Is the Syrian Regime Deliberately Targeting Civilians?

Watch Syria Behind the Lines, FRONTLINE’s unprecedented film that documents the everyday reality for both Syria’s rebels and its regime.

On Oct. 28, 2012, FRONTLINE filmmaker Olly Lambert witnessed two Syrian government air strikes in al-Bara, a village in Idlib province an hour south of Aleppo.

Lambert had been filming Jamal Maarouf, the rebel commander of the Martyrs of Syria Brigade, when the first bomb dropped on civilian homes just 300 meters away. Though the blast knocked him to the ground, he kept his camera rolling for the next hour as he documented the  the chaos, fear and terror on the ground.

Attacks like the one in al-Bara occur almost daily, according an 80-page report (PDF) released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday. In it, the rights organization says that since July 2012, the Syrian Air Force has repeatedly carried out ”indiscriminate, and in some cases deliberate” air strikes against civilians all over the country.

Though HRW has actively been documenting the impact of Syrian air strikes, this report is the first time it has been able to analyze a large number of aerial attacks, says HRW emergencies researcher Ole Solvang. It is based on visits to 50 sites where air attacks took place in opposition-controlled areas in three provinces, and more than 140 interviews with witnesses and victims.

The report documents eight instances in which bakeries where civilians were waiting in breadlines were hit by airstrikes, as well as repeated strikes on two hospitals that “strongly suggest” the Syrian government “deliberately targeted these facilities.”

But Solvang also points out that HRW also found that even attacks that may have had military targets very often miss these targets and kill civilians instead.

“The government uses weapons that it is unable to target in any meaningful way and that lead to very significant civilian casualties,” Solvang told FRONTLINE. “That the government continues to use these weapons time and again shows a level of carelessness about civilian lives that is, quite frankly, shocking.”

The organization concluded that almost 50 air strikes were unlawful under the laws of war, using means and methods, for example, cluster bombs, that cannot distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Four Syrian Air Force officers who had defected told HRW that the air force does not possess the technology to identify and target specific military objectives in urban areas. According to the report, “They believed their commanders nonetheless ordered air strikes in cities and towns, in part to instill fear in the civilian population in opposition strongholds, and also to deprive the opposition of its support.”

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