Archive | May 9th, 2014

ANSWER National Coordinator on turmoil in Iraq ”Video”


Brutal U.S. invasion, occupation to blame for country’s instability

Below is a transcript of ANSWER Coalition National Coordinator Brian Becker’s recent appearance on Press TV to discuss the current violence and instability in Iraq. Click here to watch the video.

Press TV: Do you think Nuri al-Maliki should be put to blame for, as our guest Mr. Mouracadeh (Jihad Mouracadeh, political commentator, Beirut) is saying, fueling the unrest and the violence in the country?

Becker: I think the al-Maliki government has a great deal of responsibility for what has happened.

I think their treatment of people outside of Baghdad – those who are in other political parties, those who are not in their own political party – have been largely dictatorial.

I think that their policies have fanned the flames of violence.

But on the other hand and as an American I want to say, here we are 11 years after the ‘shock and awe’ invasion of the country, I think the United States government, both political parties but particularly the neo-conservatives, had an agenda, which was basically to shred Iraq as a nation –

In other words to so weaken it that it could never rise again as a regional power; that it would be utterly weak and divided or dependent on foreign powers for its existence.

And even though the US government has left in terms of its military presence in Iraq, the fact is the government in Iraq is completely weak – the central government. And they have no ability to control the Kurdish regions, which are developing an independent foreign policy with Western oil companies.

The Sunnis in the West have felt discriminated against, but those who are organizing the Islamic extremists so to speak, are also pursuing a reactionary narrow policy that can only harm Iraq in the long run.

We see the shredding of a country. It is the killing of a country by a foreign occupation and ultimately I’d say the US government is responsible for the murder and mayhem in Iraq.

It’s just awful that George Bush and Dick Cheney can go around making 150,000 dollar speaking engagements and selling their books after the crime they committed against the Iraqi people.

Press TV: Do you think that Saudi Arabia and Qatar – al-Maliki pointing to them – are responsible for what is happening because Mr. al-Maliki was saying that Saudi Arabia is playing the same role that it is actually playing in Syria, now in Iraq – Do you agree?

Becker: Well, I don’t know with 100 percent certainty about that. We do know that the Saudis have played a reactionary role and fueled the civil war in Syria.

They worked hand in hand in Syria with the United States and of course with Qatar and Turkey with those who had decided that the al-Assad government must be overthrown as part of the endless series of regime changes that are being organized by Western powers and some with their proxy and partners in the region, designed to overthrow any independent government regardless of its political or religious coloration; any independent government that has the ability to withstand the dictates of Washington.

In the case of Saudi Arabia I think the Saudis are pursuing again a reactionary policy – they very likely are supporting at least some elements in the insurgents n Anbar and in other areas in the Sunni region.

But again I too believe that this struggle that’s going on inside of Iraq cannot be laid at the doorstep of the Saudi government even though their policies are reactionary; even though their policies are retrograde; and even though they may be supporting the insurgents.

The real problem with Iraq is that the country has been disassembled by the US invasion.

And it was the US, as the other guest said, who picked al-Maliki as the favorite choice; they pursued and allowed him to pursue a policy of utter sectarianism and of course we know General Petraeus and the US military strategists relied on a policy of division, pitting Sunni and Shia against each other and of course, the Kurds.

And then they leave and of course the aftermath is that the Iraqi people are left with these very bad options and very bad alternatives. But I think ultimately it’s the US government and the central government in Iraq that’s responsible for this.

The people in Fallugia may not want to live under Islamic extremists, but they feel and have felt very abused by the Iraqi army.

Press TV: That brings me to the next question and that is the political system that we see exists in Iraq. As our guest was saying the president is a Kurd, the prime minister is a Shia etc, we could say similar to the political system we see for instance in Lebanon.

So do you think it’s more of a problem with the system rather than the problem of Maliki as a person or as the prime minister? For instance, the Kurd issue being one of the problems – we see decisions being made by leaders in Kurdistan that the prime minister says are running against the country’s constitution?

Becker: I think we have to understand in the broader historical and the little-bit-longer historical perspective.

The Kurdish autonomy, so-called, that was accepted by Saddam Hussein was really an American plan – It was an American project. It was under the control of the American no fly zone; it also included the British and the French for a while.

During the entire 1990s and the first Gulf War where Iraqi aircraft could not fly over their own air space supposedly under the pretext of protecting Kurds; but I think it was creating a section of Iraq that would be loyal to and benefitting from a unique relationship with Western powers, in particular the United States.

It was under those conditions that this acceptance of Kurdish autonomy took place. I’m not against Kurdish autonomy, but I think it’s just important to establish the record that it was an American project to create a semi-independent Kurdistan with which the United States and the US oil companies devote their own independent contractual relationships, which can only hurt the other parts of the Iraqi nation, which also need the benefits of oil revenues.

So, if the Kurds pursue a narrow nationalistic oil policy with the West – it may be good for the West it may be good for parts of Kurdistan, but no Iraqi central government would think that that’s good for the country.

(In response to statements made by the other Press TV guest that it was a UN Security Council resolution that established a no fly zone, it was not an American decision.)

That’s true, but I want to say this, it is important to establish this… This was after the fall or as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Gorbachev government and the Yeltzin government, which took over in Russia was following a policy of appeasement with the West.

And so the UN Security Council became nothing but a fig leaf for American power. The Chinese were also not wanting to come against the US after Tiananmen Square they were trying to repair relations, too.

It was a Security Council decision… but… And you look at the airplanes… after a while France pulled out and then the British pulled out of the no fly zone, it was the US air force enforcing the no fly zone that made Kurdistan autonomous. That’s the reality of it.

Click here to watch the video

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“We are a ruined church” Iraqi Patriarch


syria · abuse · exploitation · christians · jihad · conflict · Iraq · westernplot · May2014

“Intervention by the West did not solve the problems … it produced more chaos and conflict.”

A group of women participate in the 2014 Palm Sunday procession in the village of Telsukuf north of Mosel city, Iraq. Photo
A group of women participate in the 2014 Palm Sunday procession in the village of Telsukuf north of Mosel city, Iraq. Photo

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq has squarely blamed the policies of the West for the plight of Iraqi’s disappearing Christians.

The exodus of Christians from Iraq is “frightening” the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad, Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako, warned and added “We are a ruined church”.

The Patriarch pointed out that a few decades ago there was an estimated 600,000 Christians in the city of Baghdad alone.

Now the entire Christian population of Iraq has dipped under 400,000, with widespread emigration still continuing.

“Intervention by the West in the region did not solve the problems … but on the contrary, produced more chaos and conflict,” he said, criticising the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.

 Iraqi women mourn the victims of an attack by al-Qaeda at Our Lady of Salvation Church, Bagdad, Iraq on 31st October 2010 in which 58 people lost their lives.

Iraqi women mourn the victims of an attack by al-Qaeda at Our Lady of Salvation Church, Bagdad, Iraq on 31st October 2010 in which 58 people lost their lives.

“1,400 years of Islam could not uproot us from our land and our churches, while the policies of the West [have] scattered us and distributed us all around the world,” Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako said.

Comparing the situation of the Church under Saddam Hussein’s regime and today, he said that “in the Church of the Ascension, Al-Mashtal, there were about 5,000 families and over 240 students preparing for their First Holy Communion before the regime’s fall.”On “25 April 2014, I celebrated in this church the Holy Mass for First Holy Communion of 13 students only.”


“[Iraqi] government authorities bear part of the responsibility of this migration for failing to restore security and stability,” the patriarch said.


He also called upon Muslim clerics to “issue a joint statement denying all forms of violence, mistrust and considering others as ‘infidels’” and calling “for peace and brotherhood among the people.” Original here

Iraqi Muslim women light candles at the Chaldean Church in central Baghdad.
Iraqi Muslim women light candles at the Chaldean Church in central Baghdad.

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John Kerry’s commitment to a foreign state

Secretary Of State John Kerry Addresses AIPAC Policy Conference

By Jamal Kanj

A day after the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reached a national unity agreement, Israel announced the suspension of the never-ending peace talks. The Israeli position was echoed instantly in Washington by one of Israel’s unofficial agents, congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida, who called for an “immediate suspension of US aid to the Palestinian Authority”.

The Gaza accord, signed by several Palestinian groups, including the two antagonist parties Fatah and Hamas, consisted of five main points:

  1. Forming new national unity government,
  2. Holding elections,
  3. Reforming the security forces
  4. Social reforms and
  5. General liberties.

The agreement was obviously a national issue affecting good democratic governance. Logically, one could surmise that Israel would be very interested in negotiating peace with an entity representing all Palestinians factions.

Peace vs Zionist dream

Reaching a peace agreement, however, could put an end to the Zionist dream. Israel has used the Sisyphean peace talks to delay the inevitable by transplanting Jews-only squatter colonies to create new facts on the ground.

According to the Israeli organization Peace Now, while “talking peace” for the last nine months, Israel issued permits to build 14,000 new Jews-only homes in the occupied land violating Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel simply wants to talk, but not to reach an agreement. In a speech on 28 January at a security conference held at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Trade and Industry Minister Naftali Bennett – head of a major political bloc in the government – threatened to resign if his government considered withdrawing from the occupied West Bank.

Bennett described the possibility of a peace agreement that might even allow some Jews-only colonies to remain inside the future state of Palestine as “the loss of a moral [Zionist] compass”. Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon told the Jerusalem Post last month that he would “resign from his post if a diplomatic arrangement to extend the talks with the Palestinians is reached”.

Palestinian legitimacy

A Palestinian unity government would also deflate the excuse Israeli right wing hawks use to question the viability of any peace deal reached with the Palestinians. They want the division among the Palestinians to continue so that they can challenge Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate to speak for all Palestinians.

Bennett, an American millionaire-turned-Israel-politician and squatter, had cast doubts on Abbas’s legitimacy, arguing that “If we reached an agreement with him, more than 60 per cent of the Palestinians in Gaza will not accept it”.

The ex-Moldavian nightclub bouncer and illegal squatter, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, went further asserting that Abbas “does not represent Palestinians in Gaza and his legitimacy in the West Bank is questionable. Signing an agreement with Abbas is merely signing an agreement with Fatah, the faction which he heads.”

Earlier in the year, Israeli government ministers also chastised America for its role in the peace process.

The Israeli defence minister spewed a barrage of insults directed at the US secretary of state, John Kerry, calling his effort “not worth the paper it is printed on”, a glory hound “messianic”, and urging him to “leave us [Israel] alone”.

Stockholm syndrome

Exhibiting classic symptoms of the Stockholm syndrome, Kerry who was supposed to be a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, declared this week: “I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone.”

Instead of expressing “commitment” to a foreign nation, Kerry and his partisan colleagues should heed the warning of America’s founding father, George Washington. In his farewell speech, he urged fellow citizens to be wary of “excessive partiality for one foreign nation” and to be vigilant to the “wiles of foreign influence”.

George Washington must be turning in his grave watching his partisan successors prostrating to agents of a foreign country, not to “good faith and justice”.

I hate to tell you George, but today’s American officials are more committed to the foreign entity of Israel than to justice.


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Poll: 68% of Zionist Jews Support End to Peace Talks



Monthly “Peace Index” survey sees majority wary to Hamas-Fatah agreement – and disagree with US blaming Israel for the talks’ failure.

Israel National News

A large majority of the Jewish public in Israel (68%) support the government’s decision to halt peace talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA) following its unity pact with Hamas, a poll revealed Wednesday.

The Guttman Center and Evens Program for Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University (TAU) conducted the poll, a monthly “Peace Index” part of the Israel Democracy Institute.

According to the poll, 68% of the Jewish public supported the State’s decision to curtail talks with the PA, but the results were heavily polarized by political affiliation. Of respondents who answered that they supported the move, 82% identified as “right-wing,” 59% identified as “moderates” and only 26% identified themselves as “left-wing.”

The public is also heavily divided on what stalled peace talks mean for Israel’s future. Of respondents, slightly more believe that the talks could be harmful to Israel in the short-term (36%-41%) rather than in the long term (34%-40%).

57.5% of the public believed that the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation pact endangers Israel security – the same percentage of people who disagree with the EU’s notion that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s involvement makes the agreement more inclusive and, therefore, more legitimate.

56% of the Jewish public believes US President Barack Obama is “incorrect” for assigning blame to both Israel and the PA for the failure of talks, according to the survey. However, of those, respondents are widely polarized by political affiliation; 70.5% of self-identified “left-wing” respondents agreed with Obama’s assessment, compared to 54% of “centrists” and just 27.5% of “nationalists.”

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Obama in talks with “rebel” leader on escalating Syrian war





The Obama administration has entered into direct talks with the leader of the political front for Syria’s Western-backed “rebels” on arming them with US surface-to-air missiles, amid fresh confirmation that these forces are dominated by Al Qaeda-linked militias.

Ahmad al-Jarba, the chief of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, met Thursday at the State Department with Secretary of State John Kerry. He is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House in the coming days. Meetings are also scheduled at the Pentagon and with members of the US Congress.

The visit is part of a shift toward renewed US escalation of its proxy war in Syria, fueled in no small part by the ongoing confrontation over Ukraine with Russia, a key ally of the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

In conjunction with al-Jarba’s arrival, the State Department announced that Washington is providing another $27 million in so-called “non-lethal aid” to the “rebels”—bringing the total reported aid thus far to $287 million—and is granting diplomatic status to missions set up by the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Washington and New York City. Last March, after the breakdown of talks in Geneva between the Western-backed forces and the Assad regime, the Obama administration ordered the shutdown of the Syrian embassy in Washington and Syrian consulates in other US cities.

Ahmad al-Jarba, however, left no doubt that the principal aim of his visit is to obtain new and more powerful weapons to stem the accelerating rout of the anti-Assad militias, which were compelled this week to evacuate Homs. Syria’s third largest city and an industrial center, Homs is strategically decisive because of its control of supply routes from the country’s Mediterranean coast to the capital, Damascus.

In both an interview with the New York Times and a speech Wednesday at the US Institute of Peace—a government agency tied to US intelligence services—al-Jarba stressed that the main item on his US agenda is procuring shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, known as manpads.

He also confirmed that Washington had already supplied Free Syrian Army (FSA) “rebels” with at least 20 TOW anti-tank missiles. According to the Times, he claimed that the shipment “had enabled the opposition to demonstrate that it was able to use and maintain control of advanced American weapons.”

Similarly, in his speech at the US Institute of Peace, he declared: “We need efficient weapons in the right hands, the hands of professionals, and we commit to keep them in the right hands. This is the only way to bring stability.”

But even as al-Jarba and his cohorts were making such claims, the Wall Street Journal published an article Thursday citing sources within the Free Syrian Army, reporting that the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, part of the supposedly “moderate” and “secular” FSA, have been operating jointly for the past few weeks with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front in the southwestern province of Quneitra, near the Israeli-occcupied Golan Heights. It is on this southern front that the US has been most active in training and arming the “rebels.”

“The FSA and Nusra Front are closely cooperating on the front line,” Abu Omar Golani, a media coordinator for the Syrian Revolutionaries Front told the Journal. He added that the two factions were coordinating battlefield operations in five joint “military operational rooms” where they plan battles. He assured the US newspaper that the FSA and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists had no intention of carrying out any action against neighboring Israel.

Even more damning was a report in the National, a United Arab Emirates daily, that a key commander of the US-backed FSA on the southern front had been captured by Al Nusra, which is vowing to try him for treason. The newspaper said that the incident underscored “the growing power of Al Qaeda on a battlefield in which its influence has long been considered minimal.”

The commander, Col. Ahmed Nehmeh, is a Syrian air force officer who joined the “rebels.” The paper stressed the “humiliation” that the detention represented for the US-backed “moderates,” noting that the FSA had issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the officer’s release, and, when the deadline passed, backed down, calling for “negotiations and conciliation.”

The National also reported that Nehmeh was unpopular even within the FSA, and that other officers may have welcomed his capture “in the hope that they can take over his role … and build up their own client networks through distributing weapons and cash.”

The newspaper concluded, “In taking Col. Nehmeh, Al Nusra has made it clear that inside Syria, even on the more moderate, better organized southern front, it, not foreign intelligence agents, call the shots.”

The “foreign intelligence agents” referred to include principally the CIA and its counterparts from Saudi Arabia and the other reactionary Gulf monarchies. The Obama administration placed the training and arming of the “rebels” on the southern front under the jurisdiction of the CIA, on the pretense that the operation was meant not only to further regime change in Damascus, but also to advance the “war on terrorism” by combating the influence of Al Nusra. This is a fraud and a farce.

If the administration moves ahead with the arming of the FSA with manpads, there is every probability that these weapons will fall into the hands of the Al Qaeda elements and may be used sooner rather than later in the downing of a civilian airliner.

It may do so anyway, however, because of the increasingly desperate position of the Syrian “rebels.” The retreat from Homs, which was brokered by Russia and Iran in return for the release of a group of captured Syrian soldiers, an Iranian woman and some 40 Alawite women and children taken hostage by the Sunni Islamist fighters, represents a strategic defeat in the US-backed war for regime change.

Combined with a series of truces negotiated with Islamist fighters in the Damascus suburbs, the regime has largely neutralized any immediate threat to its grip on power and defeated the opposition’s strategy of encircling and cutting off supplies to the capital.

While fighting continues in the north of the country, where the Islamists blew up a historic building facing the city of Aleppo’s 13th century citadel Thursday, much of the combat is between rival factions of the “rebels” for control of territory and loot.

The Obama administration’s main aim appears to be to keep the civil war and the horrendous bloodletting in Syria going, in order to prevent the Assad regime from restabilizing the country.

Meanwhile, as part of the Western strategy to demonize Assad and lay the political basis for overthrowing his regime, France has drafted a resolution for the United Nations Security Council to refer the Syrian war to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The cynicism of this strategy was made clear by a report in the New York Times on the difficulty in “tailoring” this resolution to suit the interests of Washington, which has refused to ratify the Rome Statute establishing the court and rejects its jurisdiction.

In the first place, the French have had to strictly delineate the time frame for the acts to be investigated— after 2011—so that a case involving Syria cannot extend to the crimes carried out in the country by Washington’s main ally in the region, Israel. The US wants a guarantee that the Zionist state cannot be called to account for occupying Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967 and expelling its population.

Secondly, the resolution specifically exempts “current or former officials or personnel” of any country that has not ratified the Rome Statute, with the exception of Syria. The aim of this clause is to assure Washington that US officials and military personnel cannot be held accountable for war crimes, if and when the US decides to invade Syria to directly prosecute its war for regime change.

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Latakia captives speak out about their ordeal, others still missing


Syrian government forces stand at a checkpoint, decorated with pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian flags, leading to the Jab al-Jandali district of the central city of Homs on May 7, 2014, after Syrian government forces regained control of the city. (Photo: AFP/STR)

Syrian government forces stand at a checkpoint, decorated with pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian flags, leading to the Jab al-Jandali district of the central city of Homs on May 7, 2014, after Syrian government forces regained control of the city. (Photo: AFP/STR)

al Akhbar

“That’s my daughter. She looks like a boy with her strange haircut. They punished her by cutting her hair, even though she is not even four yet. I don’t know what sin she committed,” one father said after seeing his freed daughter. She was one of the hostages abducted in the eastern Latakia countryside. She is now back in Latakia, after nine months of captivity by Syrian opposition fighters.

Incredulously, according to another freed child, the fighters gouged out the eyes of one of the abducted children who was not part of the deal. The child said, “After that, we knew nothing about him.”

On May 6, the ceasefire deal in the Old City of Homs came into effect but not all the terms of the agreement were observed, including the release of 40 out of 95 civilians the opposition fighters had kidnapped in August 2013 from the eastern Latakia countryside.

Eleven children and four women were released through the checkpoint at the Kefraya village on the outskirts of Latakia. They were then taken to the National Hospital in the city for medical checkups. There was a lot of crying and screaming at the obstetrics and gynecology department, where parents stood waiting for their children after being apart for many long months.

Doctors and soldiers stood between the 15 civilians, listening to stories about their plight and offering them assistance. The faces of those returning to their families had expressions of disbelief. There have been a lot of accusations made against officials, whom many families believe did not do enough for the Latakia captives.

Tears of joy were countered by sorrow and anguish, as in the case of Oum Ali, the woman who was scouring the hospital asking about the fate of her six-year-old boy. Oum Ali asked the freed hostages one by one about her son. She persisted until one woman, a freed captive herself, gave her the shocking answer: “Your son was shot and killed by the fighters months ago.”

Oum Ali was not the only parent to undergo such an ordeal. Many parents had the same experience during that fateful hour when opposition fighters raided the eastern Latakia countryside in August 2013.

Three children from the village of Ballouta, near the town of Salanfa, aged between 5 and 11, returned safely to their father. Speaking to Al-Akhbar, he said, “I can’t believe they came back alive after a painful experience that cost us their mother’s life. She was killed in cold blood as she tried to resist the terrorist kidnapper.” The man was afraid to disclose the names of his children as though he feared the fighters were searching for him outside the hospital.

The freed captives are visibly afraid, including Batoul, a 15-year-old girl. She does not dare criticize the fighters. She took turns explaining to reporters how the hostages were treated well by the kidnappers. She told Al-Akhbar, “We were not harmed. We were held in a large home, after we were divided into several groups, and placed in different rooms of the house.” “We were guarded by 50 fighters. Some of them would remain inside the house. The food was good in general, and they allowed us to shower every five days,” she adds. Batoul could not confirm the location of the house, but she said that she had heard some of the fighters speaking foreign languages.

Other women who were freed came back wearing the full veil. One of them mentioned hesitantly that no one had forced them to wear it, but that they had been told it was “preferable.” She said, “We all wore the hijab. It was natural for us to do as they asked.”

The ceasefire deal in the Old City of Homs includes the release of 40 civilians from the villages of Salanfa in the Latakia countryside, out of more than 95 kidnapped civilians, but not much has been revealed about the fate of the other hostages. Today, 25 civilians are expected to be released and moved out of the opposition-controlled eastern countryside of Latakia.

RELATED ARTICLE:  Syria: massacre reports emerge from Assad’s Alawite heartland, Oct 2, 2013, the Guardian

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Syria militants block aid convoy near Aleppo


Press TV

Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria have blocked a relief aid convoy from reaching two war-ravaged towns in the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo.

The militants from the notorious al-Nusra Front prevented the vehicles carrying humanitarian aid for the towns of Nubbul and al-Zahraa in Aleppo’s northern countryside on Wednesday.

The move violated a recent agreement with the Syrian government.

According to the accord, the foreign-backed militants had to withdraw from Homs and allow aid convoys to enter the two towns.

The militant elements of the al-Nusra Front also launched rockets at Nubbul and al-Zahraa, targeting civilians who had gathered to receive aid packages.

Meanwhile, the armed militants released 30 abducted Syrian army officers through Bustan in Aleppo as part of the agreement.

The accord was reached between the militants and the Syrian government on May 4.

More than 2,200 people, mostly militants, are supposed to evacuate the flashpoint city of Homs and move to militant-held areas in the north of Homs Province, located in the central western part of Syria. It would bring almost all the major districts of the city under the control of government forces. As part of the truce, the militants are to free about 70 government soldiers.

The evacuation is considered to be another victory for the Syrian army.

In recent months, the Syrian army has managed to liberate a number of cities and towns from militant control.

Syria has been gripped by deadly violence since March 2011. According to some sources, around 140,000 people have reportedly been killed and millions displaced due to the violence fueled by the militants.

According to reports, the Western powers and their regional allies – especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – are supporting the militants operating inside Syria.

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U.N. Probe Chief Doubtful on Syria Sarin Exposure Claims


Ǻke Sellström (right), head of the UN technical mission to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, briefs journalists on the work of the mission on Dec. 13, 2013. At his side is investigation team leader Maurizio Barbeschi from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

Ǻke Sellström (right), head of the UN technical mission to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, briefs journalists on the work of the mission on Dec. 13, 2013. At his side is investigation team leader Maurizio Barbeschi from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

Inter Press Services

The head of the U.N. team that investigated the Aug. 21, 2013 Sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs, Ake Sellstrom, is doubtful about the number of victims of the attack reported immediately after the event.

Sellstrom has suggested that many people who claimed to have been seriously affected by Sarin merely imagined that they had suffered significant exposure to the chemical.

Underlying Sellstrom’s doubts are data on symptoms from a sample of people who said they were severely affected by the Sarin attack. The data, published in the September report, appear to belie the claims of Sarin intoxication by those in the sample, according to experts who have analysed them.

Sellstrom expressed his doubts in an interview with Gwyn Winfield, the editor of the CBRNe World Magazine, that was published in the February issue.

“If you take the figures from Tokyo, you can compare how many died versus those that were intoxicated,” said Sellstrom. But in the case of Syrian attack, he said, “[W]hile we could conclude that it was big, we couldn’t do the same for how many died or were affected.”

He expressed doubt that many of the alleged survivors of the attack had been exposed to Sarin. “You can get many symptoms from other items in a war,” Sellstrom said, “[P]hosphorous smoke, tear gas, many of those devices on the battlefield will affect the lungs, eyes and give you respiratory problems.”

Then Sellstrom added, “Also in any theater of war, people will claim they are intoxicated. We saw it in Palestine, Afghanistan and everywhere else.”

Now a project manager at the European CBRNE Centre in Umea, Sellstrom did not respond to e-mail requests from IPS for comment on this article by deadline.

However, his remarks to CBRNe were evidently influenced strongly by the team’s experience in gathering data on several dozen alleged victims who claimed to have been among the most heavily exposed to Sarin on Aug. 21.

Sellstrom explained to Winfield that the investigating team had sought the help of the opposition in the area where the attack took place to identify as many as 80 survivors of the Sarin attack.

“We thought that if they can gather 80 people who were affected but still surviving, that it [would be] clearly indicative that a major event had taken place,” he said.

Sellstrom revealed in the interview that the team had chosen 36 people from the original 80 identified as survivors by the opposition. Those 36 people described themselves as having had very serious exposure to Sarin.

Thirty of the 36 reported rocket strikes either on or near their homes. The remaining six said they had gone to a point of impact to help those suffering from the attack.

The U.N. report provided detailed statistics on the symptoms reported by the 36 individuals and concluded the data were “consistent with organophosphate intoxication”. But chemical weapons specialists have identified serious contradictions in the data that appear to indicate the contrary.

Twenty-eight of the 36 victims – nearly four-fifths of the sample – said they had experienced loss of consciousness, according to the Sep. 16 U.N. report. The second most frequent symptom was difficulty breathing, which was reported by 22 of the 36, followed by blurred vision, which was suffered by 15 of them. But only five of the 36 reported miosis, or constricted pupils.

That fact is an indication that the exposure to Sarin was actually minimal or nonexistent for 31 of the 36, or 86 percent of the sample. Miosis is the most basic and reliable indicator of nerve gas poisoning, according to chemical weapons literature and specialists who analysed the report.

As little as four mg of Sarin per cubic metre for just two minutes would have triggered that physiological response, according to an Apr. 17 email from UK-based American chemical weapons specialist Dan Kaszeta in April. A 2002 article in the journal Critical Care Medicine put the minimum exposure necessary to cause miosis at one mg of Sarin per cubic metre for three minutes.

Yet miosis was the least prevalent symptom among those people claiming to have been very seriously exposed to Sarin in Syria.

Dr. Abbas Faroutan, an Iranian physician who treated Iranian victims of Iraqi nerve gas attacks, noted that the data were “not logical”.

Seven of the 36 people identified as victims told investigators they had lost a combined total of 39 members of their immediate families who were killed in buildings they said were either points of impact of the rockets or only 20 metres (64 feet) away. However, only one of the seven exhibited the constriction of pupils and only one reported nausea and vomiting.

Despite the paucity of the most fundamental indicator of exposure to Sarin, 31 of the 36 were found to have a trace of Sarin in their blood samples.

That seeming contradiction is explained by the fact that even exposure to an amount of Sarin too small to cause any symptoms would be detected in the blood using an extremely sensitive method called fluoride reactivation, according to Kaszeta.

The U.N. team found that six of the people who claimed serious exposure to Sarin had no trace of Sarin in their blood at all, indicating that they had in fact experienced no exposure to Sarin at all.

Kaszeta said he had concluded that the people interviewed and evaluated by the UN “didn’t have serious exposure” to nerve gas.

The indication that the overwhelming majority in the sample had very little or no exposure to Sarin was particularly significant, because those in the sample had been chosen by local opposition authorities as being among the most serious affected survivors. The data suggest that the Syrian opposition and its external supporters had vastly exaggerated the scope and severity of the attack.

In an apparent reference to the questionable data on symptoms collected on the 36 alleged survivors, Sellstrom told Winfield the investigators “need to be better at differential diagnostics on the intoxication, better medical markers.”

Selstrom also expressed doubt about the numbers of victims said to have been treated at local hospitals. The U.N. investigators visited two of the three hospitals in the Damascus suburbs that had treated victims of the attack and had provided figures for the numbers of victims they had treated.

“[T]he figures they provided of people who passed through them was just not possible,” said Sellstrom. “It is impossible that they could have turned over the amount of people they claim they did.”

Sellstrom did not refer to the total number of victims claimed by hospital administrators, but Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued a statement Aug. 24 that three hospitals near the area of the attack had reported to MSF that they “received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013”. MSF said 355 had died.

Sellstrom repeated his doubts about the total number of victims of Sarin intoxication and the numbers of patients said to have been treated in hospitals in a Mar. 11 interview with the website “Syria in Crisis” affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The head of the Syria investigation had also investigated the use of chemical weapons by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war for the U.N.  He had been Chief Inspector for UNSCOM, the U.N. Commission on Iraq’s compliance with the ban on weapons of mass destruction, and head of its successor, UNMOVIC.

He has apparently questioned the larger narrative of Syrian government culpability for the attack as well. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal after the release of the December U.N. investigation report, Sellstrom said he believes both sides in the Syrian conflict had the “opportunity” and the “capability” to “carry out chemical weapons attacks.”

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Syria: The hidden massacre


A picture shows courthouse that was torched a day earlier by angry protesters in the southern town of Daraa, 100 kms (60 miles) south of Damascus, on March 21, 2011 following a demonstration demanding “freedom” and an end to 48 years of emergency laws in Syria under President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez. (AFP Photo / Louai Beshara)

May 7, 2014, Sharmine Narwani, OpEdge

The attack took place shortly after the first stirrings of trouble in the southern Syrian city of Daraa in March 2011.

Several old Russian-made military trucks packed with Syrian security forces rolled onto a hard slope on a valley road between Daraa al-Mahata and Daraa al-Balad. Unbeknown to the passengers, the sloping road was slick with oil poured by gunmen waiting to ambush the troops.

Brakes were pumped as the trucks slid into each other, but the shooting started even before the vehicles managed to roll to a stop. According to several different opposition sources, up to 60 Syrian security forces were killed that day in a massacre that has been hidden by both the Syrian government and residents of Daraa.

One Daraa native explains: “At that time, the government did not want to show they are weak and the opposition did not want to show they are armed.”

Beyond that, the details are sketchy. Nizar Nayouf, a longtime Syria dissident and blogger who wrote about the killings, says the massacre took place in the final week of March 2011.

A source who was in Daraa at the time, places the attack before the second week of April.

Rami Abdul Rahman, an anti-government activist who heads up the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the most quoted Western media source on Syrian casualties, tells me: “It was on the first of April and about 18 or 19 security forces – or “mukhabarat” – were killed.”

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Faisal Mekdad is a rare government official familiar with the incident. Mekdad studied in Daraa, is from a town 35 kilometers to the east called Ghasson, and made several official visits to Daraa during the early days of the crisis. The version he tells me is similar, down to the details of where the ambush took place – and how. Mekdad, however, believes that around 24 Syrian army soldiers were shot that day.

Why would the Syrian government hide this information, when it would bolster their narrative of events – namely that“armed groups” were targeting authorities from the start, and that the uprising was not all “peaceful”?

In Mekdad’s view, “this incident was hidden by the government and by the security for reasons I can interpret as an attempt not to antagonize or not to raise emotions and to calm things down – not to encourage any attempt to inflame emotions which may lead to escalation of the situation – which at that time was not the policy.”

A picture taken by a mobile phone shows Syrian anti-government protesters taking part in a demonstration in Banias in northeastern Syria on April 22, 2011 as calls were launched for nationwide "Good Friday" rallies, a day after President Bashar al-Assad scrapped decades of draconian emergency rule. (AFP Photo)

A picture taken by a mobile phone shows Syrian anti-government protesters taking part in a demonstration in Banias in northeastern Syria on April 22, 2011 as calls were launched for nationwide “Good Friday” rallies, a day after President Bashar al-Assad scrapped decades of draconian emergency rule. (AFP Photo)

April 2011: The killing of soldiers

What we do know for certain is that on April 25, 2011, nineteen Syrian soldiers were gunned down in Daraa by unknown assailants. The names, ages, dates of birth and death, place of birth and death and marital/parental status of these 19 soldiers are documented in a list of military casualties obtained from Syria’s Defense Ministry.

The list was corroborated by another document – given to me by a non-government acquaintance involved in peace efforts – that details 2011 security casualties. All 19 names were verified by this second list.

Were these the soldiers of the “Daraa massacre?” April 25 is later than the dates suggested by multiple sources – and these 19 deaths were not exactly “hidden.”

But even more startling than actually finding the 19 Daraa soldiers on a list, was the discovery that in April 2011, eighty-eight soldiers were killed by unknown shooters in different areas across Syria.

Keep in mind that the Syrian army was mostly not in the field that early on in the conflict. Other security forces like police and intelligence groups were on the front lines then – and they are not included in this death toll.

The first Syrian soldiers to be killed in the conflict, Sa’er Yahya Merhej and Habeel Anis Dayoub, were killed on March 23 in Daraa.

Two days after those first military casualties, Ala’a Nafez Salman was gunned down in Latakia.

On April 9, Ayham Mohammad Ghazali was shot dead in Douma, south of Damascus. The first soldier killing in Homs Province – in Teldo – was on April 10 when Eissa Shaaban Fayyad was shot.

April 10 was also the day when we learned of the first massacre of Syrian soldiers – in Banyas, Tartous – when nine troops were ambushed and gunned down on a passing bus. The BBC, Al Jazeera and the Guardian all initially quoted witnesses claiming the dead soldiers were “defectors” shot by the Syrian army for refusing to fire on civilians.

That narrative was debunked later, but the story that soldiers were being killed by their own commanders stuck hard throughout 2011 – and gave the media an excuse to ignore stories that security forces were being targeted by armed groups.

The SOHR’s Rami Abdul Rahman says of the “defector” storyline: “This game of saying the army is killing defectors for leaving – I never accepted this because it is propaganda.” It is likely that this narrative was used early on by opposition activists to encourage divisions and defections among the armed forces. If military commanders were shooting their own men, you can be certain the Syrian army would not have remained intact and united three years on.

After the Banyas slayings, soldier deaths in April continued to pop up in different parts of the country – Moadamiyah, Idlib, Harasta, al-Masmiyah (near Suweida), Talkalakh and the suburbs of Damascus.

But on April 23, seven soldiers were slaughtered in Nawa, a town near Daraa. Those killings did not make the headlines like the one in Banyas. Notably, the incident took place right after the Syrian government tried to defuse tensions by abolishing the state security courts, lifting the state of emergency, granting general amnesties and recognizing the right to peaceful protest.

Two days later, on April 25 – Easter Monday – Syrian troops finally moved into Daraa. In what became the scene of the second mass slaying of soldiers since the weekend, 19 soldiers were shot dead that day.

This information also never made it to the headlines.

Instead, all we ever heard was about the mass killing of civilians by security forces: “The dictator slaughtering his own people.” But three years into the Syrian crisis, can we say that things may have taken a different turn if we had access to more information? Or if media had simply provided equal air-time to the different, contesting testimonies that were available to us?

Facts versus fiction

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) relies entirely on 50 unnamed activists, witnesses and “defected soldiers” to set the scene for what was taking place in Daraa around that time.

HRW witnesses provided accounts of “security forces using lethal force against protesters during demonstrations” and“funeral processions.” In some cases, says HRW, “security forces first used teargas or fired in the air, but when the protesters refused to disperse, they fired live ammunition from automatic weapons into the crowds…From the end of March witnesses consistently reported the presence of snipers on government buildings near the protests who targeted and killed many of the protesters.”

The HRW report also states: “Syrian authorities repeatedly claimed that the violence in Daraa was perpetrated by armed terrorist gangs, incited and sponsored from abroad.”

Today we know that this statement is fairly representative of a large segment of Islamist militants inside Syria, but was it true in Daraa in early 2011 as well?

There are some things we know as fact. For instance, we have visual evidence of armed men crossing the Lebanese border into Syria during April and May 2011, according to video footage and testimony from former Al Jazeera reporter Ali Hashem, whose video was censored by his network.

Lebanese army troops deploy in Wadi Khaled on Lebanon's northern border with Syria on May 20, 2011. (AFP Photo / Joseph Eid)

Lebanese army troops deploy in Wadi Khaled on Lebanon’s northern border with Syria on May 20, 2011. (AFP Photo / Joseph Eid)

There are other things we are still only now discovering. For instance, the HRW report also claims that Syrian security forces in Daraa “desecrated (mosques) by scrawling graffiti on the walls” such as “Your god is Bashar, there is no god but Bashar” – in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Just recently a Tunisian jihadist who goes by the name Abu Qusay, told Tunisian television that his “task” in Syria was to destroy and desecrate mosques with Sunni names (Abu Bakr mosque, Othman mosque, etc) in false-flag sectarian attacks to encourage defection by Syrian soldiers, the majority of whom are Sunni. One of the things he did was scrawling pro-government and blasphemous slogans on mosque walls like “Only God, Syria and Bashar.” It was a “tactic”he says, to get the soldiers to “come on our side” so that the army “can become weak.”

Had the Syrian government been overthrown quickly – as in Tunisia and Egypt – perhaps we would not have learned about these acts of duplicity. But three years into this conflict, it is time to establish facts versus fiction.

A member of the large Hariri family in Daraa, who was there in March and April 2011, says people are confused and that many “loyalties have changed two or three times from March 2011 till now. They were originally all with the government. Then suddenly changed against the government – but now I think maybe 50% or more came back to the Syrian regime.”

The province was largely pro-government before things kicked off. According to the UAE paper The National, “Daraa had long had a reputation as being solidly pro-Assad, with many regime figures recruited from the area.”

But as Hariri explains it, “there were two opinions” in Daraa. “One was that the regime is shooting more people to stop them and warn them to finish their protests and stop gathering. The other opinion was that hidden militias want this to continue, because if there are no funerals, there is no reason for people to gather.”

“At the beginning 99.9 percent of them were saying all shooting is by the government. But slowly, slowly this idea began to change in their mind – there are some hidden parties, but they don’t know what,” says Hariri, whose parents remain in Daraa.

HRW admits “that protestors had killed members of security forces” but caveats it by saying they “only used violence against the security forces and destroyed government property in response to killings by the security forces or…to secure the release of wounded demonstrators captured by the security forces and believed to be at risk of further harm.”

We know that this is not true – the April 10 shootings of the nine soldiers on a bus in Banyas was an unprovoked ambush. So, for instance, was the killing of General Abdo Khodr al-Tallawi, killed alongside his two sons and a nephew in Homs on April 17. That same day in the pro-government al-Zahra neighborhood in Homs, off-duty Syrian army commander Iyad Kamel Harfoush was gunned down when he went outside his home to investigate gunshots. Two days later, Hama-born off-duty Colonel Mohammad Abdo Khadour was killed in his car. And all of this only in the first month of unrest.

In 2012, HRW’s Syria researcher Ole Solvag told me that he had documented violence “against captured soldiers and civilians” and that “there were sometimes weapons in the crowds and some demonstrators opened fire against government forces.”

But was it because the protestors were genuinely aggrieved with violence directed at them by security forces? Or were they “armed gangs” as the Syrian government claims? Or – were there provocateurs shooting at one or both sides?

Provocateurs in “Revolutions”

Syrian-based Father Frans van der Lugt was the Dutch priest murdered by a gunman in Homs just a few weeks ago. His involvement in reconciliation and peace activities never stopped him from lobbing criticisms at both sides in this conflict. But in the first year of the crisis, he penned some remarkable observations about the violence – this one in January 2012:

“From the start the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.”

In September 2011 he wrote: “From the start there has been the problem of the armed groups, which are also part of the opposition…The opposition of the street is much stronger than any other opposition. And this opposition is armed and frequently employs brutality and violence, only in order then to blame the government.”

Certainly, by June 5, there was no longer any ability for opposition groups to pretend otherwise. In a coordinated attack in Jisr Shughur in Idlib, armed groups killed 149 members of the security forces, according to the SOHR.

But in March and April, when violence and casualties were still new to the country, the question remains: Why would the Syrian government – against all logic – kill vulnerable civilian populations in “hot” areas, while simultaneously taking reform steps to quell tensions?

Who would gain from killing “women and children” in those circumstances? Not the government, surely?

Syrian security men react after a security base was targeted by a suicide attack in Damascus on December 23, 2011. (AFP Photo / Louai Beshara)

Syrian security men react after a security base was targeted by a suicide attack in Damascus on December 23, 2011. (AFP Photo / Louai Beshara)

Discussion about the role of provocateurs in stirring up conflict has made some headlines since Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet’sleaked phone conversation with the EU’s Catherine Ashton disclosed suspicions that pro-west snipers had killed both Ukranian security forces and civilians during the Euromaidan protests.

Says Paet: “All the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides…and it’s really disturbing that now the new (pro-western) coalition, they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened.”

A recent German TV investigation the sniper shootings confirms much about these allegations, and has opened the door to contesting versions of events in Ukraine that did not exist for most of the Syrian conflict – at least not in the media or in international forums.

Instead of writing these things off as “conspiracy theories,” the role of provocateurs against targeted governments suddenly appears to have emerged in the mainstream discourse. Whether it is the US’s leaked plan to create a Cuban twitter to stir unrest in the island nation – or – the emergence of “instructionalleaflets in protests from Egypt to Syria to Libya to Ukraine, the convergence of just one-too-many “lookalike” mass protest movements that turn violent has people asking questions and digging deeper today.

Since early 2011 alone, we have heard allegations of “unknown” snipers targeting crowds and security forces in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Ukraine. What could be more effective at turning populations against authority than the unprovoked killing of unarmed innocents? By the same token, what could better ensure a reaction from the security forces of any nation than the gunning down of one or more of their own?

By early 2012, the UN claimed there were over 5,000 casualties in Syria – without specifying whether these were civilians, rebel fighters or government security forces. According to government lists presented to and published by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in the first year of conflict, the death toll for Syrian police forces was 478, and 2,091 for military and security force casualties.

Those numbers suggest a remarkable parity in deaths between both sides in the conflict, right from the start. It also suggests that at least part of the Syrian “opposition” was from the earliest days, armed, organized, and targeting security forces as a matter of strategy – in all likelihood, to elicit a response that would ensure continued escalation.

Today, although Syrian military sources strongly refute these numbers, the SOHR claims there are more than 60,000 casualties from the country’s security forces and pro-government militias. These are men who come from all parts of the nation, from all religions and denominations and from all communities. Their deaths have left no family untouched and explain a great deal about the Syrian government’s actions and responses throughout this crisis.

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The Classical Trivium, Magic Mushrooms, The CIA & Zionism

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