OPCW mission reached Douma, collected samples for analysis ~statement

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has issued a statement saying that the Fact-Finding Mission in Syria has reached one of the sites in Douma where a suspected chemical weapons attack occured on April 7 and has collected samples for analysis.

The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) visited one of the sites in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic today to collect samples for analysis in connection with allegations of chemical weapons use on 7 April 2018. The OPCW will evaluate the situation and consider future steps including another possible visit to Douma.

The samples collected will be transported to the OPCW Laboratory in Rijswijk and then dispatched for analysis to the OPCW’s designated labs. Based on the analysis of the sample results as well other information and materials collected by the team, the FFM will compile their report for submission to the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention for their consideration.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

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Rebels withdraw from Qalamoun

Rebels began withdrawing from Qalamoun on Saturday and will go to northern Syria, state TV and a rebel official said, in a surrender agreement that marks another victory for President Bashar al-Assad. The withdrawal will restore state control over the eastern Qalamoun enclave, some 40 km from Damascus.

Screenshot from SANA showing buses waiting to board rebels and their families from al-Ruhaiba [21/4/2018]

State TV said rebel fighters and their families would be transported from eastern Qalamoun to Idlib and Jarablus, with 3,200 militants and their families expected to leave on Saturday. The spokesman for one of the rebel groups in eastern Qalamoun said the insurgents had agreed to the deal after intensified Russian shelling killed six people in areas near the town of al-Ruhaiba earlier this week. “This made the Free (Syrian) Army factions sit at the negotiating table with the Russian side and an agreement was reached the most important articles of which are the surrender of heavy weapons and the departure of fighters to the north,” Said Seif of the Ahmad Abdo Martyr brigade said. A first convoy of 10 buses had left al-Ruhaiba and was being searched in a nearby area before continuing to the north.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/SANA/Reuters

US, UK and France launch ‘limited’ strikes in Syria on targets associated with chemical weapons

U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they called chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a poison gas attack. U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”. As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus.

Damascus sky lights up with surface-to-air missile fire as the U.S., Britain and France launch attack

The bombing represents a major escalation putting the West in direct confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years. That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as both reckless and pointless. By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Russian- and Iranian-backed forces have already driven his enemies from Syria’s major towns and cities, arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”. She said she had authorized the British action after intelligence indicated Assad’s government was responsible for the attack using chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago. French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.

With more than 100 missiles fired from ships and manned aircraft, the allies struck three of Syria’s main chemical weapons facilities, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said. The targets included a Syrian center in the greater Damascus area for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weaponry as well as a chemical weapons storage facility near the city of Homs. A third target, also near Homs, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post. Mattis called the strikes a “one time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.

The Syrian conflict pits a complex myriad of parties against each other, with Russia and Iran giving Assad military and political help that has largely proven decisive over the past three years in crushing any rebel threat to topple him. Fractured opposition forces have had varying levels of support from the West, Arab states and Turkey. The United States, Britain and France have all bombed the Islamic State group in Syria for years and had troops on the ground to fight them, but refrained from targeting Assad’s government apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year. Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government with no wider strategy to defeat him.

Assad’s government and allies responded outwardly with fury, although there were also clear suggestions that they considered the attack a one-off, unlikely to harm Assad. A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the Syrian government and its allies had “absorbed” the attack. The sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia, the official said. “If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said. Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said on Twitter: “Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.” Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” An official in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said it would cause consequences that were against U.S. Interests. French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avoid inadvertant escalation.

Absorbed the strike”

At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke was seen rising over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus had been hit in the strikes. Barzah is the location of a major Syrian scientific research center. Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the U.S.-led attacks and said Washington and its allies would bear responsibility for the consequences in the region and beyond, state media reported. State-controlled Syrian TV said Syrian air defenses shot down 13 missiles fired in the attack. The Russian defense ministry said none of the rockets launched had entered zones where Russian air defense systems are protecting military facilities in Tartus and Hmeimim.

The combined U.S., British and French assault appeared more intense than a similar strike Trump ordered almost exactly a year ago against a Syrian air base in retaliation for an earlier chemical weapons attack that Washington attributed to Assad. Mattis said the United States conducted the air strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas was used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.

Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use are frequent in Syria’s conflict, raising questions about whether Washington had lowered the threshold for military action in Syria by deciding to strike after a chlorine attack. Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons. It is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned. Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates that too large an attack would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a one-off to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”. But a U.S. official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates Assad has not stopped making, importing, storing or using chemical weapons including chlorine. The official said this could require a more sustained U.S. air and naval presence in the region, as well as more surveillance.

Iraqi parliament approves $88bn budget, Kurdish MPs boycott vote

Iraq’s parliament approved a long-delayed budget on Saturday, the first since declaring victory over Islamic State after three years of war, but Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the vote over their region’s diminished allocation. The budget of 104 trillion Iraqi dinars ($88 billion) is based on projected oil exports of 3.8 million barrels per day (bpd) at a price of $46, a copy of the final bill showed. It envisions government revenues of 91.64 trillion dinars ($77.6 billion) with a deficit of 12.5 trillion dinars ($10.58 billion).

Parliament was meant to pass the budget before the start of the 2018 financial year in January but all three main blocs, Shi’ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds, had serious issues with the government’s proposal. “We boycotted the vote and there are proposals for Kurdistan to withdraw from the entire political process in Iraq over the unfair treatment we have received,” said Kurdish MP Ashwaq Jaff. The budget cut the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) share from the 17 percent the region has traditionally received since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It did not specify a percentage to be allocated to the KRG, instead stipulating it would receive funds proportional to its share of the population. In a previous draft the KRG portion was set at 12.67 percent, which is how much of Iraq’s population Baghdad says the provinces in Kurdistan make up. The KRG disputes that estimation.

The government said on Tuesday it had reached an agreement with the Kurds to resume Kirkuk oil exports through Turkey’s Ceyhan port but gave no precise timeline. The projected 3.8 million bpd exports in the budget includes a 250,000 bpd contribution from the Kurdistan region, lawmakers said on Saturday. It was not immediately clear what effect the Kurdish boycott of the vote would have on that.

Competing interests

Shi’ite lawmakers wanted more spending allocated to the southern oil-producing, predominantly Shi’ite, provinces as well as greater salaries and benefits for the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias known as Popular Mobilisation Forces, who helped Iraq’s security forces defeat Islamic State. Sunni lawmakers wanted more allocated toward reconstructing areas retaken from the militants, which were predominantly Sunni. The areas include Iraq’s second city Mosul. On Thursday the“three presidencies” of Iraq, its Shi’ite prime minister, Sunni parliament speaker, and Kurdish president, had met to discuss how to push the budget through.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated Iraqis over the passing of the budget on Saturday and said it was the result of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches. Speaker Salim al-Jabouri said the budget addressed Kurdish concerns and that the federal government would pay the salaries of Kurdish civil servants and Peshmerga fighters, as well as welfare entitlements. Baghdad had stopped paying salaries or making budget transfers to the Kurdish regional capital Erbil in 2014 when the Kurds started independently selling oil. Oil exports, Iraq’s main source of revenue, have risen above 3.4 million barrels per day this year but a global slump in prices for crude, compounded by the costs of rebuilding an infrastructure damaged by the war against Islamic State, have battered the country’s finances.

Syria downs Israeli F-16 after IDF down Iranian UAV; Moscow ‘concerned’

Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down an Israeli F-16 jet on Saturday, the military said, after Israel intercepted an Iranian drone launched from Syria and struck an Iranian target there. The F-16 jet crashed in northern Israel, near the village of Harduf.

Israeli security forces walk next to the remains of an F-16 Israeli war plane near the Israeli village of Harduf, Israel, February 10, 2018. [Reuters/Herzie Shapira]

It was one of the most serious incidents involving Israel, Iran and Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war almost eight years ago. “A combat helicopter successfully intercepted an Iranian UAV that was launched from Syria and infiltrated Israel,” the Israeli military said in a statement. “IDF (Israel Defence Forces) has targeted the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the #UAV into Israeli airspace. Massive Syrian Anti-Air fire, one F16 crashed in Israel, pilots safe,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said on Twitter.

SAA says air defenses addressed Israeli enemy and hit more than one aircraft

Syria’s SANA state media cited a military source as saying Syrian air defences had opened fire in response to an Israeli act of “aggression” against a military base and hit “more than one plane”. “The Israeli enemy entity at dawn today conducted a new aggression against one of the military bases in the central region. Our air defences confronted it and hit more than one plane,” the unidentified military source said.

Russia says is concerned with escalation of tensions

The Russian government said on Saturday that it is “concerned” with escalation of tensions between Israel and Syria.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters/Sputnik

Double suicide bombing kills at least 26 in Baghdad

A double suicide bombing killed 26 people in Baghdad on Monday, officials said, the second such attack in the Iraqi capital in three days. Dr Abdel Ghani al-Saadi, health chief for east Baghdad, reported “26 dead and 90 wounded”. “Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Tayyaran Square in central Baghdad,” said General Saad Maan, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes the army and the police. Tayyaran Square is a bustling centre of commerce and a place where day labourers gather in the early morning waiting for jobs. It has been the site of deadly attacks in the past. An AFP photographer at the site of the bombing said many ambulances had gathered and security forces had been deployed in large numbers.


There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Sources: AFP/Syria & Iraq News

Medical evacuations from Eastern Ghouta have begun: Red Crescent and ICRC

The Syrian branches of the Red Crescent and the International Red Cross have said on late Tuesday on their Twitter accounts. According to the medical organizations some “critical medical cases” were transported from Eastern Ghouta to Damascus hospitals following intense negotiations between Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s president Khaled Hboubati and IFRC president Francesco Rocca.