US intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts ahead of Khan Sheikhoun attack

The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5, CNN reports citing an unidentified ‘senior US official’.

The intercepts were allegedly part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. ‘The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen’, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.

So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. The official said the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted.

US assesses that SAA has re-established a chemical weapons unit

The US now assesses that Syria has re-established a unit of personnel associated with chemical weapons that existed before the 2013 agreement in which the Syrian government pledged to give up its weapons inventory. And there is some indication they are getting outside help. “We know they have the expertise. And we suspect that they have help,” a US military official told reporters at a background briefing Friday. At that briefing, the official also noted, “We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country. We cannot talk about openly any complicity between the Russians and the Syrian regime in this — in this case, but we’re carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with the Syrian capability.” But even if there is a definitive finding of Russian complicity, it’s not clear the Pentagon or the White House would make that information public, a senior US official said. First, it would have to be ironclad proof, which could be difficult to determine. But also, the US feels right now that it has made the case that Russian support for Assad must end. For now, the official said the most specific evidence of Russian involvement remains a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack. The US has specific intelligence showing it was a Russian drone. While the drone operator may not have known why the aerial vehicle was flying in the area, it was a Russian-controlled asset.

Suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun kills more than 90, dozens injured

A suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, near Idlib, has killed more than 90 people on Tuesday, while dozens were injured.

Airstrikes on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun began just after daybreak, delivering an unidentified chemical agent that killed at least 90 people and filled clinics across the area with patients foaming at the mouth or struggling to breathe.

Three doctors said in interviews that the symptoms they saw were far more serious than they would expect from chlorine, which Syrian government forces have used as a chemical weapon in the past. The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed “serious concern” and said it was investigating.

Images from the area showed the bodies of at least a dozen men, women and children splayed across the ground between two houses. It was not possible to independently verify the reports, but video footage showed lifeless bodies wrapped in blankets and packed on the back of a truck. The youngest were wearing diapers.

In another video, several children were seen slumped on hospital beds, apparently unresponsive to the medics and chaos around them. Syrian government warplanes in recent months have launched heavy attacks across northern Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of civilians — many having fled other battle zones — are squeezed together among much of what remains of the armed opposition to Assad.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry denied involvement in Tuesday’s attack, saying the government was committed to its obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the convention in 2013 after launching sarin attacks on several Damascus neighborhoods — strikes that killed hundreds of civilians and pushed the United States to the brink of military intervention.

The attack came as European diplomats gathered in Brussels for a flagship conference aimed at pledging billions of dollars for Syria’s reconstruction, six years into a civil conflict that has shattered much of the country and prompted refugees to pour out across the Middle East and Europe.

Photographs of lifeless bodies in Khan Sheikhoun were passed from phone to phone in the Brussels conference hall, attendees said, a stark reminder of the limitations of European power in a war now heavily driven by Iranian and Russian influence.

Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. [photo by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters]

Emergency U.N. Security Council meeting

The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday morning on the suspected chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, which opposition activists say has killed dozens of people. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the current council president, made the announcement Tuesday in response to a request from Britain and France for an emergency council session. She said council members have seen reports “of the terrible chemical weapons attack in Syria.” Haley said the council will get a briefing at an open meeting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Wednesday “and we are hoping to get as much information on the Syrian attack as we can.”

White House condemns attack

The White House has condemned what it describes as a “heinous” chemical attack against civilians by the Syrian government. Spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday’s attack in the Syrian province of Idlib is “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” But Spicer says the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government are a consequence of the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” in addressing the Syrian civil war. Spicer says that President Barack Obama said he would draw a “red line” at chemical attacks, “then did nothing.” Spicer would not say whether the White House believes Russia played a role in the attack, saying President Donald Trump has been briefed. He says Trump is “extremely alarmed” by this “intolerable act.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia and Iran bear “great moral responsibility” for deaths from an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to use their influence over Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. He said they bear moral responsibility because they have declared themselves to be the guarantors of a ceasefire they helped broker in Astana, Kazakhstan. He said in a statement that Iran and Russia shouldn’t have any illusions about Assad or his intentions. Tillerson says anyone using chemical weapons to attack his own people must be held accountable for a “fundamental disregard for human decency.” He also said the chemical weapons attack makes clear that Assad operates “with brutal, unabashed barbarism” and that Syria needs a “genuine ceasefire” and that anyone supporting armed combatants there must help ensure compliance.

A senior U.S. State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said that if a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria is what it appears to be, it is “clearly a war crime.” The official said both the United States and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are currently gathering information about the attack.

The attack comes as the U.S. has been softening its stance on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future and leaving open the possibility the U.S. could cooperate with Assad’s government on fighting the Islamic State group. But the U.S. official says that’s “highly unlikely.” He says the U.S. isn’t currently focused on that possibility. He says the Syrian government’s behavior would have to change before the U.S. would seriously consider that step.

U.N. says can’t verify use of chemical agents in attack

The United Nations says it isn’t in a position to independently verify reports of a chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province but Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply disturbed” at the incident. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. chief extends “his heartfelt condolences to victims of the incident and their families.” He pointed to the OPCW, the international chemical weapons watchdog, which announced that it has started gathering information to determine if chemical weapons were used. Dujarric said Gutteres recalled the U.N. Security Council determination that the use of chemical weapons threatens international peace and security, and if confirmed “constitutes a serious violation of international law.”

Russia confirms attack was carried out by Syrian airforce planes

A Russian official confirmed on Wednesday morning that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was carried out by the Syrian Arab Airforce but wouldn’t confirm use of chemical agents.

Daesh bomb attacks in Baghdad’s al-Sinak market kill at least 28

Two suicide bombers ripped through al-Sinak market area in central Baghdad Saturday, shattering a relative lull in attacks in the capital and marring preparations for New Year celebrations.

The bombers attacked the al-Sinak area, killing at least 28 people and wounding 53, a police colonel said. An officer in the interior ministry and a hospital official confirmed the toll. “Many of the victims were people from the spare parts shops in the area, they were gathered near a cart selling breakfast when the explosions went off,” said Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, who owns a nearby shop. Torn clothes and mangled iron were strewn across the ground in pools of blood at the site of the wreckage near Rasheed street, one of the main thoroughfares in Baghdad, an AFP photographer said. “Twin terrorist attacks were carried out by suicide bombers in al-Sinak neighborhood,” an official from Baghdad operations command told AFP. The area is packed with shops, workshops and wholesale markets and usually teeming with delivery trucks and laborers unloading vans or wheeling carts around.

baghdad-al-sinak-161231-01

Daesh claims attack

Daesh later claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted by its Aamaq news agency, confirming that the blasts came from a pair of suicide bombers.

Baghdad has been on high alert since the start on October 17 of an offensive, Iraq’s largest military operation in years, to retake the northern jihadist stronghold of Mosul. Daesh has tried to hit back with major diversionary attacks across the country but has had little success in Baghdad. Saturday’s twin bombings were the deadliest in the capital since the start of the Mosul offensive.

Huge crowds were expected to gather on Saturday evening in Baghdad’s streets to celebrate the New Year for only the second time since the lifting in 2015 of a years-old curfew. Last year revelers turned out for celebrations that lasted most of the night despite an already tense security backdrop.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/AFP/Associated Press

21 civilians ‘executed’ by rebels in Aleppo, say authorities

Syrian authorities have accused rebel fighters of executing 21 civilians, including women and children, at close range as they quit second city Aleppo last week, state media reported.

The bodies were found in two neighborhoods in east Aleppo, state news agency SANA said late Sunday. The head of Aleppo’s forensic unit Zaher Hajjo told SANA that “21 corpses of civilian victims, including five children and four women, killed by terrorist groups” were examined. “The bodies were found in prisons run by the terrorist groups in Sukkari and al-Kalasseh, and they were found to have been executed by gunshot at very close range,” Hajjo was quoted as saying.

Under a landmark deal brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, 35,000 rebels and civilians left the former opposition stronghold of east Aleppo last week. Days before the evacuations began, the UN said it had received credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed by pro-government forces in Aleppo. On Monday, the Russian defence ministry said “dozens of Syrians” were summarily executed in east Aleppo by rebels. “Mass graves containing dozens of Syrians who were summarily executed and subjected to savage torture have been discovered,” spokesman Igor Konachenkov said, according to Russian agencies. He said most had been killed by gunshot wounds to the head and many bodies “were not whole,” and that thorough investigations would force opposition backers in the West to “recognise their responsibility for the cruelty” of rebels.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that bodies had been found in east Aleppo’s streets, but could not specify how they had been killed.

A picture shows destruction in the former rebel-held Sukkari district in East Aleppo on December 23, 2016 [photo by AFP/George Ourfalian]
A picture shows destruction in the former rebel-held Sukkari district in East Aleppo on December 23, 2016 [photo by AFP/George Ourfalian]

Sources: AFP/Syria & Iraq News

Iraqi army recaptures ancient city of Nimrud from Daesh

The Iraqi army announced Sunday the complete capture of ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, 30 kilometres south of Mosul.

“Troops from the Ninth Armoured Division liberated Nimrud town completely and raised the Iraqi flag above its buildings.”

Daesh had destroyed and demolished large part of the 3,000-year old archaeological monuments in 2015.

nimrud-1990aSource: Syria & Iraq News

Daesh executes hundreds in Mosul

Daesh fighters have reportedly shot and killed scores of civilians in Mosul in recent days, according to the UN, which has also confirmed the discovery of a mass grave in the nearby town of Hammam al-Alil in which more than 100 bodies were found.

In a brief published on Friday detailing a series of Daesh executions and abuses, the UN’s human rights office said that 40 people were killed by the armed group on Tuesday for “treason and collaboration” with Iraqi forces and their allies closing in on the city during a major military push. Dressed in orange jumpsuits, the bodies of the victims were hung from electrical poles in several areas around Mosul, the UN said.

On Wednesday evening, Daesh reportedly shot to death a further 20 civilians in the Ghabat military base in northern Mosul, also on charges of leaking information. “Their bodies were also hung at various intersections in Mosul, with notes stating: ‘Decision of execution’ and ‘used cell phones to leak information to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)’,” the UN said. The rights office also said the mass grave in Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, was just one of several Daesh killing grounds.

The site was discovered on Monday and contained the bodies of at least 100 people, including former ISF officers and Daesh detainees, as well as people killed for initiating anti-Daesh attacks since the beginning of the Mosul operation four weeks ago.

“I’ve been in Erbil since the beginning of this military operation to retake the city of Mosul and we have documented hundreds of executions by Daesh,” Belkis Wille, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera from Erbil. “We are not surprised, unfortunately, to see mass graves like this one [in Hammam al-Alil]; it definitely is not the only one.”

A shoe from a victim of mass executions at a dump yard near Hammam al-Alil, Iraq [11/11/2016]
A shoe from a victim of mass executions at a dump yard near Hammam al-Alil, Iraq [11/11/2016]

The human rights body said they had received reports of Daesh stockpiling large amounts of chemicals in civilian areas in order to be used as weapons. At least four people died from inhaling fumes after Daesh shelled and set fire to the al-Mishrag sulfur gas factory in Mosul on October 23.

The UN also said it had gathered evidence that teenagers and young boys were being used by Daesh as suicide bombers during the offensive, while young girls and women were being sexually exploited by the armed group’s fighters. “Since 27 October, Daesh has been relocating abducted women, including Yazidi women, into Mosul city and into Tel Afar town,” the human rights body said in its brief. “Some of these women were reportedly ‘distributed’ to Daesh fighters while others have been told they will be used to accompany Daesh convoys.”

But in its brief, the UN human rights office also urged the Iraqi government to ensure that the rights of Mosul civilians are met amid accusations of atrocities committed by government forces. It cited sporadic reports of retaliatory attacks, including allegations of revenge killings by civilians or by forces under the control of the Iraqi army.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said that he welcomed a statement by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemning such acts, but urged the government to act to prevent reprisals and revenge killings. “Justice for the victims and survivors of human rights abuses and violations – irrespective of when, where or by whom such abuses and violations were committed – need to be impartial, transparent and effective,” Zeid said. “The government of Iraq must act quickly to restore effective law enforcement in areas retaken from Daesh to ensure that captured fighters and their perceived supporters are dealt with according to the law.”

One video circulating on social media on Friday appeared to show a teenage boy being shot and run over by a tank used by what seemed to be Iraqi-backed forces. “I think we need to exercise extreme caution with videos like this,” HRW’s Wille told Al Jazeera. “We know that Daesh previously produced fake videos showing Iraqi forces committing abuses.” There is a possibility that this video had been faked by Daesh fighters to shift the public opinion against Iraqi forces, she said. “There is no flag on the tank in the video. That is a bit inconsistent with what I’ve seen on Iraqi force tanks,” Wille said. “Also only one man in the video is wearing an Iraqi uniform, and there are no other armored vehicles in the area.” But, she said, if the video is genuine, Iraqi authorities should take swift action to stop these kinds of extrajudicial killings. “Unfortunately in the battle to retake Fallujah, we’ve seen multiple instances of abuses perpetrated by pro-government forces against the civilian population. “And there is an extreme concern that this may happen again in Mosul.”

Sources: UN Media Centre/Syria & Iraq News/Al Jazeera

Syrian army begins East Aleppo ceasefire, while Germany and France threaten Russia with sanctions

The Syrian military said on Thursday a unilateral ceasefire had come into force to allow rebels to leave the besieged eastern part of Aleppo city. The rebels said was the ceasefire was part of a psychological campaign to make them surrender.

aleppo-161020-02State media earlier said the army had opened exit corridors in two designated areas in the Bustan al Qasr quarter and near the Castello road in northern Aleppo where waiting green buses were shown on state television.

Intensified Russian and Syrian bombing of besieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo have knocked down scores of hospitals, bakeries and water pumping stations in an offensive that has killed hundreds of civilians in the past few weeks.

Merkel and Hollande do not rule out sanctions on Russia over Aleppo ‘war crimes’

On Wednesday night, the leaders of France and Germany lashed out at President Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s bombardment of Aleppo and refused to rule out imposing sanctions on Russia. “What is happening in Aleppo is a war crime. One of the first demands is that the bombardments by the regime and its [Russian] backers must end,” French president François Hollande said after a meeting of the three leaders in Berlin. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, condemned the air raids on Syria’s second city as “inhumane and cruel”.

Both leaders warned that they could not exclude imposing sanctions on Russia, hours ahead of an EU summit where Russia’s role in Syria is set to be discussed. “Everything that can constitute a threat can be useful,” Hollande said at a press conference. Merkel added: “We cannot remove this option.”

Hollande said Putin appeared to be ready to extend Thursday’s temporary truce, set to last for 11 hours. “We came out of the meeting with the impression that there could be an extension of the truce, but it’s up to the Syrian regime and Russia to show it,” he said. A truce of just a few hours would not be enough to deliver the necessary humanitarian aid and allow civilians to leave the area, Hollande added.

Earlier this week, the Syrian military said the temporary ceasefire would allow trapped civilians to escape and said it had pulled back to enable rebel fighters to leave the city via two designated corridors. “We guarantee a safe exit, save your families,” an army loudspeaker blared near an exit corridor shown live on the pro-Hezbollah news channel Mayadeen. But rebels say the goal of Moscow and President Bashar al-Assad’s government is to empty rebel-held parts of civilians so they can take over the whole city. The rebels say they are preparing a large-scale offensive to break the siege of Aleppo and say the Russian air force has failed, despite a relentless bombing campaign. They say the army and its Iranian-backed militias are finding it harder to make headway after initial progress on the outskirts of the city that allowed the army to tighten its grip.

Syrian Red Crescent

Sources: AFP/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News