Middle East update: April 7-8 2018

SYRIA

BREAKING: Just before I was ready to hit post, reports began coming in that Syria’s T4 airbase near Homs has come under attack. Syrian state media is blaming the US, but the Pentagon has flatly denied responsibility and this does seem a little too soon for a US response and too out of character for Trump not to be bleating about his manly war doing on TV. Another possibility is France–the French government has talked about retaliating for any new Syrian chemical weapons attacks (see below). But the simplest and most likely explanation is that this is an Israeli strike:

OK, now back to regular programming.

It’s been a while since we had any reports of a a major chemical weapons attack in Syria, so I guess this was inevitable:

Dozens of Syrians choked to death after a suspected chemical attack struck the rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of Damascus, and aid groups on Sunday blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s government for the assault.

The attack after dusk on Saturday sent a stream of patients with burning eyes and breathing problems to clinics, medical and rescue groups said. Western governments expressed alarm at the attack, with the British Foreign Office calling for an urgent investigation and saying that if the use of chemical weapons proved to be true, “it is further proof of Assad’s brutality.”

At least 42 apparently suffocated bodies have been found so far in their homes, and estimates as to the full number of dead (including people who died in a hospital) have ranged from a low of 70 to a high of 150, though the lower figure seems to be predominant at this point. Observer groups say that hundreds of people have reported symptoms consistent with chemical exposure, though I grant you that Syrian observer groups are biased against Assad so it’s fair to question their count. The Syrian government and Russia both say these reports are fabricated and that there was no chemical weapons attack, but, well, it seems to me there’s no more reason to believe their denials than there is to believe the observers’ accusations. Especially when its their military offensive that makes it impossible to verify most of the claims about what happened. There is, at least, enough evidence that something happened in Douma on Saturday night to justify an investigation.

While half the planet rushes to condemn Assad before we’re even sure this was a chemical weapons attack and the other half goes searching for an alternative explanation that might exonerate their worldview, it’s worth noting a couple of things. One, as I’ve just said, is that we don’t yet know for sure this was a CW attack. It’s conceivable that something else caused these symptoms. We also, assuming it was a CW attack, don’t know what kind of chemical it was, which is important in determining the likelihood that it was a deliberate Syrian government attack as opposed to something else. Only once these first two questions are answered can you begin to assess responsibility. Of course, there’s almost no chance anybody is going to wait for an investigation before there’s some kind of international retaliation (see below). Particularly not when Russia shut down the international body that had previously been tasked with investigating chemical weapons claims in Syria, which ensured that a situation like this can’t possibly be investigated in a timely manner.

The other thing to note, again, is that Bashar al-Assad has a lot of blood on his hands. Maybe you believe that’s justified, but that he’s been responsible for the lion’s share of the civilian deaths in the Syrian conflict is indisputable. That he has chemical weapons (chlorine at least, which is ridiculously easy to get, even if he doesn’t have any more nerve gas) is indisputable. It’s not a stunning leap of logic to say that he might have used some of it in this case. The rationale isn’t nearly as complicated as the one that would have underpinned last year’s Khan Shaykhun incident, assuming Assad was behind that as well. Jaysh al-Islam agreed to evacuate Douma, then halted the evacuation and asked to renegotiate terms with Russia. It’s not clear what terms they wanted to change, but at this point it’s irrelevant–after whatever happened Saturday night, JaI has reportedly agreed once again to leave the city. Again, no matter what happened Saturday night, that’s a victory for Assad and his government. So there was a motive.

If you were a fan of Donald Trump’s previous pointless exercise in American Do Something-ness, then get ready for a sequel.

Trump, who just days ago was talking at every opportunity about pulling the US out of Syria altogether, is now talking himself into another retaliatory strike, which most likely will take the form of a chest-beating show of force that accomplishes nothing apart from causing a few explosions and winning him a lot of sensual verbal massages from cable news anchors. Seems like we’ve already been down this road once before.

Elsewhere in Syria, Human Rights Watch says that civilians fleeing Afrin are getting brutalized coming and going (literally):

Syrian government forces are blocking some civilians fleeing the Turkish-led military actions in Afrin from entering territory under government control, Human Rights Watch said today. The civilians are stranded in areas with limited food, clean water, and medical supplies. Syrian government authorities should facilitate freedom of movement and aid delivery for the affected civilians.

 

At the same time, Human Rights Watch has documented that armed groups working with Turkish forces are looting and destroying civilian property in the city of Afrin and surrounding villages, exacerbating the plight of civilians there. Turkish forces and non-state armed groups in control of Afrin should halt the looting and hold those responsible for the damage accountable.

Meanwhile, the AP reports that Syrians in Raqqa feel “abandoned” by the international community and live in fear of, variously, the YPG Kurds who now control the city, the possibility of the Syrian government retaking the city, gangs that have formed in the chaos following ISIS’s defeat, and ISIS elements that are still embedded in the city. Physically, Raqqa lies in ruins, with nearly 2/3 of its homes and almost all of its infrastructure destroyed and dead bodies still rotting in the rubble. People have started to return and rebuild, but there’s only so much they can do with a city that charitably has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rebuilding to do.

Destroyed_neighborhood_in_Raqqa
The destruction in Raqqa (Wikimedia)

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

One of the people gunned down by Israeli security forces near the Gaza fence this past Friday was photojournalist Yasser Murtaja. Since the Israeli military only uses live ammunition “in a precise, measured way,” according to their own spokesperson, one must inevitably conclude that they meant to kill him, even though he was wearing a vest with the word “PRESS” printed in big letters across the front. Maybe they assumed it was a disguise, though frankly that doesn’t seem very measured to me. Nonetheless, they say they’re investigating Murtaja’s killing, which is weird because what is there to investigate? The IDF only kills bad guys (just ask them), ergo this person they killed must have been bad. Open and shut case. It couldn’t possibly be that the Israeli soldiers decided to respond to protesters lighting a large tire fire by indiscriminately shooting into the smoke for shits and giggles, because, again, Israeli soldiers just don’t do that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Ghana’s Fatou Bensouda, is calling on both sides to knock off the violence in Gaza. Which is nice, I guess, but it’s not as if the ICC can actually do anything here.

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