Syria chemical attack: rush to judgement

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights posted to its Facebook page Aug. 21 claims, based on witness reports, of a chemical gas attack on the eastern Damascus suburbs. Dozens were reported killed and hundreds injured in the towns of Erbin, Zamalka, Ein Terma and East Ghouta. Al Jazeera puts the death toll at "at least 100," and notes that Syrian authorities dismissed the reports as "baseless." The Syrian National Coalition is apparently putting the toll at 650 lives. The claims coincide with a visit to Syria by a 20-member UN team to investigate three sites where chemical weapons were allegedly used over the past year. Al Jazeera and Russia Today report Moscow's rejection of the claims. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the timing of the claimed attack "makes us think that we are once again dealing with a premeditated provocation." Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich charged that "biased regional media have immediately, as if on command, begun an aggressive information attack, laying all the responsibility on the government."

Syria: Nusra Front cleanses Kurds

Up to 20,000 refugees have crossed from Syria into Iraqi Kurdistan in the past three days, apparently fleeing fighting between Kurdish militias of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Salafist factions led by the Nusra Front. The PYD reportedly drove Salafist forces from the northeastern town of Ras al-Ain, taking control of a border post on the Turkish frontier. But the Salafists are apparenlty launching bloody reprisals, with refugees who have fled to Iraq reporting massacres in Kurdish villages.

Syria: 'sectarian cleansing' on both sides?

A Syrian rebel offensive targeting Alawite villages close to President Bashar Assad's hometown of Qardaha in the coastal governorate of Latakia has seen some 200 people killed and left nearly 3,000 families displaced since the start of the month. Both the Free Syrian Army and jihadist factions including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Mujahedeen Brigade are taking part in the "battle to liberate the coast," the Alawite heartland where support for Assad runs deepest. FSA military commander Salim Idriss told Saudi-owned news network Al Arabiya that his forces are fighting against regime troops, not Alawite civilians, and pledged that there would be no reprisals. Rebel forces have taken control of 11 Alawite-majority villages since the offensive began, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (Al Arabiya, Aug. 13; Al Bawaba, Aug. 7)

Syria: Palestinians still caught up in fighting

At least 28 Palestinian refugees were killed in Syria during July as refugee camps in the country continue to be dragged into the civil war. The UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, estimates that the homes of 44,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria have been damaged by conflict, and that half of the approximately 500,000 Palestinian refugees in the country are now displaced either within Syria or in neighboring countries. An UNRWA staff member was killed in Syria in July, the seventh to have been killed in the conflict; 13 of the agency’s staff in Syria are detained or have been reported missing.

Syria: sectarian, ethnic fighting spreads

A rocket strike near an important Shi'ite shrine in the southern suburbs of Damascus killed one of its custodians July 19. The gold-domed Bibi Zainab shrine, said to hold the remains of the daughter of Shia founder Imam Ali and ground-daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, is now being protected by hundreds of volunteer Shi'ite fighters from Iraq and Hezbollah troops. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened "grave retribution" if any harm befalls the shrine. (Reuters, July 20) Shi'ites held mass rallies in Islamabad, Karachi and other Pakistani cities against the attack on the shrine. (GeoTV, INP, July 12)

Why I am renouncing my Project Censored award

The latest statement from the poorly named United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) is entitled "No more wars—US out of the Middle East!" The very first line reads: "The White House's June 13th announcement that it would begin directly supplying arms to the opposition in Syria is a dramatic escalation of the US/NATO war against that country." Anyone with a modicum of sophistication should see the problems with this formulation right off the bat. Let's put aside the fact that the White House promise of arms to the insurgents is a completely empty one, since the shipments have been held up by Congressional fears that war material could find its way into jihadist hands, as Reuters reports. The more important point is the assumption that Syrians' most pressing problem is the hypothetical threat of the US arming the rebels—while for two years the Bashar Assad dictatorship has been vigorously waging war against its own people, with a death toll topping 60,000, with reports of "cleansing" of Sunnis by forces loyal to the regime, and the UN Security Council urging the International Criminal Court to open a war crimes investigation.

Islamic Jihad severs ties with Hamas

The Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza announced June 23 that it was temporarily suspending ties with Hamas, accusing Gaza authorities of being responsible for the death of one of the group's members. Raed Qassim Jundeyeih, a member of Islamic Jihad's militant wing, the al-Quds Brigades, died after being shot a day earlier by Hamas police officers. Police had gone to an address in Gaza City June 22 to deliver summons orders to a member of the Jundeyeih family. Upon approaching the home, members of the family opened fire at the officers and Jundeyeih was wounded in the ensuing gunfight.

US arms reach Syrian rebels?

The Los Angeles Times reported June 19, citing anonymous sources, that "CIA operatives and US special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since late last year, months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming them, according to US officials and rebel commanders." The training is supposedly taking place at bases in Jordan and Turkey. The "directly military aid" that the US has now openly pledged to the Syrian rebels may also be reaching them, as BBC News quotes Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad boasting of having received new weapons shipments that "we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground." However, he denied the new weapons came from the US, implying other powers are also arming the FSA. The Friends of Syria group is scheduled to meet in Qatar next week, to discuss coordinating aid to the rebels. But in Russia, Vladimir Putin said he feared a "political void" in Syria would be filled by "terrorist organizations."

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