U.S. accuses Syria of mass executions and burning bodies

The Washington Post reports: The Syrian government has constructed and is using a crematorium inside its notorious Sednaya military prison outside Damascus to clandestinely dispose of thousands of prisoners it continues to execute inside the facility.

At least 50 prisoners a day are executed in the prison, some in mass hangings, said Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. A recent Amnesty International report called Sednaya a “human slaughterhouse” and said that thousands of Syrians have been abducted, detained and “exterminated” there.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, Jones said, has carried out these atrocities and others “seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” his main backers.

The information, he said, came from human rights and nongovernmental sources, as well as “intelligence assessments.” He released overhead photographs of the facility.

Russia, Jones said, “has either aided in or passively looked away as the regime has” engaged in years of “mass murders” and other atrocities, including extensive bombing of hospitals and other health-care sites and the use of chemical weapons on both civilians and rebel forces. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. arms Kurds who are ISIS enemies, Turkey enemies, Assad friends

Citizen journalist Muhammad Noor (a pseudonym) writes from PKK-controlled Manbij: When Islamic State extremists captured Manbij three years ago, they forced the population to pray at mosque, ordered women to wear full chador and they beheaded their opponents in public.

But if you attended their religious courses and agreed to their rules you could get a job and earn enough to sustain your family.

That world turned upside down last August, when a Kurdish-led ground force with U.S. air support ousted ISIS from Manbij. Arabs were among the fighters in the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, but it was Kurds from outside Syria who suddenly became our new masters.

Local Kurds, who comprise 10 per cent of the population of 100,000, became the privileged class. They now dominate local commerce and they get special treatment from the police. Religious observance shifted 180 degrees. Traditional practice such as covering women is forbidden—not by decree but in practice. Anyone who objects can be arrested and tortured. I know from personal experience.

Since August, all the key positions in the SDF and in the Manbij administration were taken over by Kurds from outside Syria—from the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK. We called them Qandilians, those trained in Qandil, Iraq, the PKK’s mountain stronghold.

You knew them from the cars they drive, festooned with posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK, who’s now sitting in a Turkish jail near Istanbul. They didn’t use their real names; they operated behind the scenes.

Make no mistake. We were very happy to be rid of ISIS. But the new order became so oppressive that some Arabs spoke openly about the “good old days of ISIS.” They saw the new Kurdish masters as destroying the social fabric, spoiling centuries of good relations between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. [Continue reading…]

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Trump to arm Syrian Kurds, even as Turkey strongly objects

The New York Times reports: President Trump has approved a plan to provide Syrian Kurds with heavier weapons so they can participate in the battle to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

American military commanders have long argued for arming the Y.P.G., a Kurdish militia that contains some of the most experienced fighters among the Syrian force that is battling the Islamic State.

But Turkey has vociferously objected to such a move, insisting that the Kurdish fighters are linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the P.K.K., which both it and the United States regard as a terrorist group.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is scheduled to meet with Mr. Trump in Washington this month, and the American decision on arming the Kurds is likely to figure prominently in the discussion. Mr. Erdogan is expected to press Mr. Trump to give Turkey and the Syrian rebels it backs a bigger supporting role in the assault on Raqqa. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian army advances despite deal to cut violence, monitor says

Reuters reports: The Syrian army seized control of the village of al-Zalakiyat north of Hama on Sunday amid a heavy bombardment, a war monitor reported, despite a deal brokered by Russia, Syria’s main foreign backer, to reduce fighting.

Violence has raged in the countryside north of Hama for over a month, since rebels there launched an assault against government forces that was quickly reversed and has now turned into an army push into areas the insurgents gained last year.

Under an agreement that took effect at midnight on Friday, fighting was intended to subside over six months in four “de-escalation zones” where violence between the army and rebels have been most intense. [Continue reading…]

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Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: Regime whitewashing

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Early on the morning of Tuesday 4 April when General Mohammed Hasouri of Syria’s Air Force Brigade 50 prepared his Sukhoi Su-22 for take-off, he may not have known that in the age of satellites and smartphones, crucial details of his flight would be recorded.

The jet’s communications were intercepted by Syria Sentry spotters when, using the call-sign “Quds-1”, it lifted off from al-Shayrat airbase at 6:26 am local time; CentCom recorded its flight path on its bombing run over the Idlib countryside; and, 12 minutes later, when it delivered its lethal payload on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, multiple witnesses reported the strike, posting videos online (which have since been verified and geo-located.)

A comprehensive Human Rights Watch report has since confirmed that the regime was responsible for this and at least three other chemical attacks since December as “part of a broader pattern of Syrian government forces’ use of chemical weapons“.

The attack killed 92 people and injured many more. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) found the symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found “incontrovertible” evidence that the agent used was sarin; and, after testing samples of the chemical agent, the French government concluded that the attack was perpetrated by the “Syrian armed forces and security services“.

The Assad regime and Russia responded predictably. They made mutually contradictory claims (Assad: the deaths were staged; Russia: rebels caused the deaths). They were quickly debunked. But after the US government launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on the airbase as a punitive measure, a different formation joined the battle.

The US missile strike was symbolic; it had little effect on Assad’s military capability. But it did stir the “anti-imperialist” Left out of its somnolent unconcern for Syrian lives. Syrians were now proxies in a domestic battle and the “anti-imperialists” had finally found a Syrian life that mattered: Bashar al Assad’s. If the US government was acknowledging that the evidence for Assad’s responsibility was overwhelming, then Assad had to be protected and doubt manufactured.

By April 13, when the noted linguist and contrarian Noam Chomsky took the podium at UMass Amherst, substantial evidence had gathered to implicate Assad in the attack.

Chomsky, however, insisted that, “actually we don’t [know what happened]”. To justify his claim, Chomsky deferred to the authority of Theodore Postol, whom he called “one of the most sophisticated and successful analysts of military strategic issues”. Postol, he said, has gone through the White House Intelligence Report “in detail” and “just tears it to shreds”.

Ten days later, in Cambridge, Chomsky resumed. He again cited Postol, “a very serious and credible analyst… highly regarded”, who has “analyzed closely” and given “a pretty devastating critique of the White House report”.

If Chomsky’s praise for Postol seems suspiciously over the top, there is a reason for it. In an email exchange in the ten days between his two appearances, I had explained to Chomsky that far from being “a very serious and credible analyst”, Postol has a reputation for dabbling in zany conspiracism.

By this time, enough evidence had gathered from multiple independent sources to leave little doubt about Assad’s responsibility. But using the method of a climate change-denier, Chomsky elevated one madcap scientist’s theories to dismiss all extant evidence. [Continue reading…]

In part two of this article, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: The paradox of Chomskyian contrarianism is that because it is a bundle of reflexes whose primary stimulus is domestic politics, it sees retreat from principle as less problematic than a lapse in adversarial posturing.

Chomsky is not the worst offender on the Left; indeed, until August 2013, he even sounded sympathetic to the Syrian uprising. It was the massacre of over 1,400 people in a horrific sarin attack in August 2013 that ironically marked the deterioration in Chomsky’s position. [Continue reading…]

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The Syrian cause and anti-imperialism

Yaaser ElZayyar writes: I was in Istanbul for about ten days when I met a Turkish communist who explained to me that what was going on in Syria was nothing but an imperialist conspiracy against a progressive, anti-imperialist regime. The Turkish comrade’s talk contained no novel information or analytical spark that could suggest something useful about my country, and everything I tried to say seemed utterly useless. I was the Syrian who left his country for the first time at the age of fifty-two, only to be lectured about what was really happening there from someone who has probably only visited Syria a few times, if at all.

Incidents like this are repeated over and over in both the real and virtual worlds: a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.

There are articles, research papers, and books written by Westerner academics and journalists about Syria that do not refer to a single Syrian source–especially one that is opposed to the Assad regime. Syria seems to be an open book of a country; anyone with a passing interest knows the truth about it. They particularly know more than dissidents, whom they often call into question, practically continuing the negation of their existence which is already their fate in their homeland. Consequently, we are denied political agency in such a way that builds on the work of the Assad regime, which has, for two entire generations, stripped usof any political or intellectual merit in our own country. We are no longer relevant for our own cause. This standpoint applies to the global anti-imperialist left, to mainstream western-centrists, and of course to the right-wing. [Continue reading…]

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Syria safe zones hit by clashes on first day

Reuters and the Associated Press report: Syrian government forces and rebels clashed in the north-western province of Hama on Friday shortly after a Russian-led deal to establish safe zones took effect, a monitor and a rebel official said.

The zones, agreed to by Russia, Turkey and Iran, went into effect at midnight on Friday. The plan’s details will be worked out over the next few weeks but the zones appear intended to halt conflict in specific areas between government forces and rebels, and would potentially be policed by foreign troops.

Fighter jets fired at the rebel-held village of al-Zalakiyat and nearby positions in the Hama countryside, where the combatants exchanged shelling, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based war monitoring group said government forces shelled the nearby towns of Kafr Zita and Latamneh. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian army. [Continue reading…]

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Syria government ‘producing chemical weapons at research facilities’

BBC News reports: Syria’s government is continuing to make chemical weapons in violation of a 2013 deal to eliminate them, a Western intelligence agency has told the BBC.

A document says chemical and biological munitions are produced at three main sites near Damascus and Hama.
It alleges that both Iran and Russia, the government’s allies, are aware.

Western powers say a Syrian warplane dropped bombs containing the nerve agent Sarin on an opposition-held town a month ago, killing almost 90 people.

The United States launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the incident at Khan Sheikhoun, which President Bashar al-Assad says was faked.

The intelligence document obtained by the BBC says Syria’s chemical weapons are manufactured at three sites – Masyaf, in Hama province, and at Dummar and Barzeh, both just outside Damascus. All three are branches of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), a government agency, it adds. [Continue reading…]

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Former Tehran mayor under fire for criticism of Syria war

Arash Karami reports: Former Tehran Mayor and head of the Reformist Executives of Construction Party Gholam Hossein Karbaschi is under fire for doing what few of Iran’s active or former politicians or even journalists do: criticize Iran’s approach to the seven-year Syrian civil war. During an April 29 speech in Esfahan province in support of President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election campaign, Karbaschi said, “We too want peace in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, for the oppressed to be defended and the Shiites to be supported. But this cannot be done by giving money, buying arms and killing.”

On May 2, Karbaschi was indicted for “insulting the martyrs of the defenders of the shrine.” Iranian soldiers who fight in Syria are referred to as “defenders of the shrine,” in reference to the Shrine of Zeinab in Damascus. Ahmad Khosravi Vafa, Esfahan’s chief justice, said that Karbaschi will soon be summoned to court.

Karbaschi said May 3 that he has not yet received a summons. He neither backed away from the comment nor defended it when asked about it by Iranian journalists. Rather, he said that his comments on the topic were about two minutes long, but only 28 seconds were shown by media outlets. The short video clip went viral on social media. [Continue reading…]

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Russia reaches deal for Syria safe zones, but some rebels scoff

The New York Times reports: Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum on Thursday to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, to reduce bloodshed in a war now in its seventh year, but many questions remained about the plan.

Presented at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, the memorandum was the most ambitious of recent proposals, but it was not signed by the Syrian rebels or government. Rebel representatives said it left too many loopholes for the Syrian military to continue what the rebels called indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.

The memorandum calls for a pause in fighting, including government airstrikes, and for unhindered aid deliveries in and around the four main zones still held by rebels unaffiliated with the Islamic State. It also calls for all parties to fight jihadists like the Islamic State and the Qaeda-linked group once known as the Nusra Front.

The top United Nations envoy dealing with Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called the memorandum an “important, promising, positive step in the right direction.”

But some rebels, in rejecting the deal, said they would not accept Iran as a guarantor and reiterated their demands for the ouster of Iran-backed militias like Hezbollah, an end to arbitrary detentions, and other concessions the government is unlikely to grant. [Continue reading…]

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Contrary to earlier denial, U.S. did bomb mosque in Syria

CNN reports: A US Central Command investigation found that a March US airstrike in northern Syria did in fact strike a building that was part of a “mosque complex,” two US defense officials told CNN Thursday.

For days following the March 16 strike, the Pentagon adamantly rejected the notion that a mosque was hit and that there were civilian casualties — even as numerous social media reports showed images of bodies being taken out of the rubble.

Instead, in the initial hours following the strike by US drones and aircraft, the Pentagon insisted that it hit only a building some 40 feet away from the mosque, where it said al Qaeda members were holding a meeting.

It is that building that the US unwittingly bombed at the time of the strike, according the defense officials. As a result of the investigation, officials found that the facility had been used for religious purposes in the past.

Typically any religious structure would be on a so-called no-strike list, along with hospitals and schools. There are procedures to move structures off the no-strike list if it is clear they have lost their protected status because terrorists are using them and there are no civilians present.

At the time of the strike, the US still believed the building was being used by al Qaeda, according to the officials. But neither would say if the building had ever been on a no-strike list, or had been removed from such a list.

It is also not clear if the building was listed as a religious site on a database that the mission planners were unaware of.

One official said the investigation found that “religious use” was a primary function of the building at times. [Continue reading…]

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Putin has a new secret weapon in Syria: Chechens

Neil Hauer writes: The Russian intervention in Syria has been, by most accounts, a success. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to do everything he can to keep it that way.

Beginning with an air campaign on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, Russian forces have not only stopped regime losses but also helped Damascus retake Aleppo city in December 2016. Now with the opposition stronghold under government control and Assad’s hold on power no longer in question, Moscow has said it plans to reduce its presence in the country. But while some Russian forces did initially depart in early January, Moscow is actually expanding its role in Syria. Russian officials announced major expansions to Russian military bases in the country while the number of private contractors fighting on the Kremlin’s behalf also swelled.

Most interestingly, however, Putin deployed an unprecedented Russian weapon to Syria: several units of Chechen and Ingush commandos hailing from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region.

Until recently, regular Russian forces in Syria were largely limited to being a support crew for aircraft conducting strikes across the country. Apart from a few notable exceptions — artillery and special forces deployments in Hama province and military advisors alongside Syrian troops in Latakia — Moscow’s ground game in Syria has been minimal. But the ongoing deployment of the Chechen and Ingush brigades marks a strategic shift for the Kremlin: Russia now has its own elite ground personnel, drawn from its Sunni Muslim population, placed across Syria. This growing presence allows the Kremlin to have a greater role in shaping events on the ground as it digs in for the long term. Such forces could prove vital in curtailing any action taken by the Assad regime that would undermine Moscow’s wider interests in the Middle East while offering a highly effective method for the Kremlin to project power at a reduced political cost.

The exact role and size of the Kremlin’s new brigades are still uncertain. Initial open-source reports on the ground placed the number of Chechens deployed in December at around 500, while some estimates suggested a total of 300-400. The number of Ingush is reportedly slightly smaller, at roughly 300. Despite their designation as “military police,” the units are reportedly drawn from elite Spetnaz formations within the Chechen armed forces and are being employed in a role far beyond the simple rear-area guard duty that’s typical of such units: manning checkpoints, distributing aid, guarding bases, and even coordinating the defense of pro-government strongholds with regime forces.

“I think this represents Moscow’s grudging recognition that it’s stuck in a quagmire,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. In their hybrid civil-military role, capable of a wide range of operations, these brigades have become a go-to deployment for the Kremlin as it seeks to assert itself in various theaters abroad. Chechen fighters have appeared alongside pro-separatist Russian “volunteers” in eastern Ukraine, and several battalions of Chechen servicemen also entered Georgia during its brief war with Russia in August 2008, occupying the town of Gori. At least some of the Chechen troops deployed in Syria have combat experience in eastern Ukraine, with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reporting that one of the Chechen commanders is Apti Bolotkhanov, who spent substantial time fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in the Donbass.

But beyond their skill on the battlefield, the brigades are valuable to Moscow for other reasons. Russian society and leadership have proved extremely sensitive to casualties in Syria; the Kremlin has gone to extreme lengths to hide its losses. Casualties are often only publicly confirmed after observers find the tombstones of deceased soldiers in their hometown cemeteries. Moscow’s official figures only account for 30 dead in Syria — with the true figure likely much higher. Using nonethnic Russian special personnel might protect the Kremlin from a public backlash sparked by rising battlefield casualties. Losses incurred by the new, North Caucasian contingent are unlikely to trigger such a response. Russian society carries a deep-seated resentment toward natives of the region, in particular Chechens, after two wars in the 1990s and multiple terrorist attacks since.

Gregory Shvedov, the editor of the Caucasian Knot website and an expert on the North Caucasus, says popular disdain toward the region is a major factor for the deployment of these personnel. “Cynically speaking [it would be much easier for Putin] if the Chechens or other [troops] from the Caucasus would be killed in Syria … than those from other regions of Russia,” Shvedov notes. [Continue reading…]

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To freeze Syria war, Russia proposes setting up ‘de-escalation zones’

The New York Times reports: Russia is circulating a draft proposal to Syrian rebel groups and diplomats that envisions pausing the war in Syria through the creation of safe “de-escalation zones,” with outside troops possibly acting as buffers between the antagonists.

The draft proposal, shared with The New York Times on Wednesday by participants at Syria talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan, is one of the most detailed suggestions to emerge in recent months in the rocky negotiations to halt the war, now in its seventh year.

The proposal would apply to Syrian government and rebel forces in the four main areas of the country where insurgents unaffiliated with the Islamic State still hold significant territory.

But it faces a number of challenges, most notably acceptance by the Syrian government and the insurgent groups attending the talks.

The insurgent groups suspended participation in the talks on Wednesday to protest what they described as heavy bombing by the Syrian government’s Russian-backed forces the day before that killed dozens, including civilians.

The Russian proposal does not specify measures to prevent government warplanes from carrying out such bombings. Rebels said they remained suspicious of Russian guarantees, regardless, because Russia has been unable or unwilling to curb government attacks on civilians.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Wednesday that the proposal had the backing not only of Russia but also of Iran, another ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Turkey, which backs some anti-Assad groups.

“We as guarantors — Turkey, Iran, Russia — will do everything for this to work,” Mr. Putin said in remarks carried on Russian television, speaking in Sochi, Russia, after meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The proposal was made as the United States, another supporter of some anti-Assad groups, appeared to be re-engaging in the negotiations after a prolonged absence.

Stuart E. Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state, was in Astana, the most senior American official to participate in Syria talks since President Trump took office. [Continue reading…]

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Anand Gopal: The sheer brutality of the Assad regime has led people to join ISIS

 

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New evidence shows pattern of nerve-agent use by Assad regime

Human Rights Watch reports: New evidence supports the conclusion that Syrian government forces have used nerve agents on at least four occasions in recent months: on April 4, 2017, in a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 92 people, and on three other occasions in December 2016 and March 2017, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

These attacks are part of a broader pattern of Syrian government forces’ use of chemical weapons. The attacks are widespread and systematic and in some cases have been directed against the civilian population. These two features mean the attacks could meet the legal standard required to characterize them as crimes against humanity. As part of the evidence showing these attacks have become widespread and systematic, the 48-page report, “Death by Chemicals: The Syrian Government’s Widespread and Systematic Use of Chemical Weapons,” identifies three different systems being used to deliver chemical weapons: [Continue reading…]

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Professor Theodore A. Postol of MIT vs. the concept of time

Elliot Higgins writes: Since the April 4th 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun a number of individuals and organisations have attempted to promote narratives that promote the idea that the attack was a false flag. One prominent voice stands out among these individuals and organisations, that of Professor Theodore A. Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Professor Postol was previously known for his work with the late Richard Lloyd on the August 21st 2013 sarin attacks in Damascus, claiming the White House version of events was false, with Postol in particular attempting to point the finger of blame at rebel groups. His status at MIT has made him particularly popular with conspiracy theorists who cite his work and credentials when promoting their false flag theories around the attack.

With the latest attack in Khan Sheikhoun Professor Postol has returned to the fray, publishing a series of reports claiming to show the version of events as described by the White House is false. This has yet again drawn much positive attention from conspiracy theorists, and even a small amount of mainstream attention. [Continue reading…]

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