To call the Syrian Civil War "complex" is a vast understatement of our times. It's not only complicated in terms of who's fighting, its complicated in terms of what they're fighting for, and how exactly they're fighting it. Take this video of mine clearance, for example. Mine clearance is great, until it so very much isn't.
It's easy to say "landmines are bad." The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, also known as the treaty that completely bans the use of landmines, has been signed by 162 countries.
That's a lot of countries, and landmines certainly can be used for evil. But like any weapon of war, they're a tool. They don't care who deploys them, or who they kill.
And the people clearing them often don't care, either.
The video above is taken from the perspective of the Syrian Army, fighting on behalf of horrific Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is known to brutally torture his prisoners before indiscriminately executing them. It shows a Russian-supplied UR-77 mine clearance vehicle, going about its duty of clearing lethal minefields in the city of Jobar.
Jobar, a city once venerated as holy by the Syrian Jewish community, has now been widely destroyed, and was one of the cities decimated by Assad's sarin gas attacks.
So on paper, destroying the mines is great. Landmines are indiscriminate killers, murdering and maiming anyone who dares to get too close, whether soldiers or children. And the Syrian rebels, who have often been lauded as fighting for freedom, have littered a city block with mines in an effort to deny the space to Assad's soldiers.
It's not the first time they've done it, either, as the now-devastated city of Homs was littered with mines as the rebels pulled out.
And littering a city block with landmines, booby traps, and IEDs is heinous, no matter the strategic or tactical value, nor the stated goals of those that deployed them. So it's entirely understandable that even the forces belonging to an unconscionable dictator like Assad would want to remove them.
Yet the way they go about removing the minefield and IEDs is horrific in and of itself. Getting rid of landmines in an urban center is not that simple. To avoid damage to infrastructure, and casualties to people, it's a painstaking and slow process, requiring explosive ordinance demolition teams on foot, and robots when necessary.
It requires precision tools.
The UR-77 Meteorit mine-clearance vehicle is not a precision tool. In fact, using it like this is exactly how to turn what would be a life-saving vehicle, into an incredibly violent murder weapon.
The UR-77's "MICLIC" system works by launching a rocket, attached to which is a long, thick rope. The rope is filled with explosives in a long line, which detonate outwards. The thinking behind it is that with the line laid across the minefield, it can detonate most enemy explosives with a friendly blast before anyone gets hurt.
That's great for clearing mines in an open area. In a city block, it becomes a weapon in and of itself. As War is Boring notes, the blast generated by the explosive rope 300 feet long and 20 feet wide. That's enormous. Add in all the explosive material that it's designed to destroy, and you have a blast that easily levels a city block, killing or injuring anyone – combatant or non-combatant – unlucky enough to be in the area.
So in this case, like in countless cases of war, there is no winner. The mines might be cleared, but so is the surrounding human life.
When you clear mines like this, there are no heroes.