken just after rainfall, it portrays a stream of blood flowing through the streets of Douma following another barrel bomb attack by the Syrian air force.
Douma is a rebel-held city located 10km north east of Damascus in the Eastern Ghouta province. Eastern Ghouta has been one of the worst affected regions of Syria since the start of the civil war and was the main target of the Syrian government’s August 2013 Sarin attack. In recent days Douma has been pounded heavily by the Syrian forces, leaving hundreds dead, with human rights groups and local activists reporting the repeated use of barrel bombs by the Syrian airforce.
Syrian activist Yasser al-Doumani, who runs the page that first posted the Douma image, told me that over 1,200 people have been wounded by barrel bombs in the area over the last week.
“We have had more than 200 people martyred during the last 10 days in Eastern Ghouta, including hundreds of wounded women and children,” he said. “People are shocked and scared… over a third of the dead are women and children.”
“There are 300,000 civilians still living in Douma, over 40 per cent of them are children” he said, adding that the people of Douma live in constant fear of aerial bombardment. “We want humanitarian corridors and to stop the bombing of civilians.”
Shiraz Maher, senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, has called the image “an arresting insight into the everyday carnage, destruction, and death Syrians have had to endure for years.”
Speaking on the threat posed by barrel bombs, Maher said: “A no-fly zone would prevent Assad’s forces from using barrel bombs, which have proved to be incredibly deadly and devastating. They are crude and indiscriminate devices, used principally in urban population centres where civilians live.
“Ordinary civilians on the ground don’t understand how western coalition planes can share the same airspace as Assad’s aircraft and leave them untouched.”
In a recent interview with the BBC President Assad denied the country’s use of barrel bombs, despite multiple reports from human rights groups finding the Syrian regime culpable for their use.
A report by Human Rights Watch into barrel bombs published last year stated: “These unguided high explosive bombs are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters.”
By using these crudely manufactured bombs on densely populated areas, the Syrian airforce are using weapons that cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians.
“The deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime, and if carried out in a widespread or systematic way as part of a policy of the government or an organised group, can amount to crimes against humanity” Human Rights Watch said.
The Syrian civil war, which was sparked by the regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011, has so far left over 210,000 dead and 9 million displaced – and shows no sign of ending. International pressure has eased off the embattled Assad regime in recent months due to the rise in prominence of Islamic State militants despite the fact that the UN has accused the Syrian government of war crimes and crimes against humanity on multiple occasions.
A report published at the tail end of last year by the UN directly accused the Syrian regime of war crimes, “Government forces have systematically targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, demonstrating the intent to kill, wound and maim,” the report stated. “The apparent objective of the government’s military operations is to render life unbearable in areas out of its control.”
However, with no political or military end in sight to what the UNOHCHR has described as “the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe“, as long as Syrian helicopters continue to drop barrel bombs unchecked images such as these are sure to keep flowing out of Syria with alarming regularity.