Ceasefire in Syria Leads to Conflicting Reports of Reduced Violence

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — An agreement aimed at reducing violence in Syria went into effect at midnight on Saturday, May 6th. The ceasefire was headed by Russia, which is the strongest ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and backed by Turkey and Iran.

The four “de-escalation zones” cover a total of 2.5 million citizens (Photo courtesy of AlJazeera)

The plan calls for ending hostilities between rebel groups and government forces by creating “de-escalation zones” in the major areas of conflict in western Syria for a period of six months, which could be extended if all three signatory countries agree. Although Russia is permitted to fly over the de-escalation zones, the agreement strictly prohibits the use of weapons and air strikes in those areas.

The ceasefire further calls for the creation of “conditions for humanitarian access, medical assistance and return of displaced civilians into their homes.” The Syrian government is required to allow “unhindered” humanitarian aid into rebel-held areas, and must restore services such as water and electricity.

The largest de-escalation zone, in northern Syria, covers a population of over one million and encompasses the Idlib province, which was hit by a chemical attack in early April. The three remaining zones cover the northern Homs province, the eastern Ghouta region, and the area surrounding the Jordanian border in southern Syria, encompassing a total of over 1.5 million citizens. Qaboun, a town in the eastern Ghouta region, is exempt from the deal due to its history as housing the Nusra Front, a group linked to al-Qaeda.

Despite the agreement, however, there have been conflicting reports of its effectiveness. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (“SOHR”) stated that it has already started seeing breaches of the deal, mainly in the northern Hama province. A spokesperson for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel group, Mr. Mohammed Rasheed, stated that the fighting started after midnight. The SOHR added that fighter jets shot upon al-Zalakiyat, a village held by Syrian rebels, as well as upon the countryside of northern Hama. Mr. Rasheed further noted that barrel bombs were also used in the attacks. He added that “[t]he bombardment has not stopped, it is no different from before[.]” Furthermore, on Saturday, May 6th, less than twenty-four hours after the ceasefire was implemented, four opposition fighters were killed and a child was wounded when a suburb of Damascus was shelled by government forces.

The SOHR, in contrast, also noted that despite the reduction in fighting, that it was still “too early” to determine whether it would last. The director of the SOHR, Mr. Rami Abdulrahman, noted that “[t]he reduction in violence must be clear and lasting[.]”

For more information, please see:

AlJazeera—Syria’s ‘de-escalation zones’ explained—6 May 2017

Washington Post—Syria violence kills 4, wounds child despite safe zones—6 May 2017

Reuters—Syria fighting eases as Russian deal takes effect—6 May 2017

Deutsche Wells—Fighting continues in Syrian ‘safe zones’—6 May 2017

CBS News—Russia’s proposed Syrian “safe zone” deal goes into effect—6 May 2017

Turkish Military Launches Airstrike into Iraq and Syria

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Turkish military released a statement indicating that its military jets attacked fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (“PKK”) with airstrikes on Tuesday, April 25th, in northern Iraq and northeast Syria.

Turkey’s attack, which hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[,]” was intended to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)
Despite the Turkish military’s statement claiming that the attack was carried out “within the scope of international law[,]” it has been characterized as “unusually intense[.]” The statement indicated that the airstrike, which took place before dawn, hit targets on Sinjar mountain in Iraq and a mountainous region in Syria. It noted that the attack was necessary to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” A second statement indicated that the airstrikes hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[.]”

The spokesperson for the Syrian Kurdish militia, also known as the People’s Protection Units (“YPG”), Mr. Redur Khalil, stated that Turkey’s jets struck their headquarters in the town of Karachok in the northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh. Mr. Khalil added that the attack caused extensive damage to the headquarters as well as to neighboring civilian property.

The Turkish military’s statement noted that the airstrike killed a minimum of seventy people, with forty militants in Sinjar and thirty in northern Syria being “neutralized.” The YPG, however, stated that the attack killed twenty of its fighters and wounded eighteen more. The mayor of Sinjar, Mr. Mahma Khalil, stated that five members of the Iraqi Kurdish militia (“the peshmerga”), who support the fight against the Islamic State (“ISIS”) with the U.S.-led coalition, were also killed in the airstrike.

The YPG is a close ally to the U.S.’s fight against ISIS. However, Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group due to its ties to Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, the PKK, which are being harbored in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The attack attracted immediate international criticism and condemnation. The U.S.-led coalition stated that Iraq’s neighbors must be respectful of state sovereignty and encouraged “all forces to . . . concentrate their efforts on [defeating] ISIS [in Iraq and Syria.]” While Turkey claimed to have notified the U.S. and Russia in advance of the attack, the U.S. State Department indicated that it was “deeply concerned” by the airstrike and that it was not authorized by the U.S.-led coalition. The Foreign Minister of Iraq, Mr. Ahmad Jamal, stated that the airstrike was a “violation” of its sovereignty, and called upon the international community to end Turkey’s “interference[.]” The Syrian Kurdish fighters denounced Turkey’s airstrike, noting that the attack was “treacherous[,]” and accusing Turkey of “undermining the anti-terrorism fight.” Russia, which is a close ally of the Syrian government, also criticized the airstrike by stating that it “hindered efforts to combat [ISIS]” and added that it was “serious[ly] concern[ed]” about the strikes.

For more information, please see:

ABC News—Tensions rise after Turkish attack on Syrian Kurds—26 April 2017

The New York Times—Turkish Strikes Target Kurdish Allies of U.S. in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

AlJazeera—Turkey targets Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

BBC News—Turkey air strikes on Kurds in Syria and Iraq spark US concern—25 April 2017

The Washington Post—The Latest: Russia slams Turkish strikes in Iraq, Syria—26 April 2017

Boston Herald—Turkey strikes Kurds in Iraq, Syria, drawing condemnation—25 April 2017

 

France Confirms “Signature” of Assad Regime and Use of Sarin in Khan Sheikhoun Attack

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Wednesday, April 26th, French officials stated that the chemical weapon attack in Syria earlier this month which killed eighty-nine people bears the “signature” of President Bashar al-Assad.

Samples taken from the attack site were compared to samples taken from 2013 attacks to confirm the use of sarin (Photo courtesy of CNN)

 

The French Foreign Ministry posted a tweet, which read “[t]here’s no doubt that Sarin was used.” The Foreign Minister of France, Mr. Jean-Marc Avrault, stated that samples had been taken from the attack site of the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun and that they matched samples which had been taken from a previous attack. Mr. Avrault noted that the French government had “definite sources” which confirmed that the procedure utilized to make the sampled Sarin is “typical of the methods developed in Syrian laboratories[.]” He indicated that they were able to compare the samples since French laboratories had stored samples taken from other chemical attacks in Syria. He added that the French government established responsibility for the attack by analyzing the method used to develop the Sarin, which “bears the signature of the regime[.]”

The French Foreign Ministry stated that samples taken from the attack site along with the blood of one of the victims confirmed that Sarin had been used in the attack. The Ministry added that the attack site and blood samples were compared with samples taken from a 2013 Syrian attack, in which three Sarin grenades were dropped from a helicopter. The French army had noted that the only forces in possession of a helicopter were the Syrian regime, and had thus concluded that the attack had been carried out by Syria.

The Ministry further added that a “warplane had been deployed from the Syrian regime’s Shayrat airbase on the morning of April 4[.]” The statement indicated that the plane had executed up to six airstrikes in the area of Khan Sheikhoun, and that only the Syrian regime is in possession of such assets.

A report released by French intelligence services alleges that the Sarin, or similar substance, used in the attack came from “hidden stockpiles of chemical weapons[.]” Syria had been required to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 after 1,400 people had been killed in an attack in Damascus.

Western countries have been blaming this month’s Sarin attack on the Syrian government. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), however, indicated that its international chemical weapons inspectors had found “incontrovertible evidence that Sarin, or a similar substance,” had been used in the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun. After testing samples gathered from the attack site, scientists from the United Kingdom had previously confirmed that Sarin, or a similar chemical, had been used. The French Foreign Ministry stated that its “independent investigation” supported “with certainty[,]” the findings of the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey and the OPCW. Syria, on the other hand, has maintained its long-standing position that it is not in possession of any chemical weapons, and has denied any involvement in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, dismissing allegations as “fabrication[.]”

For more information, please see:

Los Angeles Times—Syrian chemical attack bears Assad’s signature, France says—26 April 2017

ABC News—French intelligence says Syria behind the deadly sarin gas attack—26 April 2017

CNN—France ‘has proof’ Assad regime was behind Syria chemical weapon attack—26 April 2017

The Washington Post—Samples from Syria’s deadly sarin attack bear Assad’s ‘signature,’ France says—26 April 2017

BBC News—Syrian government made Sarin used in Khan Sheikhoun, France says—26 April 2017

Turkish Referendum Divides Country After Suspicions of Fraud

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

ANKARA, Turkey — On Sunday, April 12th, Turkish citizens voted in a referendum designed to grant comprehensive powers to the president. The outcome of the vote, which has been plagued with allegations of fraudulent ballots, was 51.5 percent in favor of the proposal.

The referendum has sharply divided the country after a narrow 51.5% win (Photo courtesy of Turkish Minute)

The proposal was designed to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with an “all-powerful presidency” after eliminating Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current position. Most of the changes proposed in the plan will take effect only after the next election, which is currently scheduled to take place in 2019. However, despite Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek’s denial, there are rumors that Mr. Erdogan will hold the elections sooner to be vested with his new powers immediately.

Once effectuated, several constitutional changes will take place. The president will be granted a five-year tenure, for a maximum term of two years. He will be granted the power to appoint his own cabinet and several vice presidents. He will have the authority to select and remove senior civil servants without approval from the parliament. He will be able to intervene in the judiciary. Furthermore, the president will also be vested with the power to decide whether to impose a state of emergency.

Mr. Erdogan stated that twenty-five million people supported the proposal, with 51.5 percent of voters electing to vote “Yes” in the referendum. Referring to July’s failed coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan stated that the country’s ruling system was being changed for the first time in the history of the Republic through “civil politics[.]”

The three main cities in Turkey, Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, along with the southeastern regions, voted “No.” While the tallying process was nearing completion, electoral authorities decided to permit ballots without official stamps to be counted, a decision which the Turkish Bar Association criticized as “illegal[.]” Afterwards, opponents of the referendum questioned the validity of the vote, and urged the authorities to recount the ballots. The head of the Republican People’s Party, Mr. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, which is the main opposing party to Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party, stated that his party would demand a recount of up to sixty percent of the ballots.

Opponents raised several concerns regarding the validity of the election, such as “[s]uspicions of ballot-stuffing[,]” the electoral commission’s decision “to significantly increase the burden needed to prove allegations of ballot-box stuffing[,]” the prevention of over 170 members of the opposition from observing the election, the temporary detainment of international election observers, and allegations of “No” votes being removed from ballot boxes and “deposited in a building site” in southern Turkey.

The referendum results, and questionable voting policies, have divided the country. Mr. Kilicdaroglu accused Mr. Erdogan of seeking a “one-man regime,” while noting that the impending constitutional changes would “put the country in danger.” Residents in affluent neighborhoods of Istanbul flooded the streets in protest, and others banged pots and pans at their homes while noting that the proposal is a “step toward greater authoritarianism.” On the other side of the spectrum, Mr. Bayram Seker, a self-employed citizen who voted “Yes” in Istanbul, stated that the referendum was their opportunity to “take back control of our country[.]” Mr. Seker added that a “one-man rule” is not “scary” as the country had been ruled by one man in the past, namely Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The referendum has also attracted international concern and criticism. The European Union’s executive body stated that the close result in votes should lead the Turkish government to “seek the broadest national consensus in implementing the vote,” and urged a “transparent investigation” into the allegations of fraud. The Council of Europe, which monitored the polls, stated that the voting process “did not live up to its standards.” The former Prime Minister of Belgian, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, stated that the EU should “stop accession talks” if Mr. Erdogan does not “change course” following the “very tight” outcome of the referendum. The MP of Austria, Ms. Alev Korun, stated that there is a suspicion that “up to 2.5 million votes could have been manipulated[.]” Human Rights Watch noted that the Turkish government should “reverse the decision” because the campaign and election took place under a state of emergency and “in a highly repressive climate” following July’s failed coup attempt.

For more information, please see:

The New York Times—Videos Fuel Charges of Fraud in Erdogan’s Win in Turkey Referendum—18 April 2017

BBC News—Turkey referendum: EU urges Ankara to probe illegal vote claims—18 April 2017

Reuters—Turkey’s Erdogan declares referendum victory, opponents plan challenge—17 April 2017

ABC News—Turkish opposition party files to have referendum voided—18 April 2017

The Washington Post—Why Turkish opposition parties are contesting the referendum results—17 April 2017

Human Rights Watch—Turkey: End State of Emergency after Referendum—17 April 2017

First Phase of Syrian Evacuations Completed Following Agreement to Release Hostages

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Friday, April 21st, the evacuation of thousands of Syrian civilians from four besieged areas was completed following a forty-eight-hour delay. The population transfer was resumed after an agreement to release hundreds of government detainees was reached.

30,000 people are expected to be evacuated as part of the population transfer deal (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

Friday’s evacuations marked the completion of the first phase of a population swap deal in Syria. Approximately 11,000 individuals, 8,000 from the pro-government towns of Foua and Kfarya and 3,000 from the rebel-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya, were evacuated. Forty-six buses carrying residents from Foua and Kfarya arrived at a suburb of Aleppo, and fifteen buses carrying residents and rebels from Zabadani departed for Idlib.

The fate of one of the largest population transfers in Syria’s civil war had been tied to twenty-six hostages who had been held in Iraq by members of the Shiite militia. Evacuees were forced to spend two nights in their buses after a disagreement emerged regarding the release of the hostages. The prisoners, which included members of Qatar’s royal family, were released after Qatar led negotiations for the deal. Under the deal, the Syrian regime will release 500 prisoners which will be transferred to a rebel-held area outside of Aleppo.

The evacuation plan, which has been dubbed “demographic engineering” by the opposition, entails the transfer of approximately 30,000 people from their hometowns over a period spanning sixty days. Most of those being evacuated will be from pro-government villages in the northern province of Idlib.

The agreement has been protested by rights groups, which stated that the evacuations were a “forcible displacement that is altering the country’s demographics along political and sectarian lines.” The head of the United Nations investigative panel on Syria, Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, cautioned that those evacuated into Idlib and Aleppo are “likely to be caught in escalating fighting from increasingly radicalized extremist groups.” Mr. Pinheiro noted that the panel is concerned that a “disaster” will happen in Idlib, and stated that the newly situated individuals “are under serious risk about their lives[.]” He linked the concerns to the strong presence of extremists in the areas of Idlib and western Aleppo.

The second phase of the population transfer is scheduled to begin in June.

For more information, please see:

The Washington Post—UN panel: Syria evacuees likely to be caught in new fighting—21 April 2017

ABC News—In Syria, first phase of population transfer concludes—21 April 2017

TRT World—Syria evacuation resumes after agreement on prisoner swap deal—21 April 2017

BBC News—Kidnapped Qatari hunting party of 26 freed in Iraq after 16 months—21 April 2017

Reuters—Evacuations from besieged Syrian towns end after two-day halt—21 April 2017

Syrian Evacuations Postponed after Suicide Bomb

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — Over 3,000 Syrian civilians were scheduled to be evacuated from four areas on Sunday, April 16th, as part of a “population transfer[.]” Despite a suicide bomb that killed over 100 people on Saturday, the evacuation has been postponed due to unknown reasons.

Among those killed in the suicide bombing were at least sixty-eight children (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

On Saturday, April 15th, several buses evacuated over 5,000 residents from the northern towns of Fuaa and Kafraya. As the buses were waiting at a bus depot transit point in Rashidin, a rebel-held town west of Aleppo, several suicide car bombs were detonated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that the explosions killed nearly 126 people, including at least sixty-eight children, and injured hundreds more. A majority of the deceased, 109 out of 126, were evacuees. The remainder were aid workers and rebels tasked with guarding the evacuation convoy. The rights group further stated that a nearby gas station was also affected by the blast, which led to an increase in the number of victims.

The attack was apparently carried out with a pick-up truck, and nothing but its shell and engine block remained after the detonations. The explosions left “[b]ody parts and the belongings of evacuees[,]” such as clothing, dishes “and even televisions[,]” scattered throughout the attack site. Images released of the site showed bodies “lying alongside buses, some of which were charred and others gutted from the blast.” A young girl who had been wounded in the bombing lost four of her siblings. She stated that a man in the pick-up truck approached children “who had been deprived of food for years[,]” and told them to “come and eat potato chips.” She stated that the explosion happened shortly after several children had gathered, and that some were “torn [] to pieces.”

The suicide bombings have not yet been claimed by any party. One of the rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham, which negotiated the evacuation deal, has denied any involvement. The Syrian government blamed the attacks on “terrorists[,]” which has been the “catch-all term for its opponents.”

The suicide bombings drew immediate international protest. The United Nations Aid Chief, Mr. Stephen O’Brien, condemned the bombing. He released a statement in which he characterized those responsible for carrying out the attacks as “monstrous and cowardly[,]” and indicated that they portrayed a “shameless disregard for human life.” Pope Francis urged “an end to the war in Syria[.]” The Executive Director of UNICEF, Mr. Anthony Lake, stated that a new “horror” has emerged after six years of war in Syria, one which must “break the heart of anyone who has one.”

Despite the agreement to evacuate residents, Sunday’s scheduled transfers were halted after the explosions. The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Mr. Rami Abdurrahman, stated that the evacuations were delayed because “permission” had not been given for it to proceed. An opposition activist, Mr. Hussam Mahmoud, stated that it was postponed due to “logistical reasons.” No announcement has been made as to whether the transfers were delayed out of fear of recurring bombings.

The evacuations, which were not being overseen by the United Nations, involves residents of the towns of Fuaa, Kafraya, Madaya and Zabadani. All four towns have been under siege for several years. The unaffected buses from the explosion site resumed their trip a few hours after the bombing and reached their destinations.

For more information, please see:

The Washington Post—Mass evacuation in Syria postponed after blast kill 68 kids—16 April 2017

The Guardian—’Sixty-eight children among dead’ of suicide bombing attack in Syria—16 April 2017

ABC News—Over 100 killed during Syria’s troubled population transfer—15 April 2017

The Independent—At least ’68 children among dead’ in Syria bomb attack—16 April 2017

ISIS Suicide Bombers Carry Out Attacks at Churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

CAIRO, Egypt — On Palm Sunday, April 10th, the Islamic State (“ISIS”) carried out two suicide attacks at Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, injuring and killing over 100 people. Following the attacks, on Sunday evening, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a three-month state of emergency.

The suicide bombers detonated explosive devices at two churches in the towns of Tanta and Alexandria (Photo courtesy of CNN)

The suicide attacks, which were carried out merely hours apart, were responsible for the deaths of at least forty-four people, and injured at least 126 more. These attacks marked the “single deadliest day for Christians in decades” and were the worst since thirty people had died in a bombing at a church in December.

The bombings took place in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria. The first bomb, which exploded in Tanta at St. George’s Church, killed at least twenty-seven people and wounded seventy-eight. A civilian who rushed to the scene of the bombing, Mr. Maged Saleh, cried out “[w]here is the government? There is no government!”

The first explosion led to “horrific” scenes, and reportedly “destroyed” the church. A state-run news agency reported that an explosive device had been planted under a seat in the main prayer hall. The bombs reportedly “overturn[ed] pews, shatter[ed] windows and stain[ed] the whitewashed walls with blood.” Media reports from the site depicted “lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.” Several doors had been blown off, and women were shown as “wail[ing] outside.” A survivor who had been attending the Palm Sunday mass with his brother noted that smoke filled the area, leading to complete darkness.

A nearby resident, Ms. Susan Mikhail, stated that the explosion shook her building. “violently[.]” She reported that many of the deacons, who were the first to run out of the church, had “blood on their white robes[.]” Ms. Mikhail added that those who had been seriously injured were rescued by other survivors and carried out to private cars to be taken to the hospital.

The second bomb, which was detonated at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, killed a minimum of eighteen civilians and four police officers, and injured forty-eight. A man who had reportedly been wearing an explosive belt was stopped from entering the church by two police officers. The bomb was detonated shortly thereafter near the gate of the church. An Egyptian blogger, Maged Butter, reported that there were bloodstains 100 meters away from the explosion. He added that women were “crying and looking for their loved ones[.]” A nearby witness stated that there were “bodies and body parts everywhere[,]” and added that he “saw a man put together what was left of his son in a bag.”

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, leading to escalating fear that the extremists are shifting their focus to civilians, and particularly on the Christian minority in Egypt: the Coptics. The group released a statement in which it provided the names of the suicide bombers, and stated that it “vow[s]” to continue its attacks against Christians.

For more information, please see:

CBS—Rage, crackdown after deadly ISIS attack on Christian minority—10 April 2017

The New York Times—Attacks Show ISIS’ New Plan: Divide Egypt by Killing Christians—10 April 2017

CNN—ISIS claims responsibility for Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt—10 April 2017

Fox News—Palm Sunday attacks: 44 dead, more than 100 injured in church bombings carried out by ISIS in Egypt—9 April 2017

ABC News—Egypt declares state of emergency; ISIS attacks killed scores of Palm Sunday churchgoers—9 April 2017

Daily Mail—Egyptian forces shoot dead seven jihadists planning to attack a Christian monastery days after bombing Coptic church as part of ISIS plan to divide the country—11 April 2017

Syrian Town Hit With Two More Airstrikes After Chemical Attack

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Tuesday, April 4th, the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was hit with a chemical attack that left hundreds of civilians, including many children, dead or injured. This Friday and Saturday, April 7th and 8th, the same town was hit once more with a new wave of airstrikes.

Khan Sheikhoun was hit with an airstrike just days after the chemical attack that killed and injured hundreds of civilians (Photo courtesy of Middle East Eye)

Activist Alaa Al-Youssef stated that Saturday’s attack in Khan Sheikhoun targeted a residential neighborhood. The attack reportedly killed one woman and injured her son, while wounding three others.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that Russian planes had carried out the attack with the support of the Syrian government. However, despite the fact that only Russian and Syrian aircrafts have been bombing the town of Khan Sheikhoun, it was not clear which party directed the second wave of attacks. It was also not clear where the missiles had been launched from. However, Russia, which is the main ally of the Syrian regime, had sent a frigate armed with cruise missiles to a port in western Syria. Russia’s decision to send the armed frigate was characterized as a “show of force” in response to the United States.

The latest attacks on Friday and Saturday appear to be retaliatory, and in response to Friday morning’s missile strike by the United States. The United States’ attack had targeted a military base in western Syria used to launch Tuesday’s chemical attack but led to the deaths of nine people. However, despite the fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles that hit this target on Friday morning, the Syrian air force has already resumed its flight operations from this base. On Saturday, a reporter for a state-run Russian network posted a video on Instagram showing a jet rolling down the tarmac at the air force base with the caption “Return to work at Shayrat.”

G-7 foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Italy on Monday and Tuesday to build “coordinated international support for a ceasefire on the ground and an intensified political process.” Supporters of the Syrian opposition, such as Turkey, heralded the United States’ Friday morning attack, however, other countries, such as Russia and Iran, had the opposite reaction by “harshly condemn[ing]” it. The Foreign Minister of Turkey, Mr. Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned that Friday’s attack by the United States would remain purely “cosmetic” if Syria’s regime is not removed from power and if the intervention does not continue.

For more information, please see:

NBC News—Warplanes Strike Syrian Town Recovering From Chemical Attack: Human Rights Group—8 April 2017

LA Times—Warplanes strike Syrian town already hit by chemical attack—8 April 2017

CNN—Syria strikes: Site of chemical attack hit again—8 April 2017

Chicago Tribune—Syrian town hit by chemical weapons attack is targeted again in airstrikes—8 April 2017

 

Syrian Town Hit With Suspected Chemical Attack, Killing and Injuring Hundreds

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Tuesday, April 4th, a suspected chemical attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in the province of Idlib killed and injured hundreds of civilians, including several children.

Among those killed in the attack were several children (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

A photographer for a Media Center in Idlib, Mr. Hussein Kayal, stated that he was woken up by the sound of a bomb blast at approximately 6:30 a.m. Upon rushing to the attack site, he noted that there had been no smell. He indicated that he walked around the town and saw “entire families inside their homes, lying on the floor, eyes wide open and unable to move.” He further added that “[t]heir pupils were constricted.” A Syrian man reported that residents were still in their beds at the time the warplanes struck as it was still early in the morning. He stated that he lost his niece, his niece’s husband and their one-year old daughter in the attack.

The head of a Syrian ambulance service, Mr. Mohammed Rasoul, stated that emergency responders found “people choking in the streets.” He noted that the situation is “very bad” and that most of the civilians suffering as a result of the attack were children. Footage released from the site showed EMTs attempting to intubate an unconscious male “stripped down to his underwear[,]” as well as a young girl “foaming at the mouth[.]”

A local media activist, Mr. Mohammed Hassoun, stated that there were eighteen critical cases. He added that the injured civilians arrived unconscious, “had seizures,” and “bled from the nose and mouth” after receiving oxygen treatment. Mr. Hassoun noted that the doctors suspect the chemical agent was made up of more than one gas as chlorine is not known to cause convulsions of the type suffered by those injured in the attack.

International news sources reported that a hospital in the immediate vicinity of the affected area was struck with missiles soon after the suspected chemical attack. A local doctor who received three victims stated that they all had “narrow, pinpoint pupils that did not respond to light.” Breathing difficulties, pinpoint pupils and foaming at the mouth are all symptoms typically associated with exposure to toxic gas. A media activist for the Aleppo Media Center, Mr. Mohammed Alshagel, reported that the hospital had been filled with injured men, women and children, along with a strong smell of chlorine. He stated that the injured individuals had “heavy choking symptoms” and that some had died minutes after arriving at the hospital. Mr. Alshagel added that the hospital had been attacked shortly after he left.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that fifty-eight civilians, including eleven children, had been killed in the suspected chemical attack. The rights group later stated that the death toll was expected to rise, whereas the Syrian medical relief group, UOSSM, stated that over 100 civilians had lost their lives, and at least 500 more had been injured.

The attack immediately sparked international outrage. The United States released a statement denouncing the attack as “reprehensible.” France called upon the United Nations Security Council to convene a special meeting. The Foreign Minister of the United Kingdom, Mr. Boris Johnson, stated he was “horrified” by the attack and added that it carried all of the “hallmarks” of chemical weapons previously used by the Syrian regime. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicated that the attack was “inhuman [and] unacceptable[.]” Amnesty International called upon authorities to “urgently investigate[]” the “alarming” attack.

For more information, please see:

Fox News—At least 100 dead in suspected chemical attack in Syria, hospital reportedly hit—4 April 2017

ABC News—White House blames Obama admin for suspected Syria chemical attack—4 April 2017

USA Today—’Reprehensible’: Kids among victims of suspected chemical attack in Syria—4 April 2017

BBC News—Syria conflict: ‘Chemical attack’ in Idlib kills 58—4 April 2017

NBC News—Syria Gas Attack Reportedly Kills Dozens in Idlib Province—4 April 2017

CNN—Syria gas attack reportedly kills dozens, including children—4 April 2017

Kuwaiti Woman Arrested After Filming Maid’s Suicide Attempt Instead of Providing Assistance

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — Law enforcement officials in Kuwait are investigating a video in which a woman films her Ethiopian maid falling from a window without making any attempt to help her.

The maid was allegedly attempting to commit suicide after reports of being tortured for resigning (Photo courtesy of Middle East Eye)

It is believed that the maid was attempting to commit suicide at the time she climbed out the window. The twelve-second video, which surfaced online, showed the Ethiopian maid hanging from the window of a seven-story building in the Sabah al-Salem district of Kuwait City. The recording depicts the maid gripping the window with only one hand. The employer simply states “Oh crazy, come back” and subsequently moves away from the window. In response, the maid repeatedly screams “hold me, hold me[!]” Despite the maid’s pleadings for help, the employer continues filming while the maid’s hand slips and she falls onto a metal roof on an adjacent one-story building. The maid, who survived the fall, was rescued by paramedics and transported to a hospital for a broken arm and other injuries such as bleeding from her nose and ears.

A news crew at the site of the incident interviewed the employer, who reportedly stated that she filmed the fall to prevent being accused of her maid’s murder if she had died. Although the reasons for the maid’s apparent suicide attempt were not revealed, media outlets alleged that she had recently resigned, and as a result, had been tortured, locked in a room and deprived of food for two days before her attempted suicide. The employer was subsequently arrested by Kuwaiti police for filming the apparent suicide instead of trying to rescue her employee.

The Kuwait Society for Human Rights issued a statement that publicly decried the employer. The statement declared that the employer acted with “no care for [the maid’s] life,” and called for an official investigation. The rights organization indicated that the employer had a duty to rescue her maid, and noted that the country’s penal code dictates a sentence of up to three months’ imprisonment for “anyone who deliberately refrain[s] from coming to the aid of a person in peril[.]”

A Kuwaiti attorney, Ms. Fawzia al-Sabah, declared that she will be filing a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office against the employer. Viewers of the video expressed outrage on social media, using the hashtag “the fall of the Ethiopian[,]” and condemning the “inhumanity” of the employer.

Human rights organizations have long been advocating for better employment conditions for domestic helpers in countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman, citing abuses, exploitations and slave-like circumstances. In a 2014 report issued by Amnesty International, migrant domestic workers were said to be “victims of a discriminatory system that denies them basic protections and leaves them open to exploitation and abuse, including forced labor and human trafficking[.]” Despite a 2015 Kuwaiti law providing domestic helpers with more rights, such as paid annual leave, a weekly day off and a twelve-hour per day work limit, protections are still weaker than those given to other professions. Employers of maids and other domestic staff are not subject to inspections of working conditions or other enforcement mechanisms. A report released by Migrant Rights indicates that 90% of the households in the country employ foreign domestic workers. The Gulf state, which has over 600,000 domestic helpers, has been plagued with complaints of abuse, mistreatment and non-payment of wages for several years.

For more information, please see:

BBC News—Kuwaiti woman ‘investigated over Ethiopian maid’s window fall’—31 March 2017

Middle East Eye—Kuwaiti woman arrested for filming Ethiopian employee hanging out of window—31 March 2017

Middle East Monitor—Kuwaiti woman arrested for failing to help suicidal maid—31 March 2017

International Business Times—Kuwait employer filmed Ethiopian maid falling from 7th-floor window instead of helping—31 March 2017

RT—Kuwaiti woman filmed Ethiopian maid’s suicide attempt, refusing to help—31 March 2017

 

Attack on Refugee Boat in Yemen Characterized as a War Crime

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

SANA’A, Yemen — Human Rights Watch released a statement on Sunday, March 26th, in which it indicated that an attack on a boat carrying Somali civilians allegedly carried out by the Saudi-led coalition amounts to a war crime.

Human Rights Watch called the attack on the refugee boat a “war crime” (Photo courtesy of CNN)

Witnesses reported that on March 16th, an Apache helicopter, and potentially a military naval vessel, opened fire on the boat at approximately 9 p.m. A female Somali refugee who was wounded in the incident reported seeing a helicopter above the boat, followed by an attack that happened “abruptly”. She stated that the helicopter “kept firing at [them]” and anyone on the boat who spoke Arabic started screaming “we are Somalis!” The head of the fishing port at which the boat docked after the attack stated that they had to put the bodies in the area reserved for “stor[ing] the fish” because they could not “find a place to put the bodies[.]” Photographs of the attack showed “damage consistent with gunfire from an aerial attack” and depicted “a boat strewn with bodies[.]”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) stated that the attack killed a minimum of forty-two individuals, including women and children, at least thirty-two of which were Somali refugees. Eighty individuals who survived the attack were subsequently rescued and transported to a hospital for treatment. The International Organization for Migration indicated that the victims had been carrying UNHCR identification documents, however it was not clear where in Somalia they had originated from and where the boat was traveling to and from. UNHCR officials reported that the boat could have been traveling towards Sudan or other northern countries.

International organizations responded with outrage to the attack on the refugee boat. The Foreign Ministry of Somalia stated that “target[ing] a boat carrying Somali migrants” was “very sad[.]” The UNHCR indicated that it was “appalled by the deaths of refugees[,]” and further added that “Yemenis, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants continue to suffer and disproportionately bear the brunt of the conflict in Yemen[.]” Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) called for an urgent “need for accountability” on the Yemen war’s second anniversary.

Based on the laws of war, deliberate or reckless attacks on civilians are war crimes. HRW stated that although all parties to the conflict refused to claim responsibility for the attack, the only party that has military aircraft is the Saudi-led coalition. Ms. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East Director for HRW cited the Saudi-led coalition’s “reckless disregard” for civilian life when characterizing the attack on the refugee boat as a war crime.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch—Yemen: Attack on Refugee Boat Likely War Crime—26 March 2017

RT—Likely war crime: Alleged Saudi coalition strike on refugee boat condemned by HRW—26 March 2017

CNN—In Yemen, urgent support for survivors of deadly boat attack—18 March 2017

Time—31 Killed When Airstrike Hits Refugee Boat Near Yemen’s Coast–17 March 2017

BBC News—Yemen migrant boat attack kills at least 42—17 March 2017

Hundreds of Iraqi Civilians Killed in Airstrikes

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — After a one-day break, Iraqi forces resumed their operations against the Islamic State (“ISIS”) on Sunday, March 26th. The Iraqi army’s efforts were briefly put on hold following suspicions of a U.S.-led coalition airstrike killing dozens of civilians in Mosul on March 17th.

Hundreds of civilians lost their lives as a result of the airstrikes, and hundreds more are feared trapped or dead (Photo courtesy of the Guardian)

Local residents and witnesses stated that the bodies of over 200 civilians had been recovered from the rubble of a collapsed building in the area hit by the airstrike. Photographers at the attack site reported seeing twelve bodies, including those of women and children, being placed in blue plastic body bags. Hundreds more civilians are still believed to be trapped. An AlJazeera reporter, Ms. Hoda Abdel-Hamid, stated that she interviewed a man who had been trapped under rubble for several days before being rescued, and had lost twenty-two relatives in an airstrike.

According to Ms. Abdel-Hamid, local residents indicate that the “main problem” is the agility with which ISIS fighters move around. She stated that the fighters “go[] in and out of houses, on top of rooftops . . . and then disappear.” By the time an airstrike is called in, “the ISI[S] fighters have disappeared.”

U.S. defense officials confirmed that a coalition airstrike struck a target in Mosul on March 17th. U.S. Central Command (“CENTCOM”) officials indicated that the aircraft had acted at the request of Iraq. This is a stark contrast to the statement issued by Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, who characterized the conditions as a “humanitarian catastrophe” by blaming U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and “excessive force” used by federal police forces. Mr. al-Nujaifi subsequently called for an emergency parliament session to initiate an investigation into the attack. The spokesman for the Joint Operations Command further indicated that the Iraqi Defense Ministry opened an investigation into the attack.

While CENTCOM officials stated that coalition airstrikes are carried out in compliance with the Laws of Armed Conflict, March could produce the highest number of civilian deaths attributed to U.S. airstrikes since the beginning of the war. Estimates for the amount of civilians killed by the end of the month is currently set at 1,000. The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq indicated that the organization is “stunned by this terrible loss of life[.]”

A senior public information officer in Iraq with the U.N.’s refugee agency, Ms. Caroline Gluck, indicated that country conditions are “deteriorating daily.” Ms. Gluck noted that the fighting takes place closer to civilian homes in a “densely-packed area,” which results in families being “terrified by the mortars, the shelling and the airstrikes[.]” She stated that most families rely on one meal per day, which typically consists solely of water and flour. She further added that people are “desperate” due to the lack of fuel and heating. The U.N. estimates that over 600,000 people are still trapped in the city of Mosul.

For more information, please see:

Yahoo News—Iraqis remove bodies from rubble in west Mosul—26 March 2017

The Guardian—Shell-shocked Mosul survivors tell of intense airstrikes—26 March 2017

AlJazeera—In west Mosul, ‘nowhere is safe for civilians’—26 March 2017

New York Post—Iraqi military pulls 61 bodies from Mosul as airstrikes probed—26 March 2017

NBC News—Coalition Airstrikes Hit Mosul Location Where Scores of Civilians Were Killed: CENTCOM—26 March 2017

The Guardian—Iraq probes reports of civilian deaths in Mosul—26 March 2017

Prominent Human Rights Activist Arrested in the United Arab Emirates

 

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—On Monday, March 20th, a political activist described as a “courageous and prominent human rights defender” was arrested in the United Arab Emirates on charges of spreading hatred and sectarianism on social media. In the days prior to his arrest, Mr. Mansoor had made several posts on social media, including a tweet calling for the release of Mr. Osama Al-Najjar, an Emirati human rights defender, as well as an article that criticized the Egyptian government.

Mr. Mansoor is cited as one of the few remaining human rights activists in the country (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

The political activist, Mr. Ahmed Mansoor, was arrested at the home he shares with his wife and four young children, subsequent to a “surprise overnight raid[.]” Amnesty International indicated that ten male and two female uniformed law enforcement officials “stormed” Mr. Mansoor’s apartment, and engaged in a lengthy search of each room, including the bedrooms of his young children. During the search, they seized electronic devices including laptops and the family’s cellular phones, however, it was not clear whether the security officials had a search warrant prior to engaging in this search. Mr. Mansoor was arrested around 3:15 a.m., yet, his wife was not informed of where he was being taken, and his location is still currently unknown. Furthermore, he has not been granted access to an attorney and has not been permitted to see his family.

The public prosecutor stated that Mr. Mansoor had used social media “to publish false information and rumors[,]” while also “promoting a sectarian and hate-incited agenda[.]” The prosecutor further added that Mr. Mansoor’s posts are a threat to “national unity and social harmony[,] and damage the country’s reputation[.]”

Mr. Mansoor is noted as being one of the last human rights defenders living in the United Arab Emirates and his arrest has been harshly criticized by human rights groups worldwide. Amnesty International stated that it is “appalled” by Mr. Mansoor’s arrest, and indicated that his detention violates his freedom of expression. The rights group called upon the United Arab Emirates for his “immediate and unconditional” release from detention based on fears that he could be tortured in prison. Human Rights Watch added that Mr. Mansoor must immediately be granted access to an attorney and his family, and his whereabouts must be revealed immediately.

The United Arab Emirates, which is a monarch known for little tolerance for public criticism of its government, has prosecuted several people in the past for “insulting the country’s leaders.” In 2011, Mr. Mansoor, along with four other pro-democracy activists, had been convicted of these charges after calling for reform in Arab countries.

For more information, please see:

ABC Online—Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor arrested in United Arab Emirates—20 March 2017

Human Rights Watch—UAE: Free Prominent Rights Activist—21 March 2017

Amnesty International­—UAE: Surprise overnight raid leads to arrest of prominent human rights defender—20 March 2017

Reuters—UAE arrests prominent activist for incitement: state news—21 March 2017

OMCT World Organization Against Torture—United Arab Emirates: Arrest and detention in a secret location of Mr. Ahmed Mansoor—20 March 2017

Airstrike in Syria Hits Local Mosque, Killing Dozens

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Thursday, March 16th, the Pentagon announced that the United States launched an airstrike into northern Syria. The target was reported as a building housing senior Al Qaeda militants, while local officials have stated that the missiles struck a mosque.

The deceased were reportedly attending the evening worship (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times)

The attack, which reportedly took place at 7 p.m., killed dozens, although it is unclear at this time how many of the deceased were terrorists and how many were civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (“SOHR”) stated that the demolished building was used as a center for Islam lectures, and had been affiliated with the mosque. Local officials stated that the mosque was “filled” with up to 300 people attending the evening worship. The director of the SOHR indicated that although “fighters” may have been among those that died, they had been attending a prayer service, “not fighting or preparing to fight[.]”

Photos from the site showed “bloodied people” escaping and “mangled bodies” being rescued from a “smoldering” building. The SOHR reported that some people are still missing, while others are in critical condition. The group further added that search and rescue efforts under the rubble of the destroyed building are still in process.

A local resident stated that he was having dinner at a friend’s house when he heard a loud explosion approximately five minutes before the evening prayer, after hearing planes flying fly by. He indicated that he ran out of his house and saw that the building in which Islamic lectures were held had been hit. He witnessed “four bodies lying in the street,” adding that “[t]he bodies were maimed . . . burns on the faces and the limbs.” A resident from a neighboring village noted that the damage was “overwhelming[,]” and stated that there was a “hole in the ground and bodies [] filling the streets[.]”

Human Rights Watch condemned the attack, stating that the laws of armed conflict prohibit targeting civilians. The rights group added that “[a]ll feasible precautions must be taken to avoid loss of civilian life and property[,]” and that “[a]ttacks that cannot be directed at a specific military target are prohibited.” Human Rights Watch further called upon all parties to ensure adherence to the laws of war to prevent the loss of civilian life.

The attack was a stark contrast to the report released at the beginning of 2017 by the SOHR, which stated that the lowest monthly death toll in four years had been recorded in January because of the ceasefire that had significantly reduced the rate of civilian deaths. However, although violence in Syria had been showing a downward trajectory, it is now increasing at an alarming rate following last week’s attacks in the country.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch—Week of Carnage in Syria—17 March 2017

Los Angeles Times–U.S. military denies airstrike hit mosque in Syria, following reports of dozens killed—17 March 2017

ABC News—Death toll rises after US airstrike in Syrian village, observer groups say—17 March 2017

Chicago Tribune—At least 46 civilians claimed dead in alleged ‘massacre’ at Syrian mosque hit by U.S. drone—18 March 2017

Al-Arabiya—US claims deadly north Syria strike, denies targeting mosque—17 March 2017

Iraqi Forces Kill ISIS Commander During Fight for Iron Bridge in Mosul

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — On Tuesday, March 14th, the Iraqi government announced that its forces killed the commander of the Islamic State (“ISIS”).

ISIS commander Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary was killed during a fight to take over the Iron Bridge near Mosul (Photo courtesy of Daily News)

ISIS’s commander, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary, was killed in the Old City of Mosul during a fight for the Iron Bridge crossing the Tigris River, which is the terrorist group’s last stronghold in the country. Mr. al-Ansary was reportedly killed by federal police in an attempt to clear the Bab al-Tob district.

Iraqi officers reported that ISIS snipers were attempting to slow down the Interior Ministry’s Rapid Response Units on the Iron Bridge, which links eastern and western Mosul. The officers stated, however, that despite these attempts, the “elite forces” were still moving forward. The Brigadier General of the Rapid Response Unit, Mr. Mahdi Abbas Abdullah, stated that Iraqi forces are progressing towards the Iron Bridge by “taking out snipers hiding in the surrounding buildings[.]” Moreover, the Iraqi military is reportedly using armored vehicles and tanks to remove snipers who are “pinning down troops clearing areas around the bridge.”

Regaining control of the Iron Bridge would transfer the strategic advantage to Iraqi forces. At the moment, Iraq controls two of the pivotal bridges in the area. If captured, Iraqi forces would hold three of the five bridges in Mosul that span the Tigris River. All three bridges have already been damaged by either ISIS militants or air strikes led by the United States.

Mr. al-Ansary’s death was characterized as a “blow” to the ISIS militants after many leaders of the terrorist organization have already retreated from Mosul. The group is now reportedly defending “their shrinking area of control[.]” As of March 14th, Iraqi forces were within 330 feet of the Iron Bridge, and were expected to take over the bridge, and its surrounding area, by the end of the day. A Rapid Response Unit spokesperson stated that recapturing the bridge would “help further tighten the noose around [ISIS] fighters entrenched inside the old city[.]”

Over 600,000 civilians have been trapped in the area held by ISIS. Local residents poured out of western neighborhoods retaken by the government, thankful to be rescued from ISIS’s “grip.” They escaped the violent fighting taking place around their homes, carrying only suitcases, water bottles and “other possessions.” Some were reportedly pushing their children and ill elderly relatives in handcarts and wheelbarrows. They were ushered into trucks by soldiers to be taken to processing areas, and reported that food has been “scarce,” while adding that they have mostly been consuming “water mixed with tomatoes.”

For more information, please see:

International Business Times—End Of ISIS: Islamic State Commander Killed In Iraq As US, Russia And Turkey Compete In Syria—14 March 2017

AlJazeera—Iraqi forces kill ISIL commander in Mosul—14 March 2017

Reuters—IS Mosul commander killed, government forces battle for bridge—14 March 2017