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.
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 heroiically 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)
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)
The US military is denying reports that it bombed a mosque in northwestern Syria during evening prayers March 16, killing at least 50. There is even controversy over whether the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque in al-Jinah (Jeena) village, Aleppo governorate, is still standing. The Pentagon admits to a an air-strike that supposedly killed several al-Qaeda militants in the village, which is held by Islamist factions including Ahrar al-Sham. The Pentagon released a statement saying the strike was "across the street from a mosque," with footage (supposedly taken minutes after the strike) showing that a mosque next to a destroyed building remained standing. (Al Jazeera, BBC News, Reuters) But Bilal Abdul Kareem, a US national who operates On the Ground News from northern Syria, recorded his own video from the purported bombing site. Kareem shows what he calls part of the "mosque compound" in ruins, and claims the mosque was operated by Jamaat Tablighi, a proselytization group that has hosted prayers there every Thursday for the past four years. (LWJ)
Two federal judges—one in Maryland on March 16 and another in Hawaii the day before—issued temporary restraining orders (PDF, PDF) against President Donald Trump's new 90-day travel ban. Finding that the state had established a strong likelihood of success on the merits, Hawaii District Judge Derrick Watson issued an opinion permitting continued travel from six predominantly Muslim countries listed on Trump's order. Trump responded to the order, calling it "the bad, sad news," and "an unprecedented judicial overreach." The new order, which dropped Iraq from the banned countries list, would have barred entry for nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, and completely banned entry of refugees for 120 days.
Grave violations against children in Syria were the highest on record in 2016, said UNICEF in a grim assessment of the conflict's impact on children, as the war reaches six years. Verified instances of killing, maiming and recruitment of children increased sharply last year in a drastic escalation of violence across the country. At least 652 children were killed—a 20% increase from 2015—making 2016 the worst year for Syria’s children since the formal verification of child casualties began in 2014. A total of 255 children were killed in or near a school. More than 850 children were recruited to fight in the conflict, more than double the number recruited in 2015. Children are being used to fight directly on the frontlines and are increasingly taking part in combat roles, including as executioners, suicide bombers or prison guards. There were at least 338 attacks against hospitals and medical personnel.
A new Qaeda affiliate in Syria has claimed responsibility for a March 11 double bomb attack targeting Shi'ite pilgrims in Damascus that killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more. Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two buses with their windows blown out, the surroundings splattered with blood and littered with lost shoes and clothing. The attack took place near Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named for one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus. The pilgrims had arrived to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine outside Damascus, where the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization) said the attack was "a message to Iran" over its support for the Bashar Assad regime. The group is identified as a breakaway faction of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front) that has maintained ties with al-Qaeda. (BBC News, Reuters)
The Pentagon is dispatching some 2,500 ground combat troops to a staging base in Kuwait, from where they are expected to be mobilized to back up forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The deployment includes elements of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Bragg, NC. About 1,700 troops from the same unit are already overseas, spread between Iraq and Kuwait. (Army Times, March 9) The US currently has only some 500 troops authorized to operate in Syria, predominantly Special Forces, and it is unclear if this new deployment breaches that threshold. However, the US Special Forces in Syria are increasingly tasked with keeping peace between Kurdish and Turkish forces rather than actually fighting ISIS. Special Forces are currently deployed at Manbij in what the Pentagon calls a mission to "reassure and deter"—interpreted as providing a buffer between Kurdish-led and Turkish-led forces, to prevent open conflict between them. (Military Times, March 6)