Ola Suleiman is a Syrian from Homs works closely with the Syrian White Helmets and reports many of the attacks, including cluster strikes which the White Helmets respond to
Ola Suleiman is a Syrian from Homs who currently works as communications officer at a non-profit called Mayday Rescue, a disaster-relief NGO in Turkey with offices in Jordan and Netherlands. Suleiman’s participation in the Syrian revolution began in April 2011 when she took part in peaceful demonstrations. She escaped the country in November 2013 since she feared arrest by the Bashar al-Assad regime. Suleiman works closely with the Syrian White Helmets and reports many of the attacks, including cluster strikes which the White Helmets respond to. She was in Geneva to participate in the 6MSP.
Given your experience of working with the Syrian White Helmets and other people who are escaping the country, is there conclusive evidence that cluster munitions are being used in the Syrian war?
I can answer that question through the reporting I do through White Helmets. So we get daily reports. We have 120 teams on the ground, including 36 reporting officers who are located in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs, Latakia, Damascus, and Damascus countryside. From their reporting, we can see an increasing use of cluster munitions, and of incendiary cluster munitions – so these are munitions that are filled with incendiary substances. Both the Syrian regime and the Russians use cluster munitions. In fact, last night we lost two colleagues because of double-tap cluster munition attack in Idlib. There was a cluster munition attack and our team responded to the air strike and they were bombed while responding with another air strike, killing two of our volunteers and injuring another two.
What about the countries that are supporting the armed rebels? Are they using cluster munitions?
Judging by international reports, only the Russians and the Syrian regime use cluster munitions and also ISIS uses cluster munitions. Cluster munitions can be delivered in many ways. 95 percent of the cluster munitions used in Syria is used through air strikes and the only parties doing air strikes in rebel-held areas in Syria are the Russians and the Syrian regime. I don’t know if the international coalition is using cluster munitions – we don’t have teams to respond in [government] areas. We haven’t received reports from the [international] coalition as such. Because majority of the cluster munitions are used through air strikes, it is really hard for anyone else to use them. However, since cluster munitions can also be delivered through rockets, artillery and artillery bombardment – but in a very small percentage in Syria, we have seen that. But we don’t have teams in regime areas so we can’t report about it. But I haven’t seen in any international report that implicates that the battalions that fight against the regime used them. However, we are not connected to those battalions so if they are using them, it is not the civilians’ fault.
What have you seen regarding the destruction caused by cluster munitions?
The most problematic aspect of cluster munitions is when they are used in urban areas like in cities, especially cities that have 1,00,000 or more civilian residents – those areas are really hard because cluster munitions are all around and people don’t see it or they have to live there and they can’t evacuate to other areas because there are no safer areas. So our civil defence teams are now being trained for urban detection of cluster munitions and urban removal of cluster munitions. This is the most dangerous thing because you can’t control children.
The second main use of cluster munition is targeting health facilities like make-shift hospitals and areas where civilians have to go like fuel markets, schools and that’s dangerous because hospitals go out of service. You cannot treat patients in a contaminated area. The third problem is using cluster munitions in crop areas and fields which give civilians food. This is very, very dangerous especially for besieged areas where food can’t get in from outside so you have to grow everything inside but cluster munitions prevent you from doing that. Also, cluster munitions are very dangerous because they cause fires that require high-technology to put off because it is incendiary – so if you put them off through regular substances, it does not go off and it burns everything. And again this is very dangerous especially in besieged areas because we cannot get them those specialised substances that put off fire.
Do you get a lot of children as victims?
Yes, we have seen many cases where children [are maimed or killed]. A child on the way to school in Hama saw a cluster munition. He thought it was a [toy] car so he picked it up and then it exploded, killing him. Other kids were playing in a different area and they saw a red wrapping on the ground and they pulled it up and it exploded and one of them lost his hand. Because kids are less aware and they are attracted to shiny stuff and colourful stuff. Cluster munitions are actually made in a way that they are attractive to children. This is the main point that the whole world needs to think about – why would you make a bomb with a red wrapping because the first reaction of the child would be to try to get it! We have statistics for July and August and 82 people have been killed by airstrikes that carried cluster munitions or by cluster munition explosion. Also, 499 civilians were injured, including kids with four civil defenders, when they were responding to cluster munition air strikes and while responding a cluster munition exploded. That is another problem: when they are clearing cluster munitions they are not safe from other kind of attacks.
What were your expectations from the 6MSP? Did it serve any purpose?
We are actually judging by the fact that we lost two colleagues yesterday from the cluster munition attack. It didn’t cause any impact on the ground and we do think it is really hard because the people using cluster munition in Syria refuse to join such a treaty. And also, the problem is that the state that is using cluster munitions in Syria, which is Russia, is part of the UN Security Council. So we don’t see anything – even if this treaty became a resolution and everybody agreed to it, Russia can stop it. So the problem is that we are happy that such efforts are happening but we don’t see it having any effect on short-term. What I can comment on from the war in Syria is we can find small solutions to small problems here like banning the use of cluster munitions, chemical weapons, but we don’t see it having any results in Syria. Because just yesterday, the regime used chlorine again in Aleppo injuring 80 people. There was news that the Syrian regime was acting out of the principle that, “what will stop me?” So, nothing. What will happen if the regime is using cluster munitions? Nothing. What if the regime uses chemical weapons? Nothing? As long as we are doing resolutions and as long as Russia is part of the UN Security Council blocking any kind of action against the regime, then nothing will have an effect on Syria. So I am not very proud of being in the UN. Actually, it’s the least place I am proud to be in.
Did the Russians or the Americans speak at the Convention meeting?
I don’t think they are here and I am not interested to find out.
(The article appears in September 16-30, 2016 edition of Governance Now)