By | Rachel Brooks
November 4, 2020
Above images retrieved from local news and social posts, fair use. This image was a local report of white phosphorus ordinance found in the conflict zone.
The remnants of the USSR linger all across the Nagorno-Karabakh war front. Rearing its ugly head in the perhaps most public way with the bombing of Barda, the old Soviet arsenal proved a mainstay of a failing campaign of Armenian nationalism to retake the Nagorno-Karabakh. The opposite of the desired outcome transpired rather, as Azerbaijan seized back territory from former occupation.
Armenian forces using white phosphorus for maximum damage
Despite the fact of a failing campaign, Armenia was loath to relinquish and settle for ceasefire mitigations by foreign powers. Instead, it continued its pursuit of the territory, using weapons of mass destruction in a bid to provoke Russia to intervene. Weapons have included banned Smerch missile cluster munitions, but also have included white phosphorus munitions. White phosphorus, while not banned per se, is a chemical component that, if used against civilians, can leave burns of extreme intensity.
Hikmet Hajiyev is an assistant to the Azerbaijani president. These photos were submitted via his account.
Weapons containing white phosphorus are extremely toxic when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through burned areas and can have severe negative impacts on human health. Such weapons cause severe, partial to full-thickness thermal and chemical burns. Armenia used phosphorus UXOs pic.twitter.com/Gz9JcMboUm
— Hikmet Hajiyev (@HikmetHajiyev) November 3, 2020
There is a fundamental problem with the use of white phosphorus via how Armenian forces have used it. While white phosphorus has been used in combat in previous conflicts, its use has been strictly dedicated to the use against combatants and tanks, and not to civilians. Reuters Factbox notes that white phosphorus has legal context uses, so it is not officially banned. A more detailed article on the subject, written in 2019, is available at Lawfare.
The ICRC best described the use of white phosphorus in the rule of engagement, and how the use of incendiary weapons against civilians violates these rules.
The description of recent history’s correct outline of humanitarian law and the protection it gives civilians from white phosphorus munitions comes from Israel’s manual on the laws of war, which was updated in 2006.
The manual lays out the correct use of phosphorus in combat scenarios:
“Conflagration weapons (flame-throwers, incendiary-bombs, phosphorus). Means of warfare involving incendiary devices are not prohibited (see discussion on the subject of phosphorus below) in themselves. The extensive range they can cover, however, means that the CCW Protocol [1980 Protocol III to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons] has been used to protect civilians and imposes a requirement for caution where conflagration weapons are used to attack a military target located within a concentration of civilians, and it is forbidden to blow up vegetation with incendiary devices unless it conceals a military target. The Protocol does not forbid the use of these devices in battle (for example, for mopping up bunkers,” reads the ICRC manual statement.
The below clip, published by a local via Twitter, shows the use of white phosphorus from the Armenian line.
It also lays out the human damages of the weapons, and why they should be regulated against civilian targeting:
Phosphorous. Is phosphorus a banned weapon? Despite the accepted myths on the subject, phosphorus is not banned under the rules of warfare, because it is not considered to be a chemical weapon. A chemical weapon is a weapon intended to work on the systems of life and is constituted from a substance that causes a chemical reaction in the body expressed in such symptoms as asphyxiation, burning, weeping, etc., whereas phosphorus is an element in nature which reacts to the oxygen in the air by catching fire. In that respect, phosphorus is no different from petrol (gasoline) reacting to a lighted match, and what differentiates it from chemical weapons is that its reaction is not directed against human physiology in particular, it will burn whatever it touches,” reads the ICRC manual. “
The ICRC manual also noted with particular interest:
“Phosphorus is permitted for use, as long as its use is directed against combatants and not against civilians.”
Proof of the use of white phosphorus in the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Aid to the Azerbaijani President Hikmet Hajiyev noted that Armenian forces fired phosphorus weapons into the Fuzuli region on October 8.
“Decomposition of Armenia fired phosphorus projectiles to the Fuzuli region on the 8th of October. While actively using phosphorus shells against civilian objects, #Armenia’s accusations against #Azerbaijan is typical blame-shifting and tactics of escaping responsibility,” said Hajiyev, likewise providing surveillance footage to back his claims that the event occurred.
Soviet-era phosphorus likely in use
It is likely that Armenian, with its limited access to new technology and its poorly funded forces, acquired its phosphorus munitions from the former Soviet arsenal. This is evidenced by the use of Soviet Smerch missiles in the bombing of Barda as of late October.
Soviet Era phosphorus was described in depth by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in a report published on July 24, 1953, and was sanitized for public readership in 1993.
The report described the self-sufficiency of USSR-era phosphorus munitions. It then proceeded to detail in depth the composition of these munitions.
“There are two forms of elemental, or pure, phosphorus, phosphate rock (calcium phosphate.) The Russians would have sufficient phosphorus available for large-scale munitions-filling and for the manufacture of nerve gases and do not seem to be vulnerable to economic warfare in this field,” the 1954-era report read.
“For strictly military purposes, white phosphorus is used primarily as a smoke-producing incendiary agent. Phosphorus produces one of the most effective screening smokes known. Dangerous burns caused by burning phosphorus make it an efficient anti-personnel weapon. For these military uses, white phosphorus, either alone or in combination with other chemicals, is used as a fill-in shell, bombs, and grenades. White phosphorus also is used in the preparation of the highly toxic nerve gases, such as Sarin and Tabun, which were developed by the Germans during World War II; in pyrotechnics; and in trace compositions.”
The use of smoke screens has also been evidenced by deliberate acts of arson in the immediate vicinity of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Fires producing heavy smoke screens are useful in evading precision weapons. The lasting effects of white phosphorous and smokescreen strategic fires on the environment, however, is profound.