War crimes in Aleppo and Daraya

Amnesty reports: Armed groups surrounding the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo city have repeatedly carried out indiscriminate attacks – possibly including with chemical weapons – that have struck civilian homes, markets and mosques, killing and injuring civilians, and have displayed a shameful disregard for human life, said Amnesty International today.

Two of the armed groups conducting attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud – Ahrar al Sham and Army of Islam – have sent representatives to the UN-brokered negotiations on Syria in Geneva, while the others have approved delegates to represent them at the talks.

There are around 30,000 civilians living in Sheikh Maqsoud, a district controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces, and the area has come under sustained attack from opposition armed groups who control areas to the north, east and west of the district.

Among the weapons used by the armed groups are unguided projectiles which cannot be accurately aimed at specific targets, including home-made “Hamim” rockets and projectiles fitted with gas canisters known as “hell cannons”.

Amnesty has obtained the names of at least 83 civilians, including 30 children, who were killed by attacks in Sheikh Maqsoud between February and April. More than 700 civilians were also injured, according to the local field hospital. Video evidence seen by Amnesty shows artillery shelling, and rocket and mortar attacks carried out by the Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest) coalition of armed groups in the area, targeting YPG forces. [Continue reading…]

Vice News reports: Omar’s daughter is two months old, but he still hasn’t met her. He lives in Daraya, a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus that’s besieged by the Syrian regime. His wife and child live just a few kilometers to the west, in the neighboring rebel suburb of Moadamiya. The Syrian army cut the road between the two enclaves in January shortly before his daughter was born.

On Thursday, Omar eagerly awaited the arrival of an international aid convoy that was scheduled to bring medicine and baby formula into Daraya. The Syrian government agreed to the delivery, and it was organized by the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

It would have been the first convoy to reach Daraya since it was first besieged in 2012 — but the trucks didn’t make it to the town.

According to the ICRC, it was turned away at the last checkpoint outside of Daraya. Just minutes after the convoy was sent back, the Local Council of Daraya — a committee that operates as the local government — reported that the Syrian army had shelled a group of civilians who’d gathered to receive the aid. A father and son were killed and five other civilians were injured, the council said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had fired into the town.

After the shelling, Omar rushed to a nearby field hospital where the wounded were being treated.

“The people are now filled with frustration and anger,” he told VICE News via messaging app. “To be honest, at this point we no longer trust the international community or the UN.”

Though it’s just a 20-minute drive from the center of Damascus, Daraya is one of the most isolated places in Syria: it’s been under siege for over four years, and it’s one of the few areas where no aid convoys have ever been permitted to enter. According to residents interviewed by VICE News, people survive on meager meals of lentil and rice soup that are often fortified with weeds or grass. The water supply was cut off two years ago. [Continue reading…]

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UN investigators tell states to stop Syria war crimes

Reuters reports: States backing Syria’s peace process must stop the warring parties from attacking unlawful targets such as hospitals and other civilian sites, U.N. war crimes investigators said in a statement on Wednesday.

Air strikes, shelling and rocket fire had been consistently used in recent attacks on civilian areas, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a statement.

“Failure to respect the laws of war must have consequences for the perpetrators,” its chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said. [Continue reading…]

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In Aleppo, we are running out of coffins

Osama Abo El Ezz writes: Last week, Syrian or Russian jets bombed Al Quds hospital, in the eastern part of the divided city of Aleppo. At least 50 people lost their lives, and some 80 more were injured.

Among those killed in the attack was my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Muhammad Wassim Mo’az, a kind man who cared deeply for his patients and his community. He slept in the hospital in case there was an emergency and he had to rush to treat babies and children. He was the last pediatrician in Aleppo.

Another friend, Dr. Mohammed Ahmad, was also killed in the airstrikes. Dr. Ahmad was beloved by colleagues and Aleppo residents. He used to volunteer with children, teaching them how to prevent dental disease during wartime. He was one of the 10 dentists remaining in eastern Aleppo.

Dr. Wassim and Dr. Ahmad join hundreds of my Syrian colleagues who have been killed during the last five years of civil war. Physicians for Human Rights has counted at least 730 murdered medical professionals. Deliberate attacks on hospitals and medical workers have become the norm. Just one day after the bombing of Al Quds hospital, a primary care center that treated more than 2,000 people a month was destroyed by another airstrike. In the last week, schools, clinics and mosques have been deliberately bombed, too.

As one of the few remaining doctors in Syria, I have watched the “cessation of hostilities” that was agreed on in February crumble. Imperfect though it was, it offered Syrian civilians a brief respite from five years of violence. People had begun to recover during the truce, to get their lives back. But we are now seeing a level of destruction that will leave an already battered city in ruins. [Continue reading…]

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UK’s claim Saudi Arabia hasn’t breached humanitarian law in Yemen adds to ‘anything goes’ attitude, say MPs

The Guardian reports: The British government’s claim that Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen has not breached international humanitarian law is “deeply disappointing” and contributes to an “anything goes” attitude from the opposing sides in the conflict, the international development select committee has said.

The finding comes as a rebuke to the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who made the assessment despite a UN-sponsored report and many charities presenting evidence to the contrary. The Conservative-dominated committee said the Saudi inquiry into the Yemen campaign, supported by the Foreign Office, was inadequate and called for an independent inquiry.

“It is deeply disappointing that the UK government does not accept that breaches of international humanitarian law have taken place in Yemen,” the committee said in a report. “The failure to hold parties to the conflict to account for their actions appears to have contributed to an ‘anything goes’ attitude by both sides to this conflict.” [Continue reading…]

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A moral debt for bombing the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz

In an editorial, the New York Times says: The torrent of mistakes that led an American military gunship to obliterate a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October, killing 42 innocent people and wounding dozens, resulted from gross negligence, judging from the findings of a report the Pentagon released on Friday.

And yet, military officials have refused to identify the individuals responsible for the disaster and to explain what type of punishment each will face. The Pentagon also appears to have ruled out the possibility of holding them accountable in a court of law for one of the most egregious war zone blunders in recent history.

Those decisions are deeply troubling. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the military’s Central Command, or Centcom, told journalists on Friday that the service members who made the mistakes would not face criminal prosecution because investigators determined that their errors were unintentional.

According to the report, the gunship crew failed to locate the intended target and fired on the Doctors Without Borders hospital assuming that it was a building occupied by Taliban fighters. Senior officers approved the strike despite having the coordinates of the hospital. Equipment and communication failures that night contributed to the catastrophe, and the airstrike did not stop immediately after Doctors Without Borders alerted the United States government of the error.

Gen. John Campbell, the commander of American troops in Afghanistan at the time, concluded that some service members had flouted the rules of engagement and violated the law of armed conflict, Centcom said in a statement. However, Pentagon officials determined that they would not face criminal charges because of their lack of intent.

Human rights advocates and Doctors Without Borders rightly point out that under the American military code and international laws of war, fatal mistakes that result from recklessness and gross negligence can constitute crimes. [Continue reading…]

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Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan: The world’s most-needed hospitals are under attack

The Washington Post reports: The al-Quds hospital in Aleppo targeted in Wednesday night’s attacks was one of 150 hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders in Syria. The organization directly runs six in the country, but provides funding and medical supplies to other medical facilities.

The international charity group, also referred to as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in French, said the medical facility was directly hit and reduced to “rubble.” The organization has condemned the overnight attack, which also claimed the life of one of the area’s last pediatricians.

“Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?” said Muskilda Zancada, the MSF head in Syria, in an online statement.

The United Nations estimates that at least half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed, and the spark of attacks on hospitals is an especially disturbing trend. In armed conflict, hospitals are protected by international law. Yet the facilities supported and run by the Nobel Prize-winning organization have frequently come under attack. And it’s not only medical structures. The group said five rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense organization have also been killed. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: Airstrikes destroy Aleppo’s Al Quds hospital, killing 14

Médecins Sans Frontières: Fourteen people, including at least two doctors, were killed Wednesday night in the bombing of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the medical humanitarian organization said today.

According to hospital staff on the ground, the Al Quds hospital in Aleppo was destroyed by at least one airstrike which directly hit the building, reducing it to rubble. Other airstrikes in the neighborhood also hit areas close to the hospital.

“MSF categorically condemns this outrageous targeting of yet another medical facility in Syria,” said Muskilda Zancada, MSF head of mission for Syria. “This devastating attack has destroyed a vital hospital in Aleppo, and the main referral center for pediatric care in the area. Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?”

The situation in Aleppo city, consistently at the frontlines of the brutal conflict, was critical even before this attack. An estimated 250,000 people remain in the city, which has seen dramatic increases in levels of bombardment, fighting and fatalities in recent weeks. Only one road remains open in and out of the non-government held areas. If this road becomes blocked, the city will be besieged. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The Syrian government considers any medical facilities in opposition-held territory as legitimate military targets, saying that they are de facto illegal. Hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria are refusing to share GPS coordinates with Russian and Syrian authorities because of repeated attacks on medical facilities and workers, fearing that sharing the locations would make the hospitals targets.

As early as 2013, the UN independent commission of inquiry investigating alleged war crimes in Syria said attacks on medical facilities were being used systematically as a weapon of war by the Assad regime. Attacks by both sides on medical facilities have continued unabated in recent months. MSF said in February that a total of 94 airstrikes and shelling attacks hit facilities supported by the organisation in 2015 alone.

In February last year, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights said it had documented 224 attacks on 175 health facilities since the start of the conflict, and 599 medical personnel had been killed. The attacks continued after the Russian intervention – the organisation documented at least 10 attacks by Russian aircraft on medical facilities in October alone, the first month of Russia’s aerial campaign. [Continue reading…]

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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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