The recent confirmation by the US that DU ammunition was used in two attacks in Syria in late 2015 raises a number of troubling questions.
Firstly, why was DU used? Has it been used again? Will it be used again? Secondly, and no less important, what will happen next in order to mitigate any health or environmental risks the contaminated sites may pose?
The use of DU weapons, while not explicitly banned by a treaty, has been deeply stigmatised since at least the turn of the century, if not earlier.
Therefore for military planners, it was not just a calculation over the efficacy or otherwise of the A-10’s DU ammunition, but also a matter of international public perception, particularly as they were, and are, acting as part of a coalition of nations, many of whom have made their opposition to the weapons clear on a number of occasions.
For a conflict as politicised as Syria, it seems only logical that public perception and scrutiny must also have factored into the US’s calculus. The media and public’s response to the latest Syria revelations indicate that this may have been underestimated, as may the propaganda coup disclosure would provide for IS, and for Russia and its media outlets.
Whether you take domestic or international radioactive waste management standards as a guide, the recommendations of international organisations, or the past practice of states affected by DU contamination, the consensus is that post-conflict measures need to be implemented to mitigate the risks that contamination can pose to human health and the environment.
The first priority is to identify contaminated sites. This can be challenging under normal conditions as the presence of DU can usually only be verified through a ground survey. This has often been complicated by the fact that state users of DU, such as the US, have been historically reluctant to share strike data and coordinates with international organisations or national authorities.
In the case of the two Syrian strikes, the number of vehicles destroyed, the video footage and their rough locations could prove sufficient for them to be geolocated from satellite images before any ground survey is undertaken.
Once identified, the sites should be marked and isolated. For example Serbia’s military proved adept at identifying, marking and fencing A-10 strike sites from the conflict in 1999. For Syria, the affected areas remain under the control of IS at the time of writing, and it seems unlikely that marking and fencing can be expected under the circumstances.
The risks posed by DU are typically specific to the location, its land use and the pathways through which people may be exposed. For the Balkans and Iraq, a limited number of DU-affected sites were assessed by UN agencies such as UNEP and the IAEA, with recommendations provided to the national authorities on subsequent monitoring and clearance work.
The outcome of the Syrian conflict will strongly influence the likelihood of whether a formal UN-led post-conflict assessment funded by the international community takes place; should Assad remain in power, an assessment of this type seems extremely unlikely.
Should Syria end up with a pro-Western regime, perhaps one day there might be support for some clearance programmes; in all likelihood just some surface clearance of DU fragments in the context of explosive remnants of war removal: nothing to address the contaminated soils at the sites.
Should Syria end up with a pro-Russian regime, then perhaps Moscow will live up to its public opposition to DU munitions and provide the technical and financial assistance required. But what will be left if and when this happens?
Whatever the outcome of the war, DU contamination is now just one of many forms of environmental damage and toxic remnants of war, caused or exacerbated by the conflict.
When it ends, the environment is unlikely to be a priority for anyone, be they donors or the new authorities, and it is Syria’s communities and environment that will pay the cost. Obligations for the post-conflict management of DU contamination are urgently required – but thus far are not something the international community has sought to pursue.
But it’s not just a matter of clearance obligations – it is also a matter of restraint. It is one thing to fire DU for the sake of a tenuous military advantage. It is quite another to do so when the chances that the toxic residues of uranium munitions will ever be dealt with appropriately are so remote.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Why Did the US Use Depleted Uranium Weapons in Syria?’