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

Smoke rises behind destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the village of Baghouz in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province. (File/AFP)
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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.

Hundreds of anti-coup protesters in Sudan defy security forces

Updated 03 July 2022

Hundreds of anti-coup protesters in Sudan defy security forces

  • Protesters are demanding a restoration of civilian rule that was launched after the 2019 which the coup derailed

KHARTOUM: Hundreds of Sudanese protesters demanding an end to military rule took to the streets of the capital Khartoum and its suburbs for a fourth straight day Sunday, witnesses said.
A violent crackdown by security forces during mass rallies on Thursday killed nine people, according to medics, the deadliest day for several months in the long-running protests against a coup last October led by army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan.
Recent protests have seen crowds burn tires and barricade roads with bricks, while security forces have used live bullets, fired barrages of tear gas canisters and deployed powerful water cannons, according to medics and the United Nations.
Demonstrators are demanding a restoration of the transition to civilian rule that was launched after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar Al-Bashir and which the coup derailed.
“We will continue this sit-in until the coup is overturned, and we have a fully civilian government,” demonstrator Muayyad Mohamed told AFP in central Khartoum.
The death toll from protest-related violence has reached 114 since last year’s coup. The latest fatality came on Saturday when a demonstrator died from wounds sustained at a June 16 rally, according to pro-democracy medics.

“We will not compromise until the goals of our revolution are realized,” said Soha, 25, another protester, who only gave her first name.
“We are here in the street demanding freedom, peace, justice, a civil state and the return of the military to the barracks.”
Last year’s coup plunged Sudan further into political and economic turmoil that has sent consumer prices spiralling and resulted in life-threatening food shortages.
On Sunday, witnesses reported a heavy deployment of security forces on the streets of Khartoum, including army vehicles and those of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a feared paramilitary unit commanded by Burhan’s deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.
The RSF incorporated members of the Janjaweed militia, which was accused by rights groups of atrocities during the conflict that erupted in 2003 in the western region of Darfur.
More recently, the RSF has been accused of taking part in crackdowns on protesters marching against military rule.
The international community has condemned the recent bloodshed, with the UN rights chief urging an independent probe into Thursday’s violence.

The UN, African Union and regional bloc IGAD have tried to facilitate dialogue between the generals and civilians, but the main civilian factions have boycotted.
On Friday, the three bodies jointly condemned the violence and “the use of excessive force by security forces and lack of accountability for such actions, despite repeated commitments by authorities.”
Yasser Arman from Sudan’s main civilian bloc the Forces for Freedom and Change on Sunday again expressed opposition to a return to negotiations with the military and its allies.
“The bullets that have cut down protesters have cut down the political process,” he told a press conference, adding, “It’s not us who broke it off.”
In the restive Darfur region, which has seen a recent resurgence in violence, General Daglo — known as Hemeti — on Sunday called “on all political forces, especially the youth,” to come to the table.
“Dialogue is the only way to guarantee stability in our country,” he said at a ceremony where 2,000 ex-rebels completed their training to join Sudanese security forces.
The integration of former fighters into the Sudanese army and police was part of a 2020 peace deal with rebel groups involved in decades of civil conflict, including in Darfur.
The first of its kind, the cohort “will confront the chaos in Darfur,” Daglo said.
Hundreds have been killed in recent months in Darfur, in a renewed spike of violence triggered by disputes mainly over land, livestock and access to water and grazing.

Jordan govt blames lack of safety measures for deadly gas leak in Aqaba port

Updated 03 July 2022

Jordan govt blames lack of safety measures for deadly gas leak in Aqaba port

  • The accident happened when a tank filled with 25 tons of chlorine gas being exported to Djibouti fell while being transported

AMMAN: The Jordanian government on Sunday blamed a lack of safety measures for the deadly gas leak in Aqaba last week.

A total of 13 people were killed, and 250 others were hospitalized when a chlorine tank exploded after a crane dropped it at the Red Sea port of Aqaba, releasing a large plume of toxic yellow smoke.

The accident happened when a tank filled with 25 tons of chlorine gas being exported to Djibouti fell while being transported.

Announcing the results of the investigation into the gas leak tragedy, Jordanian Interior Minister Mazen Al-Faraya said that the reason behind the accident was the incompatibility of the metal wire that carried the gas tank with its weight.

During a press conference on Sunday, Al-Faraya said that the weight of the tank was “three times more than the cable load capacity.”

Al-Faraya also said that the required safety procedures in dealing with such hazardous material were not in place while loading the gas tank on the truck.

The minister said that the safety attendant was not present on the ship to check the loading and unloading protocols and procedures.

Al-Faraya said that the report into the Aqaba gas leak would be referred to the prosecutor-general for further investigation.

Faisal Shboul, minister of state for media affairs, said that the state institutions’ response to the incident was “professional and immediate,” which resulted in the gas leak being contained and the situation being brought under control.

He also commended the “high efficiency” of the health care system in Aqaba, saying that only eight injured in the accident were currently receiving treatment.

Prime Minister Bishr Al-Khasawneh said that, as per the recommendations of the investigation team, the Cabinet had approved the termination of the services of the directors of the Jordan Maritime Commission and the Aqaba Company for Port Operation and Management and other officials.

Chairing a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Khasawneh also blamed the absence of the required safety measures for the gas leak.

In a statement to Arab News, the premier said that the “government’s professional and rapid response to the incident has greatly helped mitigate the disaster and its consequences on the port city and its residents.”

He said that the government had implemented the king’s directives to embark on a comprehensive investigation into the incident.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has called for those responsible for the deadly gas leak to be held accountable.

Chairing a meeting last Tuesday at the National Center for Security and Crisis Management, the king “stressed the need to provide transparent explanations to the public after investigations conclude, as well as identifying shortcomings and holding those responsible to account by law.”

Following the gas leak tragedy, employees at the port of Aqaba have been staging a sit-in, demanding better safety measures at their work sites and better living conditions.


2 women killed in shark attacks off Egypt’s Red Sea coast

Updated 03 July 2022

2 women killed in shark attacks off Egypt’s Red Sea coast

  • The Environment Ministry said it has formed a committee to investigate the attacks

CAIRO: Two women were killed over the weekend in shark attacks off Egypt’s Red Sea coast, a tourist hotspot.

The first victim was a 68-year-old Austrian woman who lost an arm and a leg due to a shark attack yet managed to swim to shore to seek help.

She immediately received medical attention and was taken to an ambulance, where she died minutes later. She had been living in Egypt for the past few years with her Egyptian husband.

The second victim, a middle-aged Romanian tourist, was found dead hours after the first attack. Her identity is yet to be revealed. 

The two attacks occurred around 600 meters away from each other, and resulted in authorities suspending any activities in the area. The Environment Ministry said it has formed a committee to investigate the attacks.

The state has been trying to revive tourism since the industry was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Tourism accounts for around 12 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product.


Israel says it will test bullet that killed reporter, Palestinians disagree

Updated 03 July 2022

Israel says it will test bullet that killed reporter, Palestinians disagree

JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH: Israel said on Sunday it would test a bullet that killed a Palestinian-American journalist to determine whether one of its soldiers shot her and said a US observer would be present for the procedure that could deliver results within hours.
The Palestinians, who on Saturday handed over the bullet to a US security coordinator, said they had been assured that Israel would not take part in the ballistics.
Washington has yet to comment. The United States has a holiday weekend to mark July 4.
The May 11 death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank, and feuding between the sides as to the circumstances, have overshadowed a visit by US President Joe Biden due this month.
The Palestinians accuse the Israeli military of killing her deliberately. Israel denies this, saying Abu Akleh may have been hit by errant army fire or by one of the Palestinian gunmen who were clashing with its forces.
“The (ballistic) test will not be American. The test will be an Israeli test, with an American presence throughout,” said Israeli military spokesman Brig.-General Ran Kochav.
“In the coming days or hours it will be become clear whether it was even us who killed her, accidentally, or whether it was the Palestinian gunmen,” he told Army Radio. “If we killed her, we will take responsibility and feel regret for what happened.”
Akram Al-Khatib, general prosecutor for the Palestinian Authority, said the test would take place at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
“We got guarantees from the American coordinator that the examination will be conducted by them and that the Israeli side will not take part,” Al-Khatib told Voice of Palestine radio, adding that he expected the bullet to be returned on Sunday.
An embassy spokesperson said: “We don’t have anything new at this time.”
Biden is expected to hold separate meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders on July 13-16. The Abu Akleh case will be a diplomatic and domestic test for new Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
Israeli Deputy Internal Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz said Lapid had been involved in “managing the arrival and transfer of this bullet.”
“It will take a few days to conduct a ballistic test, with several experts, to ensure that there is an unequivocal assessment,” Segalovitz told Army Radio.

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

Updated 02 July 2022

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

  • Regional actors voice concerns over potential military operation in Tal Rifaat and Manbij 
  • “No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Turkish President Erdogan told journalists in Madrid

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey is in no rush to stage a new military operation against armed Kurdish militants.

But regional actors have voiced their concerns over the potential Turkish offensive against the towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij.

“No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Erdogan told journalists in Madrid, where he met with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Erdogan offered no timeline for the planned operation.

The stakes are high. Experts believe that Turkey still lacks Russian backing for a military intervention against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be a terror group with direct links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said that Russia’s failure to back the operation remains its major obstacle.

“Ankara decided to launch a military offensive on Syria while the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine — and after thousands of Russian troops withdrew from Ukraine. However, Russia cannot risk looking weak in both Ukraine or Syria by giving the greenlight to a Turkish operation now,” he told Arab News.

Orhan noted that Turkey only hit targets along the Turkish-Syrian border as retaliation against attacks by the YPG.

“I don’t expect a larger-scale operation in which the Syrian National Army would serve as ground forces and the Turkish military would give aerial support,” he said.

Ankara has previously conducted three military operations in the area: Euphrates Shield in 2016, Olive Branch in 2018, and Peace Spring in 2019.

Troop numbers from both Russia and the Syrian regime have been increasing in northern Syria since early June ahead of a potential Turkish operation.

Iran has also been very vocal in its opposition of any Turkish military operation in the area.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saaed Khatibzadeh recently said: “The Syria file is a matter of dispute between us and Turkey.”

On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister paid a visit to Damascus following Turkey’s threats to launch the new offensive.

“Both from an ideological and strategic perspective, Iran accords importance to protecting Shiite settlements — especially the two Shiite towns of Nubl and Al-Zahra. And there are also some Shiite militia fighting along with the YPG in Tal Rifaat,” Orhan said.

“However, at this point, Russia’s position is much more (important to Turkey) than Iran’s concerns, because Russia controls the airspace in northern Syria and it would have to withdraw Russian forces before approving any Turkish operation,” he added.

Some experts have suggested that Turkey used its potential Syria operation as a bargaining chip during its recent negotiations with Washington. When Erdogan met Biden on June 29, they discussed the importance of maintaining stability in Syria, according to the White House readout.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly led by the YPG, still holds large areas of northeast Syria. Syrian Kurds are regarded by Washington as an important ally against Daesh.

Although the Biden administration has repeatedly said that it acknowledges Turkey’s security concerns, it has also warned that any Turkish operation in northern Syria could put US troops at risk, and undermine the fight against Daesh.

Hamidreza Azizi, CATS fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, thinks that, given the course of events, the Turkish operation is inevitable.

“It (will) happen sooner or later. Because Turkish leaders have been maneuvering on what they see as threats Turkey is facing from northern Syria, we should expect some kind of military operation,” he told Arab News.

“But the scope of the operation has been a matter of speculation because, in the beginning, Turkish officials were talking about a vast area from Tal Rifaat and Manbij to east of the Euphrates, but they reconsidered after US opposition to the expansion of the operation east of the Euphrates,” Azizi said.

Azizi expects a limited operation to happen, the main aim of which would be to expand Turkey’s zone of influence in the area.

Turkey’s original plan had been to establish a 30 kilometer-deep security zone along its southern border both to push back the YPG and to repatriate around 1 million Syrian refugees in a wider safe zone.

President Erdogan recently announced a reconstruction plan to enable Syrians to return to their homeland.

Azizi believes that “the main friction” over this potential operation would be between Iran and Turkey.

“Iran is worried because if Turkey — or Turkish-backed troops — control Tal Rifaat, they have access to Aleppo, where Iran is present, which will give them further access to central Syria.”

Iran is still a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also an important trade partner for Turkey.

Unless Turkey is able to come up with a new plan that alleviates Iran’s concerns, Azizi expects a response from the Iranian side — albeit an indirect one via proxy forces.

“Such a move could push Turkey to further strengthen ties with Arab states and cooperate further with Israel,” he said.