Greater Middle East

Spain: court begins hearings on Syria war crimes

Hearings began in Spain on April 10 regarding potential war crimes committed by President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. The case is a result of a Spanish national's brother being abducted and tortured in Damascus before being executed in 2013. The family claims that the brother was not part of an opposition group and just a truck driver making a delivery. The family was able to identify the body after a forensic photographer smuggled the photos out of Syria. The photographer may testify in the case next month. The investigation involved nine of Assad's closest aides but not Assad himself due to his immunity. Spain is the first to hold a criminal investigation of potential war crimes into Syria, as Russia has blocked referral of the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court.

Egypt: state of emergency after ISIS attack on Copts

Egyptian authorities have declared a three-month state of emergency after twin ISIS bombings killed 43 at two Coptic churches in the Nile Delta cities of in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday. Dozens more were injured in the attacks, which came as the churches were filled with worshippers. The first suicide blast, at Mar Girgis (St George) Church in Tanta, killed 27. Hours later, a second blast struck outside Saint Mark's church in Alexandria, where Coptic Pope Tawadros II was leading a service, killing a further 16. ISIS warned of more attacks in its statement. "The Crusaders and their apostate followers must be aware that the bill between us and them is very large, and they will be paying it like a river of blood from their sons, if God is willing," the group said in Arabic.

Syria: gas attacks, air-strikes and hypocrisy

An apparent chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun, Idlib governorate, left at least 80 dead April 4. After a bombing of the town, medics reported a "bloodless massacre," saying that they were treating people with symptoms including fainting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth. The hospital where gas-attack victims were being treated was itself bombed in the immediate aftermath, "bringing down rubble on top of medics as they worked," according to AFP. The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib has provided a list of the names of some 70 dead, with more still being identified. Some of the victims were brought across the border to Turkey for treatment, where several died. Turkish authorities say autopsies revealed evidence of exposure to sarin. The UN Security Council immediately called emergency talks on the attack. On April 4, US warships in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air-base outside Homs, from where the Khan Shaykhun attack is said to have been launched. This constituted the first US attack on an Assad regime target throughout the course of the war (not counting last year's accident, immediately apologized for). (CNNCNN, Jurist, BBC News, NYT, NPR)

Spanish court to investigate Syrian state terrorism

Spain's top court on March 27 agreed to investigate claims by a Spanish woman who alleges her brother was tortured and murdered by Bashar al-Assad's security forces. According to the woman, who is identified only as AH for security reasons, her brother was executed in 2013 at a detention facility in Damascus. Spanish High Court Judge Eloy Velasco has asked Syrian authorities to appoint legal representation in Spain for the nine security officers implicated in the torture and murder of the litigtant's brother. The case is the first criminal complaint accepted against President al-Assad's security forces by a European court. The lawyers for AH contend that Spanish courts have jurisdiction over the complaint due to the woman's status as a Spanish citizen. Velasco determined that the complaint has standing in Spain's courts under international norms that consider family members of those who have "disappeared" as a result of international crimes to be equally considered victims of those crimes.

Regime chemical attack on Syrian hospital: report

A suspected chlorine gas attack on an underground hospital in the rebel-held north of Syria's Hama governorate killed three people and injured dozens on March 25, as Assad regime forces attempt to drive back a rebel offensive in the area, local medical personnel told independent news website Syria Direct. A helicopter dropped a large yellow canister through the concrete roof of the Latamna Surgical Hospital, according to hospital personnel. Chlorine gas was then released, according to the account, spreading throughout the the underground facility. Trapped in the poorly ventilated facility, 35 people were injured—14 of them medical personnel—and three were reportedly killed, including a surgeon. "One of the victims smelled as if he just came out of a swimming pool," said Bilal Abdul Kareem of On the Ground News, reporting from the scene in the aftermath of the attack.

Middle East may become uninhabitable: FAO

New evidence is deepening fears in the scientific community that the Middle East and North Africa risk becoming uninhabitable in a few decades, as accessible fresh water has fallen by two-thirds over the past 40 years. Already, per capita availability of fresh water in the region—encompassing 22 countries and home to nearly 400 million inhabitants—is 10 times lower than the world average. The region's fresh water resources are among the lowest in the world, and are expected to fall over 50% by 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). By century's end, higher temperatures may shorten growing seasons in the region by 18 days and reduce agricultural yields by up to 55%. "Looming water scarcity in the North Africa and Middle East region is a huge challenge requiring an urgent and massive response," said FAO director general Graziano da Silva on his recent visit to Cairo.

Syria: carnage and betrayal in Raqqa endgame

At least 33 people were killed in an air-strike on a school sheltering displaced residents outside the ISIS-held city of Raqqa, in northern Syria, according to monitoring activists on the ground. The behind-lines anti-ISIS monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which has heroically reported on realities under Islamic State rule in the city, said the school at the village of al-Mansoura was sheltering some 50 families when it was levelled by air-strikes earlier this week. The raid is believed to have been carried out by US warplanes. "The massacres committed by [the] US-led coalition in Raqqa is unacceptable," the group said in a statement. "The international community must intervene to stop this." (The Independent)

Russia to establish base in Syrian Kurdistan

The Kurdish YPG militia announced March 20 that it has agreed to the establishment of a Russian military base in Afrin canton in northwestern Syria. The YPG said Moscow will help train its fighters at the base. The Russian Defense Ministry denied plans for new military bases in Syria, but acknowledged that it has established a "reconciliation center" near the town of Afrin, in Aleppo governorate, officially tasked with negotiating pacts between anti-ISIS forces. However, YPG representative Redur Xelil said Russian troops are already arriving, with personnel carriers and armored vehicles. (EA Worldview, Haaretz)

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