The Assad regime's use of chemical weapons is announced as a "red line"—the favored metaphor of Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, now alarmingly accepted by the US media, at least. Israel yesterday said the line has been crossed. Brigadier-General Itai Brun, head of IDF military intelligence, told an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv: "There's a huge arsenal of chemical weapons in Syria. Our assessment is that the [Assad] regime has used and is using chemical weapons." Brun cited photographs of victims that showed them foaming at the mouth and with contracted pupils. "To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin." And John Kerry, speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels, called on the alliance to make preparations to respond in the event of chemical weapons threatening a member (meaning Turkey). (The Guardian, April 23)
As the Friends of Syria summit opened in Istanbul April 20, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to provide $100 million in new "non-lethal" aid to the Syrian opposition—and the Syrian National Coalition demanded actual weapons, threatening to break off talks with the international group if they are not forthcoming. The Coalition also called for drone strikes on the Syrian army's missile sites, and the imposition of no-fly zones. The "non-lethal" package is to include body armor, night-vision goggles, vehicles and other aid with military applications. Kerry nonetheless said the aid "underscores the United States' firm support for a political solution to the crisis in Syria and for the opposition's advancement of an inclusive, tolerant vision for a post-Assad Syria." The new package brings total US aid to the Syrian opposition to $250 million since the fighting began.
AP informs us, citing a post to an unnamed jihadist wesbite, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, "emir" of the Islamic State in Iraq, formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, has announced a merger with Syria's Nusra Front to form a new organization, the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham"—the latter term refering to Syria, or the whole Levant. "It is time to declare to al-Sham and to the world that Jabhat al-Nusra is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq," the statement reads. Al-Baghdadi said the Iraqi group is providing half its budget to the Syrian counterpart, and that the Nusra Front will not have a separate leader but be led by the "people of Syria themselves"—implying that he will be in charge of both.
In some very inspiring news, opposition activists from Syrian President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect publicly broke ranks with the regime at a meeting in Cairo March 31, and urged their fellow Alawites in the army to rebel, Reuters reports. "We call on our brothers in the Syrian army, specifically members of our sect, not to take up arms against their people and to refuse to join the army," the delegates said in a statement. "[T]he Alawite sect was and is being held hostage by the regime," stated the communique, which was read out by Alawite activist Tawfiq Dunia. "One of the goals of the Syrian revolution is to restore the national identity and free the Alawite sect from the family of the ruling regime."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced on March 21 that the UN will initiate a probe into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Syrian government requested the probe earlier this week after anti-government forces carried out an attack on a village near Aleppo. Ban declared that the investigation will involve other international bodies such as the World Health Organization and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In his remarks, Ban stated that any use of chemical weapons would be a serious crime and that the Syrian government has the primary responsibility of ensuring the security of chemical weapons. Ban said that the investigation would start as soon as possible.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces on March 1 accused government troops of executing 72 people and burning their bodies in a village near the northern city of Aleppo. The Aleppo Media Centre, run by a network of anti-regime activists, said children, women and elderly people were among the victims, who it said were targeted on suspicion of collaborating with opposition fighters. (Al-Shofra, US CentCom, March 1) Controversy still surrounds a Jan. 15 massacre at the village of Haswiya, on the edge of the central city of Homs, where some 100 were killed, a BBC reporter seeing charred bodies still lying inside one of the houses. Syrian security forces who escorted the BBC team to the site of the killings insisted they were the work of the Nusra Front rebels. Opposition activists say the pro-regime Shabiha militiawas to blame. (BBC News, March 11)
About 20 UN peacekeeping troops from the Philippines were detained by Syrian militants near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights March 6. The peacekpeers were monitoring the ceasefire between Syria and Israel. A group calling itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk told BBC News they had taken the troops to stop Syrian forces from shelling them. The name of the militant group seems to invoke either the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus which was bombarded by Assad's forces last year, or the 638 CE Battle of Yarmouk in which the Holy Land first fell to the Muslims—or perhaps both. The abductions come as Israel protested to the UN Security Council about shells from Syria landing in its territory. "Israel cannot be expected to stand idle as the lives of its citizens are being put at risk by the Syrian government's reckless actions," ambassador Ron Prosor wrote. "Israel has shown maximum restraint thus far." (Reuters, March 5) He did not make clear if the shells landed in Israel proper or the Golan Heights, which are not internationally recognized as Israeli territory.
Recent reports (LAT, Jan. 19) have militia forces of the Kurdish National Council battling jihadist rebels of the Nusra Front for control of villages along Syria’s northeast border with Turkey. The jihadists seem to be alarmingly well-armed, using tanks and artillery to attack Kurdish positions and civilian neighborhoods in Ras Ayn village. There is a growing sense that the Islamization of the rebels is solidifying an alliance between the secular-minded Kurds and the Damascus regime—with much fear about the role of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the separatist group in Turkey which is on the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.