Greater Middle East

Syria: new chemical claims under investigation

The United States and Turkey have said they are following up on renewed accusations that the Syrian regime continues to use chemical weapons against civilians. If true, the government's use of such weapons would be a violation of its agreement with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, both of which it signed last September. Over the past few months, members of the Syrian opposition, including the main umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition, have accused the regime of using chemical weapons, mainly in the suburbs of Damascus, in areas such as Jobar and Harasta. "There have been at least four such attacks in recent months, involving high doses of chlorine and pesticides," said Sinan Hatehet, director of the Coalition's media office. He added that although the attacks only killed around 15 people, the chemicals were primarily being used as a psychological weapon.

Egypt: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis a terrorist organization

An Egyptian court on April 14 ruled that the militant organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (BBC backgrounder) be officially considered a terrorist group. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which means "Warriors of Jerusalem," has claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks on Egyptian military and police that have occurred since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July. The US Department of State on April 9 also designated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis as a terrorist organization. Egypt's military said that this designation will not change its strategy toward fighting the group, but it will make punishments more harsh for members of the group who are captured.

AI: Egypt president should reject anti-terror law

Amnesty International (AI) expressed concern April 11 over the new Egyptian anti-terror law set to be approved by interim president Adly Mansour. The law, which was passed in response to an attack on Cairo University, is aimed at deterring the recent escalation of terrorist violence in Egypt during its transition following the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi. Included in the amendments to the law are provisions increasing the penalties for those acts deemed as "terrorist acts" as well as provisions broadening the scope of the law itself. The main problem with such changes, AI contends, is that they allow the government to levy terrorism charges on a broad range of offenses and could be used as a tool to root out dissent. The laws also make no mention of respecting human rights of the accused. AI called upon Mansour to reject the draft laws which were passed earlier this month.

Egypt: court upholds sentences of activists

An Egyptian court of appeals on April 7 upheld the jailing of three men who co-founded the April 6 opposition movement which played a large role in the country's 2011 revolution. The ruling has been described as part of a crackdown on those opposed to the military-backed government, and critics have called it an attempt to stifle the street activism that has become common since the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Sentences for the three activists, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, for protesting without permission and assaulting the police were handed down by a court last December. The verdict was the first under a controversial anti-protest law requiring police permission for public demonstrations. Though the men have one more chance to appeal to a higher court, analysts do not foresee the verdict being overturned. One of the defense lawyers, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, has said that he plans to challenge the ruling, and that if it cannot be overturned he will take the case to the African Court on Human and People's rights.

Russia boosts military aid to Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow's support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad in an April 2 message delivered by a visiting delegation of the Russia-based Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, headed by the society's chairman Sergei Stepashin. In the message, Putin hailed Assad's war against "international terrorism" that he asserted is "backed" by Western nations. (Xinhua, April 2) The message comes amid reports from Jane’s Defense Weekly that Assad's military started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February. Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to Russia's Defense Ministry and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, confirmed that Moscow is supplying a "lifeline" of ammunition and parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters to Damascus. Alexei Malashenko, Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said: "Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly. If Russia can show it's capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin." (Bloomberg, April 2)

Rights group: more than 150,000 dead in Syria war

The death toll in the three-year Syrian conflict has exceeded 150,000, a British-based human rights group announced on April 2. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 150,344 persons have died since the uprising began in March 2011. The death toll includes 51,212 civilians, including 7,985 children and 5,266 women. The numbers do not include the 18,000 detainees in regime prisons or the "thousands who disappeared during regime raids and massacres." SOHR estimates that the non-Syrian casualties to be approximately 70,000 more than the documented number, "due to the extreme discretion by all sides of the human losses caused by the conflict and due to the difficulty of communication in Syria." Finally, SOHR called on both sides to peaceably end the conflict.

Syria: jihadis target Armenians

An estimated 2,000 Armenians from the town of Kessab, on Syria's border with Turkey, have taken refuge in the coastal city Latakia following the occupation of their town by jihadist forces. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) reported on a number of eye-witness accounts of the looting and seizure of Armenian homes, stores, and churches in Kessab. The armed incursion began March 21, as rebels associated with the Nusra Front, Sham al-Islam and Ansar al-Sham crossed from the Turkish side border. Snipers targeted the civilian population and launched mortar attacks on the town and the surrounding villages. Syrian government troops reportedly tried to push the attackers back. (Asbarez, Asbarez, March 25)

Turkish 'false flag' plot on Ottoman site in Syria?

Turkish Prime Miniter Tayyip Erdogan's banning of YouTube is making more headlines than the extraordinary leak the prompted the move. Posted to YouTube anonymously, it appears to show Turkey's intelligence chief and cabinet members discussing a possible attack on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Sultan Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan seemed to confirm the leak, telling a crowd of supporters: "They even leaked a national security meeting. This is villainous... Who are you serving by doing audio surveillance of such an important meeting?" The government said in a statement: "It is a wretched attack, an act of espionage and a very heavy crime to record and leak to the public a top secret meeting held in a place where the most delicate security issues of the state are discussed." But outrage over the leak seems intended to distract from the actual conent of the leak...

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