Syrian government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters on March 16 took the town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border, which was held by rebels inlcuding the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Hours later, in apparent retaliation, the Shi'ite town of Nabi Othman in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley was struck by a suicide bombing that left four dead. (LAT, Reuters, March 17) Meanwhile, in comments sure to warm the heart of Bashar Assad, opposition leader Kamal al-Labwani of the Syrian National Council told Iran's Arabic-language al Alam new service that the Syrian opposition is willing to give up claims to the Golan Heights in return for Israeli military aid. "Why shouldn’t we be able to sell the Golan Heights because it is better than losing Syria and Golan at once," he said. (Haaretz, March 16)
Amnesty International (AI) on March 10 accused Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's forces of committing war crimes (PDF) and crimes against humanity on Palestinian and Syrian civilians in Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. The report, entitled "Squeezing the Life Out of Yarmouk: War Crimes Against Besieged Civilians," discusses the deaths of nearly 200 people since the tightening of the siege and cutting off of access to food and medical supplies in July, with 128 of those deaths caused by starvation. The report also states that government forces and government allies have repeatedly attacked civilian buildings, such as schools, hospitals and mosques in Yarmouk. AI's regional director, Philip Luther, stated that the siege of Yarmouk amounted to "collective punishment of the civilian population," going on to say that the Syrian government must end the siege immediately and allow humanitarian efforts access to assist the citizens. Despite efforts by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to provide aid during January and February, attempts to reach a truce in Yarkmouk to allow for food deliveries to the starving people have repeatedly collapsed.
Militants from the Qaeda-aligned insurgent group ISIS destroyed a Sufi Muslim shrine as they advanced on Tal Maaruf village in Syria's Kurdish-majority Hassakeh province, residents said Feb. 27. ISIS militants "blew up the shrine, and burned a mosque and a police station," said Massoud Akko, a Kurdish journalist and native of Hassakeh province, told Lebanon's Daily Star. ISIS also came under fire in their stronghold of Raqqa, as even rival jihadists criticized the group’s intention to impose a special "jizya" tax on Chrsitians and other religious minorities in their areas of control—including the provincial capital.
British police counter-terrorism forces announced on Feb. 25 the arrest of Moazzam Begg in his hometown of Birmingham, England, along with three other individuals on suspicion of terrorism offenses related to the war in Syria. Begg was a detainee at Guantánamo Bay, and he was one of the last detainees from the UK to be returned. British authorities have expressed concern about their citizens fighting in jihadist groups in Syria, and Begg is the most high profile arrestee in connection with the UK's attempt to minimize influence in the Syrian conflict. The police reported Begg is suspected of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas. According to British counter-terrorism laws, the police are authorized to detain Begg for up to 14 days, and police will conduct a search of the arrestee's vehicles and electronic devices.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi told Turkey's Anadolu Agency Feb. 5 that photographs showing torture in Syria mean that the country's president, Bashar Assad, must be tried before the International Criminal Court. Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and rights advocate, noted that Syria (like the US, Israel and Sudan) has not ratified the Roma Statute that created the ICC, but she said that he could be indicted by an initiative of the UN Security Council, as in the case of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir. However, she also noted that Russia's veto at the Security Council is an obstacle to this. She also had harsh words for her own government: "I am ashamed of my country's intervention in Syria where civilians are killed, and as an Iranian I apologize to the Syrian people. The Iranian state intervenes in Syria despite the will of Iranian people." (Anadolu Agency, Feb. 6)
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported (PDF) Jan. 30 that Syrian authorities deliberately demolished residential neighborhoods with explosives and bulldozers in Damascus and Hama over the last year. The report found that the demolitions are related to the violent conflict in Syria between the government and opposition forces. HRW officials determined the correlation between the armed conflict and the demolitions from eyewitness testimonies, statements from government officials and the military's involvement in the demolitions. HRW believes this destruction to be in violation of the Hague Regulations, which forbid the unnecessary destruction of the enemy's property, and the Geneva Conventions (PDF), which prohibits the "extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly." HRW urges the Syrian government to halt wanton destruction of property and urges the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Turkish armed forces on Jan. 29 attacked a convoy of al-Qaeda-linked rebel group ISIS in Syria in, destroying three vehicles, according to Turkish media reports. Turkish F-16s apparently struck the convoy "after militants opened fire on a military outpost" on the Turkey-Syria border. (Al Jazeera, Jan. 29) The skirmish comes amid reports that both ISIS and the Nusra Front, both al-Qaeda affiliates, have seized control of most of Syria's oil and gas resources, which lie in the country's north near the Turkish border, and are using the proceeds to underwrite their wars against both rival rebels and the Bashar Assad regime. While the oil and gas fields are in decline, control over them has been key to the growing power of the two groups. ISIS is even said to be selling fuel to the Assad government—lending weight to claims by opposition leaders that the regime is secretly backing the Qaedists to weaken the other rebel armies and discourage international support for their cause. (NYT, Jan. 28; The Telegraph, Jan. 20)
World War 4 Report has been keeping a dispassionate record of Barack Obama's moves in dismantling, continuing and escalating (he has done all three) the oppressive apparatus of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) established by the Bush White House. On the day of his 2014 State of the Union address, we offer the following annotated assessment of which moves over the past year have been on balance positive, neutral and negative, and arrive at an overall score: