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Monday, 20 November 2017

Who bombed Atarib Market last week? The UK’s MoD most likely knows the answer.

At least sixty-five people, including women and children, were killed and up to 100 others were wounded when a busy market in the town of Atarib, Aleppo province, was hit by three consecutive airstrikes, firing a total of six high-explosive rockets, on Monday 13 November 2017.

Atareb is inside what is supposed to be a de-escalation zone agreed between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The town is known for successfully driving out ISIS in 2014, and resisting extremists ever since. Atareb market was in no way a legitimate military target.

One report by Syrian opposition news site Zaman Al Wasl claimed that a regime Su-24 bombed al-Atareb, that it flew from T4 airbase, and that the pilot was Zuhair Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of Squadron 19.

Yesterday Syrians for Truth and Justice published a report saying that two Russian jets were most likely responsible:
At 14:00 pm, on Monday 13 November 2013, two aircrafts likely to belong to the Russian Air Force took off from Hmeimim Military Base (Basil al-Assad Airport) located in Jablah city in Latakia province, passed the Latakia Mountains range and headed east, and then deviated northwards and crossed Jabal al-Zawiya area through the skies of Idlib city, after that, they returned to the east until they reached the southern countryside of Aleppo, and to the north until they reached Khan Tuman town, and then headed westward, until they became in the skies of the northwest countryside of Aleppo, heading south towards to Atarib. Mohammed Bakkor, the supervisor of Atarib Observatory, which monitors and controls the movement of warplanes in the city’s skies through special surveillance devices, confirmed this. The Observatory transports such information to the Civil Defense teams through radios and to civilians in order to shelter from aerial bombardments. Mohammed added:

‘When the two Russian aircrafts became inside the area of operation, one of them carried out the first raid on the popular market in the middle of Atarib at 14:08 pm. Immediately, the other Russian aircraft carried out the second raid on the market 14:12 pm, and then the first aircraft turned and returned to the city's skies to target the market in the third raid. After that, the two aircrafts returned to Hmeimim Military Base.’

Which is correct? Were the people of Atareb killed and maimed by the Syrian Air Force flying out of T4 or by the Russian Air Force flying out of Khmeimim?

Most likely members of the US-led Coalition, including the UK’s Ministry of Defence, know the answer. The Coalition tracks military aircraft across Syria, coordinating information at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Michael R Gordon described the command centre there, ‘offering a rare glimpse into how the military plans and orchestrates the complex ballet of strike, surveillance and refuelling aircraft,’ in a May 2017 report:
Today, the American-led command center at this heavily secured base oversees air operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other potential hot spots in the Middle East. The cavernous operations centre is crammed with liaison officers from countries in the American-led coalition, the American military services, intelligence experts and officers who plan and direct the missions.

The challenge in operating in Syria’s crowded airspace is clear from a glance at a large video screen inside the center that tracks aircraft across the region. Russian and Syrian planes are marked with yellow and orange icons; American and allied planes are delineated in green while civilian aircraft are blue.

In 2016, both Conservative and Labour MPs called for the UK to publish radar data on attacks against civilians. Ministers rejected these calls saying the information was ‘not appropriate to publish’ or ‘would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.’

These objections are nonsensical. The UK’s military publicly advertises its capacity to track military aircraft. The Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers use S1850M long range radar, able to track up to 1,000 air targets at a range of around 400 km. An RAF E-3D Sentry’s radar can scan distances of over 300 nautical miles. It can detect low-flying aircraft within 215 nmls (400 km).

The culture of reflexive military secrecy in the UK is standing in the way of accountability in Syria.

Since those Parliamentary questions were tabled, the US military has broken with its previous secrecy to publish tracking data showing the flight path of the Syrian jet responsible for the 4 April 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

It is time for the UK Government to put accountability first. Every day in Syria, ceasefires and de-escalation agreements are flouted, civilians are targeted, and no-one is held to account.
  • Publish the radar tracking data.
  • Name those responsible for war crimes.
  • Sanction the violators.

Read more about how to protect civilians here.

Chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta follows Russian double veto of UN-OPCW investigation

Photo via UK at the UN

On Saturday 18 November, a chemical attack targeted opposition fighters on the front lines in Harasta, Eastern Ghouta. Medical staff confirmed symptoms include vomiting, dyspnea, and pinpoint pupils, indicating a nerve agent was used.

The attack came the day after Russia’s second Security Council veto in 24 hours blocking an extension of the UN-OPCW joint investigation of chemical attacks in Syria.

Watch a video in English of a doctor with patients after the attack here.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) reported that ‘a SAMS facility in East Ghouta began receiving patients suffering from constricted pupils, coughing, vomiting, and bradypnea (abnormally slow breathing), all of which are symptoms indicative to exposure to chemical compounds. The victims reported that they were exposed to a substance following an artillery strike. Of the 61 individuals exposed to the substance, 15 required hospitalization, including 11 who were admitting to SAMS facilities.’

Besieged Eastern Ghouta is home to about 400,000 people, and is currently suffering an escalation in regime attacks which is being compared to the disastrous assault on Aleppo city last year.

The SAMS report continues: ‘The situation in East Ghouta continues to deteriorate. According to the local health directorate, between Tuesday, November 14 and Friday, November 17, 2017, airstrikes and artillery strikes resulted in 84 casualties, including 23 women and children, as well as 659 injuries. Many of these attacks took place in residential areas, where the victims were primarily civilians, and where hospitals and schools were among the affected infrastructure. In addition, there are more than 450 individuals in need of urgent medical evacuation, more than 72 % of children under the age of five are in need of nutrition support. Medical supplies to treat illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, hemophilia and many other chronic diseases have long since run out.’

Eastern Ghouta has been declared a de-escalation zone by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, and opposition armed groups inside Eastern Ghouta have signed ceasefire agreements negotiated with Russia, but the Assad regime, apparently with full Russian support, is increasing attacks against civilians while continuing to restrict aid.

Russia’s ceasefires and de-escalation promises have proved worthless.

Russia has shut off the UN route with its double veto.

The only way to stop Assad using chemical weapons is to ground Assad’s air force, silence Assad’s artillery, by deterrence and targeted retaliation against regime military assets.

The UK failed the people of Eastern Ghouta in 2013 when Parliament voted against any response to Assad’s chemical weapons massacre. Will the UK again fail the survivors of that massacre in 2017?

Friday, 17 November 2017

Assad’s air force just murdered three more White Helmets rescue volunteers

  • The UK can and should act to end Assad’s chemical, air, and artillery attacks against civilians.
  • The UK can and should deliver aid to besieged areas using airdrops.

Assad’s air force just murdered three more White Helmets rescue volunteers

Mohammed Alaya, Mohamed Haymour, and Ahmad Kaeika; three White Helmets rescue volunteers were deliberately killed today when Assad’s air force targeted Syria Civil Defence in Douma, a neighbourhood in the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

What’s happening in East Ghouta

Eastern Ghouta was one of the areas targeted by Assad’s August 2013 Sarin nerve agent attacks which killed between 1,200 and 1,700 people.

Since then, Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Assad regime.  Around 400,000 people have lived under air and artillery attacks, the blocking of food and medical aid, the blocking of medical evacuations, as well as an end to free movement and the blocking of all normal commercial traffic.

From late 2014, smuggling tunnels connected East Ghouta to opposition-held neighbourhoods Qaboun and Barzeh, but these areas fell to regime forces in early 2017. Today, bread in East Ghouta costs 11 times more than in nearby Damascus.

In October, shocking images of malnourished children emerged. Obeida, an infant, died on 21st October. Sahar, a girl 34 days old, died on 22nd October, due to an intestinal infection and related acute malnutrition. Three year old Mohammad Abd al-Salem died on 27th October.

UNICEF estimate more than 1,100 children are suffering from acute malnutrition.

Not only does the Assad regime block food and medicine from going in, it blocks the sick from getting out for treatment. Seven people died since August 2017 waiting for regime permission for medical evacuation, permission that never came.

Some UN aid convoys have been allowed in by the regime in the face of international outcry, but only a fraction of what is needed. One UN aid convoy on 30 October had food intended for 40,000, about a tenth of Eastern Ghouta’s population. The load of 8,000 food parcels lasted little over a week. A second one on 12 November reportedly carried an even smaller amount of food, 4,300 food baskets for 25,000 families.

Starvation doesn’t kill fast enough for Assad

Eastern Ghouta is supposed to be a de-escalation zone according to a deal between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Russia announced the signing of a ceasefire agreement with rebels in July, and publicised the deployment of Russian military police to checkpoints in Ghouta. But Assad kept on bombing.

On 31 October, up to eight children were killed and others were injured when two schools in Eastern Ghouta were shelled: the Nasser Ash’osh elementary school in Jisreen, and the Shahid Soheil at-Taklah School in Mesraba.

The attack came the day after the UN had delivered aid. Photographs showed UNICEF schoolbags with the dead children.

Every day for the past week air and artillery attacks have struck across Eastern Ghouta, killing adults and children. And every day White Helmets rescue volunteers have rushed to the scene of each attack to save as many lives as they can. Today three of them lost their own lives in that effort.

What can the UK do?

The UK has turned its back on Eastern Ghouta before.

After Assad’s 2013 chemical attack killed many hundreds of people in their homes in Eastern Ghouta, the government put a motion to Parliament deploring the attack, and proposing that military action ‘that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons’ might be necessary.

The 2013 motion committed to seeking a UN Security Council resolution in response to the attack, and committed to a further vote in Parliament before any UK military action could take place. But despite focus on saving lives, and despite the safeguard promising a further vote before any action, most Labour MPs along with many Conservative backbench MPs voted down the motion.

In 2017 Assad has carried on using chemical weapons. His forces used Sarin at least twice this year, and have reportedly used chlorine bombs many more times this year, including in Eastern Ghouta. And now Russia has vetoed the UN-OPCW joint investigation into chemical attacks, closing any UN route to stopping them.

The UK at several points held out the hope of airdrops of aid to besieged areas, but it has never followed through. Last year it promised airdrops if Assad didn’t allow full humanitarian access by 1st June. For a brief period, the threat of airdrops led to the regime allowing greater ground access. But when the UN wouldn’t make good on the UK’s airdrops promise, the UK failed to follow through with aid airdrops of its own.

As recently as February, the Secretary of State for International Development told the House of Commons that the Government was considering the possibility of using drones to deliver aid directly. But no action followed.

Civilians in Eastern Ghouta don’t want a drip-feed of aid, whether by ground or by air—they want an end to the siege. But that will only happen under sustained international pressure—and that means pressure of action not words.

By now, nobody believes the word of the UK on airdrops any more than they believe Assad on chemical weapons or believe Russia on ceasefire deals.

Today in Syria, only action speaks.

The UK can and should act to end Assad’s chemical, air, and artillery attacks against civilians: Deter attacks by means of retaliatory strikes against Assad regime military assets.

The UK can and should deliver aid to besieged areas using airdrops either by manned or unmanned systems, and threaten military retaliation against any party interfering with UK flights.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The BBC, the conspiracy theorist, and the Shadow Foreign Secretary

By Clara Connolly

Did Panorama fake an air attack on schoolchildren in Syria?

The BBC Panorama documentary ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ was first shown on 30th September 2013. Travelling with British doctors inside Syria, BBC Panorama’s journalists witnessed first-hand the effects of an August 2013 Assad regime incendiary attack on a school in Aleppo province.

Now Emily Thornberry, Shadow Foreign Secretary, has raised a complaint about the programme to the BBC on behalf of a constituent, one Robert Stuart.

Ever since it was first broadcast the BBC’s report has been under attack by supporters of the Assad regime, none more tenacious than the same Robert Stuart, who has been obsessing about this one programme for four years on a blog hyped by an RT programme in 2015 as a ‘massive public investigation which made some extremely disturbing findings.’

Speaking to an audience of 500 in central London on 19th October at an event held by Frome Stop War, an organisation noted for its pro Assad stance and not recognised by Stop the War Coalition, Robert Stuart baldly asserted that the 2013 air attack and its effects, as shown in the BBC programme, were fabricated. His presentation was introduced as a ‘master class in analysis.’

At a time of widespread cynicism about the mainstream media (some of it deserved) even the most preposterous conspiracy theory (as this is) can be amplified by dubious but effective sources—especially on social media—into something that becomes accepted as truth, simply because of its frequent repetition.

Syrian activists and humanitarians, especially when attempting to expose the crimes of Assad, have been among the main targets of this vicious war on the facts. Robert Stuart’s attack is not just on the BBC—it is also yet another heartless smear on humanitarians, this time on doctors doing an impossibly dangerous job in a conflict zone.

Friday, 27 October 2017

My Last Days in Aleppo: With Waad and Dr Hamza Al Kateab

The SOAS Syria Society is hosting a discussion with Waad Al-Khateab and Dr Hamza Al-Khateab this coming Thursday evening.

Waad al-Khateab is a multi-award winning film maker who is best-known for her series of ‘Inside Aleppo’ films for Channel 4 News.

Dr Hamza al-Khateab is a Syrian doctor who moved to Eastern Aleppo in 2011. He was the director of the biggest hospital in then-besieged Eastern Aleppo before its fall at the end of 2016.

They were in one of the last convoys to leave Eastern Aleppo in December 2016.

Waad and Hamza will be discussing their experience of siege, and comparing it to the current situation in eastern Ghouta where once again we see child deaths due to an enforced starvation siege by the Assad regime.

Event details:

My Last Days in Aleppo: With Waad and Dr Hamza Al Kateab
Thursday 2nd November, 7.30 to 9 pm.
Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre (BGLT), SOAS University of London, 10 Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG.

Facebook event page.

Watch Waad’s films on Channel 4’s Inside Aleppo website.