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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Associated Press

Tom Clonan Heavy bombers dropping 'full payload' have horrific effects on those below

More little boys like Omran Daqneesh will be butchered while the global implications of force projection are discussed in Moscow and Washington, security expert Tom Clonan writes.

HEARTBREAKING IMAGES OF Omran Daqneesh have flooded mainstream and digital media platforms in the last 24 hours.

The five year old boy from Aleppo sits in the rear of an ambulance. His hair, skin and clothes are caked in grey and black masonry dust. One eye is swollen. He stares at the camera and is clearly in shock.

In the short video of Omran, he raises his left hand to his forehead and feels the blood matting his hair. In a most distressing sequence of images, Omran stares at his hand and we witness the moment in which this little boy realises that it is his own blood.

Last summer, Aylan Kurdi’s small body was washed up on the beach at the Greek island of Kos. Images of this young boy also went viral on global media. His limp and lifeless little body became emblematic of the refugee crisis and the war in Syria.

In the virtual world, images of Aylan’s broken little body – like that of Omran Daqneesh – prompt a global tsunami of teary eyed emojis. The images trend on Twitter and elsewhere. In the world of politics and diplomacy, vigils are held. Candles are lit. World leaders give heartfelt reassurances that the suffering of Syrian children will stop.

However, in the real world, the situation deteriorates. Omran Daqneesh is lucky. He is alive and so is his mother. Thousands of other children are at risk of death and serious injury in Aleppo.

مركز حلب الإعلامي AMC / YouTube

Chlorine gas attack 

Last week, the international media were convulsed at news of a suspected chemical attack in Aleppo. In the suburb of Zubdiya, a mother and her ten year old daughter and four year old son were reportedly killed in a chlorine gas attack. In such an attack, the victims would choke to death – an agonisingly slow process as they drown in their own mucus. Such an attack is considered a war crime.

This week has seen an even more ominous development for the 200,000 or so civilians trapped inside the besieged eastern suburbs of Aleppo. On Tuesday, Russia’s air force commenced high altitude, heavy bombing raids on the densely populated city – from Hamedan airbase in Iran.

This is a seismic shift for the war in Syria on two different levels. On the level of humanitarian crisis, it represents a catastrophe for the civilian population corralled by the fighting in Aleppo and elsewhere.

The Russians are flying Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire’ heavy bombers from Iran into Syrian airspace. Use of the Iranian airbase allows the Russians to save around 60% in terms of fuel and crew-time per bombing run. It also allows Russian aircraft to carry their maximum payload of 20 tonnes of high explosive, free-fall ‘dumb’ bombs.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, Tu-22M3 high altitude bombers, ‘Flying with full bomb loads from Iran’s Hamedan airbase, the aircraft carried out group attacks on Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra positions’.

When the Russians state a ‘full bomb load’ they mean that each aircraft is carrying 69 FAB-250 bombs – unguided, free fall munitions, each one containing up to 200 kg of high explosives – dropped from high altitude on to heavily populated urban areas.

‘Group attack’ is a euphemism for grid bombing, otherwise known as carpet bombing.
Anti-regime forces in Aleppo – Jabhat Fatah al-Sham formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra – are committing war crimes by using the civilian population there as human shields for their attacks on Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) positions.

The international community has registered its opposition to the use by Assad’s forces of so-called ‘Barrel Bombs’ on the civilian population. Banned by UN Security Council Resolution 2139 of 2014, each barrel bomb contains around 1000 kg of high explosives. Barrel bombs are reported to have killed up to 20,000 Syrian civilians including 2000 children.

Barrel bombs are usually dropped in a single payload of one device per helicopter run. The Syrian air force are accused of dropping up to two such devices on targets in a method known as the ‘double tap’. The first device destroys the building. The second device kills first responders and survivors in the immediate aftermath.

However, Russia’s latest intervention in support of Assad, employing heavy bombers with full payload, means that the equivalent of many hundreds of barrel bombs will be dropped on Syrian civilians in each bombing run. Each Tu-22 aircraft will drop the equivalent of 20 barrel bombs on each sortie.

US Syria Manu Brabo Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria. Manu Brabo

Horrific effects 

For those on the ground, the effects are horrific. Russian FAB-250 and FAB-1500 bombs use kinetic energy of free-fall to penetrate deep into buildings such as the type of housing complexes and commercial districts occupied – illegally – by anti-Assad forces.

When the high explosives detonate, they detonate at a temperature of over 2000 degrees centigrade. Any man, woman or child in the immediate vicinity of such an explosion would be incinerated in the heat wave.

The detonation also generates a shock wave with speeds of between 2000 and 4000 metres per second. Civilians – including small children – caught anywhere within 300 metres of the point of detonation would have their internal organs pulped and bones shattered by such a blast wave.

Further out from the point of impact, civilians such as 5 year old Omran Daqneesh would be vulnerable to shrapnel effects and damage caused by collapsing glass and masonry. In the same way that last week’s chemical attack can be described as a war crime, I believe that this week’s aerial bombardment is also cruel, inhuman, indiscriminate and criminal.


Contrary to the Geneva Conventions – specifically Protocol 1, Article 51, Sections 4 and 5a – the air attacks are indiscriminate. In addition, contrary to Article 17, neither Assad’s forces or the Russians have allowed the civilian population to evacuate the besieged city in advance of their massed ‘group attacks’.

On a geo-political level, the staging of air attacks by Russia on Syria from Iranian territory signals a sinister escalation of the regional conflict. The predominantly Sunni Gulf states and Turkey will note that Iran is willing and capable of launching long distance cruise missile and air assaults on neighbouring countries.

Vladimir Putin has also signaled to Washington and the next incoming US President – whether it be Clinton or Trump – that just like the USA, Russia is capable of launching global air and missile strikes from the territory of allied nations.

Whilst the global and regional implications of force projection are discussed in Moscow and Washington, more little boys and girls like Omran Daqneesh and Aylan Kurdi will be butchered in the coming days and weeks.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

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