Two ways the war in Yemen is turning into a disaster for the U.S.

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Two significant reports last week illustrated the awkward role of the United States in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, which has claimed thousands of lives, seen the virtual collapse of the fragile Yemeni state, and sparked a grim humanitarian crisis in what was already the Middle East’s most impoverished nation.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch published on Wednesday alleged that at least two deadly airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition last month used munitions supplied by the United States. The attack, which hit a town in northwestern Yemen, killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children.

Last month also marked the anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s entrance into the civil war on its southern border — an intervention that has seen Riyadh and its allies get bogged down in a difficult battle with the country’s Houthi rebels, who still control the capital Sanaa and much of northern Yemen.

Separately, a Reuters special report raised the possibility that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group’s influential Yemeni wing — long the target of U.S. counterterror operations — has gained ground in the shadow of the Saudi-led war, exploiting Yemen’s security vacuum to consolidate its position in a string of coastal cities while building up an impressive treasury of plundered wealth. [Continue reading…]

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The Assad files

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Ben Taub reports: The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.

He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.

In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.

Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.

The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. [Continue reading…]

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Trump attack on Geneva Conventions denounced by ex-officers and advocates

The Guardian reports: Retired senior military officers and human rights advocates are reacting with disgust at Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s description of the Geneva Conventions as a “problem” for the conduct of US wars.

At an appearance in Wisconsin on Wednesday that was obscured by his suggestion that women who choose abortion should face punishment, Donald Trump was also quoted as saying: “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight.”

Trump has previously advocated killing the families of terror suspects; torture “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding; and widespread bombing campaigns against Islamic State, which operates in civilian-packed areas. The Geneva Conventions provide the basis for protections against war crimes, privileging the status of civilians and detainees during wartime.

Several retired officers said the comments called into question Trump’s fitness to serve as commander-in-chief, saying that service members operating in line with his predilections would be tasked with behavior ranging from the disgraceful to the illegal.

“Donald Trump cannot possibly understand [Geneva] because he has neither the experience, the expertise or the moral compass to grasp it,” said Steve Kleinman, an air force reserve colonel and an interrogations expert. [Continue reading…]

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Haunted by the smell of apples: 28 years on, Kurds weep over Halabja massacre

By Bahar Baser, Coventry University

Kurdish history is full of oppression, suffering and tragedies. But the gas attack at Halabja, 28 years ago this week, must surely be the most egregious.

In 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s army attacked the Kurdish province near the Iranian border with chemical gas, including mustard gas, sarin, cyanide and tabun. Survivors from Halabja say the gas smelled sweet like apples and instantly killed people who were exposed.

These attacks were part of a larger genocidal campaign mainly against the Kurdish people. Called al-Anfal, it cost 50,000 to 100,000 lives and destroyed 4,000 villages between February and September 1988. Al-Anfal referenced the eighth “sura” of the Koran, “The Spoils of War”, which described the campaign of extermination of non-believers by Muslim troops in 624CE under Ali Hassan al-Majid.

In Halabja, nearly 5,000 civilians were killed on the spot. A further 10,000 were left with serious injuries that affect their lives to this day. It was reported that more than 75% of the victims were women, the elderly and children. The attacks completely destroyed residential areas. Many of those who fled were never to return.

[Read more…]

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ISIS chemical attack in Iraq wounds 600, kills child

The Associated Press reports: The Islamic State launched two chemical attacks this week near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, killing a toddler, wounding some 600 people and causing hundreds more to flee, Iraqi officials said Saturday.

Security and hospital officials say the latest attack took place early Saturday in the small town of Taza, which was also struck by a barrage of rockets carrying chemicals three days earlier.

Sameer Wais, whose 3-year-old daughter Fatima was killed in the attack, is a member of a Shiite militia fighting ISIS in the province of Kirkuk. He said he was on duty at the frontline when the attack occurred early in the morning, quickly ran home and said he could still smell the chemicals in the rocket.

“We took her to the clinic and they said that she needed to go to a hospital in Kirkuk. And that’s what we did, we brought her here to the hospital in Kirkuk,” he said.

Wais said his daughter appeared to be doing better the next day so they took her home. “But by midnight she started to get worse. Her face puffed up and her eyes bulged. Then she turned black and pieces of her skin started to come off,” he said.

By the next morning, Fatima had died, Wais said. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian and Russian forces have deliberately targeted hospitals near Aleppo

Amnesty: Russian and Syrian government forces appear to have deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities over the last three months to pave the way for ground forces to advance on northern Aleppo, an examination of airstrikes by Amnesty International has found.

Even as Syria’s current fragile ceasefire deal was being hammered out, Syrian government forces and their allies intensified their attacks on medical facilities.

Amnesty has gathered compelling evidence of at least six deliberate attacks on hospitals, medical centres and clinics in the northern part of the Aleppo Countryside governorate in the past 12 weeks. The attacks, which killed at least three civilians including a medical worker, and injured 44 more, continue a pattern of targeting health facilities in various parts of Syria which amounts to war crimes. [Continue reading…]

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Clear evidence that hospitals and medical workers are deliberate bombing targets in Syria

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The New York Times reports: The hospital in the northern Syrian town of Maarat al-Noaman was not just grazed, or damaged, by the airstrikes last week. It was destroyed, taking a direct hit that pancaked its three stories into one, entombing and killing 25 people, including nine staff members.

It was struck at around 9:02 a.m., just as day-shift workers and patients were arriving; then again at around 9:05. As rescuers swarmed around, another explosion struck at 9:45, and another at 9:48. That same morning, two airstrikes hit the National Hospital on the other side of town, which was treating nurses injured in the attack on the first facility.

This detailed account, provided by the director of the hospital, which was supported by Doctors Without Borders, is one example of why many Syrian medical workers in insurgent-held areas and human rights groups believe medical facilities are not just being hit by stray bombs or indiscriminate attacks, but have long been deliberately targeted by the Syrian government and its Russian allies. It is a measure of the deep mistrust that gravely challenges prospects for a truce set to begin Saturday.

“I had the feeling they were trying to kill me,” said the director, Dr. Mazen al-Saoud, 55, in a telephone interview from Maarat al-Noaman, his hometown. “Wherever I went, there was bombing.”

According to Doctors Without Borders, there were 94 attacks last year alone on 67 hospitals and clinics the group supports in insurgent-held areas from northern to southern Syria, destroying 12 facilities and killing 23 staff members. In 2016, there have already been 17 attacks on health facilities, including six assisted by the group. [Continue reading…]

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UN finds ‘deliberate’ destruction of hospitals in Syria

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The New York Times reports: First, the government soldiers made sure no food could get into rebel-held towns. Then, government planes bombed what health centers remained in those towns, making sure that those who got sick from hunger had no medical care to save them.

That is the harrowing picture painted by the latest report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria. The report, released Monday, chronicles a series of attacks on health care centers by government forces and the Islamic State, and it says the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure” was responsible for driving up deaths and permanent disabilities.

To follow the commission’s work in Syria — it has written 11 reports since August 2011 — is to witness how blatantly the laws of war have been broken, with no prospects of accountability.

The commission flatly asserts in the latest report that “war crimes are rampant” by government forces and their armed rivals, and for the first time it sharply points to the very countries that are bargaining over a peace deal for fueling the violence. [Continue reading…]

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Russia guilty of Syria war crimes, says Amnesty

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Sky News reports: Amnesty International has told Sky News that Russia is guilty of some the most “egregious” war crimes it has seen in decades.

The human rights organisation claims Moscow’s warplanes have been deliberately targeting civilians and rescue workers in Syria over the last week.

Tirana Hassan, director of Amnesty’s crisis response programme, said the attacks are ongoing – with strikes documented on schools, hospitals and civilian homes.

She claimed the bombing of civilian targets by Russian and Syrian forces was in itself a war crime, but warned there have been consistent reports of second bombardments which injure and kill humanitarian workers and civilians attempting to evacuate the wounded and the dead. [Continue reading…]

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Médecins Sans Frontières: Attacks on civilians and hospitals in Syria have become routine

Dr Joanne Liu, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières, writes: Today in Syria, the abnormal is now normal. The unacceptable is accepted.

Relentless, brutal, and targeted attacks on civilians are the dominant feature of this war. In addition to the countless numbers of dead, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing for their lives. Many of them trapped, and denied the fundamental right to flight.

Deliberate attacks against civilian infrastructure, including hospitals struggling to provide lifesaving assistance, are routine.

Healthcare in Syria is in the crosshair of bombs and missiles. It has collapsed.

Let me be clear: attacks on civilians and hospitals must stop. The normalization of such attacks is intolerable. [Continue reading…]


[Click infographic to enlarge]

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How to lose sight of war crime immorality

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After the U.S. dropped bombs on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Afghan city of Kunduz on October 3, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

Doctors who travel to dangerous war zones to treat injured human beings are regarded as noble and trustworthy. They’re difficult to marginalize and demonize. They give compelling, articulate interviews in English to U.S. media outlets. They are heard, and listened to.

MSF has used this platform, unapologetically and aggressively. Its staff are clearly infuriated by the attack on their hospital and the deaths of their colleagues and patients. From the start, they have signaled an unwillingness to be shunted away with the usual “collateral damage” banalities and, more important, have refused to let the U.S. military and its allies get away with spouting obvious falsehoods.

Greenwald shared MSF’s disgust in response to statements which amounted to justifications for war crimes.

Following the latest airstrikes on MSF hospitals in Syria, Greenwald’s reaction has so far been much more muted. It has yet to go beyond a couple of tweets which rather than being directed at the likely culprit of these war crimes, Russia, focus instead on the hypocrisy of the U.S. government.


Indeed, the U.S. can’t credibly denounce Russia for bombing MSF hospitals in Syria when it has done the same in Afghanistan.

By the same token, however, how can Greenwald credibly denounce American war crimes if he’s going to refrain from denouncing Russia’s?

He can’t be accused of being a hypocritical U.S. official. He doesn’t represent the American government.

Maybe at the moment he’s suspending judgment about who was responsible for the latest airstrikes in Syria — even though MSF says the attack was “deliberate” and says “either the [Syrian] government or Russia” was “clearly” responsible:


That’s a pointless question in this case since as far as Russia is concerned, there is nothing to investigate.

As TASS reports:

Asked for a comment regarding reports a hospital in Syria’s Idlib province had been bombed, as well as claims the Russian air group was responsible, [Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry] Peskov invited everybody to rely “on the root source first and foremost.” “In this particular case the representatives of Syrian authorities are the root source,” he said.

Peskov recalled that Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riyadh Haddad, said on Tuesday the hospital in Idlib province was destroyed by the Americans, and not the Russian air group.

If Greenwald actually believed Haddad’s claim, I would expect him to be now denouncing U.S. airstrikes on MSF hospitals in Syria, but he isn’t — most likely because he realizes the Syrian ambassador was spouting obvious falsehoods.

Instead, Greenwald’s primary interest is in using these war crimes as an opportunity to take shots at the U.S. government — even though as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and others have documented, attacks on medical facilities are neither accidental nor incidental to the conflict: they are an integral feature of the war strategy used by Assad and his allies.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in December, doctors with PHR said:

Since the conflict began in 2011, PHR has documented the killings of 679 medical personnel, 95% of them perpetrated by government forces. Some personnel were killed in bombings of their hospitals or clinics; some were shot dead; at least 157 were executed or tortured to death.

The issue here is that anyone who wants to resolutely challenge American double standards needs, for the sake of credibility, to avoid having their own double standards on war crimes.

As for the notion that Greenwald, as an American, has a duty to challenge his own government rather than Russia’s, he might pause to consider that his tweets and articles probably attract more attention in the Kremlin than they do in the White House.

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Syria’s UN envoy claims MSF hospital was front for French intelligence and got bombed by the U.S.

AFP reports: Syria’s U.N. envoy on Tuesday accused the medical aid charity MSF of being a front for French intelligence in Syria and dismissed allegations that Russian air strikes had destroyed one of its hospitals.

“The so-called hospital was installed without any prior consultation with the Syrian government by the so-called French network called MSF which is a branch of the French intelligence operating in Syria,” said Ambassador Bashar Jaafari.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said at least 11 people were killed after the hospital in Idlib province was destroyed on Monday morning, but it did not assign blame for the attack.

“They assume the full consequences of the act because they did not consult with the Syrian government,” Jaafari told reporters.

“They did not operate with the Syrian government permission.”

He repeated Syrian claims that the U.S.-led coalition had carried out the air strikes that hit the MSF-backed hospital. [Continue reading…]

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Airstrikes hit hospitals in northern Syria; MSF views Russia or Assad’s forces as responsible

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The Guardian reports: Airstrikes have hit hospitals in two locations in northern Syria – marking the latest in a series of attacks on medical facilities and workers in the five-year civil war.

Médecins Sans Frontières said seven people were killed when a facility it supports in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib province, was hit four times in two separate raids. Mego Terzian, MSF’s France president, told Reuters he thought that either Russia or Syrian government forces were responsible. Both have been engaged in an unrelenting aerial bombardment in Idlib.

The hospital, which has 54 staff and 30 beds, is financed by the medical charity, which also supplies medicine and equipment.

“The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of about 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict,” said Massimiliano Rebaudengo, MSF’s head of mission in Syria.

In separate incident, Syrian opposition activists said a missile struck a children’s hospital in the rebel-held town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, killing 10 and wounding more than 30. The Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said a Russian ballistic missile had hit the town. [Continue reading…]

Reuters adds: Residents in both towns blamed Russian strikes, saying the planes deployed were more numerous and the munitions more powerful than the Syrian military typically used. [Continue reading…]

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The cheap, brutally effective medieval tactic shaping the Syrian civil war

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Annia Ciezadlo writes: On Feb. 3, the United Nations suspended talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and representatives of the Syrian opposition. The Geneva talks, which were aimed at ending the five-year-old civil war, had bogged down in distrust and regional politics before they even got underway.

The UN mediator, Staffan de Mistura, hinted that the initial round of discussions collapsed because the Syrian regime refused to lift the sieges that are slowly starving hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Assad’s regime has been using starvation as a weapon — technically a war crime, when used against civilians — for the past four years.

As the war has progressed, various rebel factions, like Islamic State and Nusra Front, have also adopted the strategy. But the vast majority of the people under siege in Syria are being starved by their own government. Today, up to a million people are being slowly and deliberately starved to death in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, many of them a stone’s throw away from grain silos full of wheat. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq: Possible war crimes by Shia militia

Human Rights Watch: Members of Shia militias, who the Iraqi government has included among its state forces, abducted and killed scores of Sunni residents in a central Iraq town and demolished Sunni homes, stores, and mosques following January 11, 2016 bombings claimed by the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. None of those responsible have been brought to justice.

Two consecutive bombings at a café in the town of Muqdadiya, in Diyala province, some 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, on January 11, killed at least 26 people, many of them Sunnis, according to a teacher who lives near the café. ISIS claimed the attacks, saying it had targeted local Shia militias, collectively known as Popular Mobilization Forces, which are formally under the command of the prime minister. Members of two of the dominant militias in Muqdadiya, the Badr Brigades and the League of Righteous forces, responded by attacking Sunnis as well as their homes and mosques, killing at least a dozen people and perhaps many more, according to local residents.

“Again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries that support Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces should insist that Baghdad bring an end to this deadly abuse.” [Continue reading…]

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