MSF inquiry indicates Russia was behind hospital bombing in Syria

The Guardian reports: An investigation commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) bolsters its claim that Russian and Syrian forces were responsible for the deadly bombing last year of a hospital it was supporting in northern Syria.

Video and photographic images captured by medical staff, activists and members of the public were pored over by a UK-based research agency hired by the organisation to look into the attack, which took place on 15 February last year and claimed the lives of 25 people.

While Russia denied claims that its forces were responsible for the bombing of the Maaret al-Numan hospital in Idlib province, the aid group said that the digital material confirmed the attack was carried out by the Russians, working in tandem with the Syrian regime. [Continue reading…]



The Syrian war isn’t stopping for Trump

Ishaan Tharoor writes: So far, the most meaningful role played by President Trump in the miserable conflict in Syria has been his relentless demonization of Syrian refugees.

But the war still smolders, and the White House will, sooner or later, have to reckon with its complexity. It may also need to confront the mounting evidence of atrocities committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the regime’s alleged use of chlorine bombs during its successful campaign last year to reclaim the last rebel-held territory in the city of Aleppo. The rights group documented at least eight separate chlorine gas attacks before a cease-fire was signed on Dec. 13. “The attacks resulted in the deaths of nine civilians, including four children, and wounded roughly 200,” reported my colleague Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “If confirmed, the attacks would be a significant breach of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed in 2013.”[Continue reading…]


Eight-year-old American girl ‘killed in Yemen raid approved by Trump’

The Guardian reports: President Donald Trump personally approved a US commando raid in Yemen that left one elite serviceman dead and may have killed an eight-year-old American girl, the US military has told the Guardian.

At least 14 people died in Sunday’s raid by the elite Joint Special Operations Command, which is now the subject of a preliminary inquiry to determine if allegations of civilian deaths are sufficiently credible to merit a full investigation.

The operation was launched to gather intelligence on suspected operations by al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), according to Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command. Planning for the raid “started months before”, under Barack Obama’s administration, but was “not previously approved”, he said.

Thomas said he did not know why the prior administration did not authorize the operation, but said the Obama administration had effectively exercised a “pocket veto” over it.

A former official said the operation had been reviewed several times, but the underlying intelligence was not judged strong enough to justify the risks, and the case was left to the incoming Trump administration to make its own judgment.

An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, was killed in the raid, according to her family. Nawar, also known as Nora, is the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.

On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015. [Continue reading…]


Assad linked to Syrian chemical attacks for first time

Reuters reports: International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters.

A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.

Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 – including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry. [Continue reading…]


Syrian medical facilities were attacked more than 250 times this year

Huffington Post reports: The first airstrike hit at 9:02 on the morning of Feb. 15. As rescue teams dashed to the scene, warplanes circled back for a “double tap,” pummeling the isolated hospital in northwestern Syria a second time, minutes later. And a third. And a fourth.

Twenty-five people died, including nine health care workers and five children. Staff and volunteers who survived the onslaught at the Doctors Without Borders-supported facility rushed victims to the next closest emergency center in a nearby town. The bombs followed.

It’s an utterly grim and tragic irony: Hospitals are now among the most dangerous places in Syria. There have been 252 attacks on Syrian health care centers in 2016 so far, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a nonprofit organization. Countless men, women and children suffering from injury or illness in the war-torn country have endangered their lives simply by seeking treatment. Many of the brave doctors who voluntarily walk into hospitals to help those in need ― dismally aware of the grave personal risk ― never come back out. [Continue reading…]


Last rebels in Aleppo say Assad forces are burning people alive

The Daily Beast reports: Amid celebratory gunfire and cheers from Assad loyalists, foreign militias under Iranian command and troops loyal to the regime on Monday captured about 90 percent of the opposition-held areas of eastern Aleppo.

The last hope of the besieged rebels, most of whom seem to have withdrawn in the face of certain defeat, had been to receive reinforcements or resupplies from their counterparts in the southern and western suburbs. That option has now been foreclosed upon as these routes are completely interdicted by the regime.

The triumphal takeover of the citadel of the Syrian revolution followed a day of intense bombing of houses and apartment buildings, destroying so many that it was impossible to determine the death toll. The neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr, al-Kallasa, al-Farod and al-Salhin in the Old City, as well as Sheikh Saed, in the southern district, are all now under regime control.

The Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, an internationally renowned team of first responders, said more than 90 bodies of people presumed to be still alive are under debris and that its volunteer staff reported they could hear the voices of children trapped in the rubbles of their houses.

A member of the group in Aleppo told al-Arabiya TV on Monday night that men, women, and children were huddling and crying in the streets and at the gates of empty buildings in the few neighborhoods that remained in the hands of the opposition. He described the situation as hopeless, because precision munitions and indiscriminate barrel bombs had destroyed the city’s medical facilities, ambulances, and fuel supply. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The United Nations warned Tuesday that dozens of people may have been executed in the Syrian city of Aleppoas pro-government troops seized what remained of the rebels’ most famous stronghold.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. human rights council, said his office received reports that pro-government forces had killed at least 82 civilians, entering homes and killing people “on the spot.”

Others were reportedly shot as they fled. A list of names provided to the U.N. included 11 women and 13 children, he said. [Continue reading…]


U.S. forces may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan, prosecutor says

The New York Times reports: The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Monday that she had a “reasonable basis to believe” that American soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan, including torture.

The international prosecutor has been considering whether to begin a full-fledged investigation into potential war crimes in Afghanistan for years. In Monday’s announcement, the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, signaled that a full investigation was likely.

Still, the prosecutor did not announce a final decision on an investigation, which would have to be approved by judges, and it is unlikely that the United States will cooperate. [Continue reading…]


Inquiry finds Syrian government forces responsible for third gas attack

Reuters reports: An international inquiry found Syrian government forces responsible for a third toxic gas attack, according to a confidential report submitted to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, setting the stage for a showdown between Russia and western council members over how to respond.

The fourth report from the 13-month-long inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical weapons watchdog, blamed Syrian government forces for a toxic gas attack in Qmenas in Idlib governorate on March 16, 2015, according to a text of the report seen by Reuters.

The third report by the inquiry in August blamed the Syrian government for two chlorine attacks – in Talmenes on April 21, 2014 and Sarmin on March 16, 2015 – and said Islamic State militants had used sulfur mustard gas.

The results set the stage for a Security Council showdown between the five veto-wielding powers, likely pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France over how those responsible should be held accountable. [Continue reading…]


Military attacks on ‘hospitals shields’: International law itself is partly to blame

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini write: From the war in Afghanistan and the US-backed Saudi intervention in Yemen, to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Syrian civil war, hospitals have increasingly been targeted by military forces. The justification for many of these attacks has been uncannily similar: the hospitals were bombed because they were shielding combatants and therefore the attacks do not constitute a violation of international law. Hospitals, in other words, are now classified as if they are equivalent to human shields.

The figures are revealing. One year following the infamous US bombardment of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz — which Afghan Defense Ministry officials initially tried to justify on the theory that the Taliban were “using the hospital as the equivalent of a human shield” — the humanitarian organization reported that 77 of its medical facilities have been attacked during the last twelve months alone. Yes, that’s over six per month. In June 2016, a United Nations commission documented that in Syria “more than 700 doctors and medical personnel have been killed in attacks on hospitals since the beginning of the conflict” and that medical facilities “are being turned into rubble.”

Politicians and military officers from Gaza to Yemen use the same refrain to defend these attacks. During its 2014 war on Gaza, Israel bombed different Palestinian medical facilities, destroying parts of one hospital and 5 primary health care centers. In an attempt to defend its strikes, Israel accused Hamas of using hospitals to store weapons and hide armed militants.

In a similar vein, after the recent bombardment of an underground medical facility in a rebel controlled area, a Syrian regime official declared that militants would be targeted wherever they were found, “on the ground and underground,” while his Russian patron explained that rebels were using “so-called hospitals as human shields.”

Saudi officials attempting to justify the high number of air strikes targeting medical facilities have adopted the same catchphrases. They, too, accused their adversaries, the Houthi militias, of using hospitals to hide their military forces. This exact claim is also reiterated in a recent UN report.

What ties all of these examples together is not merely the use of similar rhetoric, but more importantly the same underlying assumption: when health care facilities become “hospital shields” they lose the protected status they are granted by the Geneva Conventions. Thus, once framed as shields, these facilities can be bombarded without violating international law.

Let there be no mistake, “hospital shield” is an extremely dangerous neologism since it undermines one of the founding pillars of international law: the principle of distinction between legitimate military targets and protected civilian sites. The tragic irony is that international humanitarian law itself offers the legal toolkit for these regimes to justify the bombing of hospitals. It does so in two ways. [Continue reading…]


If we don’t act now, all future wars may be as horrific as Aleppo

Paul Mason writes: To single day of fighting in June 1859, among the vineyards and villages near Lake Garda, left 40,000 Italian, French and Austrian soldiers dead or wounded. The Battle of Solferino might have been remembered simply for its carnage, but for the presence of Henry Dunant. Dunant, a Swiss traveller, spent days tending the wounded and wrote a memoir that led to the founding of the Red Cross and to the first Geneva convention, signed by Europe’s great powers in 1864.

Solferino inspired the principle that hospitals and army medical personnel are not a legitimate target in war. Today, with the bombing of hospitals by the Russians in Syria, the Saudis in Yemen and the Americans in Afghanistan, those who provide medical aid in war believe that principle is in ruins.

So far this year, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 21 of their supported medical facilities in Yemen and Syria have been attacked. Last year an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was destroyed by a US attack, in which those fleeing the building were reportedly gunned down from the air, and 42 patients and staff died.

A UN resolution in May urged combatants to refrain from bombing medical facilities. MSF says that the resolution “has made no difference on the ground”. Four out of the five permanent members of the UN security council, it says, are actively involved in coalitions whose troops have attacked hospitals.

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles. [Continue reading…]


Vladimir Putin just won an international peace prize

Max Bearak writes: The past few weeks have been rough for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international image.

Putin has been blamed for airstrikes in Syria that have killed hundreds of civilians, including children, dooming a cease-fire his government helped foster but may have never intended to abide by. A Dutch investigation said the antiaircraft missiles that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard, came from Russia. And the Obama administration accused his government of a hacking campaign to interfere with this year’s U.S. presidential election.

But Friday, the day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, brought him some welcome news: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro bestowed on Putin the Hugo Chávez Prize for Peace and Sovereignty of the Peoples. Putin can put it on his mantel beside China’s Confucius Peace Prize, which he won in 2011.

Maduro, whose South American nation has been reeling amid a massive economic crisis, announced the prize during the unveiling of a statue (designed by a Russian artist) of his deceased predecessor, Chávez, in the latter’s home town of Sabaneta.

Referencing Putin, Maduro said the prize should be given to “a leader that I believe is the most outstanding there is in the world today, a fighter for peace, for balance, and a builder of a pluripolar, multicentric world.” [Continue reading…]

Josh Rogin writes: There is clear and abundant evidence the Assad regime and the Russian government are committing crimes that include, but are not limited to, deliberate attacks on civilians, collective punishment, starvation as a tool of war, torture, murder, inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, no near-term accountability seems likely. Last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, a step dozens of countries have endorsed. But Russia would surely veto such a move and, since neither Syria nor Russia has ratified the ICC’s founding Rome Statute, the court’s power is limited without Security Council action.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria fecklessly refuses to assign blame for atrocities — such as, for example, when a U.N. aid convoy was attacked last month, which the United States attributed to Russia and which was yet another violation of international humanitarian law. Congress has a sanctions bill that would punish the Syrian government, Russia and Iran for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the White House opposes that legislation.

Justice for the innocent victims in Syria will likely take years, if not decades, to be realized. But there is both precedent and a legal path forward for such prosecutions.

Russian soldiers bear criminal responsibility not only for participating in the war crimes but also for aiding and abetting the Syrian regime, said Cherif Bassiouni, who led the U.N. investigations into crimes in Yugoslavia, Bahrain and Libya and helped create the ICC. And, he said, due to what’s known in international law as the doctrine of command responsibility, senior Russian military and political figures could also be prosecuted for the actions of their subordinates.

“The criminal responsibility applies to all of those in the chain of command who know of the commission of these crimes, all the way up to Putin,” said Bassiouni. “The law is not only applicable to he who gives an order, but he who knows it’s a war crime and does nothing to stop it.”

Under the Geneva Conventions, any state can assert what’s known as universal jurisdiction and bring prosecutions against Syrian and Russia leaders for war crimes.

“Every country if it wanted to could assert its jurisdiction if it could grab the person,” said Bassiouni. “Every Russian officer involved should know they are exposed to it.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Russia should be investigated for war crimes in the Syrian city of Aleppo and risks becoming a pariah nation, Boris Johnson has said, taking the unusual step of calling for demonstrations by anti-war protesters outside the Russian embassy in London.

The British foreign secretary said “the mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind small” as he predicted those responsible for war crimes in Syria would eventually face charges before the international criminal court.

Johnson’s remarks underline the degree to which relations between Russia and the west have deteriorated to levels not seen since the end of the cold war. [Continue reading…]


UN chief condemns airstrike on Yemeni funeral and dismisses Saudi denials

The New York Times reports: The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on Monday condemned a weekend airstrike on a funeral ceremony in the Yemeni capital, Sana, as well as the Saudi-led bombing campaign believed to be responsible for it.

Mr. Ban said he supported demands for an international inquiry into whether the attack, which killed at least 140 people, was a war crime.

“Despite mounting crimes by all parties to the conflict, we have yet to see the results of any credible investigations,” he said. “This latest horrific incident demands a full inquiry.”

Brushing aside Saudi Arabia’s initial denials of responsibility, he said reports from the site of the attack indicated that it was carried out by the Saudi-led coalition.

According to witness accounts cited by United Nations human rights investigators, two airstrikes struck the Al Kubra community hall in Sana, seven to eight minutes apart. It was packed with families attending the funeral of a leader of the Houthi rebel movement, which is battling the Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi for control of the country. Many prominent military and political leaders associated with the Houthis were in the hall and were killed in the assault, the United Nations said. [Continue reading…]

The Intercept reports: Fragments of what appear to be U.S.-made bombs have been found at the scene of one of the most horrific civilian massacres of Saudi Arabia’s 18-month air campaign in Yemen.

Aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition on Saturday bombed a community hall in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, where thousands of people had gathered for a funeral for Sheikh Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the rebel-appointed interior minister. The aircraft struck the hall four times, killing more than 140 people and wounding 525. One local health official described the aftermath as “a lake of blood.”

Multiple bomb fragments at the scene appear to confirm the use of American-produced MK-82 guided bombs. One fragment, posted in a picture on the Facebook page of a prominent Yemeni lawyer, says “FOR USE ON MK-82 FIN, GUIDED BOMB.” [Continue reading…]


U.S. ‘could be implicated in war crimes’ in Yemen

Reuters reports: The Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite warnings from some officials that the United States could be implicated in war crimes for supporting a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, according to government documents and the accounts of current and former officials.

State Department officials also were privately skeptical of the Saudi military’s ability to target Houthi militants without killing civilians and destroying “critical infrastructure” needed for Yemen to recover, according to the emails and other records obtained by Reuters and interviews with nearly a dozen officials with knowledge of those discussions.

U.S. government lawyers ultimately did not reach a conclusion on whether U.S. support for the campaign would make the United States a “co-belligerent” in the war under international law, four current and former officials said. That finding would have obligated Washington to investigate allegations of war crimes in Yemen and would have raised a legal risk that U.S. military personnel could be subject to prosecution, at least in theory.

For instance, one of the emails made a specific reference to a 2013 ruling from the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor that significantly widened the international legal definition of aiding and abetting such crimes.

The ruling found that “practical assistance, encouragement or moral support” is sufficient to determine liability for war crimes. Prosecutors do not have to prove a defendant participated in a specific crime, the U.N.-backed court found.

Ironically, the U.S. government already had submitted the Taylor ruling to a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to bolster its case that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al Qaeda detainees were complicit in the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. [Continue reading…]


Aleppo’s White Helmets reject foreign influence claims

Al Jazeera reports: Members of the Syrian Civil Defence units – or White Helmets – have dismissed claims that they are biased actors in the conflict following a controversial report linking the organisation to alleged US government attempts to overthrow the Syrian government.

In an article published by US-based progressive website AlterNet on Monday, journalist Max Blumenthal accused the group of undermining United Nations aid work in Syria.

The two-part report, which was shared thousands of times on Twitter, was widely condemned by journalists and anti-Assad activists. [Continue reading…]


Whoever saves a life

In June 2014, Matthieu Aikins visited Aleppo and rode with Civil Defense volunteers (the “White Helmets”) in their donated truck in the neighborhood of Hanano. He wrote: The members of Civil Defense were attendants to the city’s trauma, one of the few first responders left to care for the civilians caught on the front lines in a war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and rebel fighters. The team evacuated the injured, cleaned up the bodies, and fought fires. But what they were best known for  — what they had become famous for in Syria and abroad  — were the dramatic rescues, the lives they pulled from under the rubble.

When they spotted a blast, they’d cram into the cabin, ten or more on its two bench seats, and set off in search of the impact site. The truck had a loose, shaky suspension and the cab would smash up and down off the craters and potholes, jangling the men like change inside of a tin cup. The siren atop was an old-school wailer, deafening and sonorous. Sometimes they’d catch sight of an ambulance and give chase; often they’d be the first to the scene. As they rushed along, they’d lean out and ask pedestrians where the bomb had fallen. They could tell by the reaction if they were getting closer. At first it was just a pointed arm or a shrug, but as they neared, the onlookers would get increasingly agitated, until they saw in their eyes the wildness of a close brush with death or the panic for a trapped neighbor. The missions were all the more dangerous because of the regime’s tactic of “double-tap” strikes, where they would return to bomb the same site and hit the rescuers and whatever crowd had gathered. In March, three members of the Hanano team had been killed that way, along with an Egyptian-Canadian photographer who had come to document their work.

Khaled flicked the cigarette into the parking lot. Thirty years old, he looked more like a graduate student than someone who had spent the last year immersed in blood and rubble: shaggy hair, a straight, full-bridged nose and a pointed jaw softened by full lips and cheeks. In a city dominated increasingly by anti-Western Islamist groups, he had until recently worn a pony tail. He was growing a slight paunch from all the nights spent sitting up snacking on fruit and nuts, listening to the sound of the city’s bombardment and waiting for a call. When he smiled, a net of crow’s feet crinkled into the corners of his eyes, but mostly his face maintained an unshakable placidity, even in the presence of death. It was this stillness, more than anything else, that accounted for his unruly team’s respect and obedience. “It’s the quiet ones you should fear,” was how Surkhai, the group’s joker, had put it.

After washing his face in the rickety outbuilding that served as their bathroom, Khaled returned to his office, which was furnished with a scuffed desk, a shelf that held the station’s paperwork, and a couple of love seats. On the wall hung a certificate of appreciation from the city council. Two bare bulbs dangled from the ceiling.

Khaled could hear the rest of the team stirring. Present that day were some of his most reliable veterans  —  though of course they were really still boys. At 28, the twins, Surkhai and Shahoud, heavyset with thick hair covering everywhere but the top of their heads, were among the eldest. The rest were mostly 20 or 21. Scrawny Ali, with his mullet, was only 19. Only Ahmed, a lanky, goateed kid who had been a firefighter like his father, had any experience as a first responder before the war. In all, there were 30 of them, but they worked in shifts, so that only a dozen or so were typically in the station at any one time. Except for the leader, Khaled. He had not taken a single day off. He loved the team  —  loved the physical closeness, the emotional bond. These guys had become his life. His old self, the former law student who taught at a trade school, seemed as remote to him as his family’s home, now behind regime lines. [Continue reading…]


Selective outrage: Why the silence? What’s outrageous in Gaza is no less so in Aleppo

Fintan O’Toole writes: The United States and Israel are bombing an ancient city, targeting hospitals and slaughtering children, women and other non-combatants. All across Europe, ordinary people are appalled. Protest marches to the US and Israeli embassies attract hundreds of thousands of people, denouncing these crimes against humanity. But what if the perpetrators are Russia and the Assad regime in Syria? Protests against the bombing of Aleppo, such as that in Dublin last weekend, have been small and muted. Why are Russian war crimes so much less obnoxious than American atrocities?

On Vimeo, there’s a short film of a demonstration against the Aleppo bombing at the Russian embassy in Dublin on August 27th, led by the veteran peace campaigner Brendan Butler. It is a very fine gesture by compassionate and concerned people. But I counted the crowd stretching a banner across the entrance to the embassy. It didn’t take long – there are 14 people. One of them is a young boy with a poster that says “This isn’t happening in a galaxy far, far away”. But it might as well be. [Continue reading…]