This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)
We aren't sure whether to be more alarmed or amused. Kyle Orton, an analyst with the ultra-hawkish Henry Jackson Society, has a piece entitled "The West's Inconsistent Approach to Foreign Fighters in Syria," warning that the Kurdish forces the US is backing are in an alliance with anarchists and elements of the Turkish and European armed left. It is bascally regurgitating Turkey's cynical propaganda game of conflating the secular-democratic Kurdish forces and ISIS as equally "terrorist." It portrays the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) as merely an extension of the PKK guerilla movement in Turkey, and waxes paranoid about the leftist volunteers that have come to the Rojava region join them, now apparently organized in an umbrella called the International Revolutionary People's Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF, with its own Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and manifesto on the anarchist website CrimethInc).
US-led air-strikes killed 20 civilians at the ISIS-held town of Albu Kamal, in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor governorate, local media activists reported April 17. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 13 civilians, including five children, were killed in the strike, as well as three ISIS militants. Earlier that day, a US-led strike killed seven civilians, including a child, in the nearby village of Husseinyeh, the monitor said. (Middle East Online) US-led air-strikes in northern Syria and Iraq over the past weeks have killed perhaps upwards of 600 civilians.
"More Than 7,000 People Evacuated From 4 Besieged Syrian Towns." That's the somewhat misleading headline in the New York Times of April 14. Reads the lede: "After nearly two years of punishing siege and bombardment by their enemies, more than 7,000 people were bused out of four towns in Syria on Friday in the most recent population transfer during six years of war." Note the euphemistic language. This isn't "evacuation," which implies it is voluntary and in response to some objective disaster. This is "sectarian cleansing," part of an intentional Assad regime strategy to purge its growing areas of control of Sunnis, all of whom are apparently deemed official enemies. "Population transfer," as it is dubbed in the lede, is another euphemistic term, one all too familiar to those who have followed the growing consensus for territorial purging of perceived ethno-sectarian enemies in Israel.
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.
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). (CNN, CNN, Jurist, BBC News, NYT, NPR)
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.
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.