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.
A Lebanese judge on Feb. 4 issued an arrest warrant for a top Syrian intelligence official and his aide for alleged involvement in a bombing plot in Lebanon. Brigadier General Ali Mamlouk is accused of being involved in plotting a series of bomb attacks with former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha. Samaha, who was branded a global terrorist by the US Department of the Treasury, was arrested in August for allegedly plotting to incite violence in Lebanon with the aid of Mamlouk and Syria. In October Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, a top Lebanese counter-Syrian intelligence official, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut believed to be in connection to his networks discovery of Samaha and Mamlouk's bomb plot.
Israeli warplanes carried out an air-strike overnight on Syrian territory near the border with Lebanon. Unnamed US and "regional" (presumably Israeli) officials said the target was a weapons convoy with a shipment that included Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, which would be strategically "game-changing" in the hands of the militant group. Damascus called the strikes an act of "Israeli arrogance and aggression" that raised the risks that the two-year-old civil conflict in Syria could spread beyond the country's borders. The regime said a research facility in the Damascus suburbs had been hit, and denied that a convoy had been the target. The attack comes days after Israel expressed concerns that Damascus' stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Israel had no official statement on the air-strikes.
More than 50 countries asked the UN Security Council on Jan. 14 to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In this joint letter, Switzerland, along with 56 other states from all continents, noted the Syrian authorities' failure to investigate and prosecute war crimes allegedly committed since March 2011 as the basis for much-needed accountability and judicial action in the region. The letter stated: "Since [March 2011], the situation on the ground has only become more desperate, with attacks on the civilian population and the commission of atrocities having almost become the norm." Due to the fact that Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the ICC, the only way to investigate the matter is to receive a referral from the UN Security Council.
A study carried out by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has found that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Syria since March 2011. According to the report, the average number of deaths per month has increased significantly since the summer of 2011, where the average was approximately 1,000 deaths per month, to an average of 5,000 deaths per month since July 2012. However, the study noted that 60,000 is likely an underestimate and that the actual toll may be significantly higher. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated that "the number of casualties is higher than expected, and is truly shocking." While cautioning that the figure is not "definitive," she said the report is the "most detailed and wide-ranging to date."
The US government added Syria's al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant to the "foreign terrorist organizations" list on Dec. 10, with a notice printed in the Federal Register. In the designation of the Nusrah Front, the State Department called the group "a new alias" for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and said al-Nusrah is under the direct control of AQI's "emir," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurshi AKA Abu Du'a (apparently the sucessor to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi). The Nusra Front, also known as Jadhat al-Nusrah, has claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings in Syria this year, including one that claimed almost 50 lives in Aleppo. "The Department of State has amended the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 designations of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to include the following new aliases: Al Nusrah Front, Jabhat al-Nusrah, Jabhet al-Nusra, The Victory Front, and Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant," the State Separtment press release said.