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"Fear of a slow death" civilians raise concerns over depleted uranium use in Syria

The news that US A-10 gunships are now also active in Syria in operations against Islamic State has coincided with the emergence of reports that Syrian civilians fear the long-term health impact of the Coalition’s airstrikes.
27 February 2015 - Wim Zwijnenburg

Citizens of Raqqa, the Islamic State (IS) stronghold in Northern Syria, are concerned over the long-term impact of the growing number of strikes by Coalition forces on their city and nearby villages. Last week, the website of 'Raqqa Being Slaughtered', which is run by a group of underground anti-IS activists in Raqqa, published an article stating that there are grave concerns over the use of both white phosphorus and depleted uranium by the US in their strikes on Raqqa.

Syria damage
Damage from the ongoing fighting in Raqqa.

In interviews on the streets in Raqqa, local people told the reporter that they had heard stories from Iraq over how the use of DU by the US led to serious health problems, especially congenital birth defects (CBDs) and cancers. They are now afraid that if DU is used, it will pollute the air, water and soil in and around Raqqa, exposing them to the toxic and radioactive material.

Psychological impact

"If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" - W. I. Thomas and D. S. Thomas (1863–1947)

Civilian concerns over the use of DU are understandable. Since it was revealed that the US used DU in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, numerous stories and limited research have indicated a potential correlation between DU exposure and an increase of CBDs and certain types of cancers, most notably in southern Iraq. Awareness of the issue has spread throughout the wider region in the last decade.

Though it pays to be cautious - the issue was actively exploited by the Saddam regime, the lack of comprehensive studies and a lack of transparency from the US over where the weapons were used have ensured that the full picture is still unclear. The shocking images of babies with CBDs stick in peoples’ minds, especially where it mirrors the experience of those living in communities where rates appear to be increasing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) initiated a nationwide survey on the rates of CBDs in collaboration with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, but the official and full report on the outcome has yet to be published.

In a report to the United Nations on DU, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that: "in a post-conflict environment, the presence of depleted-uranium residues further increases the anxiety of local populations”. The collective experience of communities grappling with the public health and environmental legacy of conflict, and the known or suspected presence of radioactive materials, is a contagious cocktail that can have a lasting psychological impact on the memory of people. These concerns have now spread to Syria.  

Similar concerns also arose during the 1999 Kosovo conflict, where US aircraft acting under NATO also fired DU. According to the WHO, civilians, and in particular staff from international organisations, expressed fears over potential exposure to DU. The report also noted how politicised this issue had become, warning that if was not addressed properly, these concerns would only intensify. These genuinely held and entirely valid responses to the dispersal of radioactive materials are heightened where official information is not forthcoming over where, and even if, the weapons have been used.

The Coalition’s airstrikes against IS have seen re-emergence these concerns over DU and its long-term impact on human health and environment. It also goes to the heart of the DU issue and the entirely predictable response to the use of radioactive materials in conventional munitions; to its uncontrolled dispersal and users’ default position of opacity when faced by questions over its use, and to the refusal to clean it up afterwards and provide support to affected communities. Together this further demonstrates the need for transparency over the use of DU by the US, refusal to confirm use and release targeting data aggravates the situation for a population already bearing the brunt of both the terror of IS and fear of death or injury in Coalition airstrikes.

Is the US using DU in Operation Inherent Resolve?

"…the A-10s recently have been used for a limited number of strikes in Syria.” US Spokesperson.

At present there is no evidence of renewed use of DU in Iraq or Syria. However the US deployed the A-10 gunship to Iraq last December for combat missions against IS targets. The A-10’s cannon, which is used for strafing targets on the ground, fires a ‘standard combat load’ of 30mm DU rounds mixed with high explosive ammunition. It can also be armed with high explosive ammunition alone but cannot select between the two types once airborne. A-10s can also carry a large number of bombs and missiles.

According to recent reports, A-10s have struck a number of targets but it is unclear where, what type of targets have been attacked and the type of munitions used. So far there aren't any indications that the A-10 has been used near Raqqa, but new information could change that analysis.

Although A-10s have been documented attacking targets near Mosul, Iraq, it is unclear whether they were armed with DU. According to the latest statistics, 62 tanks and 64 armoured vehicles and MRAP trucks have been destroyed. While these armoured vehicles are the most obvious candidates for A-10s to target, evidence from Iraq suggests that a range of other targets of opportunity must also be considered. The limited data released thus far from the Coalition has not made clear which of these strikes were in Syria and which were in Iraq.

CENTCOM data on US strikes against IS

Source: Breaking Defense

To date, CENTCOM and the Pentagon have not satisfactorily answered any questions regarding the use of DU during current operations. Parliamentarians in Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK have asked questions about the use of DU, as these states are part of the Coalition supporting US operations in Iraq.

The Dutch government has stated that it is possible that DU could be used, while the Belgian Ministry of Defence noted that they didn't have any indication that DU was being used, though couldn’t rule it out. The UK argued that they don't discuss the use of munitions with partners and it's a matter for each state to decide. 

If the US is shown to be using DU, it would be controversial. In 2014, the Iraqi government called for a global ban on the weapons and asked the international community for support in clearing the 404,000 kg fired by the US and the UK in 1991 and 2003. Clean-up is expensive and technically challenging.  

Call for clarity

Given Iraq’s position on the weapons, and the legitimate concerns of civilians both there and in Syria, it is important that the US comes clean over whether it is using DU in the ongoing operations. PAX calls on the US to clarify its position on the use of DU, and upon all participating states in Operation Inherent Resolve to express their concern over the use of DU and for the US to refrain from using it.

Resolving the explosive, political, humanitarian and environmental legacy of the conflict with IS will be challenging enough without the long-term problems of further DU contamination. Whether DU is being used or not, even the suspicion of use carries with it a psychological impact on communities caught up in conflict.