Archive | Middle East

Impressions of Iran

NOVANEWS
Image result
By Robert Fantina | Aletho News

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity of visiting Iran. I spent time in the capital city of Tehran, the country’s largest city, and Mashhad, a large city in the northern part of Iran. I saw what I expected to see: each was a bustling city. The downtown area of each was crowded and busy, not unlike other cities I’ve visited in different parts of the world.

Where I gained the impression that Iran was a prosperous, modern nation before my visit, I don’t know. Prior to my departure, when I announced to friends and acquaintances that I would soon be visiting Iran, I was met with shocked reactions. Here are some of the questions I was asked at that time:

  • Is it safe?
  • Don’t you worry about being arrested?
  • Don’t people disappear there all the time?

Following my invitation to visit, but before the actual visit, Tehran experienced its first terrorist attack in several years. I was then asked if I was still going. My response: ‘London has had a few terrorist attacks, but if I were planning a visit there, I’d still go’. This seemed to make sense to my questioner.

Since my return, some of the questions I’ve been asked indicate that my view of Iran as a modern nation is not shared by everyone else. The following are some of the questions I’ve been asked about my visit to Iran:

  • How do the people there live?
  • Did you feel safe?
  • Did anyone stop you from taking pictures?
  • Were you afraid when visiting mosques?

The U.S. demonizes Iran, mainly because it is a powerful country in the Middle East, and Israel cannot countenance any challenge to its hegemony, and when Israel talks, the U.S. listens. Apparently, this demonization is working at least somewhat successfully, judging by the comments I received concerning my trip there.

I have to wonder how this is acceptable in the world community, but then again, there really isn’t much question. The U.S. uses its military might and its declining but still powerful economic strength to intimidate much of the world. This is why the Palestinians still suffer so unspeakably, but that is a topic for another conversation. The U.S. again, in the last few days, asserted that Iran is complying with the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement that regulates Iran’s nuclear development program. Yet it continues to sanction Iran; for some bizarre reason, Iran must comply with its part of this agreement, but the U.S. government doesn’t feel any obligation to maintain its part. If Iran’s leaders were to say that, since the U.S. was not keeping to its word, Iran has no obligation to do so, the U.S.’s leaders would then say, ‘See? We told you so! Iran isn’t living up to the agreement!’.

The U.S.’s continued criticism and sanctions of Iran adds to the impression that it is a rogue nation, funneling all its money into the military, while its oppressed citizens cower in the streets, awaiting arrest for just about anything.

How much, however, does this impression actually mirror the U.S? A few facts are instructive:

  • Currently, the U.S. is bombing 6 nations; Iran, none.
  • The U.S. has used nuclear weapons, resulting in the horrific deaths of hundreds of thousands of people; Iran has never used such weapons.
  • Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has invaded, destabilized and/or overthrown the governments of at least 30 countries; Iran hasn’t invaded another country in over 200 years.
  • The U.S. has the largest per capita prison population in the world: 25% of all people imprisoned in the world are in prisons in the U.S. In the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’, 716 of every 100,000 people are in prison. Iran’s rate is 287 per 100,000.
  • The U.S. finances the brutal apartheid regime of Israel, and has full diplomatic relations with that rouge nation and Saudi Arabia, both of which have human rights records that are among the worst in the world. Iran supports Palestine, and the Palestinians’ struggle for independence.
  • The poverty rate in the U.S. is 13.1%; between 2009 and 2013, Iran’s poverty rate fell from 13.1% to 8.1% (that has increased somewhat since 2014, but details were not readily available).

Based on this limited information, it seems that despite its somewhat successful efforts to demonize Iran, the U.S. is, in fact, the more dangerous and threatening nation.

But such facts are not what interests Congress. Beholden first and foremost to the lobbies that finance election campaigns, and Israeli lobbies chief among them, truth, justice, human rights and international law all take a back seat. And so the propaganda continues, with Iran being portrayed as an evil empire, when all evidence contradicts that view.

It is unfortunate that not everyone in the U.S. is able to visit Iran, to learn for themselves that it is nothing like what the corporate-owned media, working hand-in-hand with the government, portrays. The U.S. government seems anxious to extend its wars to Iran; this would be a global disaster. It is to be hoped that such a catastrophe can be prevented.

Posted in Iran0 Comments

Move to End CIA Support for Syria Rebels Cuts US Losses – Ex-EU Adviser

NOVANEWS
Image result for CIA IN SYRIA CARTOON

President Donald Trump’s move to end the CIA training program for Syrian rebels finally cuts US losses and acknowledges the failure of efforts to topple President Bashar Assad, former European Union adviser Paolo von Schirach told Sputnik.

On Friday, US Special Operations Command head Raymond Thomas said at a security forum that the administration ended the CIA train-and-arm initiative after assessing the nature of the program and its viability in light of US objectives.

“The chance of overthrowing Assad via military actions is a dream,” Schirach said. “US efforts to force regime change in Damascus by supporting the domestic Syrian opposition through military assistance have failed.”

Schirach, who is also the president of the Global Policy Institute and professor of international affairs at BAU University in Washington, said the decision to end the CIA training program marked a belated recognition by US policymakers that they were not going to be able to topple Assad and his government in Damascus, no matter how many weapons and support they funnelled to the rebels.

Trump’s decision showed US policymakers had abandoned a six year effort by the Obama administration to build up military rebel forces in Syria, Schirach claimed.

“I call this cutting one’s losses and moving on,” he said.

Schirach said some of Trump’s critics claimed that cutting off the rebels had been a major US favor to Russian President Vladimir Putin without getting anything in return.

“They argue that arming the Syrian rebels was smart because it created a pressure point against the Assad regime that could have been used at a later date as a bargaining chip during negotiations about a future settlement of the conflict in Syria,” he said.

However, Schirach maintained that Trump had scrapped a program that had already clearly failed at enormous cost.

“While the details about how much money was spent and how effective this operation has been are not publicly available, the truth is that the Syrian opposition aided by the US and several Arab countries was never very effective; and now it has been essentially beaten,” Schirach pointed out.

After the fall of Aleppo, the CIA-backed Syrian rebel groups lost any remaining chance of overthrowing the Damascus regime, or even inflicting serious damages to it, Schirach remarked.

The decision to end training and support for the Syrian rebel groups was not just a personal call by Trump but represented a major and sustained policy change by the US government, Schirach insisted.

“There seems to be a new consensus within the US Government that removing Assad from power is no longer a priority. [Previous President Barack] Obama instead repeatedly declared that Assad ‘had to go,’ because of his violations of human rights and other crimes against the Syrian people,” he recollected.

However, current Secretary of State Rex Tilllerson and others actually said publicly that the removal of Assad from power was no longer a precondition for any serious talks about the future of Syria, Schirach recalled.

“Given all this, continuing a CIA-funded operation aimed at arming a few Syrian rebels who do not have any realistic chances to achieve much against regular pro-Assad forces backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, seems like a waste of time and money,” he explained.

Syrian rebels who were included in the CIA-funded program who had counted on continuing US support would have every right to feel betrayed, Schirach acknowledged.

“But this would not be the first time in which allies of America have been dropped by Washington, on account of larger strategic considerations,” he remarked.

Trump reportedly decided to halt the training of Syrian rebels about a month ago after a meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. The program originally ramped up in 2015 and was designed to produce a force of more than 5,000 troops to fight the Syrian government.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Posted in USA, Syria0 Comments

Syrian War Report – July 24, 2017: Syrian Army Made Large Gains In Raqqah Province

NOVANEWS

Image result for Syrian War Report CARTOON


The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) Tiger Forces and tribal forces, backed up by the Russian Aerospace Forces, have liberated Al-Dakhilah, Bir Al-Sabkhawi, and Al-Sabkhawi from ISIS terrorists in the southern countryside of Raqqah and, according to pro-government sources, reached the Euphrates River and cut off the Al-Bukamal-Aleppo highway.

Thus, the army and its allies repeated the al-Bab-style operation when they built a buffer zone in order to stop a possible Turkish advance into central Syria. Control over the Al-Bukamal-Aleppo highway prevents a possible US-led operation in the direction of Deir Ezzor from the area of Raqqah.

The SAA, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army, backed up by the Syrian Air Force, have launched a large coordinated operation against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and ISIS members in the area of Jaroud Arsal at the Syrian-Lebanese border. The SAA and Hezbollah have liberated Jorud Flitah and the nearby points in the Syrian territory. At the same time, Hezbollah supported by the Lebanese Army has liberated over 70% of the Lebanese part of Jaroud Arsal. The militant defense in the area is rapidly collapsing.

On Sunday, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) got a full control over the city of Idlib after capturing the remaining HQs and checkpoints of Ahrar al-Sham in the area. The HTS faced little resistance and Ahrar al-Sham members withdrew from the city after a series of firefights. Meanwhile, a VBIED attack killed 13 HTS members and injured dozens at the Al-Zira’a roundabout in Idlib. It’s not yet known whether ISIS or Ahrar al-Sham was behind the attack. ISIS may seek to fuel tensions among Idlib militants in order to expand own influence in the province.

Since the start of the ongoing intra-militant clashes, HTS has the entire Syrian-Turkish border line in the Idlib province and the city of Idlib. At least 19 armed groups have defected from Ahrar al-Sham and 15 of them have joined HTS. The al-Qaeda linked group has always been a de-facto leader of the so-called Idlib opposition. However, now it’s closer than ever to a full military and political dominance in the province.

On Sunday, another truce was implemented in the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. The truce had been negotiated between the government and local militants in the Egyptian capital of Cairo and was backed up by Russia. Clashes continued only in areas of Ayn Tarma and Jobar mostly controlled by HTS and allied units.

Posted in Syria0 Comments

Political Insanity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Crisis in Qatar, The Plight of the Camels

NOVANEWS
 

The last straw will break the camel’s back. (Various attributions.)

After his visit to the Kingdom in May, Donald Trump decided to back the Saudi-led blockade of tiny Qatar (2015 population 2.235 million, but just 313,000 citizens) imposed less than a month later. 

The siege was also joined by Bahrain, Doha, the Maldives, the UAE – Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. It was quickly pointed out that:

“(The) US President has long history of lucrative investment deals with Saudi Arabia but few ties to the small Gulf nation.” (1) 

Trump’s financial bounties from Saudi: “… includes the purchase of tens of millions of dollars in Trump’s real estate properties by wealthy Saudis over the years.” 

Moreover: 

Image result for Prince Alwaleed bin Talal

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (Source: Kingdom Holding Company)

“In 1995, when Trump was struggling to make payments on one of his most important New York properties, the landmark Plaza Hotel, it was (Saudi) Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who came to his rescue … In 1991, bin Talal also bought a huge (282-foot) yacht, the Trump Princess, from creditors at a time when Trump’s other big venture, the Atlantic City casinos, were under pressure.” 

In fact it was far more than mere “pressure.” In July 1991 the Trump corporation owned Taj-Mahal casino, the world’s largest, filed for bankruptcy. (2) 

So, seemingly keen to back up benefactors and apparently unknowing and uncaring of even major regional complexities, it is unlikely Donald Trump had camels on his mind. 

Ironically the stated reason for the potentially crippling embargo – Qatar imports almost everything – is the accusation of support for extremism, an allegation which has been leveled, with documentation, at both Saudi and the US in orders of magnitude. Another demand is that Qatar ends an independent minded foreign policy. As Newsweek puts it (22nd June 2017): 

“What Saudi and its allies are trying to do is increase the costs on Qatar for its actions, hoping that it will realign its policy with those of the GCC. 

“The conflict between Qatar and its neighbours dates back to the Qatari desire for political relevance in the late 90s and early 2000s. It engaged with Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran, when its neighbors could not, and carved out a niche for itself as an arbiter and link between international powers and … groups that no one else wanted or had the capacity to deal with. 

“Even the United States saw value in this role, asking the Qataris to liaise with the Taliban during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.”

Now the US, back stabber in chief, has stabbed again. 

In wars, embargoes and disputes affecting borders, animals too are often victims, if ignored and forgotten ones. Also forgotten are Trump’s repeated campaign commitments that the US would no longer murderously meddle in policies in far away places. Indeed, the Brookings Institute went as far as to call him an “isolationist”, a position they hold, he had adhered to since, nearly thirty years ago, when he spent $95,000 on a full page advertisement in the New York Times expounding on those views. (Brookings.edu, 24th March, 2016.) 

How quickly he changed “beliefs” of decades and avowed commitments. For example a recent headline (3) read: 

“It Took Obama More Than Two Years to Kill This Many Civilians. It Took Trump Less Than Six Months.”

The sub-heading was:

“Civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria from coalition strikes were roughly eighty per month during the Obama White House, compared to roughly three hundred and sixty per month during Trump’s administration.” 

With such disregard for human life, camels, if they have ever even registered as existing in his seemingly gnat like attention span, don’t stand a chance. 

An emaciated camel receives some of the emergency supplies delivered by Doha (Source: The New Arab)

With the imposition of the embargo the Saudi government expelled the Qatari owners of more than fifteen thousand camels and ten thousand sheep, with nine thousand camels reportedly expelled in just thirty-six hours. 

Qatar, just 4,414 sq. miles, had arrangements to use the vast spaces of neighbouring Saudi (830,000 sq. miles) for grazing, explained the Daily Mail (4) further: ‘Camel owner, Hussein Al-Marri, from Abu Samra, said:

“I have returned from Saudi Arabia. I myself saw more than 100 dead camels on the road as well as hundreds of lost camels and sheep.” 

Another farmer recounted:

“I lost fifty heads of sheep and five camels and there are ten missing. I do not know anything about them.” 

Video footage shows animals: “herded into huge pens after restricted border opening hours meant only a few hundred could cross each day, and many died of thirst or untreated injuries. 

“Heartbreaking footage showed animals succumbing to the harsh conditions, including one female camel which died while giving birth.” 

This camel was part-way through giving birth when she succumbed to the harsh conditions (Source: The New Arab)

Local reports recount: “as many as one hundred baby camels died during the arduous journey back to Qatar.” 

Another camel owner described these great, graceful, “ships of the desert” as exhausted and confused, not knowing which way to go in temperatures of 50 degrees C – 122F. 

Farmers recounted that without the intervention of the Qatari government the plight of the animals could have been worse. The Environment Ministry provided emergency shelter on the Qatari side of the border with water tanks and food for more than eight thousand camels. Veterinarians and animal experts were also provided. 

The speed of the expulsion left farmers with huge logistical problems, with camels lost, their owners not knowing whether they were dead or alive. 

Camel owner Ali Magareh spoke for many:

“We just want to live out our days, to go to Saudi Arabia and take care of our camels and go back and take care of our family … We don’t want to be involved in these political things.” 

A spokesperson for international animal charity SPANA told the paper: 

“All too often around the world, working animals and livestock become the forgotten victims of conflict and political disputes. 

“’It’s also important to remember that the communities that depend on working animals worldwide are usually the poorest in society – these animals are often all they have and are absolutely crucial to their livelihoods.”

50,000 Qatari camels remain in Saudi Arabia. The outcome of their fate remains unknown. 

There is a poignant irony at this treatment of the camels by Saudi Arabia, custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina. When the Prophet Muhammad left Mecca for Medina he allowed his camel to roam, deciding that where she stopped to rest would determine where he would make his home. 

He is buried in the city’s great al-Masjid an-Nabawi (“the Prophet’s Mosque.”) 

In the Qur’an the 17th verse of the Chapter Al-Gashiyah asks: “Do they not look at the Camels, how they are made?” It is explained that as the wonder of all creatures, the camel is created with many characteristics and then placed on earth as a sign of the uniqueness of the Creator and Creation. The camel gifted with superior physical features, to survive the harshest of climates and conditions, has been given to the service of mankind. 

Mankind, however, has the responsibility to recognize, respect, all miracles of creation throughout the universe. 

It has to be wondered if the custodians of the holy cities, ruling from Riyadh are as forgetful of the inherited holy tenets as those in Washington are unknowing and uncaring. 

Global Research’s Professor Michel Chossudovsky has just returned from Qatar, where he recorded camels in the barren, vegetation-less desert a short distance from the Saudi border. He comments with bitter irony:

“The Saudis expulsed them [camels whic belonged to Qataris] on the pretext that, even those born in Saudi Arabia, did not have the right of abode, they are non-residents in the KSA (Kingdom of Saudia Arabia.)

“They are stateless and the camels are now applying to the UN for the relevant documents which will enable them to stroll through the Qatari desert where there is absolutely nothing to eat, since they are not allowed to go back to the KSA.”

Source: Global Research, Michel Chossudovsky, Camels in the desert  near the Saudi border, Qatar, July 15, 2017

So far, Washington has not demanded a wall be built.

Notes

1. https://www.theguardian.com/ us-news/2017/jun/23/qatar- diplomatic-crisis-what-are- trumps-financial-links-to-the- region
2. https://www.washingtonpost. com/investigations/trumps-bad- bet-how-too-much-debt-drove- his-biggest-casino-aground/ 2016/01/18/f67cedc2-9ac8-11e5- 8917-653b65c809eb_story.html? utm_term=.710b97c55a8d
3. https://www.commondreams.org/ news/2017/07/17/it-took-obama- more-two-years-kill-many- civilians-it-took-trump-less- six-months
4. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/ news/article-4682076/Qatari- camels-die-kicked-farms-Saudi. html

Posted in Middle East, Saudi Arabia0 Comments

‘We’re one bad day away from Russians

NOVANEWS
‘We’re one bad day away from Russians asking, ‘Why are you still in Syria?’ – top US commander

At the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, Special Operations Command chief Army General, Raymond Thomas was asked whether American forces will remain in Syria, after Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) is defeated, possibly, to support the Kurdish forces in the north of the country.

Thomas acknowledged that American forces are fighting in a sovereign Syria, where they will likely “have no ability to stay” if that presence is questioned “in terms of international law,” Thomas said, replying to the Washington Postjournalist’s question.

Here’s the conundrum,” Thomas continued. “We are operating in the sovereign country of Syria. The Russians, their stalwarts, their back-stoppers, have already uninvited the Turks from Syria. We’re a bad day away from the Russians saying, ‘Why are you still in Syria, US?’

It has come up in the form of some close calls there, but it will be hard – I defer to the lawyers in the crowd and others in terms of international law on the basis for us staying there other than our CT [counterterrorism] writ. We went there for all the righteous reasons, but if the Russians play that card, we may want to stay and have no ability to do it.

View image on Twitter

US special operations chief confirms end of CIA support for anti-Assad forces in Syria https://on.rt.com/8ig1 

Syrian President Bashar Assad has said that any uninvited foreign troops, including those from the US, are “invaders” who only prolonged the conflict.

Assad has meanwhile invited Russian forces in Syria to join the anti-terrorist operation.

BREAKING: Assad: No one invited US to Manbij, all foreign troops in Syria without permission are ‘invaders’ https://on.rt.com/85eo 

Photo published for Assad: No one invited US to Manbij, all foreign troops in Syria without permission are ‘invaders’ —...
Assad: No one invited US to Manbij, all foreign troops in Syria without permission are ‘invaders’ —…

Any foreign forces, including those from the US, that enter Syria without invitation are invaders, Syrian President Bashar Assad told Chinese media in an interview, noting that no one had given the…

rt.com

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said America’s presence in the war-torn country was illegitimate and accused CIA Director Mike Pompeo – who had criticized Russia’s presence in Syria – of practicing “double standards.”

READ MORE: ‘Russians find any place they can make our lives more difficult’ – CIA chief

Lavrov cited Turkish media reports of “ten US bases already having been set up in Syria” and pointed to the “hundreds of military bases of the United States all over the world.”

Posted in USA, Syria0 Comments

Special Envoy: China Strongly Opposed to Disintegration of Syria

NOVANEWS

[Editor’s note: Now that China has publicly stated it’s firm backing of Iran and it’s strong opposition to any notion of  breaking up Syria, the US and it’s ludicrous ‘Assad must go because he is an evil tyrant who murders his own people with poison gas’ lie is looking ever more isolated and out of touch with both the other world powers and reality itself.

I’m sure Trump will have some inane insults to hurl at China in response, his usual childish and incompetent way of dealing with such matters. However, I very much get the feeling that the days of the Chinese giving two hoots what Trump has to say have passed and Premier Xi Jinping won’t be making any trips to Florida to munch on chocolate cake anytime soon.

Ruining the US-China relationship is one of the very few achievements of the Trump presidency and can be seen as a contributory factor to China’s opposition stance in Middle East issues. Further US meddling in Syria can now only worsen US-China relations, something that has potentially serious ramifications for the entire globe. Ian]

__________
FARS
Special Envoy: China Strongly Opposed to Disintegration of Syria

China’s Special Envoy to Syria Xie Xiaoyan underlined that his country’s strong opposition to plans to disintegrate Syria, stressing the need for all states to fight against terrorist groups.

“China is opposed to any form of the disintegration of Syria and we believe that the country’s integrity should be maintained and different countries should fight against terrorists,” Xie said in a meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader’s top aide for international affairs Ali Akbar Velayati in Tehran on Saturday.

Warning that certain countries’ interference can exacerbate the crisis, he said such meddling “has led to the reinvigoration of the terrorists in Syria and the spread of their presence to other areas”.

Xie noted that he plans to discuss bilateral, regional, international and Syrian issues with Iranian officials during his trip, and said, “Iran and China enjoy common positions not only on Syria but also on other regional and international issues.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a meeting with Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao in Bangkok in October underlined the need for Beijing to play a more active and significant role in Syria and Yemen.

During the meeting on the sidelines of the 2nd Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) summit, President Rouhani stressed Iran and China’s common views on different regional and international issues, and said, “China can play an important role in restoring peace and stability in the region, specially humanitarian aid to the oppressed regional people, including in Yemen and Syria.”

Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the turmoil in Syria has brought a lot of suffering to its people and grave challenges to regional and world peace.

“China’s position on the Syrian issue has been consistent,” Xi said, adding that “Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should be protected and respected, and its future decided by its own people.”

“A political solution offers the only way out,” the Chinese president underlined.

Posted in China, Syria0 Comments

The U.S. Military Bases in Syria: the Reaction Was Not Slow in Coming

NOVANEWS

As it was to be expected, the reaction of the U.S. Department of Defense (the US DoD) to the publication on the location of the U.S. military bases in Syria was not slow in coming.

Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankin-Galloway said the US Department of Defense is concerned about the disclosure of secret military bases in Syria, which was due to the publication of a map of American positions by the Turkish state news agency.

“The publication of the secret military information exposes coalition forces to unnecessary risk and may disrupt current operations to defeat ISIS. And although we cannot independently verify the sources that contributed to this publication, we would be very concerned if NATO ally officials deliberately put our forces at risk,” told the spokesman.

An expert of the Atlantic Council (Editor’s note: it is an American think tank in the field of international affairs founded in 1961 that provides a forum for international political, business, and intellectual leaders), Aaron Stein, claims the information on the location of the notorious military bases the Anadolu news agency received from the Turkish authorities. Mr. Stein, however, did not comment on why the Turkish government decided to leak damaging info about the U.S. bases in Syria.

The U.S. troops deploying at one of the bases

It should be noticed that the news source stated the data on the location of the bases was obtained not as a result of a leak but in the wake of its own investigation, as well as from publications of Kurdish fighters in social networks. The person written the article for Anadolu, correspondent Levent Tok even stated that “the U.S. leadership should have thought about the possible development of events ages ago, when Washington was only about to plan to cooperate with a terrorist organization” (Editor’s note: Kurds).

To be recalled is that the map with the pointed ten U.S. bases in the Syrian provinces of Al-Hasakah, Manbij and Raqqa, as well as in the areas of Harab-Isk and Rmeilan, was published on Tuesday by Turkey-controlled leading media, Anadolu Agency. The source also reported on the number of the U.S. servicemen deployed at these bases.
Thus, the true source of data on American bases in Syria remains unclear. It is also unknown what purpose the source of leak pursued when sharing the materials.

Who and why declassified the data on the location of the U.S. military bases in Syria we propose you reading in a special investigation report at Inside Syria Media Center that to appear soon.

Follow the latest developments by reading Inside Syria Media Center.

Posted in USA, Syria0 Comments

US contributed to ISIS creation, now tries to claim victory over it – Iraqi VP talks tough

NOVANEWS

The recapture of Mosul is an achievement of the Iraqi people while the US is trying to highjack it and claims it was them who “led that war,” Iraq’s Vice President Nouri al-Maliki has told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Yes, they supported us with aviation, but the main credit goes to the Iraqi soldiers, people’s militia, Iraqi air force,” al-Maliki stated in his interview with the Russian news agency.

He added that he “regrets and denies [Americans] claiming the victory [in Mosul] is their achievement.”

In reality, this is the victory of the Iraqi army,” al-Maliki said, revealing that the victory came a high cost, with some 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers having been either killed or wounded.

Photo published for Cost of making western Mosul ‘liveable’ double previous estimates, UN warns — RT News
Cost of making western Mosul ‘liveable’ double previous estimates, UN warns — RT News

The cost of stabilizing areas of western Mosul and making them liveable is double previous estimates and will be about $700 million, the UN said, adding that though the fighting has ceased, “the…

rt.com

The Iraqi military did everything possible “not to destroy the city more than it was necessary in the circumstances of war,” he said, adding, that as a result, the battle for Mosul lasted for nine months.

“We could have surrounded the city, but then its residents would have suffered from famine.”

There were some 5,000 terrorists in Iraq, with between 2,000 and 3,000 of them having been killed. Others are still hiding or have fled with the refugees, according to the Iraqi vice-president.

The victory is yet not final,” the top Iraqi official said, explaining that there are “still small terrorist hubs in the city,” as well as terrorist “sleeper cells” across the country.

READ MORE: General blasts activists who claim Mosul retaken from ISIS with excessive force

There are sleeper cells in Baghdad, from time to time they take action and perform bombings… That’s not worrying in a military sense. Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL] is unable to advance or capture territories, they will not be able to hold the occupied regions, but from the security point of view there are still sleeper cells and lone wolves, used by IS,” al-Maliki said.

While the US has provided support to the Iraqi army and allied forces, it has contributed to the emergence of IS in the first place, al-Maliki claimed, adding that Washington now seeks to establish military bases on Iraqi territory in order to maintain influence in the region.

Photo published for ‘Fight far from over’: US troops expected to stay in Iraq after ISIS’ defeat — RT Trends
‘Fight far from over’: US troops expected to stay in Iraq after ISIS’ defeat — RT Trends

‘Fight far from over’: US troops expected to stay in Iraq after ISIS’ defeat on RT. Find and read the latest news and articles on RT web site. Follwow us on social networks.

rt.com

IS resembles the Taliban which was created by the US administration to counter the USSR in Afghanistan. The same way, IS was created to counter the Iraqi stance, which did not agree to blockade Syria, was against no-fly zones in Syria and against American military bases,” he stated.

The Iraqi society is against foreign military bases on the country’s territory,” al-Maliki told RIA, adding that he has already warned the Americans against “coming back to Iraq and setting up bases here.”

Posted in USA, Iraq0 Comments

Stealing Palestine: Who dragged Palestinians into Syria’s conflict?

NOVANEWS
By: Sharmine Narwani
Stealing Palestine: Who dragged Palestinians into Syria’s conflict?
Palestinians didn’t jump into the fray in Syria. They were dragged into it – violently and reluctantly. Here is the story of how and why Palestinians and their 14 refugee camps became strategic targets in the Battle for Syria.

A small UNRWA van delivers boxes of staple foods to Yarmouk camp residents who wait at a pick-up point. Bread donated by the Syrian government lies atop the boxes.

My first visit to Yarmouk took place a few days after 20 people were killed in the Palestinian camp’s first major shelling incident on August 2, 2012. Residents showed me the damage caused by the first mortar – which hit the roof of a small apartment building not far from Tadamoun, a Damascus suburb where rebels and security forces were clashing daily.

As bystanders rushed to investigate the damage, a second shell hit the narrow street outside where onlookers had congregated, killing and injuring dozens.

Foreign media headlines suggested the Syrian government was shelling Yarmouk, but Palestinians inside expressed doubt. Some said these were rebel mortars from adjacent neighborhoods, but it was clear nobody could provide definitive answers for what may simply have been a series of stray shells.

Yarmouk, once home to around a million Syrians and 160,000 Palestinian refugees, was an oasis of calm that summer day of my visit.

By contrast, driving through rebel-occupied Tadamoun, Yalda and Hajar al-Aswad on my way in and out of the camp, one could only gape at the burned buildings and vehicles, shuttered shops, rubble in the streets and makeshift checkpoints dotting these new conflict zones.

Return to Yarmouk

A year-and-a-half later, in March 2014, I visited Yarmouk again. The camp is unrecognizable now, and the pictures we see don’t do justice to the damage.

At the entrance of the camp, I was greeted by armed Palestinians who are part of a 14-group ‘volunteer force’ formed for the purpose of protecting Yarmouk and ejecting the rebel fighters deep inside the camp. The group falls under the umbrella of the Popular Palestinian Committees for the Liberation of Yarmouk.

When I ask them where they’re from, in rapid-fire, one after the other, they tell me,“Safad, Lubya, Haifa, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Acca,” though, of course, they’re too young to ever have been to any of these places. That’s where their parents or grandparents hail from. That’s where they intend to return one day.

There’s a lone Syrian among them. He was raised in Yarmouk and is a Palestinian as far as he’s concerned.

The stories these fighters tell me is nothing I have read in English, or in any mainstream publication outside Syria. Theirs is a story that is black-and-white. Thousands of Islamist fighters invaded and occupied Yarmouk on December 17, 2012, and Palestinians and Syrians alike fled the camp, literally beginning the next day.

The militants, they say, systematically destroyed the camp, killed people, looted homes, hospitals – anything they could get their hands on. They insist that the rebels could not have captured Yarmouk without the help of Hamas, and are convinced that Hamas supporters are still inside the camp, now members of Al-Nusra Front, AknafBeit al-Maqdes, Ohdat al-Omariyya, Ahrar al-Yarmouk, Zahrat al Mada’en and other rebel groups that they say occupy the camp. They claim Hamas employed and provided financial assistance to displaced Syrians who escaped conflict elsewhere and settled in Yarmouk.

“They hired them for this conflict,” says one.

The finger-pointing at Hamas persists throughout all my conversations with refugees in the three separate camps I visit in Syria. While all Hamas officials exited the country early on in the conflict, the fact remains that many Palestinians affiliated with Hamas did not. On the outside, we understand Hamas is not there, but within the camps, Palestinians identify the individuals they accuse of sedition as “Hamas people.”

This blurred line has provided Hamas’ political leadership with ‘plausibledeniability’ against accusations that it has aided Islamist rebels in the camps.

The fuzzy lines first became clear to me in the autumn of 2011 when a Hamas official confided that they had to “remove some people” from these areas who were displaying increasing sympathy with the Syrian opposition.

But back to the Palestinian fighters in Yarmouk.

Last bastion of the PLA

My attention is diverted by the stories one of them tells me about members of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) who were assassinated in the lead-up to the occupation of Yarmouk.

From the age of 18, all male Palestinian refugees in Syria take part in compulsory military service in the PLA for a period of 18 months. They are trained directly and solely by the PLA, but weaponry and facilities are provided by the Syrian army. Once upon a time, the PLA was also based in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon where their mandate was to cooperate with the host government – today, the only PLA base left in the entire Arab world is in Syria.

I head over to the makeshift headquarters of the PLA to find out more. They have temporarily relocated from Moadamiyah in West Ghouta, a rebel-occupied suburb of Damascus. There, I meet with General Hassan Salem and General Nabil Yacoub, two senior officials who report directly to PLA commander Major-General Tariq al-Khadra.

The PLA’s mission is “to liberate Palestine” and the generals tell me they “do not play a role in defending [Palestinian] camps during the Syrian conflict.” By all accounts, this appears to be true.

But in 2012, the PLA was dragged into Syria’s crisis quite unwillingly. On January 5, Major Basil Amin Ali was assassinated by an unknown assailant in Aarbin – east of Jobar in the Damascus suburbs – while he was fixing his car by the side of the road.

Colonel Abdul Nasser Mawqari was shot dead inside Yarmouk the following month, on February 29.

A week later, on March 6, Colonel RidaMohyelddin al-Khadra – a relation of PLA commander, General Khadra – was assassinated in Qatna, 20km south of Damascus, while driving home in his car.

On June 5, PLA Brigadier-General Dr. Anwar Mesbah al-Saqaa was killed in AadawiStreet in Damascus by explosives planted in his car, under his seat. He had left his home in Barzeh and was dropping his daughter off at university. Both she and the driver of the car were injured.

A food market inside Jeramana, one of 14 official and unofficial Palestinian refugee camps inside Syria.

A few weeks later, on June 26, Colonel Ahmad Saleh Hassan was assassinated in Sahnaya, also in the Damascus suburbs.

General Abdul RazzakSuheim, his son, and a soldier guarding them were killed on July 26 in rebel-occupied Yalda, the neighborhood adjacent to Yarmouk – a week before those first mortars killed 20 residents of the camp.

On July 11, in a full-on attack against the PLA, opposition militants kidnapped and killed 14 Palestinian soldiers heading back to Nairab camp on a weekend break from training exercises in Mesiaf, 48km southwest of Hama. According to the PLA generals I interviewed, the soldiers were divided into two groups – half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded.

Many Palestinians I interviewed told the story of the driver of the PLA van – who was not a soldier himself. Ahmad Ezz was a young man from the Nairab camp in Aleppo. The rebels spared him – temporarily – then strapped him into a vehicle rigged with massive explosives, and ordered him to drive into a Syrian army checkpoint.

According to multiple Arabic news reports, at the very last minute, Ahmad veered sharply away from the checkpoint. The rebels detonated the explosives and Ahmad died, but by changing course he spared the Syrian soldiers.

In what perhaps speaks to Palestinian sentiment about the Syrian conflict more than many of the ‘contested’ incidents, the residents of Nairab camp turned out en masse for Ahmad’s funeral. Says Mohammad, a young Palestinian whose family lives outside Yarmouk in one of the neighboring suburbs – and who first told me the story of Ahmad – “We saw him as a hero for saving the [Syrian] soldiers.”

This isn’t such an odd sentiment. After all, the majority of male Palestinian refugees in Syria have undergone military training by the PLA, under the auspices of the Syrian armed forces.

The international media has tended to focus on events in Yarmouk as the ‘one’ Palestinian story inside Syria, but this is far from accurate. There are about 14 different refugee camps in the country, each with its own experiences in this Syrian conflict.

‘Camp Jolie’

I visit Jeramana camp next. It is a small camp on the outskirts of Damascus that blends into the larger Jeramana neighborhood, both now bustling with refugees from other camps and from conflict-hit parts of Syria.

Jeramana is peaceful, though mortars, rockets and rebels from nearby BeitSaham, Jobar and EinTerma break the calm every so often. Because militants intermittently try to storm the camp entrances, Jeramana residents also have a ‘volunteer force’like Yarmouk’s – this one manned by armed men from three Palestinian factions: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC – led by Ahmad Jibril), Fatah Intifada and as-Sa’iqa. One of the fighters that met me at the camp entrance has a broken arm from a recent skirmish with rebels.

This is the camp made famous by Angelina Jolie in October 2009, when she came to visit Palestinian refugees displaced by conflict in Iraq. At Jeramana’s entrance lies a monument dedicated to the camp’s martyrs killed by mortars from neighboring areas. Syrian flags hold sway alongside Palestinian ones here.

Further into the camp, I spot several dozen children in festive mode, sporting nationalist clothing and hoisting Palestinian and Syrian flags. One carries a large poster of Syrian President BasharAssad. The kids are about to perform in a ceremony for Yom al-Ard (Land Day) to commemorate the day in 1976 when Israel confiscated thousands of dunams of Palestinian land. They do an impromptu dress rehearsal for me before going on stage – here is the video.

I follow them around the corner to their destination and am startled at what lies ahead. A large, colorful tent has been erected to house a crowd attending the Yom al-Ard activities – but flanking the podium inside are massive posters of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Assad.

The event, which used to be held in Yarmouk camp, has been organized by the Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Association, and has been around for at least 10 years. The event’s focus is not political, however.Its mission is to honor teachers volunteering in the camps with gifts and awards.

I am curious about the Syrian flags though – they are everywhere. A camp resident tells me, “You rarely saw this before the crisis.” He thinks there are two reasons for the flags. “To show solidarity – we now believe that Palestine is over if Syria falls – and maybe also to show loyalty, because there’s doubt been sown.”

In 2012, all the Palestinian political factions – with the exception of Hamas – signed onto two separate letters/declarations that essentially pledged neutrality in the Syrian conflict. So this visible support for the Syrian government is unexpected.

Syrian support goes on

The Syrian state continues to support Palestinian refugees in various ways: inside Jeramana, the Syrians have established a supply store that provides food basics – lentils, jam, beans, tomato paste, yoghurt etc – at substantial discounts for camp residents and displaced persons. An elderly woman sits at her makeshift stall elsewhere in the camp, distributing state-subsidized bread for literally pennies. (In Yarmouk, I had also observed government-donated bread and jam sandwiches handed out to refugees awaiting UNRWA food aid boxes.)

Inside the camp’s main marketplace, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables are on display in the narrow street. Even though the camp’s population has swelled to four to five times its pre-conflict numbers, residents have adapted to the new realities in Jeramana. They, at least, still have their homes.

Unlike Yarmouk, there is no visible presence of UNRWA – the UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees – and I am told they do not have an office here. Palestinians from other camps – and Syrians too – have flooded Jeramana in this crisis, so local “committees” step in to provide food, often daily. A committee truck passes by at lunchtime – it carries industrial-sized metal pots of home-made rice and stew to hand out to the new residents.

Jeramana is one of at least 14 Palestinian refugee camps and areas in Syria, both official and unofficial. In every interview with Palestinian officials, aid workers and regular civilians, I asked for status updates on each of the camps. The responses varied sufficiently to suggest that events on the ground keep shifting, especially in rebel-occupied or surrounded camps where clashes take place between militants and Palestinian forces – or with the Syrian army on the outskirts.

In Jeramana on Yom al-Ard (Land Day), Palestinians gather for a ceremony to honor volunteer teachers. The event is sponsored by the decade-old Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Association.

In the Damascus area alone, there is Husayniyya (rebels occupied and ejected, destroyed), Yarmouk (rebel-occupied, 18,000 civilians still inside), Seyyeda Zeinab (no rebels), Jeramana (no rebels), Khan Danoun (no rebels), Khan Shieh (partly rebel occupied, some civilians remain) and Sbeineh (reportedly 70 percent destroyed).

In Aleppo, you have two hard-hit camps – Handarat, where refugees fled long time ago, has collapsed, as has much of Nairab camp. Both camps have armed Palestinian volunteer forces battling rebels.

The camp in Daraa has been leveled and there have been no civilians there for much of this conflict. The al-Ramel camp in Latakia has had two major clashes in 2011 and is now fine. There is Al Wafiddine camp next to Douma, which nobody mentions or seems to know much about. The refugee camps in Homs and Hama are rebel-free and thriving – surprisingly, given that these provinces have been major anti-government hubs.

I travel to the Homs camp next to see for myself.

The Palestinian camp here is the only one where there is a quasi-functioning Hamas office. The resistance group and its entire official encampment in Syria left the country in 2011, so technically the Hamas reps in the camp do not serve in any official capacity.

I ask a pro-government PFLP-GC official about Hamas’ presence in the camp, and he says, “There is a ‘different’ group of Hamas here who are in agreement with cooperation to keep this camp quiet.” I ask him if he can set up a meeting with these Hamas representatives. He makes several calls in my presence, but they turn him down “because they don’t want to get in trouble with their leadership.”

Homs sweet Homs

The Homs camp is starkly different from Yarmouk and Jeramana for one main reason: there is not an armed person in sight. The main thoroughfare is crowded with shops and one has to weave through the throngs of people going about their daily chores. Nothing much to see here – Palestinians in Homs have taken ‘neutrality’ to heart.

My main stop in the Homs camp is to Bissan Hospital, named after a city in Palestine and run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). Bissan’s chief executive is Mahmoud Darwish, whose simple office features only four pictures on its walls – two of deceased PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, one of Bashar Assad and a map of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Bissan promised neutrality at the start of the Syrian conflict, and as such, provides medical treatment to pro and anti-government fighters alike.

“Their background makes no difference to us.” The hospital backs onto a Syrian neighborhood where clashes have taken place – Bissan treats Syrian army soldiers too.

When I meet Darwish, he has visitors already, and they remain for the interview. The talk turns political as some of them weigh in with their thoughts and opinions. I am told the reason the camp has managed to stay out of the fray is because “between Baba Amr (about 1.5km away) and the camp there was the Syrian army, which is why rebels couldn’t come into the camp.”

Another tells me that “Dialogue really helped this camp. There was a lot of dialogue here. Some of the Palestinian leaders have been involved in reconciliation efforts and facilitating between rebels and the Syrian government.”

Hamas crops up again. The men talk about being repelled at the speeches of sectarian Islamist preacher Yusuf Qaradawi and others “who showed no remorse over Syrian deaths.” But, says one, “the Hamas section in this camp refused to have any part in the Syrian crisis. Hamas officials here – their families are here, they grew up here. In Yarmouk, some of them came from as far away as Gaza.”

Darwish steps in to explain their interest in keeping the peace.

“We (Palestinians) have all the rights in Syria. We are like Syrian citizens here; we study in schools together… Very few Palestinians were drawn into this conflict – only really marginal people.”

I ask if the Syrian army ever entered the camp in Homs. This is a charge that has made the media rounds throughout this conflict, and it is a question I ask in every camp I visit. The answer is a decisive “No.”

NGOs back ‘no intervention’ claims

Back in Damascus, I meet with the head of the Syrian Red Crescent Society (SARC). This is the group that functions as the hands and feet of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) inside Syria. It is a neutral group and goes to great pains to stay impartial so that it can operate within both rebel- and government-controlled areas.

In Yarmouk and other camps, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) is supposed to take the field lead, but PRCS supplies and equipment were so completely ransacked by militants, that SARC has provided ambulances, medicines and aid workers to keep up with demand. SARC workers were in Yarmouk during my visit, and helped in evacuating several residents who had been approved for medical treatment. Some of the ill and injured are transported to PRCS medical facilities, but most are treated at Syrian hospitals.

I meet Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar, the president of SARC, and ask him if the Syrian army ever entered Palestinian camps while civilians were still in residence.

“In my opinion, no.” he says.

“Everything happening in Yarmouk is in the hands of Palestinians, not Syrians,” says Attar. “The Syrian role is only in facilitation.”

That theme continues with everyone I ask. The only exception to this, say Palestinians of all backgrounds, is when camps are entirely empty of civilians – as in Daraa and Handarat. Only then does the Syrian army enter to fight rebels.

Dr. Shaker Shihabi is the PRCS’s director in Syria and a member of the executive council of the parent organization, headquartered in Ramallah, Palestine. The PRCS runs three large hospitals in Syria: Bissan in Homs, Yaffa Hospital in el-Mezzeh, Damascus, and Palestine Hospital in Yarmouk camp. Some of the smaller clinics they used to run in Nairab, Sbeineh, Khan Danoun and Douma were destroyed in the Syrian conflict.

The PRCS is one of the few NGOs still operating inside the rebel-occupied part of Yarmouk camp. They run the only functioning, non-rebel medical facility inside the camp, the Palestine Hospital.

“We only have two doctors and some volunteer workers left there. We lost two doctors and five staff members in this crisis – they were killed. The last one was a few months ago – DiabMuhanna, an assistant pharmacist – he was shot outside the hospital,”says Shihabi.

Access to medical care inside Yarmouk was further crippled when “about eight cars, six ambulances, were stolen (after rebels occupied the camp), they robbed our biggest storage facility for drugs and medical supplies.”

Earlier this year, PRCS helped in the evacuation of “more than 3,000” civilians in Yarmouk. The Syrian government gives final approval for who gets out.“They screen for fighters,” Shihabi says.

Food issues

“Hunger,” he says, is a problem in the camp, and while civilians receive food boxes from UNRWA and other international NGOs, Shihabi explains that the food situation has improved since February-March 2014 when “both sides opened borders with Yalda and other neighborhoods. Before that rice was 15,000 lira [per kilo], now it is 500 lira.”

My trip to Yarmouk coincides with the arrival of an UNRWA food van at the camp. In the past year, the UN agency has relentlessly publicized the Palestinian starvation story, but left out key details.

For example, food scarcity hasn’t been the issue as much as accessibility and cost. There are vulnerable populations inside the camp who cannot fend for themselves, including children, the elderly, and single parents like the woman I met whose husband vanished at the start of the crisis and who has to tend to all the needs of her two young daughters alone.

In Yarmouk, food has always been smuggled in from neighboring rebel-held areas, but sellers have milked the opportunity to profit from the instability by charging staggering prices for food staples.

And then there are other problems. A PRCS aid worker inside Yarmouk tells me, “At the beginning of the aid distribution, rebels took the majority of boxes from people. But civilians inside formed committees against this and have minimized it.”

While I was interviewing aid recipients, two separate women, one with a child, complained to the UNRWA rep that rebels had confiscated their food boxes in the past week, and asked for a replacement. The UNRWA initially refused, citing an obligation to provide its limited boxes to all residents equally, but then relented, perhaps because of media on the scene.

The UNRWA told me it hands out approximately 400 boxes each day they are present in Yarmouk. Armed clashes prevent it from being able to access delivery points inside the camp on most days though. On the day of my visit, its food van did not have more than 100 boxes, and during the time I spent there, I did not see more than several dozen civilians line up for these boxes.

Yet UNRWA spokespeople have hit social media channels with a vengeance, loudly suggesting that 18,000 civilians inside Yarmouk are somehow dependent on their food aid. This is simply false. UNRWA has not had the financial or material capability to expand and extend its operations to meet Palestinian needs during this conflict. They continue to assist with schooling, provide food supplies and medical kits, but everywhere you turn in Yarmouk, Jeramana or Homs, there is also now an adhoc Palestinian committee doing the fieldwork and cobbling together assistance.

The main UNRWA rep in charge of food distribution inside Yarmouk offers up one interesting fact: “The Syrian government is doing its best to make this operation smooth. They do not put a cap on the number of [food] parcels to come in the camp.”

He specifically credits KindaChammat, Syria’s female minister of social affairs, for much of this.

Where did it all go wrong?

How did things get so bad for Palestinians in Syria? This is the one Arab country, after all, where Palestinians are entitled to an equal range of rights enjoyed by their hosts, with the exception of citizenship and the vote.

Over the course of Syria’s conflict, Palestinian refugee camps have become active targets in every area rebel fighters could gain access. But why? What was the strategic value of entering the camps?

It prompts the question: were Palestinians dragged into this crisis for political reasons – to split their allegiances and wrest the Palestinian cause from the Syrian government? Or were they dragged into this crisis because many of the camps were situated in strategic areas, as in Yarmouk, a key gateway to Damascus, or Handarat, providing supply-line access to Aleppo? The answer, according to all the political factions I interviewed is“A bit of both.”

But first, let’s correct some misinformation. Contrary to mainstream narratives, Palestinian refugees did not participate in any significant demonstrations either against the Syrian government or in favor of the Syrian opposition. Throughout the crisis, Palestinians worked in earnest to maintain neutrality and stay out of the conflict. The largest demonstrations against the government never numbered more than a few hundred people and were often populated by displaced Syrians who had moved to these camps.

While also receiving food assistance from international NGOs and the Syrian government, Palestinians in refugee camps have now created locally-formed committees to provide daily nourishment for the influx of displaced persons.

In fact, the most significant Palestinian demonstration during the crisis took place in Yarmouk in June 2011, after Palestinians were killed and injured by Israeli security forces during Naksa Day protests on the Golan Heights border.

Events in Yarmouk that day are heavily contested. There were clashes during the funeral processions where large crowds amassed, many angry for the human loss needlessly suffered. Foreign media blamed the Syrian government for urging and assisting Palestinians to participate in the Naksa protest, but they overlooked one fact: the Syrian government, like its Lebanese counterpart, canceled the Naksa protest – most likely because of the deaths and injuries caused by Israelis the previous month during Nakba Day border protests.

During the funeral procession in Yarmouk, Palestinians were mostly angry at their various Palestinian political faction leaders for encouraging – and not stopping – the Naksa incident. After that, the story diverges. Some charge the pro-Syrian government PFLP-GC with firing into crowds, but the fact remains that three PFLP-GC members were killed that day and their offices burned down.

Now for a twist. A Hamas official interviewed on background tells me an unexpected version of the story.

“Some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters went to Ahmad Jibril’s offices – the Khalesa compound – during the funeral and started shooting,” he says.

He does not absolve the PFLP-GC from its role in the Syrian crisis, however. He blames Jibril’s group for not respecting the neutrality pact that Palestinians agreed upon from the beginning. By all accounts, the PFLP-GC policed the outskirts of various Palestinian camps – they say, to protect the camps from infiltration by rebel militants. Detractors insist this kind of activity instead fueled clashes and drew militants into the camps.

But at the end of the day, it was Hamas that was the lone Palestinian faction not to sign the Palestinian neutrality declaration – the PFLP-GC signed on with all the other factions.

Consensus

There is little doubt that the PFLP-GC’s decision to take on a defense role in Palestinian camps irked the other groups. However, today, Palestinian politicos appear to be in lockstep with Jibril on the Syrian conflict.

At the faction level – and even among Palestinian refugees I spoke with – there is absolute consensus on the fact that the rebels have reneged on their promises to leave Palestinians out of the crisis.

Says Maher Taher, a member of the political bureau of George Habash’s PFLP (different group than the PFLP-GC), “There have been attempts by all Palestinian groups to help broker peace in Yarmouk. We reached agreements, but [the rebels] have a problem with implementation. The deal is essentially that armed groups should leave the camp and Palestinians should return. The Syrian government is being cooperative with these operations and has granted chances to feed civilians inside. But at the moment of implementation, the rebels break the agreement.”

Even Palestine’s Ambassador to Syria Anwar Abdul-Hadi, who essentially reports to the Palestinian Authority, sounds just like the PFLP-GC these days.

“We asked them to leave Palestinians alone and the rebels said ‘this is Syrian land’ and they refused. We got a promise from the Syrian army never to go into the camps and the Syrian government kept its word. Till now we keep trying to ask rebels to leave, but have not succeeded because of Al-Nusra [Front], Jabhat al-Islamiyya and Hamas.”

Hamas, I ask? “Yes,” he says. “Hamas, Hamas, Hamas, Hamas.”

That may be self-serving. The dominant Fatah faction that controls the PA has been trying to undermine Hamas for years.

“The rebels,” Abdul-Hadi continues, “keep preventing (food aid) operations and they use hunger as a way to keep the Syrian government under pressure.” In the first few months of the year, “all [Palestinian] groups sent 12,000 food baskets and evacuated 4,000 Palestinians. And each few days, rebels make a fight to interrupt and stop this operation.”

Abdul-Hadi explains the politics behind these actions.

“Rebels killed some PLA officers to force Palestinians to help the Syrian revolution – to intimidate them. And they blamed the Syrian army. The target of this crisis is the Palestinian case. They think when they occupy Palestinian camps in Syria and divide them, they will forget Palestine,” he says.

“Before this crisis,” he admits, “Fatah was against the Syrian official state. But now there is more understanding between Syria, Iran and the Palestinian Authority.”

Anwar Raja, the PFLP-GC’s media director, has a lot to say about the reaction of other Palestinian factions when things first kicked off in Syria.

“We warned Palestinians in 2011 and 2012 about rebels coming to occupy Yarmouk, and increased these calls as rebels took control of surrounding areas in Tadamoun, Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda. We said the groups should arm themselves in defense of the camp, but they ignored us,” says Raja.

He explains why the other factions have now come around: “The view of developments is clear now – for Palestinians and Syrians both. People discovered it is a foreign program to destroy the state and divide society. Now we have knowledge and our brains are working again. Even simple, uneducated people have changed their opinion. At the beginning they could not read between the lines – it has been 18 months since everyone realized this. They saw there has been no advantage to this crisis – they lost everything.”

Hardened resolve… not to get involved

As the Arab uprisings took a sledgehammer to authoritarian governments in 2011, Palestinian refugees – like many Syrians who supported protest movements to wrench more liberties from their government – hoped for better times.

There is little doubt that some were supportive of Syrian opposition aspirations. They mirrored, after all, Palestinian ambitions to achieve liberty and establish good governance.

But between my two trips to the camps – in 2012 and 2014 – there has been a marked hardening of Palestinian sentiment. These populations, many of them displaced several times over now, have washed their hands of Syria’s “rebellion.” They have at times felt exploited and bullied by all parties, but have suffered most at the hands of opposition rebels.

Neutrality is their mantra today. And like Syrian civilians everywhere, they want some peace.

Posted in Palestine Affairs, Syria0 Comments

U.S. killing more civilians in Iraq, Syria than it acknowledges

NOVANEWS

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this article misstated how many civilian deaths the coalition has acknowledged. The correct number it has admitted to is 21.

ISTANBUL — Al Gharra is a mud-brick village built on hard, flat Syrian desert and populated by the descendants of Bedouin. It is a desolate place. Everything is dun colored: the bare, single-story houses and the stony desert they stand on. There is not much farming — it is too dry — just a few patches of cotton and tobacco.

Before the war, villagers got a little money from the government to look after the national park on Mount Abdul-Aziz, a barren rock that rises 3,000 feet behind the village and stretches miles into the distance. Mount Abdul-Aziz is named after a lieutenant of the 12th-Century Muslim warrior Saladin, who built a fort to dominate the plain below. There is a military base there today too, which changes hands according to the fortunes of Syria’s civil war. In 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad held the base; next it was the rebels of the Free Syrian Army; then the so-called Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS); and finally the Kurds, who advanced and took the mountain last May under the cover of American warplanes.

Abdul-Aziz al Hassan is from al Gharra, his first name the same as the mountain’s. He left the village while the Islamic State was in charge, but it is because of a bomb from an American plane that he cannot go back. What happened to his family is the story of just one bomb of the 35,000 dropped so far during 10,000 missions flown in the US-led air war against the Islamic State.

Al Hassan is in his 20s, small, soft-spoken, with chestnut-brown skin. He said the war did not affect al Gharra much back when the regime or the Free Syrian Army occupied the mountain’s military base. But he remembers the day that the Islamic State came. “I was sitting in front of the house when a jeep passed by and stopped at the shrine to Saladin’s commander,” he said. “They gathered all of the people. One said: ‘We are the Islamic State. We are here to create an emirate based on Sharia (Islamic law).’” From that day, they decreed, men had to be in the mosque, the women at home. If a woman wanted to go to the market, she had to walk with a husband, brother or son. No one outside the family could see women uncovered, even at home. “It wasn’t as if we didn’t know what Islam was. But they didn’t even like the way we prayed. Everything we did was wrong in their eyes.”

Still, the presence of Islamic State fighters in the village was rare. They largely stayed within the base. “We managed to live normal lives most of the time. We had family and friends and loved ones around us. We entered each others’ houses for gatherings or parties. We shared the same happiness and sadness.” The U.S.-led coalition occasionally launched airstrikes in the distance. The ground shook “like an earthquake;” sometimes a house fell down. But it wasn’t the bombs or even the dictates of the Islamic State that made al Hassan first leave home. It was the grinding poverty, worsened by war.

“There was no bread and no work,” he said. He took his wife and daughter and drove to Turkey. “My father stayed there to keep the house. The moment you leave, ISIL takes it. All our belongings are there.”

While al Hassan was in Turkey, as spring turned into summer last year, the war took another turn. Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, controlled territory that stopped just short of the mountain. Backed by American air power, they began an offensive to recapture it from the Islamic State. Al Gharra stood in the way. The road to the nearest town — Hasaka, held by the Kurds — was about a mile away from the village. The first bomb fell on that road between 10 and 11 in the morning on May 6 . Then a plane started circling over the village. People were afraid to stay in their homes. They ran into the open. Al Hassan’s father, Ismail, tried to run as well. But he was too late. The villagers remember seeing the plane point its nose down and dive, dropping a bomb. It then climbed away. Al Hassan’s father lay on the ground in a crumpled heap, dead, in front of the ruins of his house.

An uncle phoned to tell al Hassan what had happened. He rushed back to the village from Turkey. His father had died on the first day of the Kurdish offensive to take the mountain. It was still going on when al Hassan returned. “Most of the people had fled because a drone was still roaming around. The airstrikes didn’t stop … one every 15 to 30 minutes,” he said. There were more bombs as the Kurdish forces advanced. “Any village would be heavily bombed until the Kurds managed to get inside. Then they’d let it be. The airstrikes were unbelievable. It was complete destruction. They kept bombing until they got to the mountain.”

The Kurds told reporters covering the offensive that there were a thousand Islamic State fighters at the mountain base. But Al Hassan is adamant that no Islamic State fighters were in the village when his father died. “The Islamic State were not there at the time of the bombing,” he said. “Whenever they expected a strike, they would leave the villages.” And anyway, he went on, they had already sent their troops to try to block the Kurdish advance at the frontline close to Hasaka. “During the airstrikes there was no one. There is no need to lie about this. I don’t support any of the groups fighting this war. The only thing that matters to me is my family’s security.”

There were no independent witnesses in al Gharra to say whether or not Islamic State fighters were there. The YPG general commanding the assault on what the Kurds call Mount Kezwan thought so, or at least he was inclined to see villagers and Islamic State fighters as one and the same. He was quoted as saying that “many of the local villages are Arab and they often support ISIL.” And in the offensive against the jihadist group, the Kurds are often fighting for land they would claim as part of their own future state. They see the Arabs in some of the towns and villages they have captured as aliens with no right to be there.

Al Hassan left his village for the second time — again with his family — a day before the Kurdish forces took full control of the area. They fled over the mountain and drove through Raqqa, the place the Islamic State calls its capital, before crossing the Turkish border. “When the Kurds arrived, they kicked everybody out under the pretext that ISIL had littered the village with booby traps,” he said. “So the entire village left. Almost half of the village was destroyed — then it was completely empty.”

Before they left, they buried his father in a simple grave in the village’s small cemetery. Ismail was 55 and left behind 10 children. Al Hassan was the eldest. “Death comes for all of us. But he wasn’t old and he was the entire family’s provider.” His father’s house — now a pile of rubble — had been home for the whole extended family. “Even if we went back, where would we live? In our destroyed house?” Al Hassan asked bitterly. “Does the American government think we have money? Do they think I can just go back and rebuild our house?” He and the rest of the family are now stuck in Turkey … refugees.

The U.S. military could not confirm whether or not bombs were dropped on al Gharra (also known as al Gharba). A spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State, offered a vague response to our questions. He simply said the coalition had “conducted a number of airstrikes near al Hasaka” on May 6 and 7. When pressed about whether the mountain or the village was hit on those days, the spokesman replied: “We can confirm that Abdul-Aziz mountain is geographically close enough to be considered ‘near al Hasaka.’ However, we do not have a record of striking that particular mountain.”

As a result of al Hassan’s testimony provided by GlobalPost, U.S. Central Command — CENTCOM — said it would look again at whether it did bomb the village. For now, the United States has no record of killing any civilian in al Gharra. GlobalPost found other instances of U.S. airstrikes — detailed below — that probably killed civilians but which were not officially investigated, or which were investigated and dismissed. In almost a-year-and-a-half of bombing Iraq and Syria, the United States admits to killing just 21 innocent people. An independent monitoring group says the real figure could be more than a thousand.

The explanation for the U.S. military’s impossibly low number can be found in the very way it investigates its own airstrikes. A CENTCOM spokesman told us that all civilian casualties were investigated — even if something as insubstantial as an anonymous post to Twitter was the only source. But some U.S. investigations were cursory at best, amounting to what appears to be willful blindness. In an airstrike on one Syrian village — also detailed below — it seems that simple confusion over place names meant that civilian casualties were never investigated and were left uncounted. A coalition spokesman eventually said that CENTCOM would review that case too, after GlobalPost pointed out the village on a map.

Standing orders — the Rules of Engagement — give every mission in Operation Inherent Resolve the goal of causing zero civilian casualties. But given the immense firepower deployed in Iraq and Syria, killing civilians is frighteningly easy, especially from the air. American pilots and their commanding officers are heavily dependent on information from Kurdish troops. In several cases we have looked at, witnesses say civilians were at the scene but the pilots — or the Kurds calling in the strike — thought they were Islamic State fighters. In the few cases where the United States admits killing civilians, the explanation is often the same: the civilians ran into the target area just after the pilots pulled the trigger.

It is difficult — almost impossible — to visit territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State. But we know about airstrikes from witnesses, survivors, human rights activists, video uploaded to YouTube and even lists of the dead published on Facebook. If you believe that evidence, many more civilians are dying in American airstrikes than the U.S. government acknowledges. People in Iraq and Syria can see what is happening. And so can the enemy. The Islamic State portrays the conflict as a war on Sunnis and a war on Muslims. When the coalition kills civilians — and does not investigate and apologize — the Islamic State fills the void with propaganda. The war against the Islamic State is ultimately a war for Sunni public opinion. Things look very different from the ground.

War will always result in civilian casualties — and some in the U.S. military want the strategy to recognize that. Those in uniform cannot state their views openly but a former U.S. Air Force general, David Deptula, argues that the current policy is imposing restrictions on the fighting men and women in the field well beyond the laws of war. “The laws of armed conflict do not require, nor do they expect, a target of zero unintentional civilian casualties,” he told me. “There is no such thing as immaculate warfare, it’s a horrible thing, an ugly thing, and … we need to finish it as rapidly as possible…What is the logic of a policy that restricts the use of air power to avoid the possibility of collateral damage, while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes against humanity?”

The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, has said: “No other military on Earth takes the concerns over collateral damage and civilian casualties more seriously than we do.” Yet as the examples below show there has been no honest official estimate of how many civilians the United States has killed in Iraq and Syria. Even if civilian casualties are an inevitable part of a “just” war, the Western public is being fed the comforting illusion that war can be fought without shedding innocent blood.

And that is simply not the case.

AL KHAN

What may be one of the worst tragedies of the campaign against the Islamic State is said to have taken place on another part of Syria’s Hasaka front in December. Al Khan is a tiny village. Most of the people have fled to Lebanon or Turkey. Perhaps a hundred stayed behind. They say the village was hit by rockets and strafed in the early hours of Dec. 7, killing some 47 civilians, half of them children. We spoke to one of the residents by phone, an Arab man in his 30s who, fearing reprisals from the Kurds, wants to be known only by his nickname, Abu Khalil. The war against the Islamic State here is, again, being waged by American aircraft above and Kurdish militia forces on the ground. Abu Khalil accepts that there was an Islamic State presence in al Khan. But he said: “There were fewer than 10 fighters in the village, including two locals. And they all stayed together at one place.”

Abu Khalil does not support the Islamic State. He is a former civil servant in the Syrian education ministry and once served in the regime army (he deserted). “People in al Khan didn’t like ISIL and always avoided talking to them,” he said. The villagers even tried to expel them. According to one report, there was an altercation that escalated into an exchange of fire. The Islamic State apparently responded by sending reinforcements to the village. This convoy, it seems, was spotted by the Kurds, who no doubt thought they were seeing a big movement of troops to the frontline — and called in air support. If this version of events is true, it is a bitter irony for the villagers. It would mean their brave opposition to the Islamic State resulted in a brutal attack by American aircraft.

Abu Khalil is haunted by that night of carnage and destruction.

“It was past midnight. We were sleeping. We were suddenly wakened by a huge explosion. The house shook. The windows shattered. There was shrapnel in the walls. I ran out and saw my neighbor’s house completely destroyed. He told me, ‘Abu Khalil, I managed to rescue my wife and son but I can’t find my six-month-old baby. Help me!’ I could hear people calling from underneath the rubble. My neighbor’s mother was crying out. She’s 70. I pulled her out, along with a boy and his mother. They were all OK.

“My mother and my aunt both came running to help dig through the rubble. But while we did this, a helicopter — an Apache — came overhead. It fired. They had machineguns with explosive bullets. I was hit. I still have the shrapnel in my body. I fell into the hole made by the airstrike. That was what saved me. The helicopter circled round again and fired a second time. My mother and aunt were killed. The woman and her son I’d rescued were killed. Everyone but me was killed.

“Three powerful rockets were used in the first airstrike. They left a two-meter deep hole in the ground. Anyone could see the hole until the Kurdish militia filled it. They don’t let anyone go near the place or take pictures. Nineteen people died in that one house.

“It was the Americans. For the past year-and-a-half, the only aircraft that fly over our area have been American.”

The U.S. military emphatically denied that they bombed al Khan on Dec. 7, though a spokesman said there were airstrikes in the area of al Hawl, a small town a few miles away. But when the spokesman showed us a map marking the location of the airstrike, it was in the same area where a group of local activists had told us al Khan was located. This was where the locals said the rocket attack had taken place. Confusion over place names happens often enough for the U.S. military to plausibly deny responsibility for civilian casualties and to avoid launching a full investigation.

There was confirmation of an airstrike on al Khan from another important source — the Kurdish forces on the ground — though they denied there had been any civilian casualties at all. Abu Khalil’s account of the attack is consistent with interviews given elsewhere, though there are still many things that are unclear about the events in al Khan. Exactly how many Islamic State fighters were there? How many of them were killed? Were they close to the house that was hit? As in al Gharra, the village in the shadow of the mountain, there are no independent witnesses. In both cases, the airstrikes were almost certainly called in by Kurdish spotters. Information from the Kurds is passed on to a coalition “targeting cell.” Though the coalition’s aircraft are capable of striking with great precision, what they hit — who they hit — depends on the quality of that information. The coalition rarely has eyes and ears on ground. It is left to the pilots to confirm the target, from thousands of feet up.

AL HATRA

The limitations of the pilot’s view are clear in the very first report the U.S. published about civilian deaths caused by Operation Inherent Resolve. A family died because two pilots could not see they were there. The report says the pilots simply did not know they were firing on civilians. It was published in November 2015. Until then, the U.S. military had not admitted to causing a single civilian casualty despite 15 months of bombing.

The report described an attack on March 13 of last year against an Islamic State checkpoint outside al Hatra in northern Iraq. Al Hatra is the site of one of the world’s oldest cities, dating back to the 3rd Century BC. Saddam Hussein restored the ruins, laying bricks stamped with his name into the ancient walls. When the Islamic State arrived, they used sledgehammers, Kalashnikovs and a bulldozer to demolish what they believe are the city’s “idolatrous” statues. Then they turned the site into a training camp, installing a checkpoint on the road nearby.

Two U.S. aircraft were given permission to fire on that checkpoint because it seemed — to the pilots and to everyone involved in the so-called “kill chain” — that no civilians were in the strike area. But a Kia sedan and a Chevy Suburban had been stopped at the checkpoint. They were there long enough for the pilots to think that the vehicles were helping the fighters there. Evidence emerged later that members of a family were in the car: two women and three children. The Suburban is thought to have had at least one other civilian and perhaps too, a family group. Through the dense thicket of military acronyms and jargon in the report, the horror of what happened emerges. The planes were A-10 “Warthogs,” snub-nosed aircraft used against tanks. The A-10s are built around a huge seven-barrel machine gun, like a Gatling gun, the “GAU Avenger,” which fires 50 to 70 rounds a second. Each shell is the size of a bottle of beer and the nose is weighted with a third of a kilogram of depleted uranium. One bullet can cut a human being in half; a stream of them can punch through armor or turn a person into red mist.

The Warthog’s cannon makes a distinctive, terrifying noise during an attack. The gun fires so rapidly it sounds like fabric tearing, or a piece of heavy furniture being dragged across a wooden floor (as one journalist described it while watching A-10s over Baghdad in 2003). The two Warthogs in al Hatra came in on their strafing run. They would have fired in two-second bursts, hitting the vehicles and checkpoint with at the very least 200 rounds, probably more. According to the report, four people got out of one of the vehicles just after the cannon was fired. The bullets hit the vehicles, which exploded in a ball of fire, incinerating everyone close by. “Post strike, both vehicles are on fire and it appears like there is one person still moving at the rear of the sedan,” the report said.

As in al Gharra and al Khan, the victims may well have been people who opposed the Islamic State. The women and children were killed as they were trying to leave territory held by the militant group, according to an email sent to the U.S. military by an Iraqi woman. (The email was sent to claim compensation for the destroyed vehicles.) Prompted by the email to investigate further, the U.S. military found its own evidence that non-combatants had been at the scene. Analysis of video from the Warthog’s camera in the “targeting pod” on the wing showed people getting out of the car and: “One of the persons observed … presents a signature smaller than the other persons. This was assessed as a possible child.” Officials determined this by measuring the height of the shadow when the image was blown up on a large screen.

The pilots could not have done such analysis in flight and the report says: “There is no evidence the aircrew had any opportunity to detect civilians prior to their strike.” The spokesman for U.S. Central Command, Col. Patrick Ryder, told reporters by video-link from Baghdad: “It’s safe to say … that if we knew there were civilians we would not have conducted a strike.” The report into al Hatra concludes, in its strangulated military language: “The NCV [Non-Combat Victims] = 0 objective was not met.”

U.S. forces, then, have orders to try not to kill civilians — it is a mission objective. But that is not the same as an absolute prohibition. And the National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, has said that bombing in Iraq and Syria would not be held to the same safeguards used in Afghanistan, which only allow strikes when there is “near certainty” of no civilian casualties.

While the standard for strikes may be rigorous — a goal of zero civilian casualties — a target can be ruled free of non-combatants based on little more than an educated guess by the pilots. The pilots’ methods are reminiscent of the CIA’s controversial “signature” strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those strikes are called in based not on certain intelligence but because targets have suspicious patterns of behavior, “signatures” of terrorists. Being present in a militant area could be enough.

This is exactly the kind of judgment the Warthog pilots used when targeting the two vehicles held at the Islamic State checkpoint. The report into al Hatra also said that one of the planes dropped a 500-pound bomb on a shack at the checkpoint. “Prior to weapon impact but after weapon release a single adult sized PAX (person) is seen slowly moving to the north,” the report said. “This person is knocked down by the weapon impact and not seen moving again.” Was that a fighter, or a farmer? It is impossible to say.
One other revealing finding of the report is that the people getting out of the car were glimpsed only after the pilot had fired. It would have taken three or four seconds for the cannon rounds to hit the checkpoint. Even if the pilot had realized in that time that they were civilians, he could not have done anything about it. This is the theme of several other U.S. government reports into civilian casualties published in January 2016. Here are three excerpts from a Pentagon press release (Italics added by GlobalPost):

On June 19, 2015, near Tall al Adwaniyah, Syria, during a strike against two ISIL vehicles, it is assessed that one civilian was injured when appearing in the target area after the U.S. aircraft released its weapon.

On June 29, 2015, near Haditha, Iraq, during strikes against one ISIL tactical unit and two ISIL vehicles, it is assessed that two civilians were injured. After the U.S. aircraft engaged the target and two seconds prior to impact, a car slowed in front of the ISIL vehicles while a motorcycle simultaneously passed by.

On July 4, 2015, near Ar Raqqah, Syria, during a strike against an ISIL High Value Individual, a car and a motorcycle entered the target area after the weapon was released. It is assessed that three unidentified civilians were likely killed.

In all these cases, the Pentagon’s reporting says that people wandered into the firing line after the pilot had squeezed the trigger. That is a consequence of fighting in built up areas.

Taking all the published investigations so far, the U.S. military acknowledges causing the sum total of 21 civilian deaths in the campaign against the Islamic State. Such a low number is wildly implausible. Airwars, an independent monitoring group that tracks allegations of civilians casualties, says that at least 862 and as many as 1,190 non-combatants have died in coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. The Airwars count is made by collating reports from several sources for each strike: human rights activists and the media, Facebook posts, and testimony from survivors and relatives of the dead. Each casualty report is judged credible based on the amount of detail and whether it is consistent with other evidence.

The head of Airwars, Chris Woods, says the “smart bombs” used by Western air forces have clearly reduced the risk to civilians on the battlefield. Nevertheless, he says that in Afghanistan, for example, more civilians died in airstrikes than were killed by foreign ground troops. Airpower was the single greatest cause of civilian death by international forces, killing one civilian for every 11 airstrikes. In Iraq and Syria, the ratio could be even worse, he says, because there are more attacks on “targets of opportunity” than those based on intelligence. And the campaign is being fought mainly in built-up areas where it is hard to distinguish the enemy.

“In the end, the generals who ran Afghanistan, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, managed to start getting civilian casualties down by admitting they were killing civilians,” he said. War fighters were only forced to change tactics when confronted with the effects of what they were doing. “Right now, we are in the denial phase with the coalition. They don’t admit to killing civilians and we think that’s wrong. … The military is starting to believe their own myth of absolute precision … this fantasy lulls Western audiences into feeling more comfortable with our countries being at war because we think we don’t kill civilians anymore. I’m afraid the reality is far from that.” He went on: “It is probably fair to say that the coalition is taking more care than we have ever seen in any air war in recent history, but that’s relative precision and civilians are still dying … hundreds of them.”

KFAR DERIAN

In September 2014, doctors at a hospital in the southern Turkish city of Iskenderun were presented with a mystery. An injured Syrian boy, four or five years old, was brought there in a coma. He had no identifying documents and no parents, or anyone else, claimed him. Doctors wrote a Turkish name on his chart and kept him in intensive care. They would learn later that the child came from a village called Kfar Derian, just over the border. He was a victim of the very first U.S. airstrikes in Syria. How the coalition responded to what happened in Kfar Derian at least partly reveals why official figures fail to show the true extent of civilian casualties.

U.S. airstrikes in Syria began in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 22, 2014. Two warships, one in the Red Sea and one in the Arabian Gulf, launched waves of cruise missiles, 47 in all. Some of them were aimed at Islamic State targets in Iraq; some at the Islamic State in Syria. But eight of those missiles were for the Khorasan group, which is part of Al Qaeda. One of them — it seems — hit the village of Kfar Derian. “The attack happened at night,” said Abu Mohammed, a 30-year-old from a neighboring village. He remembered seven or eight impacts spread across the mountainous terrain, coming 30 seconds apart, one after the other. “When the Syrian regime attacked, it was always in the day. The explosions were very big. When the people saw this they said the missiles came from the sea.”

Khorasan was unheard of until it was identified as a threat by the U.S. government. The U.S. said its members were experienced Al Qaeda operatives preparing bomb attacks on Western airlines. They were embedded with Al Qaeda’s Syrian ally, the Nusra Front (which is engaged in its own war with the Islamic State). The day after the attack, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that a missile hit a Nusra building, killing many fighters. But they said the explosion was so big that the blast wave also demolished a house 100 yards away — a Tomahawk cruise missile packs a 1,000 pound bomb and flies in at 550 mph. It can cause devastation over a wide area. The activists counted the bodies of 13 civilians in the house, including five women and five children. Abu Mohammed, speaking long after these events, put the number of dead much higher — “six families” — and denies there were armed men in the village: “The people were shepherds, nothing else.”

After the attacks he was asked by local people to go to Turkey to look for a mother and son whose bodies could not be found in the rubble. Three days later, he found the mother in a mortuary. After a week, he still couldn’t find the little boy. “We searched everywhere for him.” Then, having almost given up hope, he showed a picture of the boy at a hospital. Doctors recognized him.

The 5-year-old was not registered under his own name, Humam Darwish. “When I first saw him he was in intensive care, no movements, just breathing, inhaling and exhaling, nothing more. They told us they couldn’t do anything for him.”

Humam did not wake up for months. He is now an orphan — his mother, Fatima, and his father, Mohammed, are both gone — living in a children’s home, and very far from the alert, inquisitive little boy he used to be. Abu Mohammed calls him the sole survivor of a massacre. “Houses were bombed,” he said. “Families died. There were no survivors. The only one who lived was that child.” His testimony has differences with the activists’ account, most importantly his claim that no fighters were in the village. But both agree there were civilian casualties in Kfar Derian. The U.S. military says the eight missiles did not even succeed in wiping out Khorasan. The militants slipped away, tipped off by reconnaissance flights before the strike. Abu Mohammed said: “A day before, there was many scout planes over the area that was bombed.”

The Pentagon has never accepted that it killed civilians in the Khorasan strikes. Two days afterwards, the Pentagon press secretary, Admiral Kirby, was asked about civilian casualties in Kfar Derian. He replied: “We don’t have any credible operational reporting … that would sustain those allegations.” A year later, a declassified internal military document concluded, “no further inquiry required.” This was because: “A review of BDA (battle damage assessment) imagery did not credibly determine that civilians were present at the site. Open source images presented as casualties from the strikes actually came from previous GoS (government of Syria) strikes.”

The monitoring group Airwars say that coverage of Kfar Derian on one English language website did, wrongly, use a picture of a child killed in a regime bombing. But this is the only case they can find of such false reporting, while there were many other genuine images of the strike that Central Command could have used as the basis for an investigation. Woods, the head of Airwars, said such images were ignored for “pure propaganda” reasons — propaganda aimed at Americans, since Iraqis and Syrians already knew people were dying in coalition airstrikes. But Woods says it’s a mistake to think the information can be controlled, when anyone with a camera phone can post video of an airstrike online in minutes. “We know more about the civilian victims of this war, by all parties, than we’ve ever known in any conflict in history. That’s war today.”

He went on: “The Pentagon operates in this weird bubble where it pretends social media hasn’t been invented. It just ignores all these allegations of civilian casualties … If the coalition are not engaging in that territory (responding to claims of civilian casualties on social media), they are effectively ceding it to the Islamic State. The coalition needs to be more honest with Iraqis and Syrians.”

The conventional wisdom is that bombing must increase support for the Islamic State. The conventional wisdom may be wrong, although it is hard to be sure as there is no way to measure public opinion in the “Caliphate.” In the early days of the campaign in Syria, there were some anti-coalition demonstrations with placards declaring: “This is a war on all Sunnis.” But they may have been orchestrated, with people press-ganged to attend. There have been few, if any, large and spontaneous popular protests against the bombing. That maybe because the coalition has killed relatively few noncombatants in Syria compared to the Islamic State and the regime. In January 2015, a group of Syrian doctors said that indiscriminate air attacks by the regime caused 80% of civilian casualties, while the Islamic State caused 15%, and the coalition 5%.

But those who are directly affected by U.S. bombs are, as you would expect, bitter.

“You build in your countries and destroy in ours?” asked Abdul-Aziz al Hassan, who lost his father in the bombing at al Gharra. “Is this how you bring democracy? Stop it. Really, stop it. People are tired.” Abu Khalil, survivor of the devastating attack in al Khan, said he wanted compensation from the United States for the death of his mother. Abu Mohammed, who spoke to us about Kfar Derian simply condemned the United States as “Zionists,” echoing both jihadi and regime propaganda. He wanted nothing to do with America.

All of them sounded more weary than angry.

Posted in Middle East, USA, Iraq, Syria0 Comments

Shoah’s pages

www.shoah.org.uk

KEEP SHOAH UP AND RUNNING

July 2017
M T W T F S S
« Jun    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31