Saudi Arabia appears to be using U.S.-supplied white phosphorus in its war in Yemen

The Washington Post reports: Saudi Arabia appears to be using U.S.-supplied white phosphorus munitions in its war in Yemen, based on images and videos posted to social media, raising concerns among human rights groups that the highly incendiary material could be used against civilians.

Under U.S. regulations, white phosphorus sold to other countries is to be used only for signaling to other troops and creating smoke screens. When the munition explodes, it releases white phosphorus that automatically ignites in the air and creates a thick white smoke. When used against soldiers or civilians, it can maim and kill by burning to the bone.

It is unclear exactly how the Saudis are using the munitions, but the government has already received widespread condemnation for its indiscriminate bombing in civilian areas since its campaign against rebel forces in Yemen began in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. plans to ‘corner’ Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons

Christopher Dickey and Noah Shachtman report: Syria continues to develop chemical weapons it is supposed to have destroyed, and to use chlorine gas it agreed not to use on the battlefield. This, according to reports from United Nations agencies that have been leaked in recent days by Obama administration officials and were confirmed in part by public statements from U.S. officials on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It is now impossible to deny that the Syrian regime has repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people,” said a statement from U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price. (Chlorine was the first gas used in the trenches of World War I. When it mixes with the moisture in human eyes and lungs, it turns to acid with potentially fatal effects.)

Also very disturbing is the conclusion in the same report that the so-called Islamic State has used sulfur mustard gas, which causes skin and lungs to blister painfully, or fatally.

These leaks and statements are part of an administration effort to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers before an Aug. 30 meeting by the U.N. Security Council to look at the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast.

Why now? According to this official, the answer goes back to 2014, when the Assad regime was accused of repeated chlorine attacks, and the world shrugged its shoulders.

“We weren’t getting enough political oomph when the chlorine attacks first came to light. So we figured the best option was to work through the slow UN process, get the Russians to a place where they’re cornered diplomatically,” the intelligence official said.

Plus, the official added, finger pointing by the United States alone wouldn’t be nearly as effective as collective action.

“You know the way the Russians treat anything Syria-related,” the official said. “If we bring it forward, the Russians would reject it out of hand. So we helped OPCW [the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] uncover it on its own.”

In fact, the timing is politically problematic for President Barack Obama, and potentially for his favored successor, Hillary Clinton, since she is so closely identified with his administration.

We are looking at the third anniversary of Obama’s Great Syria Failure, as many of his critics see it: the debacle in which he drew a red line against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and the regime stepped right across it, killing more than a 1,000 men, women, and children with sarin nerve gas on Aug. 21, 2013, in a Damascus suburb called Ghouta. [Continue reading…]

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Syria used chlorine in bombs against civilians, UN report says

The New York Times reports: Syrian military helicopters dropped bombs containing chlorine on civilians in at least two attacks over the past two years, a special joint investigation of the United Nations and an international chemical weapons monitor said on Wednesday in a confidential report.

The report also found that militants of the Islamic State in Syria had been responsible for an attack last year using poisonous sulfur mustard, which, like chlorine, is banned as a weapon under an international treaty.

The 95-page report, based on a yearlong investigation, represents the first time the United Nations has blamed specific antagonists in the Syrian conflict for the use of chemical weapons, which is a war crime. Previous inquiries have determined that chemical weapons were used, but did not specify by whom.

A panel of investigators from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons submitted the report on Wednesday to members of the United Nations Security Council. It was not made public, but a copy was viewed by The New York Times. [Continue reading…]

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As the U.S. continues providing targeting intelligence, Saudis continue bombing hospitals in Yemen

The New York Times reports: It was a frenetic Monday afternoon at Abs Hospital in northern Yemen, with doctors and nurses busily shuttling among the patients and a maternity ward filled with 25 women expecting to give birth.

The bomb from the Saudi jet dropped into the middle of the hospital compound, a facility run by Doctors Without Borders, landing between the emergency room and a triage area for new patients. Nineteen people were killed, dozens were injured, and a humanitarian group that for decades has braved war zones across the globe decided it had had enough.

Doctors Without Borders announced in the days after the Aug. 15 strike that it was pulling out of six medical facilities in northern Yemen, the latest turn in a war that has further devastated one of the Arab world’s poorest countries and has bogged down a Saudi military ill-prepared for the conflict.

For the Obama administration, it was another public reminder of the spiraling violence of a war in which it has played a direct role. American officials have publicly condemned the hospital bombing — and the bombing of a school two days earlier — but the Pentagon has given steady support to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, with targeting intelligence and fuel for the Saudi planes involved in the air campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli military clears itself of wrongdoing over Gaza war airstrikes

The Guardian reports: The Israeli military has cleared its forces of wrongdoing in a string of deadly incidents that took place during the 2014 Gaza war – including an airstrike that killed 15 members of a single family and the bombing of a United Nations school.

Israel’s investigative process is at the heart of a Palestinian case to press for war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The Palestinians say that Israel has a poor record of prosecuting wrongdoing in its ranks.

In a statement on Wednesday, the military said it had closed a total of seven investigations without filing charges after a special team collected testimony from Gaza residents and Israeli officers. [Continue reading…]

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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.

[Read more…]

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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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