Saturday, 3 February 2018

U.S. says Syria may be developing new types of chemical weapons

Opposition forces receive medical treatment after the Assad regime allegedly carried out a chemical gas attack in the de-conflict zone in Damascus, Syria on 20 July 2017 [Alaa Muhammed/Anadolu Agency)

 'The Syrian government may be developing new types of chemical weapons, and U.S. President Donald Trump is prepared to consider further military action if necessary to deter chemical attacks, senior U.S. officials said on Thursday.

 President Bashar al-Assad is believed to have secretly kept part of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile despite a U.S.-Russian deal under which Damascus was supposed to have handed over all such weapons for destruction in 2014, the officials said.

 Assad’s forces have instead “evolved” their chemical weapons and made continued occasional use of them in smaller amounts since a deadly attack last April that drew a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base, the officials told reporters in a briefing.

 Characteristics of some of those recent attacks suggest that Syria may be developing new weapons and methods for delivering poison chemicals, possibly to make it harder to trace their origin, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity, but they declined to provide specifics.

 A deadly sarin attack on a rebel-held area in April prompted Trump to order a missile strike last year on the Shayrat air base, from which the Syrian operation is said to have been launched.

 “We reserve the right to use military force to prevent or deter the use of chemical weapons,” one official said, while declining to specify how serious a chemical attack would have to be to draw a fresh U.S. military response.

 A second official said, however, that the Trump administration hopes that stepped-up international sanctions and diplomatic pressure will help rein in Assad’s chemical weapons program.

 If the international community does not act quickly to tighten the screws on Assad, Syria’s chemical weapons could spread beyond its borders and possibly even “to U.S. shores,” the second official said.

 “It will spread if we don’t do something,” the official warned.

 The officials echoed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent accusation that Russia, Assad’s ally in Syria’s multi-sided civil war, bears some responsibility for failing to enforce the chemical weapons ban.

 Russia has denied any complicity, and the Syrian government has said it has not carried out any of the attacks.

 The U.S. officials suggested that if left unchecked there would be more smaller chemical attacks as an “instrument of terror” to compensate for Assad’s lack of adequate manpower to retake some opposition-held areas.

 “They think they can get away with it if they keep it under a certain level,” an official said.

 Western officials have cast suspicion on the Syrian government for a chlorine gas attack on a rebel-held enclave east of Damascus last week that sickened at least 13 people.

 State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Thursday the United States was “extremely concerned” about reports that Syrian forces had carried out another chlorine gas attack this week in the eastern Ghouta area.'

'We need to rebuild the families,' say relatives of Syria's disappeared

 'He'd told her the screaming and the torture goes on all night. Their tiny cell, strategically placed next to the torture chamber so they can hear what’s going on inside, is crammed with 150 naked people. In the morning -- after breakfast of a small piece of bread and five olives -- the detainees’ first job is to remove the bodies of those killed during the night. There are usually about 35 victims. Sometimes there are as many as 50. They put the bodies into sacks and load them onto trucks. Then they wash the torture chamber’s floor of the victims’ blood. This is the morning ritual at the military intelligence detention centre, branch 227, in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

 As she describes the detention centre where she believes her husband, Nasser, a civil activist, is being held, Farizah Jahjah, 50, takes a huge breath and her eyes fill with tears. She's been perfectly composed until now. Neatly dressed in a black knee-length dress and red scarf with glasses perched on her dark hair, she talks passionately yet calmly about the issue of detainees in Syria.

 It’s been nearly four years since she’s had news from her husband. She has no idea if he’s dead or alive. She’s heard rumours but nothing concrete, nothing from an official source. She’s only heard an account of his time in prison from a man who was with him when he was first detained and subsequently released.

 Farizah’s husband is one of thousands of Syrians being held in secret detention centres and prisons throughout the country. A year ago, she and four other Syrian women founded Families for Freedom, an NGO that aims to give a voice to the families of detainees and highlight their plight.

 Ultimately, they’re asking for the immediate release of all those unlawfully detained. But in the meantime, they’re urging the Syrian government to release a list of names of all those in custody -- along with their location and status -- and allow international aid groups access to detention facilities.

 It’s impossible to give a precise figure of the number of detainees in Syria because no international observers have been given access to detention centres. Estimates of those behind bars vary wildly -- from 200,000 to as many as 300,000. As of January 2018, the Syrian Network for Human Rights says at least 215,000 people are believed to be in the custody of authorities, including women and children.

 Some have been detained for peaceful opposition, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for the “crime” of delivering milk.

 Hala al Ghawi, 39, a doctor and another of the group’s founders, says that every family in her neighbourhood is missing someone. Farizah rattles off lists of friends who are missing family members -- cousins, grandparents, siblings and children. Sometimes, whole families have been disappeared or detained.

 Forced disappearance and arbitrary detention have long been a weapon of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government but there has been a sharp escalation since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. Although detention and torture are practised by all sides in the conflict, Assad’s government is believed to be behind the vast majority of arrests.

 Some of the detainees are civil activists, like Farizah’s husband; others are doctors, like Hala’s husband, who was arrested in 2011.

“He wasn’t involved in any political activity,” she says. “He is a doctor. He made it his duty to help people.”

 Dr. al Ghawi was arrested after a man rang his clinic to make an appointment for his wife, saying she was suffering from stomach problems. When the man arrived and found Dr. al Ghawi in his practice, he said he’d return with his wife – but instead, security forces swooped in and took the doctor away. He was lucky enough to be released after 70 days.

 He was freed, Hala believes, so that he would warn people outside of the horrible conditions inside prison. Seven years later, he suffers from depression, PTSD and still has flashbacks from his time inside. “He dreams that they are coming to capture him,” she says.

 Then in 2013 her father-in-law, 70, was arrested at the market when he was buying vegetables. And 20 days later they took her brother, now 33, from his metal workshop in the west-central city of Hama.

 Despite begging for information and going to every prison she could, she has no news of either of them.

 “It’s chaos in some places,” said Mohammed Ghannam, 38, who spent 14 months in prison in Homs and now lives in Paris. “There are people who are thrown in prison and they completely forget about them. There are no papers for their arrest.”

 The prisons are overflowing and some people are being held in underground shopping malls that have been turned into secret detention centres. Ghannam was briefly detained and interrogated in a cultural centre in the northwestern city of Idlib.

 Assad has refused to bow to demands for international observers to visit the prisons. On the rare occasion that he does, as he did in Homs in 2011, the Assad regime manages to find a way to hoodwink the international community.

 “They always find a way to trick the system”, said Ghannam. “I was there. They moved us from the [detention] centre. Those observers saw an empty bombed out building.”

 Before the 2011 popular uprising, many Syrians were too afraid to speak out for fear of retribution. “My parents told me the walls have ears,” said Hala, who grew up in the city of Hama, scene of the 1982 massacre, where an estimated 20,000 people were killed on the orders of Hafez al-Assad -- the current president’s father.

 But the revolution -- and the disappearance of their loved ones -- gave them courage. Although both Hala and Farizah now live outside of Syria, they still have family at home. Hala, who lives in Turkey, says she is very careful and cautious about what she says. She wants to stress that Families for Freedom is asking for the release of detainees as a humanitarian gesture. They don’t want Assad to use the detainees as a negotiating tool.

 Before her husband’s arrest in 2014, Farizah herself had been threatened with detention. She fled Syria with their two children, eventually making a new home in France. But her husband had refused to leave on the principle “that if all of us are seeking freedom and a better future -- some of us have to stay”. Farizah was initially too afraid to speak out about her husband’s arrest. After years of silence she felt it was her only option. She won’t even talk about her family in Syria for fear of reprisals against them.

 Hala shrugs when she explains why her parents refuse to leave the country. They’re waiting for her brother, she says, “that maybe one day he will knock the door and come”.

 Part of the success of Families for Freedom, they say, lies not just in the comfort that it’s brought to detainees’ families -- who now share photos of their relatives and talk more openly about the issue -- but that it’s also helped raised awareness of the horrific conditions in Syria's prisons and detention centres.

 “You beg them to kill you after they hang you for hours,” says Ghannam who was imprisoned on terrorism charges after delivering food and medical supplies to the besieged city of Homs in 2011.

 After a three-month interrogation where he was raped with a plastic stick, doused in diesel and threatened with a lighter, left in a room with four dead bodies for three days and three nights and slung upside down like a dead cat, he “sang like a canary”.

 “They broke me,” he said, after a brutal night of interrogation in the notorious “heaven room” of the Palestine branch of Damascus’s detention centre.

 “I really felt I wanted to work with the government, that I was completely wrong, and that the revolution was a conspiracy.”

 Ghannam was transferred to Homs central prison and was lucky enough to be released on parole after his friends “hired at least eight lawyers and paid a lot of money”. He fled to Lebanon three days later and was sentenced to eight years in absentia.

 “I’m not scared from bombing like I’m scared to be detained,” says Hala. “It’s very horrible.”

 Negotiations to release the detainees have so far failed. Their plight has been repeatedly sidelined at UN talks in Geneva, Sochi and Astana.

 Part of the problem lies in the Assad government’s “reluctance” to address the problem, said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.

 The release of detainees is “crucial for any forward-looking solution” to the Syrian conflict, Kayyali added, “especially as talks of the conflict winding down and people returning are advanced”.

 Hala believes in the West’s power to pressure Assad if there is the political will to do so.

 Both women are disappointed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s position on Assad. Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, had called for Assad’s exit, describing him as a “butcher” of his own people and insisting that “he cannot be part of the solution”.

 But Macron says Assad’s departure is no longer a prerequisite, adding that Paris’s priority is fighting terrorism and ensuring Syria does not become a failed state. He has also questioned the Syrian opposition’s credibility.

 "If the Assad regime were gone, ISIS would go,” says Hala. “They depend on each other to survive,” referring to Assad’s 2011 release of militant Islamists from Saydnaya prison, some of whom went on to play leading roles within the Islamic State group, Al Nusra Front and other extremist groups.

 Ghannam is not optimistic about the detainees’ fate. “There’s no oil behind them, there is no f***** piece of land. What benefits can France get? Maybe reconstruction deals?”

 “They’re talking about rebuilding the country -- the buildings -- but they need to rebuild the families,” says Hala. “If I know that a person is related to the regime and he tortured my brother til death I cannot forgive him.”

Some Syrian Refugees Are Going Back to War Alongside Turkey

 'Turkey is relying on a newly reconfigured, 20,000-member force with three army corps as it tries to carve out a buffer zone within Syria. The force has already taken 16 casualties in two weeks of fighting on the front lines.

 But the soldiers are not Turks. Rather they are the mostly Arab fighters of the Free Syrian Army.

 The Free Syrian Army, out of favor with the United States and badly depleted after seven years of fighting on multiple fronts, has long had common cause with Turkey, whose incursion has angered the Americans.

 On the other side are Kurdish groups, under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are the United States’ favored fighting tool on the ground but who are disliked by local Syrians for driving them from their homes and seen by Turkey as a security threat.

 Last week, in a cafe in Kilis, a small Turkish city a few miles from the Syrian border, Lt. Col. Mohammed Hammadin was back for a few hours after leading an assault against Kurdish positions on a mountain south of the border. He is a former Syrian Army officer and a commander of the Levant Front, the largest faction of the Free Syrian Army.

 Colonel Hammadin, 40, watched as a Free Syrian Army journalist shared video footage showing the colonel, still panting from his exertions, his hand on the shoulder of a captured Kurdish fighter.

 He explained that his Syrian force shared aims with Turkey, first in wanting to see Mr. Assad go, but also in its dislike for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which has waged a separatist insurgency for three decades against Turkey.

 Like most members of the Syrian opposition in Turkey, the colonel described all the various Kurdish militant groups, no matter which side of the border they were on, as part of the same P.K.K. organization.

 “Turkey has a right to attack the P.K.K. for its own national security,” he said. “It has the right to clear the area because the P.K.K. can attack its cities from the border.”

 While he and his forces want Mr. Assad gone, they also want a united Syria. The Kurds, whose population straddles Turkey, Syria and Iraq, have long wanted to carve out their own nation.

 “The most important reason to fight them is that they are separatists,” he said. “They want their own cantons on the northern border.”

 The Kurdish militias had frequently sided with the Syrian government against the Free Syrian Army in the war, he said, helping enforce the siege of Aleppo, displacing Arab communities from their villages, and oppressing their own Kurdish people.

 “They committed many violations,” he said. “They were very pragmatic to gain their own ends — an independent state.”

 Syrians forced to flee to Turkey are bitter at the Kurdish militants. As such, the Free Syrian Army has embraced the Turkish fight against the Kurdish militants with gusto.

 Free Syrian Army soldiers posted video on social media showing themselves heading to the border to join the Turkish operation. Syrian volunteers have flocked to a recruitment center in the town of Urfa to sign up.

 “People are volunteering,” Colonel Hammadin said. “It’s good they want to apply, but our numbers are enough.”

 Hunched over a coffee table in another part of Kilis, two Syrian brothers, Murshid and Bashar Sheikh Naif, explained why their family supported Turkey’s latest operation.

 They had joined the uprising against the Assad government from the start in 2011. Murshid, 32, a former policeman, was imprisoned by the government for 18 months. He was released when the Free Syrian Army exchanged captured government soldiers for him.

 Of eight brothers in the Naif family, five have joined the Free Syrian Army over the years. They have fought multiple enemies — first Syrian government troops, then Russian and Iranian forces, then extremists of the Islamic State, and now American-backed Kurdish militias, whom they blame for forcing them from their home.

 Two brothers were killed, one fighting against the government and one against the Islamic State. Bashar, 22, was wounded fighting the Islamic State in an earlier operation alongside the Turkish Army. Two more brothers have joined the latest operation against the Kurdish militias in the enclave of Afrin, they said.

 “We were neighbors,” the elder Mr. Naif said of the Kurdish fighters. “There were no problems until the S.D.F. became an enemy and pushed us out of our villages.”

 The family fled to Turkey as the Kurdish militia seized their hometown, Tal Rifaat, and surrounding villages in 2016, he said.

 He played a video on his cellphone showing the exodus of refugees — some 200,000 Arabs were displaced from a string of 15 villages and towns north of Aleppo — and their shelters in mud-soaked camps.

 Their father died soon after, distraught at the loss of their home, Mr. Naif said. Their mother was dying of cancer, his younger brother added.

 “So we have a common cause,” Mr. Naif said. “There is a common interest in fighting against the P.K.K. with Turkey. Turkey is our personal ally and they helped the people a lot.”

 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey gave the Free Syrian Army a strong endorsement in a speech on Tuesday, comparing them to Turkey’s National Forces, which fought for independence in the early 20th century.

 “The Free Syrian Army is a civil formation, organized by people who gathered to protect their own country,” he said, addressing legislators from his Justice and Development Party. “We are happy to be side by side with our Syrian brothers in their freedom struggle.”

 Nationalist support for the military campaign is running high in Turkey and dissent largely stifled. About 300 people, including members of the Turkish Medical Association, have been detained for expressing criticism of the operation on social media.

 Some Syrian refugees in Turkey are confused as to what to think about Ankara’s decision to send tanks and planes into Syria.

 Political and humanitarian activists voice fears that the operation will cause Syrians yet more civilian suffering, or stir strife between Kurdish and Arab communities in Syria.

 Some warn that Syrian fighters are being used by foreign powers.

 “Afrin is not our battle,” said an opposition activist, Yusuf Mousa. “As Syrians, we respect that Turkey is an ally of the Syrian revolution, but they are trying to make actions for their benefit.”

 Yet while Turkey’s operation in Afrin has been cast as a narrow fight against Kurdish separatists, seizing the territory would boost the standing of the Free Syrian Army.

 The group has steadily lost ground as an opposition force as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the United States regards as its most effective partner in the fight against the Islamic State, have gained prominence.

 With Turkey’s help, the Free Syrian Army wants to seize the northern countryside around Tal Rifaat and open a corridor to the northwestern province of Idlib, to rescue more than a million trapped civilians and fighters.

 Mr. Erdogan has vowed to take control of a 20-mile zone along the length of Turkey’s border with Syria, and has called on United States forces to pull back from the Syrian town of Manbij.

 Colonel Hammadin did not say how far his soldiers would go, but he ruled out any confrontation with American troops. He said he hoped for the United States’ support against Mr. Assad.

 “America has the ability to do anything,” he said. “We look forward to them making the Assad regime leave.” '

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Tests link Syrian government stockpile to largest sarin attack

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 'The Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile has been linked for the first time by laboratory tests to the largest sarin nerve agent attack of the civil war, supporting claims that government forces under President Bashar al-Assad were behind the atrocity.

 Laboratories working for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons compared samples taken by a U.N. mission in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta after the Aug. 21, 2013 attack, when hundreds of civilians died of sarin gas poisoning, to chemicals handed over by Damascus for destruction in 2014.

 The tests found “markers” in samples taken at Ghouta and at the sites of two other nerve agent attacks, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, two people involved in the process said.

 “We compared Khan Sheikhoun, Khan al-Assal, Ghouta,” said one source who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the findings. “There were signatures in all three of them that matched.”

 The same test results were the basis for a report by the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism in October which said the Syrian government was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed dozens.

 The findings on Ghouta, whose details were confirmed by two separate diplomatic sources, were not released in the October report to the U.N. Security Council because they were not part of the team’s mandate.

 They will nonetheless bolster claims that Assad’s government still possesses and uses banned munitions in violation of several Security Council resolutions and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

 The OPCW declined to comment. Syria has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the conflict now in its seventh year and has blamed the chemical attacks in the rebel-held territory of Ghouta on the insurgents themselves.

 Russia has also denied that Syrian government forces have carried out chemical attacks and has questioned the reliability of the OCPW inquiries. Officials in Moscow have said the rebels staged the attacks to discredit the Assad government and whip up international condemnation.

 Under a U.S.-Russian deal after the Ghouta attack in 2013, Damascus joined the OPCW and agreed to permanently eliminate its chemical weapons program, including destroying a 1,300-tonne stockpile of industrial precursors that has now been linked to the Ghouta attack.

 But inspectors have found proof of an ongoing chemical weapons program in Syria, including the systematic use of chlorine barrel bombs and sarin, which they say was ordered at the highest levels of government.

 The sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April last year prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order a missile strike against the Shayrat air base, from which the Syrian operation is said to have been launched.

 Diplomatic and scientific sources said efforts by Syria and Russia to discredit the U.N.-OPCW tests establishing a connection to Ghouta have so far come up with nothing.

 Russia’s blocking of resolutions at the Security Council seeking accountability for war crimes in Syria gained new relevance when Russia stationed its aircraft at Shayrat in 2015.

 Washington fired missiles at Shayrat in April 2017, saying the Syrian air force used it to stage the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack on April 4 a few days earlier, killing more than 80 people.

 No Russian military assets are believed to have been hit, but Moscow warned at the time it could have serious consequences.

 In June, the Pentagon said it had seen what appeared to be preparations for another chemical attack at the same airfield, prompting Russia to say it would respond proportionately if Washington took pre-emptive measures against Syrian forces there.

 The chemical tests were carried out at the request of the U.N.-OPCW inquiry, which was searching for potential links between the stockpile and samples from Khan Sheikhoun. The analysis results raised the possibility that they would provide a link to other sarin attacks, the source said.

 Two compounds in the Ghouta sample matched those also found in Khan Sheikhoun, one formed from sarin and the stabilizer hexamine and another specific fluorophosphate that appears during sarin production, the tests showed.

 “Like in all science, it should be repeated a couple of times, but it was serious matching and serious laboratory work,” the source said.

 Independent experts, however, said the findings are the strongest scientific evidence to date that the Syrian government was behind Ghouta, the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the Halabja massacres of 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war.

 “A match of samples from the 2013 Ghouta attacks to tests of chemicals in the Syrian stockpile is the equivalent of DNA evidence: definitive proof,” said Amy Smithson, a U.S. nonproliferation expert.

 The hexamine finding “is a particularly significant match,” Smithson said, because it is a chemical identified as a unique hallmark of the Syrian military’s process to make sarin.

 “This match adds to the mountain of physical evidence that points conclusively, without a shadow of doubt, to the Syrian government,” she said.

 Smithson and other sources familiar with the matter said it would have been virtually impossible for the rebels to carry out a coordinated, large-scale strike with poisonous munitions, even if they had been able to steal the chemicals from the government’s stockpile.

 “I don’t think there is a cat in hell’s chance that rebels or Islamic State were responsible for the Aug. 21 Ghouta attack,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons.

 The U.N.-OPCW inquiry, which was disbanded in November after being blocked by Syria’s ally Russia at the U.N. Security Council, also found that Islamic State had used the less toxic blistering agent sulfur mustard gas on a small scale in Syria.

 The Ghouta attack, by comparison, was textbook chemical warfare, Smithson and de Bretton-Gordon said, perfectly executed by forces trained to handle sarin, a toxin which is more difficult to use because it must be mixed just before delivery.

 Surface-to-surface rockets delivered hundreds of litres of sarin in perfect weather conditions that made them as lethal as possible: low temperatures and wind in the early hours of the morning, when the gas would remain concentrated and kill sleeping victims, many of them children.

 Pre-attack air raids with conventional bombs shattered windows and doors and drove people into shelters where the heavy poison seeped down into underground hiding places. Aerial bombing afterwards sought to destroy the evidence.

 The large quantity of chemicals used, along with radar images of rocket traces showing they originated from Syrian Brigade positions, are further proof that the rebels could not have carried out the Ghouta attack, the experts said.'

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