"From the start of the war, the Assad government has pursued a murderous policy toward Syrian citizens who happen to live in areas that have been seized by opposition armed groups. The apparent aim is to kill and terrorize civilians (and destroy civilian structures) so as to drive civilians from opposition-held areas and to send a warning of the misery that attends anyone whose neighborhood is taken by opposition groups. Mr. Assad is thus pursuing the “total war” strategy that the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war flatly prohibit and criminalize.
Beyond killing civilians, barrel bombs are playing a big part in forcing Syrians from their country. In most wars, civilians can find a modicum of safety by moving away from the front lines. But Mr. Assad’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs deep in opposition-held territory means that for many there is no safe place to hide. That ugly reality has played a major part in persuading four million people to flee the country.
Yet the international community has made little effort to stop Mr. Assad’s barrel bombing of civilians. The two governments with the greatest potential to influence Mr. Assad — his principal backers, Russia and Iran — have refused to get him to stop. Western governments have been reluctant to exert strong public pressure on them because of other priorities — Ukraine, in the case of Russia, and the nuclear deal, in the case of Iran. The European Union is putting far more effort into stopping Syrian asylum seekers from reaching the Continent than addressing the root causes of their flight. The United States and Turkey recently announced a plan to make a 60-mile strip in northern Syria an “ISIS-free zone,” but the goal is to fight ISIS militants, not protect civilians.
Because of Western reticence, too few people understand the extraordinary slaughter that the Syrian military is committing with its barrel bombs. Mr. Assad’s chlorine gas attacks, terrifying as they are, kill a tiny fraction of the barrel-bomb toll, though they have recently attracted more attention than the barrel bombs.
One reason for soft-pedaling is a fear that ending the barrel-bomb attacks might undermine Mr. Assad’s ability to cling to power, and thus facilitate an Islamic State takeover. But barrel bombs are so imprecise that the Syrian military does not usually drop them near the front lines, for fear of hitting its own troops. They are useful mainly for pummeling civilian neighborhoods.
President Obama has reportedly been reluctant to act too decisively in Syria for fear that he might then “own” the country and the chaotic mess it has become. But firmer pressure on Syria, Russia and Iran to stop the barrel bombs wouldn’t make the United States responsible for anything other than fewer civilians dead, injured and displaced."