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.

Iran-led Iraqi Shi'ite militia in battle for Damascus

Fierce clashes broke out in Damascus this week after rebel fighters infiltrated the city through tunnels, breaching the regime's security perimeter. The surprise offensive marked a rare advance after months of steady losses for rebel forces across Syria. The Iraqi Shi'ite militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba announced that it has joined pro-regime forces in the defense of Jobar and Abbasin districts, the outlying areas that came under attack. The militia is said to be effectively led by officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, against ponting  to Tehran's critical role in support of the Bashar Assad regime.

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)

Pentagon behind Syria mosque massacre: reports

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)

Federal judges again block Trump travel ban

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.

Children's suffering in Syria at its worst: UNICEF

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.

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