depleted uranium
Photo by Omar Arab/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The United States Military has recently admitted to the use of depleted uranium munitions in Syria. The Pentagon has confirmed that thousands of DU (depleted uranium) tipped bombs were used in the air campaign against ISIS. The use of these weapons is not new to the US Military, but the troubling nature of their use begs the question of why it does not receive more attention.

A CENTCOM spokesperson admitted that 5,265 DU bombs were used against ISIS oil tankers, in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor and Hasakah in eastern Syria. The munitions were fired from A-10 ground attack aircraft, and reportedly destroyed 350 oil tankers in November 2015.

The US has used depleted uranium munitions before. The same munitions were used in the 1991 Gulf War, the Yugoslav wars, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A report by RT indicates that the Pentagon favors these munitions for their “exceptional toughness” in destroying armored vehicles. The munitions, however, come with massive side effects that last far longer than the detonation.

Depleted uranium particles are toxic in large quantities. They have been known to poison ground water, as well as causing an array of negative effects when inhaled or ingested. The US Military unleashed an estimated one-million DU munitions against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. The after-effects of these munitions were so drastic that the Pentagon promised not to use them again in the ensuing occupation of Iraq.

DU munitions exist in a legal gray area. An article in Foreign Policy details that not enough studies have been conducted to conclude the full effects of these munitions on populated centers. The UN also does not classify the munitions in the same category of banned weapons such as land mines or chemical weapons. However, reports from local communities in Iraq give grim details of what these weapons do over time.

A 2014 UN report had the Iraqi government express “deep concern over the harmful effects” of DU munitions. In Iraq, cases of cancer, infant mortality, and severe birth defects are blamed on the lingering effects of DU munitions. The effects are also suspected by some to be the source of “Gulf War Syndrome” suffered by US veterans in the original Gulf War. It is worthy to note that most DU munitions used in Iraq were against highly populated areas. The DU munitions used in Iraq, while intended for use against armor, were dropped on mostly soft targets.

It’s a strange irony. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified under the premise of taking away the chemical weapons of Saddam Hussein. War against Bashar Assad in Syria was also threatened under the premise of his use of chemical weapons against civilians. While DU munitions have yet to be officially classified as the same to mustard gas, evidence points to DU as having very toxic consequences when used.

The Pentagon admitting the use of depleted uranium munitions is concerning. The US and coalition initially claimed they would not use the munitions in Syria. The question that remains now is what will be the future of Syria if DU munitions are used further? One area of concern is the effect these munitions have on the Syrian people.

With Iraq as an example, there should be great concern if depleted uranium munitions are used extensively. If Syria is expected to rebuild after the war, a toxic environment certainly won’t help. The vehicles destroyed by DU also pose a lingering risk. The metal in these vehicles are usually collected as scrap. Syrian workers handling these materials are in great risk if given high enough exposure.

This admission by the Pentagon raises questions about the humanitarian nature of US foreign policy. If civilian casualties are a concern for US military planners, using DU munitions seems counter-intuitive. These weapons are not just deadly in the short term. Anyone who does have concern for the people of Syria would certainly not overlook this issue so easily. How can we as a nation criticize other nations on matters of human rights? If the US Military using depleted uranium in Syria does not raise this skepticism, then it’s hard to see what would.

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