Civilian killings by U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq tripled in 2017

A British monitoring group says up to 6,000 Syrian and Iraqi civilians were killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in 2017 alone. Airwars, a London-based monitor, estimated that the number of civilian deaths in the two countries surged by 200 percent in 2017 compared to the year before.

“In 2017, the war against ISIS moved into the most densely-populated urban centers controlled by the group, with dire results for civilians,” Airwars said. “This toll coincided with the start of the Trump presidency,” it said.

According to Airwars, the coalition conducted about 11,573 artillery and air strikes, which showed an increase of 50 percent in comparison with the previous year. More than 70 percent of the strikes were in Syria.

The revelations contradict the U.S. military figures that put the overall civilian death toll in U.S.-led operations at just over 800 since late 2014. Washington claims that its airstrikes target militants, but reports on the ground indicate that many civilians have fallen victim to such attacks.

The U.S.-led coalition of 68 nations has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since September 2014 without a U.N. mandate. Similar air raids had begun the previous month in Iraq.

Human rights groups and other observers point to an array of factors that suggest that civilian deaths from the counter-ISIS campaign are likely to remain high.

One of the factors is a legacy of the last weeks of the Obama administration, when targeting procedures were changed, remov-ing the requirement for each sortie to be approved by a central “strike cell” in Baghdad. That has meant that Iraqi forces fighting on the ground have been able to call in an air strike from a coalition member with planes in the area. It does not have be approved by the coalition as a whole, which includes the U.K., Netherlands, France, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Jordan. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also take part in air strikes in Syria.

Another factor is that the coalition is using bigger bombs and less accurate means of delivering them. From an analysis of 380 bomb craters in west Mosul from fighting in March and April, Human Rights Watch estimated that the coalition was routinely dropping 500- and 1000-lb bombs, much bigger than the more precise ones used earlier in the campaign. At the same time, more mortars are being used by ground forces, and highly inaccurate improvised rockets are being fired by some Iraqi units.

Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that rhetoric coming from the leadership in Washington DC could also be having an effect. “A change in the rules of engagement does not have to be a change in doctrine,” he said. “It can just be a change in tone and command climate. [Defense Secretary James ‘Mad Dog’] Mattis has again and again talked about an ‘annihilation campaign,’ and that can an influence lower down.”

– edited from PressTV (Iran) and The Guardian (U.K.)
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

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5 years of war in Syria

The Syria conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad that quickly escalated into civil war. Since then, more than 250,000 people have been killed. Almost half the pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced, including more than 4.8 million who are refugees.

UNICEF said the war has affected more than 80 percent of Syria’s children, including 7 million who now live in poverty. This has led to growing numbers of children leaving school to work, marrying young or joining armed groups, as a way of supporting their families financially. In refugee camps in Jordan, one-third of marriages involve girls under the age of 18 — triple what it was in 2011. Armed groups are recruiting more and younger children.

– The Associated Press, March 14, 2016
PeaceMeal, July/August 2016

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Pentagon’s failed Syria program cost $2 million per trainee

WASHINGTON — When the Pentagon pulled the plug in Octo-ber on its plan to train and field a force of moderate Syrians to combat the Islamic State, it had spent $384 million, or $2 million per fighter, for a program that produced dismal results, according to interviews and spending figures obtained by USA Today. The Pentagon had tabbed $500 million in 2015 for the effort and promised to graduate 3,000 trained and equipped New Syrian Forces fighters this year, and 5,000 annually thereafter to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

The program was suspended after $384 million had been spent. Of the 180 Syrians vetted, trained and equipped, 145 fighters remain in the program. Of those, 95 are in Syria today. Two of the four training camps the Pentagon designated for the program in the Middle East never hosted a recruit.

The Pentagon disputes the $2 million figure per trainee, saying the actual cost is far lower, $30,000 per trainee. The “vast majority” of the funds paid for weapons, equipment and ammu-nition, some of which the U.S.-led coalition still has in storage, Navy Cdr. Elissa Smith, a spokeswoman, said in an email. In addition, some of those trained fighters have been calling in air strikes, and ammunition designated for the trainees has been given instead to other forces fighting ISIS, Smith said.

Separately, in Iraq, the Pentagon has spent nearly $1 billion training and equipping security forces to counter ISIS, according to Mark Wright, a spokesman. In spite of that, ISIS still holds Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city after Baghdad, and Ramadi, a major city in the west.

The Syria train-and-equip program had been a centerpiece of the White House and Pentagon strategy to confront the Islamic State, after its stunning success at capturing cities and territory across Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon announced that it planned to recruit, vet, train and equip thousands of Syrian “moderates” to protect their villages from the ISIS onslaught.

In the end, the program fielded fewer than 200 fighters. In September, one group of trainees surrendered one quarter of their U.S.-supplied weapons, ammunition and vehicles for safe passage through territory held by another rebel group. Last month, the Pentagon shelved the training effort, noting its poor results. Attention has shifted to groups already fighting ISIS in Syria.

“It’s clear to everyone now that this initial program was a failure,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Dem.-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee. Committee member Rep. Jackie Speier, Dem.- Calif., blasted the Pentagon for not ending the program upon realizing that it was poorly thought out and spectacularly wasteful. She said, “It borders on malfeasance that so much money was spent before the plug was pulled.”

Restrictions placed on Syrians eligible for training doomed the program to failure, said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC. The fighters had to pledge to fight ISIS, not the regime of Bashar Assad, and they had to be free of links to one of his main opponents, the Al Nusra Group, an al-Qaeda affiliate. She said, “We eliminated a large portion of the rebels with the requirements imposed on trainees.”

While the training has stopped, the United States will still give equipment and weapons to the leaders of vetted groups of rebels who are already fighting ISIS so that, over time, they continue to reclaim territory.

– edited from an article by Tom Vanden Brook in USA Today, November 6, 2015
PeaceMeal Jan/February 2016

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Syria’s violence engenders worst humanitarian crisis in a century

Mitchell Prothero

IRBIL, Iraq — Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced either internally or externally as refugees in the worst humanitarian crisis to strike the Middle East in at least a century, according to new data released by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The complex civil war in Syria, which has now morphed into a three-way free-for-all among rebels, the Syrian regime and a caliphate of Islamic extremists attacking virtually everyone, has driven at least 3 million people from Syria into neighboring countries. The movement is stressing already fragile nations such as Jordan and Lebanon, who have born the brunt of the exodus even as both deal with their own unstable political situations.

Turkey also has received hundreds of thousands of refugees and continues to struggle to control its own border, as thousands of foreign Jihadi fighters have used Turkey to access the Syrian battlefield. They offset the tens of thousands of Syrian fleeing the fighting, leaving southern Turkey awash in desperate refugees and militants of all stripes.

In terms of world history, the IRC, considered one of the world’s most effective aid organizations, says the situation has reached a level of disaster not seen worldwide since the Rwandan genocide more than 20 years ago that saw fewer people — about 1.5 million — displaced but nearly a million killed. The casualties in the Syrian conflict have been estimated by the United Nations conservatively at over 200,000 dead since it began in early 2011.

The situation in Lebanon, which has absorbed at least 1.2 million refugees into an already unstable population of about 4 million people — and an additional estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees that have been living in camps for decades — poses the greatest concern. With a government widely considered the least effectual in an already unstable region, Lebanon has refused to formulate an official government plan to deal with crisis, leaving virtually all of the aid and organizational work to either outside aid groups or even to the refugees themselves, who instead of living in camps where the population can be easily accessed by aid groups — such as the enormous Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan, estimated in July to have 81,000 residents — are scattered throughout Lebanon in small makeshift camps, private homes, or even living on the streets.

Their presence — and violent overflow from the battlefields in Syria — has already led to a series of skirmishes centering around the eastern Beqqa city of Aarsal, which has nearly tripled in size from its peacetime population of about 50,000 people. Over the last month, what had been small scale occasional clashes between rebels and either the Lebanese Army or the Syrian regime-aligned Shiite militant group Hezbollah turned into a full scale battle that saw much of Aarsal destroyed.

The IRC report, however, points out that as staggering as the Syrian numbers might be, the situation in neighboring Iraq, where the Islamic State overran much of the northern and central portions of the country in a June blitz that saw much of the Iraqi army disperse, has forced the internal displacement of well over a million Iraqi people as well.

The relatively stable Kurdish Autonomous Region, whose security forces have so far kept the Islamic State from overrunning its major population centers, has absorbed at least half a million Iraqi Arabs on top of tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds who had previously fled fighting in their home country.

With refugees from Mosul, Tikrit and a slew of small Christian villages overrun by the militants, virtually all the public space in the capital Irbil is filled with tents, as are all the churches and mosques. Said one Kurdish security official, “We’ve got 500,000 extra people to feed and 3 million to protect. And a war to fight.”

“This level of human suffering, anguish and misery does not belong in the 21st century. It is a devastating new hallmark of human failure,” said IRC president David Miliband. “We are witnessing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe for a generation in one of the least stable and most dangerous parts of the world. This crisis needs more public attention, more international financing and crucially more political endeavor to tackle the root of the crisis: political dysfunction that has led to violence, chaos and death.”

– edited from McClatchy Newspapers, August 29, 2014
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

* Founded in 1933 and at work today in over 40 countries and 22 U.S. cities, the International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises by providing lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster. You can help in their humanitarian work by making a tax-deductible contribution online at www.rescue.org or sending a check to International Rescue Committee, 122 East 42nd Street, New York NY 10168.


‘Unspeakable suffering’ for Syria’s children, U.N. reports

BEIRUT — Children in Syria have been tortured, sexually abused and subjected to “indiscriminate” attacks by President Bashar Assad’s forces, and recruited for combat and terror operations by the rebels fighting to topple him during the country’s nearly 3-year-old civil war, a new United Nations report said. The report to the U.N. Security Council by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlights the plight of children in the conflict from the beginning of the uprising against Assad in March 2011 until Nov. 15, 2013. The information in the report is based largely on interviews conducted by the United Nations, including numerous accounts from refugees.

The uprising against Assad’s rule began with largely peaceful protests in 2011 but evolved in time into a bloody civil war that has killed more than 10,000 children, according to U.N. estimates, and more than 130,000 people, according to activists. Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes, seeking shelter in neighboring countries or in safer parts of their homeland.

During the first two years of the conflict, most killings and maiming of children were attributed to government forces but, mainly due to increased access to heavy weapons and the use of terror tactics, opposition groups increasingly engaged in such acts in 2013. Government military forces have pounded rebel-held areas with airstrikes and artillery, obstructed children’s access to health services and education, and also subjected them to blockades of food and medicine.

According to the report, Assad’s forces have also been responsible for the arrest, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of children in detention facilities. Children as young as 10 have been detained by the authorities on suspicion of having links with armed groups, the report said, citing the arrest in August 2012 of a large number of boys and girls, mainly between the ages of 10 and 12 by Syrian troops, who used them as human shields.

Acts tantamount to torture reportedly included beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shock, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confine-ment; and exposure to the torture of relatives. Reports also indicated that children were suspended from walls or ceilings by their wrists or other limbs and were forced to put their head, neck and legs through a tire while being beaten.

Ban’s report said armed opposition groups also engaged in “the summary execution of children.” It said U.N. investigators have not been able to reach many of the rebel-held areas for lack of security there, and consequently have been unable to further investigate and document those violations but “trends are believed to be much higher than the number of recorded cases.”

Mr. Ban called on all sides to stop all grave violations against children cited in the report, end all indiscriminate and dispro-portionate attacks on civilian areas, including terror tactics, airstrikes, chemical weapons and heavy artillery, allow unimpeded humanitarian access, and immediately release abducted women and children.

– edited from The Associated Press, February 5, 2014, and UN News Centre
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Surviving in the city
The hidden plight of Syria’s urban refugees

Syrian_refugee_child.GIF (20797 bytes)Photo caption: Wrapped in a blanket provided by UNHCR, Alima sits in the passageway outside her family’s apartment on the sixth floor of a building in the Jordanian capital of Amman.. The building has no working elevator or heating and patchy electricity. Though cold much of the time, Alima says she is happy to be one of the few children on the sixth floor, where eight Syrian families live, to have a warm woolly hat. UNHCR photo by B. Sokol

Say “refugee crisis” and most people think of sprawling camps in remote locations. In reality, however, the majority of the world’s refugees live in urban centers, staying with host families or living hand-to-mouth in cheap rentals, collective shelters and city slums. This is certainly true of the current Syrian refugee crisis. While most media images are of the tented camps in Jordan and Turkey, nearly three-quarters of Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries are sheltered in the community. None of the 400,000 Syrians in Lebanon are living in camps and, even in Jordan, home of the large Za’atri refugee camp, at least 75 percent of displaced Syrians have sought refuge in towns and cities like Amman.Unlike those in camps, urban refugees can be difficult to reach and help. Many live in virtual hiding, fearing deportation, or struggle to survive in squalid and overcrowded conditions with no income, few belongings and limited access to basic services like electricity and health care.

Nineteen-year-old Bushra has found herself in this dire situation. Since fleeing their Syrian home in March, she and her two young children have been living in “Tin City,” a muddy slum in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, where they share two small rooms with 17 other people. While Bushra is glad to have escaped the gunfire in her homeland, she is struggling to provide for her children.

The influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon has increased the country’s population by a staggering 10 per cent, placing a heavy strain on infrastructure. In many Jordanian towns, also, energy, water, health and education services are being stretched. The U. N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the U.N. Refugee Agency, is helping local institutions like schools and medical centers cope with the growing demand for their services, supporting primary health and prenatal clinics in affected areas and funding special vocational and remedial programs in primary schools.

New arrivals are finding it increasingly difficult to find shelter in urban centers, with many living in substandard and unhealthy conditions. Since the beginning of the crisis, UNHCR emergency teams have helped to weatherproof and refurbish dozens of unfinished houses and empty buildings to accommodate refugees. The collective shelters are favored by large and extended families, allowing them to remain together in exile.

Sadly, many of these compelling programs are now under threat as funding dries up and Syrians continue to cross the border in the thousands. “At this level of funding, vital programs to ensure food, clean water, schooling for children, health care and shelter for newly arrived refugees are simply impossible,” UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon, Ninette Kelley, told the media.

If help was not forthcoming, all 400,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon would stop receiving food assistance within the month and the renovation of 44 potential collective shelters would not proceed. As a consequence, many refugee families would be left hungry and without a roof over their heads.

– edited from the newsletter of USA for UNHCR, Summer 2013
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


U.N. Security Council adopts binding resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons

The United Nations Security Council has unanimously adopted a binding resolution on ridding Syria of chemical weapons. At a session in New York, the 15-member body backed the draft document agreed to earlier by the United States and Russia. The deal breaks a two-and-a-half year deadlock in the U.N. over Syria, where fighting between government forces and rebels continues to rage.

Only a few weeks ago, this landmark vote would have seemed highly improbable, if not unimaginable. After the August 21 attack with sarin gas in the suburbs of Damascus, Security Council members could not even agree on a press statement condemning the killings.

The resolution has two key demands: that Syria abandon its chemical weapons stockpile and for weapons experts to be given unfettered access to make sure it is dismantled by the middle of next year. The resolution does not authorize the automatic use of force if Syria is held in violation. Any punitive measures, like military action or sanctions, would require a second resolution. In that event, Russia would likely wield its veto.

Neither does the resolution attribute guilt for the August 21 attack, the massacre that ended up transforming the diplomatic dynamic. Despite the agreement reached in Geneva two weeks earlier, which the resolution enshrines, Russia and America remain at odds over who was to blame.

For the first time, though, the Security Council has endorsed a roadmap for a political transition in Syria and the U.N. has also set a target date for a new peace conference in mid-November.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the Security Council demonstrated that “diplomacy can be so powerful that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also hailed the move, saying Moscow was ready to take part in “all operations” in Syria. However, he stressed that the success of international efforts was “not only on Damascus’ shoulders” but that the Syrian opposition must cooperate.

Reacting to the vote, Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said the resolution covered most of Damascus’ concerns. But he stressed that countries supporting Syrian rebels should also abide by the adopted document.

 The U.N. vote came just hours after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons adopted what it called “a historic decision on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.” After a late-night meeting in The Hague, the watchdog said its executive council “agreed on an accelerated program for achieving the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014. The decision requires inspections in Syria to commence October 1, 2013.

Syria is believed to possess more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents and pre-cursor chemicals, including sarin.

– PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)