Vacuum bombs in Syria: the latest chapter in a long history of atrocity from the skies

Russian bomber targeting ‘Islamic State’ in districts of the Syrian city of Dayr al-Zawr. /Russian Defence Ministry handout

Imagine taking a deep breath then submerging yourself in water. Then imagine having all of the oxygen forced instantaneously from your body. Try to inhale again. But instead of cold water filling your lungs, toxic, flammable particles start killing you from the inside out.

Such suffering and death is distressing and inhumane. That is what is inflicted by a thermobaric bomb, sometimes called a “vacuum bomb”. They first appeared in modern form in the 1960s and have been refined ever since. Russia, the US, China, India and many others have them.

Thermobaric bombs use different combinations of heat and pressure to produce different high explosive effects. An initial explosion produces a pressure wave powerful enough to flatten buildings or penetrate into cave or other structures. At the same time, the explosion will disperse highly flammable fuel particles around its vicinity.

These, often aluminium-based, particles ignite a fraction of a second later and burn at very high temperatures. The two blasts combine for maximum effect. They use up all the oxygen in the surrounding air, creating a vacuum – hence “vacuum bomb”. The resulting vacuum can be powerful enough to rupture the lungs and eardrums of anyone nearby.

The Syrian and Russian governments have both been accused of using thermobaric bombs against rebel forces. Compelling evidence supports the claims of devastating consequences for nearby civilians.

It is brutally clear why Vladimir Putin and his ally Bashar al Assad might use these weapons. Thermobaric bombs are highly destructive with fearsome, direct physical effects. In opposition-held areas, civilians are just as likely to be affected as combatants. The indirect effects are also desirable from Syrian and Russian government perspectives. Local communities are terrorised into submission or displaced, joining the millions of refugees seeking sanctuary elsewhere.

Grim strategy

The use of aerial bombing in this manner has a long history. What we see in Syria is just a new twist on an old theme.

In the 1920s the air warfare theorist Giulio Douhet anticipated that aerial bombing would remove any distinction between soldiers and civilians. Entire populations would become the focus of bombing by explosives, incendiaries and even chemical weapons. The deliberate targeting of civilians would force them into submission. He predicted that the will to resist would evaporate, then people would demand that their leaders surrender.

Paradoxically, Douhet put forward this idea for the strategic bombing of civilians, in part, as a moral argument. Short, aggressive air campaigns against civilians would force an early end to hostilities. Such outcomes would be preferable to the prolonged loss of life he witnessed in World War I.

This approach should be rejected as barbaric in the 21st century.

It is the principle that underpinned the carpet bombing of cities in World War II. Not to mention America’s use of the atom bomb against Japan.

Protests are falling on deaf ears. EPA/Nabil Mounzer

Whatever qualms about fire-bombing civilians emerged after that war were later enshrined in international humanitarian law. They state that civilians should not be attacked. Also, the presence of fighters or soldiers within the civilian population “does not deprive the population of its civilian character”. However, those laws are ignored by Assad and Putin in Syria today.

Civilian targets

The UN Human Rights Council has been highly critical of numerous uses of lethal force in Syria. This includes the aerial bombardment by pro-government forces of areas beyond government control. It seems almost too obvious to state that the widespread killing of civilians by such methods is immoral. The weapons are indiscriminate and cannot distinguish between combatant and noncombatant. Their use against civilians is disproportionate to any threat those civilians pose to Assad’s rule. Further, the suffering and death they inflict is inhumane, by any measure. Worse, any claim that only fighters are being targeted in these bombings is dishonest and inaccurate.

Partners in war crimes. EPA/Alexey Druzhinyn

Part of Douhet’s prediction from almost a century ago is coming true before our eyes. The distinction between civilian areas and the battlefield has disappeared in places like Aleppo. The Syrian regime and its Russian allies have made sure of that. The failure of Douhet’s prediction is that civilian deaths are not bringing about the end of the fighting.

The reality that Western powers must face is that these moral arguments are irrelevant to Assad and Putin. However, it would be foolish to pretend that there is not a certain harsh logic to their actions. Regime continuity and personal survival motivate Assad, while strategic self-interest motivates Putin.

Until some form of brokered peace is achieved, with distasteful but necessary accommodations, the suffering will continue. Right now, the West is powerless to prevent these abhorrent Russian and Syrian tactics. We can only stand by while their vacuum bombs literally suck the life out of innocent civilians.