10 Years War in Syria and the Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons

17. März 2020 Blog posts, Publications and Videos
Photo by J-S Romeo on Unsplash

Introduction

On March 15,  2020, the tenth year of the war in Syria will commence and on March 18 it will be the second year of the military occupation by Turkey of the Kurdish Afrin in North-West Syria.

The war in Syria started after a protest for human dignity and democracy of unarmed civilians and the military suppression of this protest in the run-up to the Arab Spring.

The civilian protest  was misused by extremist jihadist militias to reach their goals. Interventions by international and regional actors have turned the civil war into a local „world war.“
The violent developments are at the origin of large internal and external migration and refugee flows. Syria is largely a ruin and has been turned into a country with a lot of people in poverty.

Syrian Refugees in Hungary / Photo: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed, Wikimedia

False promises

In March 2015, Coalition spokesman John Moore said, “US and Coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.” Later that month, a Pentagon representative said  that A-10s deployed in the region would not have access to armor-piercing ammunition containing DU because the Islamic State didn’t possess the tanks it is designed to penetrate.

But US Officials have confirmed that the US military – despite vowing not to use controversial Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria – fired thousands of rounds of DU munitions during two high-profile raids on oil trucks in Islamic State-controlled Syria in late 2015.  The air assaults mark the first confirmed use of this armament since the 2003 Iraq invasion, when hundreds of thousands of rounds were fired, leading to outrage among local communities which alleged that toxic remnants caused both cancer and birth defects.

November 16th and 22nd, 2015

An F/A-18 launches from the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alex King)

US Central Command (CENTCOM) told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on November 16th and 22nd 2015, destroying about 350 vehicles in the country’s eastern desert.

It remains unclear if the November 2015 strikes occurred near populated areas. In 2003, hundreds of thousands of rounds were shot in densely settled areas during the American invasion, leading to deep resentment and fear among Iraqi civilians and – later – anger at the highest levels of government in Baghdad. In 2014, in a UN report on DU, the Iraqi government expressed “its deep concern over the harmful effects” of the material. DU weapons, it said, “constitute a danger to human beings and the environment” and urged the United Nations to conduct in-depth studies on their effects.

Tidal Wave II

The US raids in 2015 were part of “Tidal Wave II” — an operation aimed at crippling infrastructure that the Islamic State relied on to sell millions of dollars’ worth of oil. The Pentagon said the November 16th attacks happened in the early morning near Al-Bukamal, a city in the governorate of Deir Ezzor near the border with Iraq, and destroyed 116 tanker trucks. Though the Coalition said the strikes occurred entirely in Syrian territory, both sides of the frontier were completely under the control of the militant group at the time. Any firing of DU in Iraqi territory would have had far greater political repercussions, given the anger over its previous use there.

A line of tanker trucks in the Syrian desert on November 22nd, 2015. Image taken from CJTF video release of Coalition attacks on that day. (Photo: US Army)

The second DU run on November 22nd destroyed what is described as 283 “Daesh Oil trucks” in the desert between Al-Hasakeh and Deir Ezzor — both capitals of governorates of the same names.  CENTCOM and the US Air Force at first denied it was fired, then offered differing accounts of what happened, including an admission in October 2019 that the weapon had been used. However, the dates confirmed by CENTCOM at that point were off by several days. It is now clear that the munitions were used in the most publicized of the Tidal Wave II attacks.

Soft targets

The oil trucks hit in November 2015 were unarmoured and so qualified as soft targets. The trucks were most likely manned by civilians rather than Islamic State members, according to US officials. A Pentagon representative said the United States had dropped leaflets warning of an imminent attack before the November 16th strike, in an effort to minimize casualties.

Protest against DU production and use continues

Meanwhile, a coalition of 38 anti-war, anti-nuke, pro-environment, and pro-worker organizations submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy’s. They demand:  “suspending plans to produce depleted uranium as a commodity for use in machine gun ammunition, tank artillery shells, bunker-buster bomb components and armor for military vehicles… and consider permanent abandonment of all military applications of DU.“

Conclusion

Although we know with certainty that the US used depleted uranium weapons in the Syria war, it remains guessing about the possible use of DU by other parties involved, such as Russia.  This lack of information and transparancy is of great concern.

The post-war reconversion of Syria will not only exist of rebuilding the material infrastructure, but also the religious, social and political tensions need to be tackled in order to build a liveable society and democracy. Contaminated areas need to be decontaminated to  enable a life without health problems caused by radioactive, chemically toxic weapons and other poisonous substances. This only might be possible if there is full transparancy and exchange of information about the areas where these weapons have been used.


Ria Verjauw/ ICBUW/ Belgian Coalition Stop uranium weapons – icbuw.eu


Header Image: Photo by J-S Romeo on Unsplash