‘Double tap attacks’, or ‘double tap strikes’, refer to the military tactic of launching two successive strikes against the same target. The first strike is intended to eliminate or damage the target, while the second aims to injure or kill medics and others who are responding to the initial attack. In recent years belligerents in both Syria and Yemen have employed the tactic.
In Syria, the list of documented double tap strikes continues to grow as the civil war enters its eighth year. One of the most publicized incidents occurred on 7 June 2018 when a double tap strike near Zardana, Idlib killed a medic who was responding to the initial strike. Forty-four civilians were killed in total by the twin strikes. On 15 February 2016 four missiles, which arrived at 15-minute intervals, hit a hospital near Idlib and killed nine medical staff, as well as 16 other civilians. Two barrel bombs hit a wake in Aleppo on August 27, 2016, the second destroying an ambulance and killing 15 people who had rushed to the scene of the initial blast, including medical staff. A hospital in Homs was also hit by two consecutive barrel bombs on November 28, 2015. Two medical staff sustained serious injuries, and seven other civilians died. A double tap strike killed an ambulance driver in Daraa on June 25, 2018, who had arrived at the scene of the initial attack and was attempting to evacuate a victim.
Numerous reports of similar strikes have emerged from Aleppo, and members of the White Helmets, a collective of Syrian volunteers who are often the first responders after an airstrike, also report that they have suffered substantial losses as a result of such attacks. In one incident in late April 2018, eight volunteers from the White Helmets were killed while responding to a strike in Hama, for example. In some cases, warplanes have reportedly tracked ambulances that are carrying survivors away from an attack in order to identify the location of a field hospital before carrying out a double tap strike against the facility.
Double tap attacks are part of boarder campaign that is being waged against medical staff and facilities in Syria. A 2017 study on the Syrian conflict found that 194 separate attacks on medical staff and facilities were perpetrated in in 2016 alone.
In the Yemeni civil war, double tap strikes are being perpetrated by the pro-government coalition led by Saudi Arabia as well. In an incident that drew international outrage, a double tap strike hit a civilian funeral in Sanaa on October 8, 2016, leaving 140 dead and over 500 injured. The second strike arrived approximately seven minutes after the first. Reports indicate that medical professionals were among the casualties.
While the 2016 funeral massacre is one of the few incidents to make international headlines, numerous other double tap attacks have also injured medical staff. A triple tap strike on March 15, 2016 hit a residential complex in Sanaa, killing 11 first responders and destroying an ambulance. A few weeks later, an attack on the central market in Mustaba killed 107 and injured 45. While no medical professionals were among the casualties, many of those killed were civilians who had rushed to help those injured by the initial strike. An air strike killed a family of five in their home in Taiz on 7 May 2017, while a second missile arrived minutes later, destroying an ambulance and wounding a paramedic who had arrived on the scene. Medics were also injured in a double tap attack on a house in Saada on 27 February, 2018.
Double tap strikes are becoming an increasingly routinized practice in both Syria and Yemen. Double tap attacks that deliberately target medical staff violate the principle of non-interference, which is integral to upholding medical impartiality in conflict. Such attacks also flagrantly violate international humanitarian law. Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention prohibits combatants from targeting civilians or those who are wounded. The protection of medical personnel in areas of conflict is enshrined in several international statutes as well, including the Geneva Convention and Customary International Humanitarian Law. The use of double tap attacks, which are almost certainly intended to kill or injure medical professionals and other respondents, thus constitute war crimes. Furthermore, the consistency of these attacks suggests that they are part of a deliberate and considered strategy.
Nevertheless, there has been only limited criticism from the international community in response to these repeated and systematic violations. The international community’s apparent indifference to double tap attacks in Yemen is of particular concern, as key state actors including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Turkey continue to provide arms and political backing to the Saudi-led coalition, which is allegedly responsible for all of the relevant attacks listed above. Russia’s continued air support for the Syrian regime and alleged use of double tap attacks has also drawn relatively little criticism from the international community.
The lack of a concerted response from the international community allows the perpetrators to continue to commit these crimes with impunity, which is likely to lead to the increased normalization of these tactics and the erosion of protections laid out in international humanitarian law.
International actors should use all available diplomatic channels to apply pressure to those who willfully and repeatedly violate international law. Failure to do so could see heinous war crimes such double tap attacks occurring with increasing frequency in the future.