Tag Archives: Syria civil war

How the World Looks Like in 10000 Air Strikes

Amnesty International researchers visited 42 Coalition air strike sites across the ruined city of Raqqa, Syria and interviewed 112 civilian residents who had survived the carnage and lost loved ones.   The accounts detailed in the report, ‘War of annihilation’: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, leave gaping holes in the Coalition’s insistence that their forces did enough to minimize civilian harm….

“IS’s brutal four-year rule in Raqqa was rife with war crimes. But the violations of IS, including the use of civilians as human shields, do not relieve the Coalition of their obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. What levelled the city and killed and injured so many civilians was the US-led Coalition’s repeated use of explosive weapons in populated areas where they knew civilians were trapped. Even precision weapons are only as precise as their choice of targets.”

Shortly before the military campaign, US Defence Secretary James Mattis promised a “war of annihilation” against IS.   From 6 June to 17 October 2017, the US-led Coalition operation to oust IS from its so-called “capital” Raqqa killed and injured thousands of civilians and destroyed much of the city….Residents were trapped as fighting raged in Raqqa’s streets between IS militants and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, supported by the Coalition’s relentless air and artillery strikes. IS mined the escape routes and shot at civilians trying to flee. Hundreds of civilians were killed: some in their homes; some in the very places where they had sought refuge; and others as they tried to flee.

US, British and French Coalition forces carried out tens of thousands of air strikes and US forces admitted to firing 30,000 artillery rounds during the offensive on Raqqa. US forces were responsible for more than 90% of the air strikes…

Amnesty International is urging Coalition members to investigate impartially and thoroughly allegations of violations and civilian casualties, and to publicly acknowledge the scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives and destruction of civilian property in Raqqa…They must disclose the findings of their investigations, as well as key information about the strikes necessary for assessing their compliance with international humanitarian law. They must review the procedures by which they decide the credibility of civilian casualty allegations and they must ensure justice and reparation for victims of violations. They also have a responsibility to assist with gruelling demining and reconstruction work under way in Raqqa in a more meaningful way than at present.

Excerpts Syria: Raqqa in ruins and civilians devastated after US-led ‘war of annihilation’, Amnesty International, June 5, 2018

Getting Rid of the Hornet’s Nest: Syria

syria-before-after

Tensions between Russia and the United States are coming to a head over the civil war in Syria. Washington has suspended bilateral talks with Russia to end the five-year old war. Moscow has suspended an agreement to destroy 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium that was reached during the year 2000, using especially harsh rhetoric. Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces—with the backing of Russian airpower—are continuing to mount a fierce attack on the partially rebel-held city of Aleppo with Washington seemingly powerless to influence events on the ground….Among the four options that may be under consideration [in the United States] are a no-fly-zone, safe zones, attacking the Syrian air force and arming the Syrian rebels with additional weaponry. But each option carries with it significant risk of escalation or blowback.
While the United States has the capability to defeat Russian and Syrian regime air forces and air defenses, which is necessary to establish a no-fly zone or safe-zone, or to destroy the regime’s airpower, there are several risks from a legal and military standpoint. The legal problem comes from the fact that the United States is not technically at war with the Syria, nor is there a UN resolution authorizing American forces to operate inside that nation… [On the contrary] Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime.

A no-fly zone or safe zone would require U.S. combat aircraft to intercept and possibly shoot down Russian and Syrian warplanes entering into the area designated by Washington and its allies…. [But] It is highly unlikely that any U.S. President would be willing to risk war against a nuclear-armed power with only four months left in office in a conflict with few—if any—vital American interests at stake. The Russians know that and might not be willing to back down in the event of an air-to-air confrontation with American forces because too much national prestige—and even Mr. Putin’s personal prestige—would be on the line. Thus, such an encounter could escalate in unpredictable ways…

A worse option still would be for the U.S. military to attack the Syrian air force and its bases directly since it would an overt act of war against Syria—even more so than a no-fly or safe zone. As Secretary Kerry pointed out, without a U.N. Security Council resolution, the United States does not have legal grounds to go to war. But moreover, the military difficulties with directly attacking Syrian forces are more problematic.

The United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps could easily annihilate Syrian and even Russian air defenses—and airpower—inside Syria. Moscow—even with the fearsome capabilities of its S-400 air and missile defense system—is not able to defeat the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors, which are able to fly inside zones protected by those system and defeat them. In fact, defeating advanced air defenses is one of the Raptor’s primary missions. Nor would Russian Su-30SM or Su-35S Flankers survive long against the Raptor, which was specifically designed to counter advanced next-generation Soviet fighters that ultimately never materialized….

[But] Russia might not limit its retaliation to just American and NATO forces in Syria. Given Moscow’s arsenal of Kaliber-NK cruise missiles and long-range bombers and submarines, the Kremlin has options to strike back across a huge geographic range. It is not outside realm of the possible that Russia would hit back at U.S. bases in Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Turkey using long-range precision-guided cruise missiles. The Russian Black Sea fleet and the Caspian Sea flotilla can easily hit such targets. Then there is Moscow’s formidable bomber fleet which can target the continental United States itself….

It might be prudent to exercise restraint before launching a new war—against a nuclear-armed power—that the American people don’t necessarily want to fight. That’s especially true in a conflict where the lines are blurry and there are no clear-cut good guys—where even so-called “moderate” rebels backed by the U.S. government are beheading children.  Under such circumstances, the best policy for the United States might simply be to leave well enough alone—there is simply no need to stick our fingers into yet another hornet’s nest.

Excerpts from Dave Majumdar, Why the United States Should Exercise Restraint Before Launching A New War in Syria, National Interest, Oct. 3, 2016

Made by the Underdog: weapons

Weapon Factor Aleppo Syria

The modern equivalents  of  [improvised weapons] are more high-tech and, like Aleppo’s hell cannons, far deadlier...Any side that begins with a technological advantage will see it erode quickly as the underdogs improve their improvisation capabilities… [H]ell cannons are being mounted on vehicles and fitted with recoil springs to absorb the launch explosion. This improves stability, which in turn enables greater accuracy with follow-up shots. Some designs are no longer fired by lighting a fuse, but at a safe distance with a car battery wired to the propellant charge. Bigger cannons heave oxygen cylinders and, astonishingly, even large household water-heaters packed with enough explosives to destroy a cluster of buildings.

The ominous consequences have led America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Pentagon, to try to keep up with developments by soliciting worldwide for new ways to make weapons using commercially available materials and technologies. More than 20 experts are now reviewing hundreds of submissions. To better assess the risks, some of the most promising designs will be built as prototypes and tested…[DARPA Improv]

Improvised weaponry typically is not as fearsome as that made by defence companies. But it is a lot cheaper and often effective enough… Despite receiving arms shipments from Iran and Russia, Syria’s regime still uses its own improvised “barrel bombs”—devastating devices made by filling oil drums with explosives and scrap metal….

Even defence firms are turning to more commercially available equipment to make weapons. Lasers used to cut and weld materials in industry, for example, are now so powerful that Boeing bought a 10kW model to put into its High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), a system it has assembled for the American army to shoot down drones and incoming mortar shells by firing a laser beam at them. Just think of HEL MD as “a welding torch” with a reach of kilometres, says David DeYoung, head of the Boeing unit that built it. While the off-the-shelf laser is powerful enough for its role, IPG Photonics of Massachusetts is now selling a 20kW laser.

Smartphones are useful in making weapons. They contain GPS navigation and frequency-hopping technology, which transmits signals that are hard to intercept or jam (both were military developments). Other useful things inside include accelerometers, compasses, gyroscopes, motion detectors and sensors for orientation, measuring magnetic fields and capturing reflected infra-red light (to turn off the screen when it detects the phone is close to the ear, saving battery power and preventing inadvertent touches). All of that can be used for missile guidance and communications, adds Mr Shapir. The guidance and remote-control systems sold with consumer drones offer additional capabilities…

Part of the problem is that anyone can buy not just sophisticated hardware but also a 3D printer to make basic weapon components, says Rear-Admiral Brian Brakke, deputy director of operations at the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency. In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has been working on dropping improvised bombs from remotely controlled model aircraft. These might carry bigger payloads than the small quadcopters widely sold as drones to hobbyists and commercial operators. The jihadist group has also begun developing remote-control systems for driverless vehicles to deliver huge improvised explosive devices without suicide-volunteers, Mr Brakke believes….

Recent developments in biotechnology have moved the boundaries as well. So-called “biohacking” groups have begun experimenting with homespun processes, much as early computer hackers did with information technology. The biohackers see DNA as a form of software that can be manipulated to design new biological processes and devices. Some of the amateur labs are still relatively crude, but nevertheless there is concern that they could be used to create killer bugs or provide training for bioterrorists. America’s FBI has been watching developments and even organising some biohacker gatherings. That may seem reckless, but the idea is to encourage responsible behaviour and self-policing rather than risk a crackdown that drives the movement underground.

Excerpts from  Improvised Weapons, Hell’s Kitchen, Economist,  May 21, at 2016

Tips and Tricks of Chemical Weapons Stockpilers: Syria

Wounded civilians arrive at hospital Aleppo, Syria, 2012. Image from wikipedia

On April 22, 2014 the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) declared that 86.5% of all chemicals and 88.7% of the most deadly “Priority 1” substances on a revised list, such as sulphur mustard and precursors for sarin, a nerve gas, had been boarded and removed from Syria. Since early April six consignments have been delivered to Latakia (Syria’s port) , a “significant acceleration”, according to the OPCW, after a long gap when very little had happened.

The next destination for the chemicals is a container terminal at Gioia Tauro in southern Italy, from where most of it will transfer to an American ship, the MV Cape Ray, which is equipped with two mobile hydrolysis units for neutralising the stuff. The Cape Ray, now in Spain, will then head for international waters with a ten-country security escort, and begin its work. Rear-Admiral Bob Burke, director of American naval operations in Europe and Africa, says that if the sea is fairly calm it should take about 60 days of round-the-clock processing to neutralise the chemical agents, making it just possible that the June 30th deadline for destroying all Syria’s chemical weapons will be met. Some worries linger, however.

The first is continuing disagreement between Syria and the OPCW over the destruction of production and storage sites. All the weapons-producing equipment inside has been smashed, but the Syrians are arguing only for “destruction by inactivation”, which means just locking some doors. But Michael Luhan of the OPCW says that while there is no definition for destruction of such structures in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), in OPCW “common law” it has come to mean “taken down to the foundations”. A compromise may be possible, but there is a danger of setting a bad precedent.

Second, Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says that a mechanism for future “challenge” inspections, something OPCW has never previously done, will be needed if Syria is to be certified as entirely free of chemical weapons. It remains possible that the regime has hidden stocks, which on past form it might use—and then blame the rebels for. The status of one chemical-weapons site, in an area the regime claims is too dangerous for removal operations, remains “unresolved”, says Mr Luhan.

Reports earlier this month that helicopters dropped bombs filled with industrial chlorine gas on the rebel-held village of Kfar Zita, injuring and terrifying dozens of civilians, suggest that the regime has not changed its ways. The attack was reported as a rebel atrocity on Syrian TV before it had even happened, says Ms Esfandiary. The use of chlorine gas is hard to prove. It is not banned under the CWC and it does not linger, making the extraction of evidence from soil samples almost impossible. That is one reason why no signatory to the convention has asked the OPCW to investigate. However, if use with intent to maim or kill could be established, it would be a clear breach of the convention. A further requirement of the convention is that signatories give a full history of their chemical-weapons programme, accounting for the scientists who worked on it and other countries that may have assisted it (in Syria’s case, probably Russia and Egypt). But Ms Esfandiary doubts that, with the architect of the programme still in power, the regime would reveal anything that might incriminate it in the killing of more than 1,000 people by sarin gas in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on April 21, 2013, a war crime for which it still denies all responsibility. Eliminating Syria’s

Chemical Weapons,  Getting There, Economist, Apr. 26, 2014, at 45.

The West Played with Fire and Got Burnt: Syria

Aleppo Syria 2012

A a collection of some of Syria’s  most powerful rebel groups have publicly abandoned the opposition’s political leaders, casting their lot with an affiliate of Al Qaeda.  As support for the Western-backed leadership has dwindled, a second, more extreme Al Qaeda group has carved out footholds across parts of Syria, frequently clashing with mainline rebels who accuse it of making the establishment of an Islamic state a priority over the fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad….The deep differences between many of those fighting in Syria and the political leaders who have represented the opposition abroad spilled into the open late Tuesday, when 11 rebel groups issued a statement declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.”

Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic frame.” Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council….The rebel groups that assailed the political opposition are themselves diverse and include a number that are linked to the coalition’s Supreme Military Council. More troubling to the West, they also include the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda. At the same time they include groups that remain opposed to another group linked to Al Qaeda: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…

Further complicating the picture is the rise of the new Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established footholds across northern and eastern Syria with the intention to lay the foundations of an Islamic state.  In recent months, it has supplanted the Nusra Front as the primary destination for foreign jihadists streaming into Syria, according to rebels and activists who have had contact with the group.  Its fighters, who hail from across the Arab world, Chechnya, Europe and elsewhere, have a reputation for being well armed and strong in battle. Its suicide bombers are often sent to strike the first blow against government bases.

But its application of strict Islamic law has isolated rebels and civilians. Its members have executed and beheaded captives in town squares and imposed strict codes, forcing residents to wear modest dress and banning smoking in entire villages.

Excerpts, BEN HUBBARD and MICHAEL R. GORDON, Key Syrian Rebel Groups Abandon Exile Leaders, New York Times, Sept. 25, 2013

Weapons Supply to Syria: The Role of CIA and Co.

[Who to Whom]

Qatar, which has taken a lead in arming the Syrian opposition, is coordinating with the CIA and has tightened control of the arms flow to keep weapons out of the hands of al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters, according to rebels and officials familiar with the operation.  With Britain and France discussing lifting an EU ban on arming the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, Western countries are concerned about making sure no arms end up in the hands of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged support for al Qaeda and which Washington considers a terrorist group.

Rebel fighters in Syria say that in recent months the system for distributing arms has become more centralized, with arms being delivered through opposition National Coalition’s General Command, led by Selim Idriss, a general who defected to the opposition and is a favorite of Washington.

Qatar mostly sends arms to rebels operating in the north of Syria, while Saudi Arabia, another rich Gulf Arab kingdom, sends weapons to fighters operating in the south, several rebel commanders said….”Before the Coalition was formed they were going through liaison offices and other military and civil formations. That was at the beginning. Now it is different – it is all going through the Coalition and the military command.”  Shipments of weapons to Syrian rebels were curbed last year when Washington raised concerns that arms were falling into the hands of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Today, Qatari shipments have resumed with tighter controls exerted from the palace of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in consultation with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said a senior Qatari security official. “There’s an operations room in the Emir’s diwan (office complex), with representatives from every ministry sitting in that room, deciding how much money to allocate for Syria’s aid,” the Qatari official said.  “There’s a lot of consultation with the CIA, and they help Qatar with buying and moving the weapons into Syria, but just as consultants,” he said. The CIA declined to comment.  Rebel commanders contacted by Reuters said they submit their lists of needs to the General Command led by Idriss, which forwards the requests to Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

One Western source involved in the process said the new system of control is not foolproof: sometimes weapons sent in by Qatar do in fact reach hardline groups.Several rebel commanders said they believed wealthy Kuwaiti and Saudi individuals were also sending weapons and money to rebel fighters outside the National Coalition’s distribution channel.  “They usually ask for a video proving that an attack took place with the name of the brigade that did it. Sometimes they ask for a statement expressing gratitude,” said a rebel commander in Damascus.  He said the Saudis and Qataris also occasionally send weapons into each other’s territory, bypassing normal controls. “Sometimes the Qataris manage to send stuff to the southern part and the Saudis to the northern side. When they do so, they send it to brigades that are not part of the military command.”

According to the Qatari official, weapons supplied included small arms including AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades and ammunition. Qatar also provides instructions on battlefield techniques such as how to rig weapons on vehicles.

[How?]

The weapons are purchased mainly from eastern Europe by arms brokers based in Britain and France, and are flown from Qatar to Ankara and then trucked to Syria, the Qatari source added.

[Timeframe]

Hugh Griffiths, a researcher on arms transfers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said 90 Qatari military air cargo flights were made to Turkey between 3 January 2012 and the end of April 2013.He suggested the Qataris had made no particular effort to disguise the nature of the cargo.  “The Qataris never announced the cargo as ‘humanitarian aid’ as pretence, they’ve always been more forthright in terms of their support in the form of military aid,” he said.

[Military Bases and Mercenaries]

The planes were Qatari air force aircraft flying from Al Udeid, a big air force base shared with the U.S. military.”This is quite unusual for arms deliveries intended for non-state actors in conflict zones, in the last 20 years or so the pattern has been to use private, commercial companies,” he said.

By Amena Bakr and Mariam Karouny, Qatar, allies tighten coordination of arms flows to Syria, Reuters, May 14, 2013

CIA Operations in Syria: the anonymous official leaks

The U.S. is ramping up its presence at Syria’s Turkish border, sending more spies and diplomats to help advise the rebel forces in their mismatched fight against the better armed Syrian regime, and to watch for possible al-Qaida infiltration of rebel ranks.  U.S. officials briefed on the plan said the modest surge in U.S. personnel in the past few weeks — estimated at fewer than a dozen people — has helped improve rebels’ political organizing skills as well as their military organization. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.

It’s part of a two-pronged effort by the Obama administration to bolster the rebels militarily without actually contributing weapons to the fight, and politically, to help them stave off internal power challenges by the well-organized and often better-funded hardline Islamic militants who have flowed into the country from Iraq and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region.  The increased intelligence gathered is intended to help the White House decide whether its current policy of providing only non-lethal aid is enough to keep momentum building in the nearly 18-month revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Spokesmen for the Pentagon and White House declined to comment Thursday.

The diplomats and intelligence operatives from the CIA and other agencies stay outside war-torn Syria and meet with rebel leaders to help them organize their ranks, while also studying who makes up those ranks, how they are armed and whom they answer to, the officials say.  Information is also gathered from Syrian defectors and refugees as well as rebel troops, officials say.  “The model is to keep case officers away from conflict, and you collect through local forces,” said former CIA officer Reuel Gerecht, now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy group that focuses on terrorism.

The effort is concentrated on the Turkish border instead of the border with Jordan where many Syrian refugees are fleeing, a U.S. official said, because the traffic between Syria and Turkey is still far greater…. Syrian rebels have complained they are outgunned by the Syrian military and must rely on contributions in money and small arms from Gulf countries, and increasingly from hardline Islamic militants, including Iraq’s branch of al-Qaida.

US sends more spies, diplomats to help organize, train and study Syria’s rebel ranks, Associated Press, Sept. 6, 2012