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As Jihadis lose in Aleppo, stories of ‘barrel bombs’ and ‘chlorine gas’ appear as if on cue

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. NATO defense ministers met for a second day on Thursday to discuss Turkey’s request to help deal with Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis and the current situation in Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo) ORG XMIT: VLM103

As night follows day, news of Syrian army advances in the Syrian conflict – especially in and around Aleppo – are being followed by reports in the Western media of chlorine attacks by the Syrian military on the civilian population of Aleppo.  As of the time of writing these reports are the main story on the BBC.

The latest story in fact combines two popular Western media memes – “barrel bombs” and poison gas attacks – both of which the Western media regularly attribute to the Syrian government.  Supposedly the chlorine gas is being dropped in “barrel bombs”.

“Barrel bombs” are locally made bombs supposedly dropped on civilian districts of Aleppo by Syrian army helicopters whilst claims the Syrian military uses chemical weapons have been a commonplace throughout the war.

I have never understood the “barrel bombs” meme.  It appears to be intended to conjure up images of bestial Syrian soldiers ruthlessly rolling barrels full of explosives out of their helicopters as they fly over civilian areas of Aleppo.

There is no doubt Syrian army helicopters have dropped bombs over Aleppo.  Whether those bombs were locally made or not seems to me beside the point.  The only valid question is not whether the bombs are crude or locally made but whether bombing is taking place either indiscriminately or is deliberately targeting civilians.  As to that, whilst there is surely no doubt that civilians in Aleppo have been killed by bombs dropped from Syrian army helicopters, the military or political logic of dropping them indiscriminately or deliberately targeting civilians is not obvious and is never explained. 

It seems far more likely that when Syrian army helicopters drop bombs over Aleppo it is the Jihadis they are targeting.  Of course crudely made locally produced bombs may be less accurate than proper factory made bombs.  However both sides in the conflict can be accused of inaccuracy in their fire, and the logic by which only the government is blamed for this – with lurid talk of “barrel bombs” – is not clear.

Turning to the allegations of chlorine gas use, there is no doubt chlorine gas has been used over the course of the Syrian conflict.  The UN says both sides have used it.  The government denies it has, and the Russians – perhaps predictably – have cast doubt on the UN’s findings.  Again the logic of the Syrian military using chlorine gas – a notoriously inefficient weapon – is not obvious, whilst the Western media for its part has largely chosen to ignore the UN’s findings that chlorine gas has been used by the Jihadis as well.

The fundamental problem with these stories about “barrel bombs” and chemical weapons use is that as with so many atrocity stories coming out of Syria they are so obviously manipulated.  It is not a coincidence that their volume increases whenever the Jihadis face defeat – as they are currently doing in Aleppo.  Unfortunately that obliges one to be suspicious of them.

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