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

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

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.


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

Israel says it will test bullet that killed reporter, Palestinians disagree
Updated 7 sec ago

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

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.


Tunisian constitution committee head blasts president’s latest draft

Sadok Belaid submitting a draft of the new constitution to President Kais Saied (L) in Tunis. (AFP file photo)
Sadok Belaid submitting a draft of the new constitution to President Kais Saied (L) in Tunis. (AFP file photo)
Updated 03 July 2022

Tunisian constitution committee head blasts president’s latest draft

Sadok Belaid submitting a draft of the new constitution to President Kais Saied (L) in Tunis. (AFP file photo)
  • Belaid said the final constitution published by the president contains chapters that could pave the way for “a disgraceful dictatorial regime”

TUNIS: The head of Tunisia’s constitution committee blasted the proposed constitution published by President Kais Saied this week, local Assabeh newspapers reported on Sunday.
Sadok Belaid, a former constitutional law professor was named by Saied to draft a “new constitution for new republic,” said Saied’s version was dangerous and did not resemble the first draft proposed by the constitution committee.
Belaid said the final constitution published by the president contains chapters that could pave the way for “a disgraceful dictatorial regime.”
The president has not commented on the constitution since he published the text on Thursday in Tunisia’s official gazette. The constitution would give Saied far more powers and will be put to a referendum next month.

 


Israel shoots down Hezbollah drones over Mediterranean

An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern town of Naqoura, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP)
An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern town of Naqoura, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP)
Updated 03 July 2022

Israel shoots down Hezbollah drones over Mediterranean

An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern town of Naqoura, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP)
  • Israel considers the Iranian-backed Lebanese group its most serious immediate threat, estimating it has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military on Saturday said it shot down three unmanned aircraft launched by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah heading toward an area where an Israeli gas platform was recently installed in the Mediterranean Sea.
The launch of the aircraft appeared to be an attempt by Hezbollah to influence US-brokered negotiations between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime border, an area that is rich in natural gas.
In a statement, the Israeli said the aircraft were spotted early on and did not pose an “imminent threat.” Nonetheless, the incident drew a stern warning from Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid.
“I stand before you at this moment and say to everyone seeking our demise, from Gaza to Tehran, from the shores of Lebanon to Syria: Don’t test us,” Lapid said in his first address to the nation since taking office on Friday. “Israel knows how to use its strength against every threat, against every enemy.”
Israel earlier this month set up a gas rig in the Karish field, which Israel says lies within part of its internationally recognized economic waters. Lebanon has claimed it is in disputed waters.
Hezbollah issued a short statement, confirming it had launched three unarmed drones toward the disputed maritime issue over the Karish field on a reconnaissance mission. “The mission was accomplished and the message was received,” it said.
Israel and Hezbollah are bitter enemies that fought a monthlong war in the summer of 2006. Israel considers the Iranian-backed Lebanese group its most serious immediate threat, estimating it has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
The US last week said that mediator Amos Hochstein had held conversations with the Lebanese and Israeli sides. “The exchanges were productive and advanced the objective of narrowing differences between the two sides. The United States will remain engaged with parties in the days and weeks ahead,” his office said in a statement last week.
The two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati told reporters that Lebanon received “encouraging information” regarding the border dispute but refused to comment further saying Beirut is waiting for the “written official response to the suggestions by the Lebanese side.”
 


Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection
Updated 02 July 2022

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

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.

-ENDS-


Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process
Updated 02 July 2022

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process
  • Arab League representatives also discussed the Ukrainian war, food and energy
  • The meeting will prepare for the Arab summit to be held in Algeria in October

BEIRUT: Arab foreign ministers on Saturday pledged their support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process, following an Arab League meeting held in Beirut.

They said their presence in Lebanon amid its “significantly difficult” economic and political circumstances signaled that Arab countries supported stability and stood by the country’s negotiations with the IMF and the reform process.

Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit said: “We came to say that there’s a problem and you must seek to resolve it.”

He told a press conference that the meeting had discussed the preparations, timing, and attendees of the upcoming Arab League summit.

“We just held some discussions and exchanged views to be decided upon in the appropriate place. We also went over the Ukrainian war, food, energy, and the topic of Somalia, where millions of Somalis might be at risk of starvation.

“We also discussed the Palestinian cause amid the American-Israeli moves and how we react to these events. We did not agree on anything because they are mere discussions that we will not reveal.

“Everyone supports ending the pressure of Syrian refugees. The Lebanese state provides them with care but, when decisions similar to agreeing on their return to their country are taken, some specific circumstances should be present.”

He said there was a civil war going on in Syria and “huge” destruction.

“At least $500 million is needed to rehabilitate the Syrian infrastructure,” he added. “These are very complex issues that cannot be resolved with a simple decision. But the international community has the will to end the Syrian war and is still exerting pressure when it comes to the matter of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries.”

Lebanon, which was represented by caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, chaired the ministerial meeting.

Algeria will host the Arab League summit in early November after it was postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Saturday’s meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, the Comoro Islands, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, the deputy foreign minister of Egypt, and the league’s permanent representatives from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Djibouti, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, Libya, a representative from Mauritania, and the Bahraini ambassador to Syria.

The Arab ministerial delegation met Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who expressed the importance of regional relations in the “critical circumstances the Arab world is going through, the challenges it is facing, and that requires the utmost consultation and cooperation.”

He talked about the crises facing Lebanon and the burden of Syrian refugees in the country which, he said, was “no longer capable of handling this reality.”

“We seek to reach an agreement with the IMF. There’s an American mediation to demarcate the southern maritime borders of Lebanon,” he said, adding that Lebanon retained its water, oil, and gas resources.

Responding to media questions about revoking the suspension of Syria’s Arab League membership, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said: “We didn’t support its membership suspension because Syria is a founding member of the league. The Syrian foreign minister will visit Algeria and we will go over this point with a high sense of responsibility.”

The Arab ministerial delegation also met Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who said Lebanon was now requesting that its “Arab brothers come and get to the core of its suffering.”

He told his guests that the indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, with US mediation, to demarcate the maritime borders in preparation for gas extraction were advancing.

Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati met the delegations on Friday night.

He reiterated Lebanon’s commitment to implementing all the resolutions from the UN Security Council and the Arab League in a way that reinforced the dissociation policy toward any Arab dispute, extending the state’s sovereignty over all its territory, and preventing offense to any Arab state and threats to its security.

Aboul Gheit received a political letter from the Sovereign Front for Lebanon opposing Hezbollah and Iran’s role in Lebanon.

The letter demanded “the activation of Lebanon’s right to be free from the Iranian dominance that uses Lebanon and its territories as a platform to conduct hostilities, putting the country in danger and exposing it to attacks from all sides.”   

It highlighted “the persistence of illegal weaponry represented by Hezbollah’s organized armed militia, which receives support, orders, and funding from Iran.”