The use of explosives like barrel bombs and artillery shells in populated areas of Syria, which has become a common feature of the four-year-old conflict, has had a disproportionately lethal effect on women and children, according to research published on Tuesday.
The Syrian crisis began with anti-government street protests in March 2011 and has since descended into civil war, forcing half the population from their homes and killing a quarter of a million people.
Many of those killed have been civilians, victims of barrel bombs, artillery shells and poison gas attacks.
Researchers from Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium looked at almost 80,000 civilian deaths in Syria between March 2011 and January 2015.
The vast majority of the deaths analysed took place in areas controlled by rebel groups, around a quarter of the dead were women and children and the rest men.
Of this sample, while men were most likely to be killed in shootings or executions, women and children were more likely to die from air bombardments, shells or ground-level explosives such as car bombs, according to the research published by the British Medical Journal on Tuesday.
This differs from previous conflicts for which figures are available such as the 1992-5 Croatian war, in which the vast majority of children who died were killed by firearms, and female deaths were rare, the report said.
The findings “should give pause to anyone who thinks there can be a safe hiding place for women and children when high explosives are being used in populated areas,” said Hamir Dardagan, co-director of Every Casualty Worldwide, a campaign group.
Both the Syrian government and rebel groups say the targets of their bombs and shells are enemy strongholds, but “our findings indicate that for Syrian children these are the weapons
most likely to cause death,” the report’s authors said.
The United Nations criticised the Syrian government earlier this month for its aerial bombing campaigns including in civilian areas of Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus, saying they had led to “widespread civilian casualties”.
In June the UN Human Rights Council criticised the government’s use of cluster bombs, barrel bombs and ballistic missiles in a resolution rejected by Syria as selective and biased.
“Our study shows that civilians become the main target of weapons and bear a disproportionate share of the burden of bombings,” said the authors of the Louvain report.
“If we are looking for root causes of the migrant and refugee crises in Europe today, this is surely a major contributor.”
More than 4 million Syrians have fled the country because of the fighting, the vast majority to neighbouring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.