US troops in Syria attacked after airstrikes on militias

Drones are seen during an Iran army drone combat exercise in Semnan, Iran. US air strikes on Sunday targeted Iran-backed militia groups using drones to hit US military positions in Iraq. (AFP file)
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Updated 29 June 2021

US troops in Syria attacked after airstrikes on militias

  • One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.
  • Blinken said that the strikes in Iraq and Syria should send Iran a “strong” message of deterrence not to keep attacking US forces

WASHINGTON: US troops in eastern Syria came under rocket attack Monday, with no reported casualties, one day after US Air Force planes carried out airstrikes near the Iraq-Syria border against what the Pentagon said were facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups to support drone strikes inside Iraq.
Iraq's military condemned the US airstrikes, and the militia groups called for revenge against the US.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the militias were using the facilities to launch unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against US troops in Iraq. It was the second time the administration has taken military action in the region since Biden took over earlier this year.
There was no indication that Sunday's attacks were meant as the start of a wider, sustained US air campaign in the border region. But a spokesman for the US military mission based in Baghdad, Col. Wayne Marotto, wrote on Twitter Monday that at 7:44 p.m. local time “US forces in Syria were attacked by multiple rockets.” He said there were no injuries and that attack damage was being assessed.
Marotto later tweeted that while under rocket attack, US forces in Syria responded in self-defense with artillery fire at the rocket-launching positions.
Kirby said the US military targeted three operational and weapons storage facilities — two in Syria and one in Iraq. In its release of videos of the strikes by Air Force F-15 and F-16 aircraft, the Pentagon described one target as a coordination center for the shipment and transfer of advanced conventional weapons.
Kirby said the airstrikes were “defensive,” saying they were launched in response to the attacks by militias.
“The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation — but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” Kirby said.
The Pentagon said the facilities were used by Iran-backed militia factions, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty, said Monday that each strike hit its intended target and that the US military was still assessing the results of the operation.
“The targets selected were facilities utilized by the network of Iran-backed militia groups responsible for the series of recent attacks against facilities housing US personnel in Iraq,” McNulty said. She said those groups have conducted at least five such "one-way” drone attacks since April.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters in Rome on Monday, said Biden has been clear that the US will act to protect American personnel.
“This action in self-defense to do what’s necessary to do to prevent further attacks, I think sends a very important and strong message. And I hope very much that it is received,” he said. “I think we’ve demonstrated with the actions taken last night and actions taken previously, that the president is fully prepared to act and act appropriately and deliberately to protect us.“

Blinken also said that the strikes on pro-Iran fighters in Iraq and Syria should send a “strong” message of deterrence not to keep attacking US forces.
“I would hope that the message sent by the strikes last night will be heard and deter future action,” Blinken told reporters on a visit to Rome.
“This action in self-defense to do what’s necessary to prevent further attacks sends a very important and strong message,” he said.
Asked in Rome if the United States was holding Iran responsible for the attacks, Blinken said: “A number of the groups involved in recent attacks are militia that are backed by Iran.”
Two Iraqi militia officials told The Associated Press in Baghdad that four militiamen were killed in the airstrikes near the border with Syria. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give statements. They said the first strike hit a weapons storage facility inside Syrian territory, where the militiamen were killed. The second strike hit the border strip.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that closely monitors the Syrian conflict through activists on the ground, reported that at least seven Iraqi militiamen were killed in the airstrikes.
The Iran-backed Iraqi militia factions vowed revenge for the attack and said in a joint statement they would continue to target US forces. “We ... will avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs against the perpetrators of this heinous crime and with God's help we will make the enemy taste the bitterness of revenge,” they said.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi state-sanctioned umbrella of mostly Shiite militias — including those targeted by the US strikes — said their men were on missions to prevent infiltration by Daesh and denied the presence of weapons warehouses.
Iraq's military condemned the strikes as a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security.” It called for avoiding escalation, but also rejected that Iraq be an “arena for settling accounts" — a reference to the US and Iran. It represented rare condemnation by the Iraqi military of US airstrikes.
In Iran, foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh accused the US of creating instability in the region. “Definitely, what the US is doing is disrupting the security of the region," he said on Monday.
US military officials have grown increasingly alarmed over drone strikes targeting US military bases in Iraq, which became more common since a US-directed drone killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport last year. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack. The strike drew the ire of mostly Shiite Iraqi lawmakers and prompted parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution to pressure the Iraqi government to oust foreign troops from the country.
Sunday's strikes mark the second time the Biden administration launched airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border region. In February, the US launched airstrikes against facilities in Syria, near the Iraqi border, that it said were used by Iranian-backed militia groups.
The Pentagon said those strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier that month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.
At that time, Biden said Iran should view his decision to authorize US airstrikes in Syria as a warning that it can expect consequences for its support of militia groups that threaten US interests or personnel.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said when a reporter asked what message he had intended to send.

(With AP and AFP)


Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

Updated 19 May 2022

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

  • Thousands of protesters took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup

KHARTOUM: Sudanese security forces arrested leading anti-coup figures on Thursday, their party said, during protests by thousands against last year’s military takeover.

“Security forces raided the house of the political secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party Mohammed Mukhtar Al-Khatib,” the party said in a statement.

Another leading party member was also arrested at Khartoum airport, and the two men were taken to an “unknown location,” the party said.

The arrests came despite a pledge by coup leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan to free political detainees to set the stage for talks among Sudanese factions.

Last month, authorities released several anti-coup civilian leaders arrested in a crackdown.

The Communist Party members were detained following a trip to Juba, South Sudan where they met with rebel leader Abdel Wahid Nour who has refused to sign a landmark 2020 peace deal with the Sudanese government, according to the party statement.

They also visited rebel-held areas in South Kordofan controlled by Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, who also abstained from the 2020 deal, it said.

Thousands of protesters on Thursday took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup led by Gen. Burhan, according to AFP correspondents.

The pro-democracy Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said security forces fired tear gas “in large quantities” to quell the protests.

Regular mass demonstrations have rocked Sudan since the coup which derailed a fragile political transition set in motion after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar Bashir.

Demonstrations have been met by a violent crackdown which has so far killed at least 95 protesters and wounded hundreds of others, according to medics.

The UN, along with the African Union and regional bloc IGAD, have been pushing to facilitate Sudanese-led talks to resolve the crisis after the northeast African country’s latest coup.

UN special representative Volker Perthes in late March said the country was heading towards “an economic and security collapse” unless its civilian-led transition was restored.

The military leader threatened to expel Perthes for alleged “interference” in the country’s affairs.


Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

Updated 19 May 2022

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

  • The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas

CHIBAYISH: Iraq’s vast swamplands are the reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, but the waterways are drying out and becoming so clogged with waste their very existence is at risk, activists warn.

“For 6,000 or 7,000 years the inhabitants have protected the marshes,” said Raad Assadi, director of Chibayish Organization for Ecotourism, who this week began work on a boat to try to clear some of the worst areas of trash.

“But we have reached a stage where the marshes are threatened with extinction.”

The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas.

The wetlands barely survived the wrath of dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered they be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting insurgents and to hunt them down.

But after Saddam was toppled, Iraq pledged to preserve the ecosystem and provide functional services to the marshland communities, and they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.

Tourists have returned, but one of the main visible sources of pollution in the area are visitors who throw away their “plastic waste,” said Assadi.

After decades of brutal war, Iraq lacks structures for the collection and disposal of waste, and 70 percent of its industrial waste is dumped directly into rivers or the sea, according to data compiled by the UN and academics.

A team of 10 joins the boat, cruising the maze of narrow waterways to collect the piles of plastic bottles filling the channels, and erecting signs urging people to “respect our land,” and not to litter.

But it is far from the only threat: Iraq’s host of environmental problems, including drought and desertification, threaten access to water and livelihoods across the country.

The UN classifies Iraq “as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world” to climate change, having already witnessed record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years.

The water level of the marsh is falling, a phenomenon accentuated by repeated droughts and by the dams built upstream of the two rivers, among Iraq’s upstream neighbors, Turkey and Iran.

“There is a threat to this ecosystem, which has significant biodiversity,” said French ambassador Eric Chevallier, at the launch on Thursday of the French-funded boat project.

Chevallier called for “much greater mobilization, Iraqi and international, to meet all the challenges” that a heating planet is causing.

A string of sandstorms in recent weeks have blanketed Iraq, with thousands needing medical care due to respiratory problems.

The Middle East has always been battered by dust and sandstorms, but they have become more frequent and intense in recent years.

The trend has been associated with overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation.

The rubbish collectors are not the only unusual team in the marshes: earlier this year, the Iraqi Green Climate Organization launched a veterinary ambulance to help farmers treat their water buffalo.


US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

Updated 19 May 2022

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

  • NGO accuses defense department of “refusal to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths” 
  • US Congress needs to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm, says HRW Washington director

LONDON: Internal US military reviews of operations resulting in civilian harm remain “fundamentally” flawed and require urgent redress despite pledges made last year, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Defense released a public summary, but not the full report, of an airstrike it conducted against Syria in 2019 in which it acknowledged faults for the handling of the operation but found no one accountable.
Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s disappointing but not surprising the DOD has once again refused to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths.”
She added: “In addition to resolving obvious flaws in its investigative process, the US military should publish the full review, as a show of respect to the victims’ families and to prevent future abuses.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin initiated the review after a November New York Times article condemned an initial investigation for its failure to acknowledge that dozens of civilians had been killed by the strike on Baghouz in March 2019 and alleged individuals within the DOD had sought to cover up the extent of civilian harm.
Despite Austin’s intervention and pledge to create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, HRW said this latest review failed in its commitments to transparency, lacked information from witnesses, used “an overly elastic definition of combatants” and did not provide amends for the civilians harmed.
The NGO claimed the DOD classified all adult males as combatants, regardless of their participation in hostilities, contravening international humanitarian law standards on distinguishing between civilians and combatants; relied on incorrect Syrian allies, rather than properly verifying information received; and provided no evidence of interviews with people outside the US military.
In a statement, HRW said: “Instead, it appears that the military reviewers relied upon the same incomplete information in the review that they relied upon to conduct the airstrike.”
Yager pointed to the failure to investigate as proof that the US Congress needed to intervene to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm.
“We had high hopes for Secretary Austin’s commitments earlier this year to reform, but the many missteps in this inquiry leave us deeply concerned that the US military hasn’t gotten the memo,” she said.


Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

Updated 19 May 2022

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

  • Crushing defeat prompts calls for inquiry amid claims movement ‘is filled with mercenaries and intruders’
  • PA ‘leading us from defeat to defeat,’ says Fatah official after Hamas activist bloc takes control of student council

RAMALLAH: The crushing defeat of the Fatah-backed bloc in Birzeit University student council elections this week has caused shock and outrage among members and supporters of the movement, which is aligned with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In the wake of the defeat, one of its heaviest, Fatah says it will form a committee to study the cause of the loss and draw lessons.

The Fatah bloc’s rivals, a Hamas-linked activist group, won a landslide victory in the poll at the flagship West Bank university on Wednesday, a result that some observers believe signals a possible shift in Palestinian public opinion.

The loss is believed to be Fatah’s biggest since its defeat by Hamas in the 2005 legislative elections. 

Fatah has led the Palestinian struggle since its launch in 1965 and formed the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority since its establishment in 1994.

However, the Fatah bloc gained the lowest number of votes and seats since the start of the university elections in 1996, prompting the head of the Fatah movement in Ramallah and Al-Bireh, Muwafaq Suhwail, to resign.

Other members of the Fatah leadership in Ramallah are expected to quit in coming days amid demands for an inquiry into the defeat.

Suhwail called for an investigation into the election result, claiming the movement was filled with “mercenaries and intruders.”

Hamas, meanwhile, said that its victory sends “a message to the Palestinian Authority that security coordination will not bring rights to the Palestinian people.”

The group said that the “broad support confirms that it has become a leader of the national project, and resistance has become the choice of the Palestinian people.”

The Fatah loss will discourage the PA from organizing legislative or presidential elections of any kind from now on. The last legislative elections were scheduled in early 2005.

Hamas’ Al-Wafaa’ Islamic bloc won the Birzeit University election by a large margin, claiming 28 seats on the student council, the first time its candidates have gained control of the body. The Fatah movement won just 18 seats.

Fatah is reportedly trying to distance itself from the PA.

However, the movement’s supporters blame the election loss on the authority’s mistakes, as well as its policies regarding Israel and Palestinian citizens.

In an online post, former Hamas minister Mohammed Al-Barghouti wrote: “It is no longer convincing at all to try to convince people, especially university students, that the Palestinian Authority is one thing and the Fatah movement is another, especially since the head of the Fatah movement — the president of the Palestinian Authority — and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization is the same president.”

Al-Barghouti said that all the “negatives and misfortunes of the PA are borne and paid for by the Fatah movement.”

In return, he said “all the privileges and benefits of the PA go to a few beneficiaries, most of whom are not from the Fatah movement and have never been among its cadres.”

Fatah needs to take bold decisions and develop a well-thought-out structure if it wants to restore its image and build confidence, he said.

One of the leaders of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, Walid Assaf, a former head of the Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission, wrote: “When the successful are held accountable, and the failures are rewarded, the price will be heavy on Fatah and the national project.”

Ahmed Ghuneim, a prominent Fatah leader in East Jerusalem, told Arab News: “Fatah cannot continue in this way. It is time for a decisive and courageous decision to be taken to stop this collapse and that the central committee bears responsibility for the weakness of Fatah.”

He added: “We in Fatah are paying the price for the failed decisions in the political, governmental, organizational and economic performance of the Palestinian Authority and leadership. This leadership knows and realizes that it is a problem, but they insist that they remain in power and lead us from defeat to defeat.”

However, Lt. Gen. Jibril Rajoub, Fatah central committee secretary-general, told Arab News that a committee meeting on Saturday will review the defeat and take necessary decisions.

“Our experience with this leadership is that they do not assess any loss, and if that happens, they do not take measures but blame the lower levels of the movement for their mistakes.”

Nasser Al-Kidwa, the former Palestinian foreign minister dismissed from Fatah by Abbas after criticizing the PA leader’s policies, told Arab News from his home in France: “The votes that went to Hamas do not necessarily mean that they support its policy, but rather to punish Fatah, which deserves punishment because it has committed enough mistakes to turn Palestinian public opinion against it.”


Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

Updated 19 May 2022

Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

  • Ankara accuses Finland and Sweden of harboring terror groups
  • Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s decision to open accession talks with Finland and Sweden has sparked debate about concessions Ankara might extract to greenlight membership for the two Scandinavian countries — the biggest change in European security architecture for decades. 

Any country seeking to join NATO requires consensus approval from its 30 members, with the next NATO summit in Madrid coming in late June. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Ankara, a NATO member since 1952 and possessing the alliance’s second largest military, does not support membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing both countries of harboring terror groups.  

Turkey has told allies that it will say no to Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications, Erdogan said in a video posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.

“This move, which has poured cold water on expectations about Finland and Sweden’s ‘historic’ accession to the military alliance, was not really a surprise,” said Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.

Turkey has long criticized Sweden’s policy of turning a blind eye to the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its soil despite being classified as terrorist group by the US and EU.  

However, for Levin, what Erdogan wants in return has a number of possible interpretations. 

“Sweden’s policy against the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish YPG offshoot in northern Syria was an issue of concern not only for the ruling government in Turkey, but also for the national security establishment for a long time. In that respect, the disagreement over this critical issue has been a widely-shared sentiment,” he told Arab News. 

Finland and Sweden have imposed arms embargoes since 2019 over Turkey’s cross-border operation into Syria against Syrian Kurdish militants. Contacts between top Swedish officials and YPG leaders have been condemned by Ankara.

But, for Levin, there is always a domestic political dimension behind such decisions in Turkey. 

“Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of the looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy,” he said. 

“Playing hardball with the West is likely to appeal (to a) domestic audience and consolidate stronger public support that needs nationalistic motivations.”

However, Levin is not convinced Turkey’s opposition to NATO enlargement will persuade Washington to approve Turkey’s request in October to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, and approximately 80 modernization kits for its current warplanes, which the US has so far refrained from doing.

“The presence of (the) Russian-made S-400 defense system on Turkish soil renders the acquisition of the F-35 aircraft impossible because of the interoperability problems. I’m not sure that the US Congress can approve the sale of other modernization kits as well because it can be considered as a concession against Turkey’s blackmail,” he said.  

On Wednesday, Swedish Minister for Defense Peter Hultqvist held meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Washington, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his US counterpart Antony Blinken in New York. 

Cavusoglu also held recent talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Berlin. 

“Negotiations are going on to reach a diplomatic resolution,” Levin said. 

“But, I don’t expect that Sweden (will) give some kind of public concessions on human rights that could drive the ruling Social Democrats into (a) corner ahead of the parliamentary elections in September.”

Sweden currently has six sitting Kurdish members of parliament.

“Giving up the Kurdish cause by extraditing 33 people accused of terrorism charges in Turkey will not play well with the Swedish government, as the country hosts a wide Kurdish diaspora,” Levin added.  

Turkey wants the Nordic duo to stop supporting Kurdish militant groups on their soil, to refrain from having contact with PKK members, and to lift bans on arms sales to Turkey.   

For Karol Wasilewski, director of actionable analytics at Warsaw-based agency NEOŚwiat, Turkey wants to show its NATO allies that it is dead serious when it says that its security interests, particularly its sensitivity about PKK and YPG issues, should be respected. 

“For a long time, and not without reason, Turkey has had a feeling that the approach of its allies to its security interests does not correspond to the country’s contribution to the alliance’s security,” he told Arab News.

But Wasilewski thinks that the problem will be solved with negotiations between Turkey, Sweden and Finland, with the support of the US and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

“Perhaps Erdogan’s statement that Turkey can’t agree on membership for countries that sanction Turkey was a signal of area where the compromise could be made,” he said.

“Turkey would definitely drive a hard bargain, but I find it very difficult to imagine that this would translate to a hard veto.

“Turkey is well aware of the benefits that Finish and Swedish membership to NATO would bring, and that blocking the enlargement would result in immense pressure from the rest of (the) member countries. And Turkey simply can’t afford a strong backlash from the West.”  

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, thinks that Turkey’s main objection to the Nordic expansion of NATO is rooted in existing PKK fundraising networks in Sweden, and Sweden’s public ties with YPG officials.  

“Following closed-door conversations, Sweden could take measures to satisfy Turkey’s sensitivities,” he told Arab News. 

Stoltenberg also made it clear that Turkey’s concerns will be addressed in a way that does not delay the membership process. 

Cagaptay thinks that there are several explanations about Erdogan’s hardline rhetoric on NATO enlargement. 

“He decided to up the ante to publicly embarrass Stockholm to get concrete steps,” Cagaptay said.  

“There is also a Russian angle, where one veto inside NATO against Nordic expansion would make Russian President Vladimir Putin extremely happy.

“On the US side, Erdogan also signals that his objection to the NATO enlargement may be lifted if Biden convinces Sen. Bob Menendez in lifting his objections against Turkish defense exports,” Cagaptay added.

The US continues its active diplomacy addressing Turkey’s objections, as US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday.

“Turkey’s concerns can be addressed. Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey. But we’re also talking to the Turks to try to help facilitate,” he said.

According to Cagaptay, this latest crisis, besides showing Turkey to be akin to a Russian ally inside NATO, has helped Erdogan to again project his global strongman image domestically. 

“At the end of the day, he will write a narrative of the political war he has waged against Europe, and will be emerging a winner of this fight,” he said.