Syria and Civilian Abuse

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In the past year, the Syrian regime has engaged in massive human rights abuses as it sought to suppress the civilian population rising up against the government and as it sought to protect itself from Bashar al Assad’s war crimes. Mark Dubowitz (CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies)estimates that since the war began in 2011 as many as half a million lives have been lost. (learn about Mark Dubowitz) An additional 5 million Syrians are living abroad as refugees, and 6 million are displaced internally.

Unlawful and indiscriminate attacks against medical facilities, schools, and mosques have worsened the death toll. The Syrian government, controlled by Bashar al-Assad, utilized support from Russian and Iranian forces to reclaim control over parts of Aleppo killing nearly five hundred civilians in the process. The regime’s uses of cluster munition, incendiary explosives, and barrel bombs, in particular, has raised the risk to civilians.

The Syrian government has also used chemical weapons against civilian targets on multiple occasions. Evidence suggests the weapons are primarily nerve agents which when inhaled shut down the victim’s nervous system causing loss of life through cardiovascular paralysis.

Last September, the UN released a report that concluded that the Syrian air force used sarin gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Dozens were killed, the majority of whom were women and children. Human Rights Watch documented at least eight chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian government during the assault to retake Aleppo.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented more than 4,500 instances of arbitrary arrests conducted by government forces. As many as 80,000 individuals remain missing and are believed to be held within government custody. Detained prisoners are subjected to malnutrition, prolonged isolation, unsanitary conditions, insufficient medical treatment and in some cases torture.

This past August, the wife of a computer engineer and freedom of speech activist, Bassel Khartabil, who had been arrested in 2012 finally received confirmation of her husband’s fate. He was executed in 2015 while being held at a Syrian detention facility, but the government withheld this information for nearly three years.

Despite the substantial loss that ISIS suffered during the previous year of conflict the group has continued abuses against the civilian population. ISIS used civilians as human shields during its defense of Raqqa and deployed landmines in populated areas to hold off advancing forces.

Last May, ISIS attacked a Shia Muslim community in the town of Aqarib al-Safiyah and utilized snipers to kill residents who attempted to flee the area. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, over 100 civilians were injured, and 52 were killed including a dozen children. The UN also confirmed that ISIS has used chemical weapons against civilian populations in the past, specifically sulfur mustard gas.

A Britain-based watchdog group (the Syrian Observatory) found that around 1,100 civilians have died during airstrikes by coalition planes since the campaign to retake the city of Raqqa began. Human Rights Watch investigated the bombing of a school in Mansourah last March that killed over 80 civilians, including 30 children. This and other strikes have raised concern that US-led coalition forces have not taken adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

Famine and illness are rampant with many high-population areas wholly cut off from humanitarian aid. Government forces and armed opposition groups have managed to prevent UN aid workers and non-profit volunteers from being able to provide proper medical care, food, and water to places in desperate need all across the country. The UN estimates that around 540,000 individuals are trapped in areas cut off from outside support. As tensions in the region escalate widespread starvation is only expected to get worse with the majority of those affected being children.

 

To learn more about this and other Middle Eastern issues please see Mark Dubowitz website here.

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Evolution of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities

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Iran possesses one of the most extensive ballistic missile arsenals in the Middle East, with many of those weapons capable of carrying a nuclear device. This is mainly due to several technological advancements the country has made in the field of aerospace engineering over the past decade. Some of these accomplishments include the deployment of satellites into low Earth orbit, the construction and successful testing of multi-stage missiles, improved missile guidance, and improved fuel efficiency. These, among other advancements, have extended Iran’s firing range, improved missile speeds, and lowered costs.

 

The growth of Iran’s missile armament has increased global fears surrounding the country’s intentions. One concern is that Iran plans to build a fleet of long-range missiles that could act as a substitute for the country’s aging air-force. Another concern is that Iran could use these improved ballistic missiles to deliver nuclear payloads. Due to the tense political climate in the Middle East, many fear the potential for escalation on both a regional and global scale, were Iran to become a nuclear power.

 

Though an international deal preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was reached in July 2015 under the Obama administration, there remain many who are skeptical of the agreement’s strength. Speaking with Politico, Mark Dubowitz of FDD said: “the day was a bitter setback.” The arrangement, which was supported by the UN and many U.S. allies, requires the Iranian government to submit to inspections of military facilities in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions.

 

Mark Dubowitz doesn’t believe Iran is living up to its end of the bargain, and he is not alone. President Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal for being unenforceable. FDD explains that the way the agreement is written requires the president to waive the US sanctions against Iran on a prearranged timetable (every 120-180 days). If the president refuses to waive the US sanctions, the deal will crumble.

 

In January President Trump vowed not to waive any further sanctions.

 

Push-back against the agreement has drawn criticism from both parties, as well as leaders abroad. The heads of Russia and China have both denounced the current administration’s refusal to cooperate with the deal, calling it “efforts by the US o change negotiated treaties.” However, the US’s position, both under the Obama administration and the Trump administration, as well as the European position, is that the deal might already be void by Iran’s refusal to allow proper inspections.

 

One subject the treaty doesn’t cover, which many wanted included, is Iran’s non-nuclear missile program. The country has been able to continue with its efforts to expand the scale, reach, accuracy, and speed of its projectiles uninhibited by global sanctions. In a last-ditch attempt to keep the United States from leaving the deal, European allies have promised to work on a version of the treaty that would require Iran to halt efforts on its ballistic missile program, or face the return of global economic sanctions. While the future relationship between the U.S. and Iran remains uncertain, many are hopeful that some arrangement will stay in place for the time being.

Ramifications of Syrian Crisis Spreads Across Borders

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Syria has been the site of a civil and political mess, with their government and factions warring it out at the cost of their people. Their human rights track record is barbaric, with the U.N. indicating that their indiscriminate use of weapons in civilian areas qualifies as war crimes.

 

Though modern Syrian history has been uneasy since post-WWI, it has been within the past 4-5 decades that tensions have been exacerbated. For the past seven years, it has been downright hell for the people caught in this Syrian Civil War.

 

The 2011 Arab Spring sparked hope among the youth of Syria, desperate for change as they and their families faced high unemployment rates, widespread corruption, and general oppression under Bashar al-Assad. These hopes were immediately quashed by Assad and his government, who began by detaining and torturing peaceful protesters, followed by even more protester detainment and executions.

 

Who Against Whom?

 

It has been a relentless fight since, escalated in part by the intervention of the international community. Iran, Russia, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia have all put efforts into various sides of this conflict, which some say has prolonged the fighting and exacerbated sectarian interests.

 

Additionally, terrorist groups like ISIL and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (a derivation of Al-Nusra/Al-Qaeda)  have also seized on the opportunity in taking advantage of the divide within Syria, further fueling the conflict.  The Syrian army has been supported by Shia militiamen from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen with purported interest in protecting Shia holy sites; however, there are political underpinnings to these interests, as we’ll discuss later.

 

Historically, the Sunni majority has been pitted against the Shia Alawite sect. The Alawites have been largely ostracized since the ‘60s, even when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized power in 1970 and nepotistically filled his cabinet. Though other Alawites soon became drawn to other institutional positions, the origins of their identity became lost as Hafez al-Assad effectively supplanted it with a reverence for himself and his regime, which carried over into Bashar al-Assad’s rule. A civil war in the late ‘70s – early ‘80s spurred by The Muslim Brotherhood rebellion further inflamed discord among the Alawites and Sunni majority.  In both al-Assad regimes, the Alawite identity has become a deeply fortified love and loyalty for al-Assad.

 

Brutality Against Civilians

 

Just within the period from March – July 2017, the UN has documented major trends and patterns of international human rights and humanitarian violations committed. There has been significant, if not absolute, disregard for civilian life from the warring parties, who have displaced and killed numerous victims.  Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and ISIL have even killed children with their tactics that include car and suicide bombings, and have taken hostages as well.

Government forces are no better. Chemical weapons have been used against civilians in areas occupied by oppositional forces. In April 2017, the Syrian Air Force deployed the nerve agent, Sarin, in the northwestern part of Syria, killing over 80 people of whom were mostly women and children. Medical facilities were also targeted, compromising efforts to render aid to those injured during the attacks and thus allowing the civilian casualty rate to increase. Syrian forces also used weaponized chlorine in the western and southwestern parts of the country. Despite the Syrian Arab Republic acceding to the 2013 Convention on Chemical Weapons, these are clear violations of this and international humanitarian law.

 

Global Concern & Implications

 

Though this technically has been a civil war among Syrians for the past seven years, the regional and international involvement in this crisis have become a global concern. Not only is human life being continually devalued and violated, but these consequences ultimately spread far across Syrian borders.

 

In particular, Iran, a long-time ally of Syria, has literally and metaphorically planted itself quite firmly in Syrian soil. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has deployed tactical advisors throughout military bases in Syria, regularly has commanders on the front line of battles, and is actively backing and training fighters in Syria. Iran also utilizes newer technologies like drones for spying, with potential for use in aerial attacks.

 

By taking advantage of the dissent running rife in Syria, Iran is positioning itself to gain a stronger foothold in the region against its biggest threat: Israel. Analysts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies say Iran is shoring up relations with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to ensure support and permanence in the area in case of war.

 

Though Israel and Lebanon do not want a war and were effectively ‘pacified’ against further hostilities since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Israel may feel threatened enough to attack if Iran continues down this path.

 

Taking it one step further, Iran strategically placing itself in this conflict is yet another reason why analysts are intently concerned about negotiations with Iran and the crisis in Syria. Many fear if Iran’s military and nuclear activities go unchecked, a diabolical superpower could emerge successful.

 

For example, Mark Dubowitz, an expert on Iran, Iran sanctions and nuclear non-proliferation, has been a long-time  advocate of  identifying the flaws in the nuclear deal with Iran and fixing them in follow up negotiations so that Iran can never have a dangerous nuclear capability.

 

It is for these reasons, the international community should be compelled to pay more attention and remain informed and involved.