Air raids target Syrian fighters after alleged ‘toxic gas’ attack

The air strikes came after a poison gas attack in Aleppo that affected hundreds of civilians. (File/AFP)
Updated 26 November 2018
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Air raids target Syrian fighters after alleged ‘toxic gas’ attack

  • The Syrian regime accused armed groups of carrying out a ‘toxic gas’ attack that left dozens of people struggling to breathe and prompted Russia to launch retaliatory airstrikes
  • Damascus needs a pretext to quit Sochi accord, opposition spokesman tells Arab News

DAMASCUS: Russian warplanes attacked rebel-held areas in northern Syria for the first time in weeks on Sunday, as Syrian officials said more than 100 people were treated at hospitals for a suspected poison gas attack in the northern city of Aleppo that Damascus and Moscow blamed on rebels.
The rebels, who have denied carrying out any poison gas attacks, accused the government of trying to undermine a truce reached by Russia and Turkey in September during a summit in the Russian city of Sochi. The targeted area is rebel-held and home to extremist groups opposed to the truce such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Horas Al-Din, which has described the deal as a “great conspiracy,” and the Ansar Al-Din Front.
Russian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told reporters in Moscow that Russian warplanes destroyed militant positions in northern Syria blaming them for the attack with poison gas on Aleppo.
The latest wave of shelling and airstrikes in northern Syria is the most serious violation of a truce reached by Russia and Turkey that brought relative calm to the country’s north for the past two months.
“The planes of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces carried out strikes on the detected artillery positions of terrorists in the area, from where the shelling of Aleppo civilians with chemical munitions was conducted late” Saturday, Konashenkov said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Thiqa News Agency, an activist collective, said warplanes pounded rebel-held areas west and south of Aleppo city. The airstrikes were the first since the truce went into effect on Sept. 17.
Syria’s Arab News Agency, SANA, said Syrian troops pounded rebel positions near Aleppo “inflicting heavy losses among terrorists.”
SANA said the alleged chemical attack late Saturday was carried out by “terrorist groups positioned in Aleppo countryside” that fired shells containing toxic gases on three neighborhoods in Syria’s largest city.
Konashenkov said earlier that Russian chemical weapons specialists have been dispatched to Aleppo. Russia is a close ally of President Bashar Assad and has intervened in recent years to turn the tide of the civil war in his favor.
“According to preliminary data, particularly the symptoms shown by the victims, the shells that bombarded residential areas of Aleppo were filled with chlorine gas,” Konashenkov said.
Syria’s forensic medicine general director, Zaher Hajjo, told The Associated Press that all but 15 of the 105 people who were treated have been discharged. He said two people who were in critical condition have improved.
The Observatory said 94 people were treated, with 31 remaining in hospitals.
Turkey’s defense ministry in a statement said Sunday Minister Hulusi Akar spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu about the recent developments in northern Syria. The statement said the two exchanged views on “recent provocations that have been evaluated as aimed to undermine the Sochi agreement may continue and the need to be ready.”
A joint team from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused Syria’s government of using chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015, and the nerve agent sarin in an attack in April 2017 in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed about 100 people. The UN-OPCW team also accused Daesh of using mustard gas twice, in 2015 and 2016.
The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and contacts throughout Syria, said the airstrikes hit the Rashideen district on the western outskirts of Aleppo and the village of Khan Touman south of the city.
The truce brokered by Russia and Turkey, which supports the rebels, has been repeatedly violated, but until Sunday there had been no airstrikes.
Syrian state media meanwhile reported that rebels shelled the Christian village of Mahradeh in northwestern Syria, causing material damage but no casualties.
In Jordan, local media reported that troops opened fire on six people trying to infiltrate the border from Syria killing four and wounding two.


Sabotage of oil tankers stirs concerns over Gulf shipping

Updated 22 May 2019
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Sabotage of oil tankers stirs concerns over Gulf shipping

  • The acts of sabotage near the UAE coast highlight new threat to maritime traffic and global oil supplies
  • Experts say increased threat to navigation and global oil supplies not limited regionally but has global dimension

DUBAI: Amid rising tensions between the US and Iran, sabotage attacks on four commercial vessels off the coast of the UAE’s Fujairah port have raised serious questions about maritime security in the Gulf.

The incidents, which included attacks on two Saudi oil tankers, were revealed by the UAE government on May 12, drawing strong condemnation from governments in the Middle East and around the world as well as the Arab League.

Now experts have warned that the sabotage attacks highlight a new threat to maritime traffic and global oil supplies.

A Saudi government source said: “This criminal act constitutes a serious threat to the security and safety of maritime navigation, and adversely affects regional and international peace and security.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the incidents threatened international maritime traffic.

While crimes on the high seas, including piracy, have tapered off in recent years, the attacks on the ships, three of which are registered to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have called into question common assumptions about the Gulf’s stability.

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Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics in Washington D.C., said governments of the Gulf region are mandated to watch over oceans and waterways. “On top of this requirement is the need for a new regime of maritime coordination to prevent attacks on shipping because of the repercussions for logistical chains, corporate strategies and insurance rates,” he told Arab News.

The sabotage attacks took place east of Fujairah port, outside the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway through which most Gulf oil exports pass and which Iran has threatened to block in the event of a military confrontation with the US.

Johan Obdola, president of the International Organization for Security and Intelligence, said the recent attacks underscore the need for closer intelligence-coordinated capabilities among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, including satellite communication and maritime or vessel security technology.

“The threats to oil tankers are not limited to the Gulf, but have a global dimension,” he said.

According to Obdola: “A coordinated joint task force integrating oil, intelligence security and military forces should be (established) to project and prepare (for potential future attacks). This is a time to be as united as ever.”

GCC countries have intensified security in international waters, the US navy said. Additionally, two US guided-missile destroyers entered the Gulf on May 16 in response to what the US called signs of possible Iranian aggression.

“The attack has brought (the region) a bit closer to a possible military confrontation amid the escalation in tensions between the US and Iran,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, told Arab News.

He said Iran is purposely dragging Saudi Arabia, the UAE and possibly other Gulf countries into its fight with the US. “The credibility of the US is at stake and Trump has said he will meet any aggression with unrelenting force. If Iran continues on this path, we might see some kind of a military showdown on a limited scale.”

Given the importance of the region’s oil supplies to the US, Abdulla said “it’s not just the responsibility of Arab Gulf states but an international responsibility” to keep the shipping lanes safe.