Syria’s “barrel bombs” and what they say about Ghouta

Still on the subject of Syria, Assad has been striking Aleppo for the last couple of weeks using a particularly brutal contraption known as a “barrel bomb.” These are exactly what they sound like: big metal barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel, dropped from a helicopter with a lit fuze timed to go off at or near the ground. They’re not new weapons; Brown Moses has been tracking their use since last August. They are a crude makeshift weapon, not the kind of thing you spend major resources manufacturing with precision. They’re also an indiscriminate weapon of minimal tactical use against armed fighters; they’re instead a weapon of mass terror, intended to be strewn across an urban area to inflict high civilian casualties. The need for Syrian helicopters to drop these weapons from higher and higher altitudes to avoid rebel air-defense weaponry, again documented by Brown Moses here, has made the bombs less accurate but maybe more terrifying, since even the Syrian forces dropping them don’t really know where they’ll land from that height. Their use against massed civilian crowds certainly constitutes a war crime, which probably doesn’t matter since there’s no chance to bring Assad to justice for them (or anything else) in the foreseeable future.

I think that the use of these crude barrel bombs says something about the argument, which we’ve talked about before, that it was actually the rebels, and not Assad, that was behind the sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August. One of the principle arguments against the idea that the government was behind the attack has been the crudeness of the shells used, the “Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks” as Brown Moses (who’s really quite good and should be read by anybody who cares about what’s happening in Syria) has named them. It was assumed that the Syrian government, with a professional army and open supply lines to both Iran and Russia, would not need to resort to such cobbled together ordinance. Well, turns out they’ve been dropping explosive metal barrels filled with nails and scrap metal on crowds of civilians for over a year now; clearly they’ve been in the “cobbling together crude weaponry” business for some time now. The case for the Syrian government having carried out the attack, whether under orders from Assad or not, still seems pretty strong.

Spilling over

In war, and life too I suppose, spillover is sometimes inevitable. For example, it seems like there is no way to keep turmoil in Syria from eventually and unfortunately making its way to Lebanon. The world got a stark reminder of that truism on Friday, when a car bomb killed Mohammad Chatah, a leading Lebanese Sunni politician, a former Lebanese ambassador the the United States, and a staunch critic of Hezbollah, the Assads, and ultimately Iran (the patron of both), along with four other people. Chatah was involved in the March 14 Alliance, a coalition of Lebanese political parties and activists opposed to Syria’s interference in Lebanese politics. It’s named after the date in 2005 when the so-called “Cedar Revolution” began; this was a weeks-long anti-Syrian protest movement, set off by the Assad-Hezbollah assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, that ended with the toppling of Lebanon’s pro-Syria government and the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory.

This attack comes a little over a month after a sucide bombing struck the Iranian embassy in Beirut. That attack was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is a Sunni militant network affiliated with Al-Qaeda, having begun as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. That bombing killed the Iranian cultural attache and maybe a top Hezbollah military commander. It would be too simplistic to say that Chatah’s assassination was retaliation for the embassy bombing; Chatah, as a respected Sunni leader and an outspoken opponent of Hezbollah and the Assads, was probably on Hezbollah’s hit list before the embassy was bombed, and anyway killing a secularist Lebanese politician isn’t really doing anything to hit back at an extremist group like the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. But both attacks are symptomatic of the fact that the violence from Syria’s civil war has engulfed Lebanon; contrary to the headline of that Sydney Morning Herald piece, Syria’s war isn’t “threatening to” spread to Lebanon, it already has.

Continue reading

Something Special in the Air

So we’re returned from our Christmas excursion to strange foreign (West Coast) lands, and have a renewed appreciation for how really awful the flying experience has become. I am old enough to remember when I looked forward to flying, although that might have less to do with my age than with the fact that I used to have a job that involved a lot of overseas business-class travel, with lounges, comfortable seats, personal video, something approaching real food, and interesting destinations. I don’t have a job like that (or, hell, a job) anymore, so on the rare occasions when I do fly nowadays I get the full-on modern airline experience rather than the artificially insulated one. In other words, I’m flying coach to California. Also, I have a six year old kid who wasn’t even a hint of an imagined thing back when I was a sophisticated world traveler. That’s a big difference too.

I don’t want to single out any actual airlines for ridicule, but let’s just say that we had booked a flight on Palin Air that was being operated by An Airline That Lee Greenwood Would Be Proud to Fly. Why we didn’t just book the flight with Lee Greenwood Airlines is unclear to me, but it somehow made sense to the fine people computer algorithms at Expedia. We tried to check in online via Greenwood Airlines, since it was their flight, and were told to check in via Palin Air, which I assume will be possible once that particular carrier is able to afford a computer and create its own Geocities site or something. So we went to the airport and found the Palin Air counter, where we tried to check in on their self-service terminals and had no luck, so we then talked to a ticket agent who explained that, you know, Greenwood Airlines is running this flight, so you gotta check in with them, dummy. Thus chastened, we headed to the Greenwood Airlines counter as I let my wife know that, if Greenwood Airlines tried to send us back to the Palin Air counter, I was probably going to wind up on a no-fly list.

Get the full experience after the break.
Continue reading

Soft power means having to say you’re sorry

In Yemen, when Al-Qaeda screws up, they apologize:

Qassim al-Rimi, commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said in a video posted on militant websites that the attackers were warned in advance not to enter the hospital within the complex, nor a place for prayer there. But he said one fighter did.

“Now we acknowledge our mistake and guilt,” al-Rimi said in a video released late Saturday by al-Qaeda’s media arm al-Mallahem. “We offer our apology and condolences to the victims’ families. We accept full responsibility for what happened in the hospital and will pay blood money for the victims’ families.”

The United States, meanwhile, recently blew up (via drone, of course) a convoy of Yemenis who were either all terrorist masterminds or mostly innocent civilians on their way to a wedding. In response, we won’t even acknowledge that the strike happened, let alone offer any apology or promise to investigate. To the extent we’ll admit to the strike at all we insist that the wedding we struck was Zombie bin Laden gay marrying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Continue reading

The most wonderful time of the year

It’s been a long time since I wrote one of these, so please bear with me.

I woke up this morning with a major backache. This was my body’s way of pre-injuring itself in preparation for the thing I’d been putting off all week, assembling my daughter’s main Christmas present. This year she asked for a new play kitchen. She’s had a plastic kitchen-thing since she was so little that I remember being terrified that she might try to pull herself up on it, which if she’d ever done so would have sent child and kitchen tumbling to the floor. But now, what with her being in kindergarten and being a purveyor of only the finest of pretend haute cuisine, she needs something more in keeping with her personal tastes and style. We would have happily gotten her a perfectly fine play kitchen, but then my parents got wind of the child’s needs and for about a week now I’ve had a box sitting here containing the parts for a play kitchen that is just slightly larger than our actual kitchen and weighs a little over half a ton (that’s a rough estimate, mind you). A toddler would have no trouble pulling him or herself up on this kitchen, or at least I hope they wouldn’t because, if this thing tips over on top of a kid, that kid is looking at months of traction and rehab at a minimum.

Continue reading