Vacuum bombs in Syria: The latest chapter in a long history of atrocity from the skies

By Peter Lee, University of Portsmouth

Imagine taking a deep breath then submerging yourself in water. Then imagine having all of the oxygen forced instantaneously from your body. Try to inhale again. But instead of cold water filling your lungs, toxic, flammable particles start killing you from the inside out.

Such suffering and death is distressing and inhumane. That is what is inflicted by a thermobaric bomb, sometimes called a “vacuum bomb”. They first appeared in modern form in the 1960s and have been refined ever since. Russia, the US, China, India and many others have them.

Thermobaric bombs use different combinations of heat and pressure to produce different high explosive effects. An initial explosion produces a pressure wave powerful enough to flatten buildings or penetrate into cave or other structures. At the same time, the explosion will disperse highly flammable fuel particles around its vicinity.

These, often aluminium-based, particles ignite a fraction of a second later and burn at very high temperatures. The two blasts combine for maximum effect. They use up all the oxygen in the surrounding air, creating a vacuum – hence “vacuum bomb”. The resulting vacuum can be powerful enough to rupture the lungs and eardrums of anyone nearby.

The Syrian and Russian governments have both been accused of using thermobaric bombs against rebel forces. Compelling evidence supports the claims of devastating consequences for nearby civilians.

It is brutally clear why Vladimir Putin and his ally Bashar al Assad might use these weapons. Thermobaric bombs are highly destructive with fearsome, direct physical effects. In opposition-held areas, civilians are just as likely to be affected as combatants. The indirect effects are also desirable from Syrian and Russian government perspectives. Local communities are terrorised into submission or displaced, joining the millions of refugees seeking sanctuary elsewhere.

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America is complicit in the carnage in Yemen

An editorial in the New York Times says: A hospital associated with Doctors Without Borders. A school. A potato chip factory. Under international law, those facilities in Yemen are not legitimate military targets. Yet all were bombed in recent days by warplanes belonging to a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, killing more than 40 civilians.

The United States is complicit in this carnage. It has enabled the coalition in many ways, including selling arms to the Saudis to mollify them after the nuclear deal with Iran. Congress should put the arms sales on hold and President Obama should quietly inform Riyadh that the United States will withdraw crucial assistance if the Saudis do not stop targeting civilians and agree to negotiate peace.

The airstrikes are further evidence that the Saudis have escalated their bombing campaign against Houthi militias, which control the capital, Sana, since peace talks were suspended on Aug. 6, ending a cease-fire that was declared more than four months ago. They also suggest one of two unpleasant possibilities. One is that the Saudis and their coalition of mostly Sunni Arab partners have yet to learn how to identify permissible military targets. The other is that they simply do not care about killing innocent civilians. The bombing of the hospital, which alone killed 15 people, was the fourth attack on a facility supported by Doctors Without Borders in the past year even though all parties to the conflict were told exactly where the hospitals were located.

In all, the war has killed more than 6,500 people, displaced more than 2.5 million others and pushed one of the world’s poorest countries from deprivation to devastation. A recent United Nations report blamed the coalition for 60 percent of the deaths and injuries to children last year. Human rights groups and the United Nations have suggested that war crimes may have been committed. [Continue reading…]

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Chemical weapons attacks in Syria may normalise war crimes, experts warn

The Guardian reports: A woman and two children have been killed and dozens injured in an alleged chlorine gas attack in Aleppo, doctors have said, as experts warned that the frequent use of chemical weapons in Syria risks normalising war crimes.

There have been dozens of attacks with chlorine gas since Syria officially agreed to give up its weapons stockpile following a 2013 sarin gas assault on a Damascus suburb, rights groups and doctors on the ground said.

The latest reports came as Russia offered to halt fighting for three hours a day to allow aid into besieged parts of the city, but the UN countered by saying it needed at least 48 hours a week to take convoys through heavily bombed and mined roads into eastern Aleppo.

There are still 1.5 million people living in Aleppo, the city that was Syria’s largest before the civil war and is now at the heart of the brutal battle for its future. About 300,000 civilians in rebel-held areas are at grave risk from water shortages and disease as fighting has intensified, said the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Asked about the chemical attack on the Aleppo district of Zubdiya, he said there was a lot of evidence that it took place, and it would constitute a war crime if chlorine gas was used, but he added that it was not his remit to verify the attack. “If it did take place, it is a war crime and as such it would require everyone … to address it immediately,” he added.

Last week, doctors in the neighbouring province of Idlib said they had treated more than two dozen patients following a suspected chlorine attack on the town of Saraqeb. [Continue reading…]

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Aleppo conditions worsen under siege

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Syrian regime and its Russian allies are heavily bombarding hospitals, markets, utilities and aid warehouses in the besieged, rebel-controlled half of Aleppo, according to opposition officials and aid workers who said it was a concerted effort to force rebels and residents to surrender quickly.

The regime succeeded last month in encircling and cutting off the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo after more than two years of attempts. The bombardment of infrastructure since has led to deteriorating humanitarian conditions for an estimated 300,000 people under siege, the officials and aid workers said.

Food supplies in the city are expected to last for only a few more weeks, according to the United Nations and aid agencies.

“What is happening is to break the will of the opposition,” said Muhammad al-Zein, an administrator with the medical council overseeing hospitals in the rebel-held part of Aleppo. “The warplanes are not striking the headquarters of [rebel] factions. They are targeting the infrastructure in order to create a feeling of defeat and surrender.”

Russian warplanes don’t strike civilian targets, said Lt. Gen. Sergei Rutskoi, a top general overseeing Russian operations in Syria. He said seven channels had been opened up around Aleppo to allow people to flee, and added that Russian soldiers have delivered food products and medical supplies.

Opposition officials and local aid workers said no humanitarian corridors have been opened to allow civilians to leave the rebel-held portion of Aleppo. On Sunday, in an attempt to break the siege, rebel factions launched an offensive against regime forces along the southern edge of the city, and some people burned tires that filled the sky with black smoke in an attempt to prevent regime and Russian aircraft from bombing the rebels. [Continue reading…]

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As the Saudis covered up abuses in Yemen, America stood by

Samuel Oakford writes: The United Nations has long been bullied by its most powerful members, and U.N. secretaries-general have usually been forced to grit their teeth and take it quietly. But few nations have been more publicly brazen in this practice than Saudi Arabia, and earlier this summer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon managed to get in a dig at the Kingdom over its blackmail-style tactics. Ban openly admitted that it was only after Riyadh threatened to cut off funding to the U.N. that he bowed to its demand to remove the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where it has launched a harsh military intervention, from a list of violators of children’s rights contained in the annex of his annual Children and Armed Conflict report. “The report describes horrors no child should have to face,” Ban told reporters. “At the same time, I also had to consider the very real prospect that millions of other children would suffer grievously if, as was suggested to me, countries would defund many U.N. programs.”

But the secretary-general wasn’t done. “It is unacceptable for U.N. member states to exert undue pressure,” Ban added. The removal of the Saudis from the list was also, he claimed, “pending review.”

For the United States, it was another reminder of what an uncomfortable ally the Saudi kingdom can be (as was the July release of a hitherto classified section of a 2002 report into the 9/11 attacks that suggested, among other things, that the wife of then-Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan gave money to the wife of a suspected 9/11 co-conspirator). No one has become more familiar with this awkwardness than the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, the erstwhile human-rights icon (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell) who has been forced to look the other way as a powerful U.S. ally does as it pleases in Yemen with political, logistical and military cover from Washington. Since news broke of Ban’s decision, I have asked Power’s office for a direct response to Saudi funding threats. Neither she nor her staff has ever replied. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration remains silent on Russian war crimes in Syria

The Daily Beast reports: As evidence mounts that Russia is deliberately targeting civilians in Syria with cluster bombs and other anti-personnel weapons, what has long been a nagging question about Washington’s policy has now taken on real urgency: Why is there no comment from the U.S. government is to confirm or refute the allegations of war crimes?

A Human Rights Watch report out Thursday documents how Russian aircraft dropped cluster bombs on an informal fuel market outside Termanin, a village in Idlib province, on July 11, killing 10 and wounding more than 30 people. The victims were all civilians and included two who were first responders.

According to HRW, three fighter aircraft, two of them SU-34s flown only by Russia, and an SU-24 that’s in both the Russian and Syrian air force, launched eight attacks: the first two of them using cluster bombs — large canisters containing dozens of tiny bomblets that scatter through the air and across the ground. Many do not explode — at first, but may kill and maim days, months, even years later.

HRW noted that cluster bombs are “inherently indiscriminate, and repeated strikes on the target even after first responders arrived make the attack unlawful.”

Russia is not a party to the international accord banning cluster munitions, but it is party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which list indiscriminate attacks as a grave breach. So are the U.S. and Syria. The conventions not only require their signers to uphold the stated rules, but to see to it that they are upheld by others. [Continue reading…]

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War reporter Marie Colvin was tracked, targeted and killed by Assad’s forces, family says

The Washington Post reports: American war correspondent Marie Colvin was deliberately targeted and killed by artillery fire in 2012 at the direction of senior Syrian military officers seeking to silence her reporting on civilian casualties in the besieged city of Homs, according to a civil lawsuit filed Saturday on behalf of her sister and other heirs.

Based on information from high-level defectors and captured government documents, the 32-page complaint alleges that the military was able to electronically intercept Colvin’s communications from a clandestine media center operating out of an apartment in the densely populated Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs. Syrian officials paired the intercepts with detailed information from a female informant to pinpoint the location of the reporter who worked for the Sunday Times of London.

Then, the suits says, military forces under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, commander of Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division, launched a series of “bracketing” artillery attacks that came progressively closer to the media center, a classic artillery targeting tactic. [Continue reading…]

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Chilcot’s judgment is utterly damning — but it’s still not justice

George Monbiot writes: Little is more corrosive of democracy than impunity. When politicians do terrible things and suffer no consequences, people lose trust in both politics and justice. They see them, correctly, as instruments deployed by the strong against the weak.

Since the first world war, no British prime minister has done anything as terrible as Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. This unprovoked war caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the mutilation of hundreds of thousands more. It flung the whole region into chaos, which has been skillfully exploited by terror groups. Today, three million people in Iraq are internally displaced, and an estimated 10 million need humanitarian assistance.

Yet Blair, the co-author of these crimes, whose lethal combination of appalling judgment and tremendous powers of persuasion made the Iraq war possible, saunters the world, picking up prizes and massive fees, regally granting interviews, cloaked in a forcefield of denial and legal impunity. If this is what politics looks like, is it any wonder that so many people have given up on it?

The crucial issue – the legality of the war – was, of course, beyond Sir John Chilcot’s remit. A government whose members were complicit in the matter under investigation (Gordon Brown financed and supported the Iraq war) defined his terms of reference. This is a fundamental flaw in the way inquiries are established in this country: it’s as if a defendant in a criminal case were able to appoint his own judge, choose the charge on which he is to be tried and have the hearing conducted in his own home. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: Abductions, torture and summary killings at the hands of armed groups

Amnesty International reports: Armed groups operating in Aleppo, Idleb and surrounding areas in the north of Syria have carried out a chilling wave of abductions, torture and summary killings, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today.

The briefing ‘Torture was my punishment’: Abductions, torture and summary killings under armed group rule in Aleppo and Idleb, Syria offers a rare glimpse of what life is really like in areas under the control of armed opposition groups. Some of them are believed to have the support of governments such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the USA despite evidence that they are committing violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). It also sheds light on the administrative and quasi-judicial institutions set up by armed groups to govern in these areas.

“This briefing exposes the distressing reality for civilians living under the control of some of the armed opposition groups in Aleppo, Idleb and surrounding areas. Many civilians live in constant fear of being abducted if they criticize the conduct of armed groups in power or fail to abide by the strict rules that some have imposed,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International. [Continue reading…]

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Saudis used financial threats to coerce UN in effort to cover up war crimes in Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United Nations secretary general is supposed to answer to every nation on earth — and no nation at all.

So the unusually frank admission by the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on Thursday that he had essentially been coerced into removing a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children was a rare window into the limits of his moral and political authority — and an object lesson for whoever succeeds Mr. Ban next year.

On Thursday, Mr. Ban told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.

The coalition has been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian and nonmilitary targets in its battle against Houthi rebels in Yemen for more than a year. The coalition, which is backed by the United States, has consistently denied the accusations.

Mr. Ban’s office issued a report last week on violations of children’s rights in war zones, and it cited deadly coalition attacks that had hit schools and hospitals. By Monday, however, the coalition was taken off the list, after lobbying by Saudi Arabia and some of its wealthiest allies who help finance United Nations humanitarian operations. [Continue reading…]

Human Rights Watch: “The secretary-general’s decision flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that violations by the Saudi-led coalition have killed and maimed hundreds of children in Yemen,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing governments that commit abuses against children to bully their way off the list makes a mockery of the UN’s children protection efforts.”

The UN has verified that at least 785 children have been killed and 1,168 injured in Yemen during fighting in 2015, with 60 percent of the casualties attributed to the Saudi-led coalition, the secretary-general’s report said. The UN also verified 101 attacks against schools and hospitals, attributing nearly half of the attacks to the Saudi-led coalition. Nongovernmental organizations have made similar findings. [Continue reading…]

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UN includes — then removes — Saudi coalition from list of child violators in Yemen

At Human Rights Watch, Kristine Beckerle writes: Every year, the United Nations secretary-general releases a “list of shame” of government forces and armed groups that have committed grave violations against children during armed conflict. This year, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was listed for the first time, identified as being responsible for killing and maiming children in Yemen and for attacks on schools and hospitals.

There was a six-fold increase in the killing and maiming of children in Yemen during 2015, with at least 785 children killed and 1,168 injured, according to the secretary-general’s report. The Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 60 percent of these child deaths and injuries.

The UN recorded 101 attacks on schools and hospitals in Yemen, double the number of attacks recorded in 2014. The Saudi-led coalition was responsible for nearly half of these attacks. Almost all caused the partial or complete destruction of facilities. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Following a vehement protest from Saudi Arabia, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday removed the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen from a list of government forces that committed grave violations against children last year, pending a joint review of cases.

Saudi Arabia’s U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi insisted “the removal is unconditional and irreversible,” explaining that the government has no problem with a review and is confident it will conclude that the coalition was “wrongly placed on the list.”

Earlier, he asked for an immediate correction saying Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on the list was based on “inaccurate and incomplete” information. [Continue reading…]

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Rebecca Gordon: Justice for torturers?

If you happen to be a potential American war criminal, you’ve had a few banner weeks.  On May 9th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presented former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, that institution’s highest honorary award for private citizens.”  In bestowing it on the 92-year-old who is evidently still consulting for the Pentagon, he offered this praise: “While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world.”

Certainly people “around the world” will remember the “greater security” offered by the man who, relaying an order from President Richard Nixon for a “massive” secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, used a line that may almost be the definition of a war crime: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.”  The result: half a million tons of bombs dropped on that country between 1969 and 1973 and at least 100,000 dead civilians.  And that’s just to start down the well-cratered road to the millions of dead he undoubtedly has some responsibility for.  Public service indeed.

Meanwhile, speaking of American crimes in the Vietnam era, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president of the U.S. and then became the president of the New School in New York City, was just appointed to “lead” Fulbright University Vietnam, the first private American-backed school there.  Its opening was announced by President Obama on his recent visit to that country.  Only one small problem: we already know of some children who won’t be able to apply for admission.  I’m thinking of the progeny-who-never-were of the 13 children killed by a team of U.S. SEALs under Kerrey’s command and on his orders in South Vietnam in 1969 (along with a pregnant woman, and an elderly couple whose three grandchildren were stabbed to death by the raiders) — all of whom were reported at the time as dead Vietcong guerillas.

It seems that if you are a distinguished citizen of the most exceptional country on the planet, even war crimes have their rewards.  Consider, for instance, the millions of dollars that were paid for memoirs by top Bush administration officials responsible for creating an American offshore torture regime at CIA “black sites” around the world.  Must-reads all!  With that in mind, turn to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, to consider what “justice” for such figures might look like in a different and better world. Tom Engelhardt 

Crimes of the War on Terror
Should George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others be jailed?
By Rebecca Gordon

“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”

In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.

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