Syria: HRW report on Latakia reflects Washington’s shifting policy.

A report from Human Rights Watch, titled “You Can Still See Their Blood”, gives a lengthy and detailed account of what amount to crimes against humanity committed by opposition forces in more than 10 majority Alawite villages in the region of Latakia.

Commencing in the early hours of the 4th of August, up to 20 rebels groups, led by the Salafi/Jihadi extremists that dominate the Syrian insurgency, among them: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suqoor al-Izz, commenced a prolonged and brutal sectarian attack upon the majority Alawite civilian population of Latakia. In another blow to the “moderate rebels” media narrative, it becomes clear that the western-friendly groups under “FSA” branding – ie, groups that receive arms and funding through the western-backed “Supreme Military Council” (SMC) – were also involved in the sectarian assault on Latakia. The report states that it is not clear whether SMC affiliated groups were present during the onset of the assault, but that “the participation of Idriss (leader of “SMC”) & fighters under his command in “Operation to Liberate the Coast” appears clear”. Furthermore, in a video filmed in Latakia countryside from August 11th, Idriss is shown congratulating the rebels for their “successes” in Latakia. And, in another video from August 12th Idriss declares his full support for the assault and appeals for more weapons for the “revolutionaries”:

I am here [in Latakia countryside] today to get a picture on the true achievements and the big successes that our fellow revolutionaries have achieved in the coastal campaign and to respond to the charges that claim incorrectly that we will end our operations here on the coastal frontlines. We are here today to assure everyone that our chief of staff is cooperating fully with the coastal military front command regarding their military activities. We are not going to withdraw as was falsely claimed but on the contrary, we are cooperating to a great extent in this operation.

We wish to remind everyone to provide the Syrian revolutionaries (sic) with bullets and weapons and all it needs so we can end the killing and destruction and build a free country.

The report is a damning account of the rebel groups that planned and took part in the unprovoked assault. Arguably for the first time a western “NGO” has reported on “systematic”, “premeditated”, mass atrocities committed by the rebels in Syria. It provides a stark wake-up call to the morally expedient media organs and western diplomats that have trumpeted the so-called “freedom fighters” for nigh-on two years – but that may be a desired intention, as we will discuss later.

HRW collected the names of 190 civilians that were killed in the attack, including 57 women, at least 18 children, and 14 elderly men, the vast majority of whom HRW claim were killed in the first day alone. Over 200 civilians are still missing. Moreover, 105 civilians – the vast majority women and children – are known to have been taken hostage by the rebels; it is claimed these hostages have been passed from one rebel group to another, with the aim of exchanging them for rebel prisoners, and are now allegedly being held captive by Ahrar al-Sham. A “oppposition activist”, present during the onslaught claimed that after the first day of the attack “160-200 Alawite were dead”.

The well-regarded analyst of jihadist groups in Syria Aymenn J Al-Tamimi, gave a less-than optimistic estimate of the fate of the captives in September, stating that the more extreme rebel groups consider Alawite women and children “spoils of war”, and it was “likely that they had been put to sex and labour trafficking”. A video released on YouTube circulating for some weeks shows some of the women and children from Latakia being held by Abu Suhaib, a Libyan leader of the foreign jihadist group Jaish al-muhijireen wal-Ansar. Ominously, HRW claim that “Given that many residents remain missing, and opposition fighters buried many bodies in mass graves, the total number of dead is likely higher.”

The report goes into graphic detail of how rebels attacked the town in large numbers, quickly overpowering local government troops. Witnesses described “frantically attempting to flee as opposition fighters stormed the area, opening fire apparently indiscriminately, and in some cases deliberately shooting at them while they tried to flee. Many of those who were unable to flee were killed or taken hostage.” Whole families were massacred in their homes. In many cases, male civilians were summarily executed whilst women and children were either killed attempting to flee or taken hostage. Furthermore, the report makes clear that the attack on Latakia was not the work of a “rogue group” and was clearly premeditated and organised in advance. Decapitation, slit-throats, multiple point-blank gunshot wounds, multiple stab wounds, and “complete charring” among the victims. The ruthless barbarity inflicted upon civilians is reminiscent of previous unsolved massacres that received widespread attention earlier on in the conflict.

Although much attention should rightly be focused on the barbaric nature of the attack and identifying its perpetrators, it is also important to consider the timing of the HRW report. The attacks on Latakia were over two months ago; long before the chemical weapons attack on August 21st in Ghouta, which HRW covered extensively – with far less source material at their disposal – only two weeks after the event. Once the Syrian Army (SAA) and National Defense Forces (NDF) had driven out the insurgents and regained control of the villages in Latakia; local Syrian media reported on the mass-graves that were found, and indeed, the many missing people. Moreover, the aforementioned video of captives with the Libyan militant Abu Suhaib also received widespread attention in local and alternative media. Conversely, these events went largely ignored in western media; the focus of western coverage on Syria was immediately flooded by the furore surrounding the attacks in Ghouta on August the 21st, again, in stark contrast to any coverage of the assault on Latakia. It should also be noted that the Syrian government itself had (unsuccessfully) tried to suppress reports of the attack on Latakia in order to preserve morale within its core support-base and avert the possibility of exacerbating sectarian divisions rapidly spreading throughout the country. The rebels had no such intention; the region of Latakia was intentionally targeted for the specific reason that the majority of its civilian inhabitants are Alawite and supporters of the Syrian government.

The question then remains, why have HRW chosen to publish this report now? The fact that the report is being released over two months after the event suggests its release has been suppressed. Working from the “theory” that HRW is in no way “independent” and in reality acts as a propaganda arm to forward the objectives of the United States Government, the answer for the apparent delay may lie in Washington’s shifting policy on Syria. Last week John Kerry was berated by hawks in Congress for coming close to praising the Assad government for its efforts with the OPCW, in their attempts to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpile; a man three weeks earlier Kerry had equated to Hitler. Another indicator lies in the report itself, in which much attention is paid to third parties responsible for funding and providing logistics for the attack. In short, the report points to three principal parties as guilty in this respect: the Turkish government, Gulf states, and private Gulf donors.

From information gleaned from social media accounts, the report names several key private individual donors who contributed sufficient amounts for the Latakia offensive, going as far as linking to their personal twitter accounts. One such donor is Sheikh Hajjej al-Ajami, a Kuwaiti Salafi preacher and long time patron of Ahrar al-Sham who is reported to have donated 400,000 euros for the offensive. One Shafi al-Ajami, another prominent Kuwaiti Salafi preacher and scholar at the Kuwait University – who was recently suspended for his allegedly divisive sermons – is also named as a key sponsor. Sheihk Saqr, the leader of Suqqor al-Izz, and a deputy Abu Tahal from Ahrar al-Sham are named as key interlocutors running funds from an operations center under their command.

The HRW report calls on Gulf states to “Publicly condemn abuses committed by opposition groups and deny any military support to Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar,and Suquor al-Izz”. HRW stress that Gulf states should increase monitoring of transfers from Gulf residents, urging them to use “influence” to pressure individuals and prosecute those found to be supporting war criminals. The report urges Gulf states to “use any influence over armed opposition groups that hold civilian hostages to release those hostages.” Again, if one were to judge this from the perspective that HRW is speaking on behalf of the US government – which it often does – these recommendations seem a far-cry from the usual “moderate” rhetoric and could indicate a marked shift by Washington toward curbing Gulf activity and funding of the opposition in general.

The report repeatedly states that “Arms sales & military assistance to groups [responsible for Latakia] make the individuals supplying them complicit in crimes they commit.” Moreover, in a clear signal to the Turkish government , the report explicitly requests that the “UN Security Council and Turkey’s allies should call on Turkey in particular to do more to verify that no arms are passing through Turkey to these groups”. And that through interviews with “Syrian security officials, media reports, western diplomats, and direct observations by journalists and humanitarian workers who visited the area in the past, many foreign fighters operating in northern Syria gain access to Syria via Turkey, from which they also smuggle their weapons, obtain money and other supplies, and sometimes retreat to for medical treatment.”

It is has become common knowledge among Syria watchers that Turkey have – at the very least – provided safe-haven for the extremist militants. Consistent reports and allegations from official sources have also pointed to the AKP government providing them logistics and medical assistance since the insurgency took hold in 2011. Saleh Muslim, the Kurdish leader from Northern Syria who has been embroiled in battles with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS parallel to the Turkish border, has repeatedly called on Erdogan’s government to end its support of the Salafi/Jihadis attacking the Kurdish population.

Relations between Washington and Ankara have turned sour of late on several fronts in the Middle East, primarily in Egypt, alongside increasingly divergent policies in Syria. Erdogan was vocally critical of the Obama administration during the recent military coup in Egypt, which resulted in the overthrow of Brotherhood ally Mohamed Morsi. In turn, the Erdogan government has recently been the target of several critical articles in US media, highlighting Erdogan’s “Islamist” ideology and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In a further signal to Ankara, the Wall Street Journal ran a critical profile yesterday of the Turkish intelligence chief, and top Erdogan aide, Hakan Fidan. Titled “Turkey’s Spymaster Plots Own Course on Syria”, the article portrays the Turkish establishment as at odds with the “moderate” approach supposedly favoured by the Obama administration. A Turkish opposition MP, and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, claims to have followed 50 buses filled with radical fighters being taken to the Syrian border with the full cooperation of Turkish authorities. In effect, the Erdogan government, since the onset of the crisis, has played a similar role to that of Pakistan during the US-backed Afghan insurgency; acting as a primary forward operating base and logistics hub for the militants waging war upon the Syrian state.

In what appears to be an attempt to publicly pressure its allies in the region, who may be less-than willing to abandon the insurgency, the Obama administration is using its ever-faithful Public Relations apparatus to convey a clear message to Turkey, and other regional Gulf allies, that now is the time to end – or at least drastically restructure – their support to the now dominant radicals that form the backbone of the insurgency.

Advertisements

Did Israel just attack Syria? (again)

In a recent report from investigative journalist Richard Silverstein at the Tikun Olam blog, confidential sources within the Israeli military establishment revealed to him that the alleged bombing of a weapons depot in the Syrian town of Latakia – which sits beside the Russian controlled seaport at Tartous – was an Israeli operation, targeting advanced Russian-supplied defensive missile systems (S-300 or Yakhont), an operation that included the direct assistance of opposition militants inside Syria.

Silverstein’s Israeli source specifically states that memebers of the FSA coordinated with the IDF and engaged in a diversionary rocket attack at the time of the Israeli airstrike. The previous Israeli attack in Damascus – when rebels were on hand to film the event – bears similar hallmarks to the attack in Latakia. Yet, contrary to the previous Israeli strike on the Qassioun mountains, there has been no footage to date of the explosion, and Syrian journalists I have contacted have confirmed that there are no Syrian media reports on recent large-scale explosions in Latakia. The anti-Assad activist the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” has reported briefly on the incident and claimed Syrian soldiers were killed, and the blast could be heard kilometres from the alleged strike-zone.

In this Reuters report, titled “Syrian Naval Base Blast Points to Israel”, Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s “Supreme Military Council”, states: (my emphasis)

“rebel forces’ intelligence network had identified newly supplied Yakhont missiles being stored there. It was not the FSA that targeted this,… It is not an attack that was carried out by rebels.”

Saadeddine goes on to state that the attack on the base  “was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean.”  Why would a “FSA” spokesmen disavow attacks on Syrian military installations? It seems anathema to what the various incarnations of “spokesmen” have been trying to achieve for two years, namely; fabricating attacks on military installations to bolster morale within the ranks of the rebels, and deplete the morale of the Syrian Army.  These accounts seem to tally with Silverstein’s Israeli source – yet the specific weapons that were the target seem to differ. It is hard to believe that Israel would take such a risk for the Yakhonts alone, unless they have developed a superior stand-off missile system that radically reduces the risks involved – which may have been the impotus behind the “rebels” gleefull advertisement of the “success” of Israel’s earlier airstrikes on Damascus. The S-300 system is a clear advantage for Syria, enabling superior mobile air-defense, the Yakhonts are built to target war-ships and while they offer deterrent for Syria’s Mediterranean coast, they are of no use to Assad if a No-Fly Zone is enforced.

Furthermore, it must be noted that it has become widespread knowledge that Israel is, at the very least, liaising directly with “opposition” forces inside Syria. Silverstein also confirmed this to be the case, and in particular referenced the Golan Heights, this cooperation has also been reported in some avenues of mainstream media, although the reportage is usually set to a “humanitarian” tone.

In a Times of Israel report from the 1st July titled: “We Have No Beef With Israel, Syrian Islamist Group Says”, a spokesman for the rebel group “the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade” – a Salafist rebel group based in the Golan Heights/Quneitra/Daraa region with close links to Jabhat al Nusra, and the group responsible for several kidnappings of UN peacekeepers – goes as far as to thank Israel for its assistance along the border saying: “The medical help that the refugees got from Israel is a very good thing,”, and attempted to reassure Israelis that their fight is directed at the Assad regime and not them, not even in “ten years time”.   The report goes on to state: (my emphasis)

To date, Israel has admitted over two dozen Syrians into its hospitals for treatment, and the IDF has set up a field hospital on the border for treating relatively minor cases. During June 6 clashes between Syrian rebels and Assad forces at the Quneitra border crossing, the IDF treated 20 Syrian rebel combatants for injuries suffered during the gunfight, according to a recently published UN secretary-general’s report.

Moreover, Israel has also made overtures to the Druze community in and around the Quneitra/Golan Heights region, in attempts to shore-up its borders. This highlights the moral expediency and great lengths the Israeli military will go to uphold the status quo and its military dominance. The Israeli government has no concern for Syria or its people, it will happily pour fuel on the fire and enable warring factions to shed further needless blood to achieve its desired strategic objectives. As Jonathon Cook noted recently, the “optimal scenario” for the Israel military would be for the Syrian war to totally divide the state, resulting in a de-facto “balkanization”. It makes perfect sense that to achieve this, Israel are in the same position as the United States, they are looking to “level the playing field”.

Red Lines and Ambiguity.

When Reuters questioned Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon regarding the explosions in Latakia, his reply was reminiscent of official ambiguous statements regarding previous Israeli strikes in Syria. (and other various Muslim nations around the world): (my emphasis)

We have set red lines in regards to our own interests, and we keep them. There is an attack here, an explosion there, various versions – in any event, in the Middle East it is usually we who are blamed for most.”

 This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean
 This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean,” he said.It is difficult to imagine that Putin is willing to take this act of aggression without reply, but as yet both Russia and Syria have been silent on the strike.. To compound this issue, it is doubtful that if the S-300 systems have been destroyed, neither Assad nor Putin would be eager shout from the rooftops that Syria’s deterrrent for a No Fly Zone has been destroyed with such relative ease and so little exposure. Russia’s reaction to the latest overt act of war against an ally Putin seems determined to uphold, along with a high probability of Russian personnel escorting the S-300 systems, could go either of two ways.If, on the one hand, the strike is ignored by both Russia and Syria, it seems the only logical explanation is that Putin has sold out to some extent and provided the Israeli’s with guarantees that Russia will not retaliate, time will tell on this score as Silverstien’s report seems definitive – especially considering the fact that since the report was published, the Israeli government have enforced blanket censorship on Latakia, and all Israeli media regarding Latakia must pass through the IDF censor’s office before publication.On the other hand, Russia could attempt to retaliate against Israeli interest in the same manner: away from the public spotlight. Putin may use the Israeli strike as justification to provide Syria with further S-300 systems, choosing to “up the ante” and covertly install the defensive systems (or better: S-400) before Israel is able to strike. If Russian military advisors were indeed escorting the S-300 and providing training to Syrian personnel, then it is hard to fathom why Putin remains silent. Despite the implications of Israel possibly attacking Russian forces; it also provides Putin – and Assad – a huge propaganda coup, as did the last strike on Damascus. Yet the silence could also be explained by diplomatic hubris; as mentioned above, it is not in Assad’s interest to tell the world his new air defense systems have already been destroyed by Israel. Yet contrary to this, it could also be in Assad’s interest to use the Israeli strike as a furtherence of his narrative of an international conspiracy against Syria; a narrative that to date, becomes more true as tiOne thing is certain, this illegal act of war represents another escalation on Israel’s behalf, and a further foray into the Syrian conflict. One only has to turn the tables to understand how drastic and risky these Israeli provocations are becoming. Imagine if Syria – or Russia – were to retaliate in the same manner and strike Israeli advanced systems on Israeli soil; the results of which would be widespread and far-reaching, and would undoubtedly include the military might of the United States lining-up against Russia. It should also be noted it is not out of character for Israel to take such huge risk in attempts to uphold the strategic status quo in the region, total military hegemony is of utmost importance to the Israeli establishment. And Israel’s prior and long-satnding record is evidence enough that International Law is not high on their agenda.

Following recent statements from Russian diplomats vowing to honour advanced weapons contracts, along with claims from Assad that the shipments had begun to arrive in response to the previous Israeli airstrike upon Syria, – which targeted elite Syrian military divisions stationed in the Qassioun Mountains in Damascus – it appears Israel may have acted upon the threat of attacking Russian weapons that “tip the balance” in the region. In reality, the result of Syria acquiring such advanced systems will diminish Israel’s ability to violate its neighbours sovereign airspace at will, and in turn, commit acts of war unhindered.

The media silence surrounding this alleged attack is disconcerting on several levels. Firstly, if indeed Russian supplied advanced weapons, either the Yakhont Surface to Sea, or the S-300 Surface to Air systems (undoubtedly accompanied by Russian military personnel) have been attacked, why is Russia silent on the issue? Have Russia given the Israeli’s guarantees that retaliation will not be forthcoming? Aside from this theory, there is the distinct possibility that an emboldened Israeli military now feels it can strike targets within Syrian territory with impunity, particularly considering the half-hearted response from Russia (and the “International Community”) to Israel’s last act of war upon Syria. Furthermore, if Israel has indeed carried out this strike and knowingly hit targets that Russian troops may be alongside, are Russia even willing or able to retaliate? Lets not forget, a war with Israel is almost a guaranteed war with the United States. Of course, to these powers this is a game of chess, and Israel like to play in the dark. Could Russia and Israel both be engaging in covert strikes against each other? Mysteriously, an Israeli F-16 “crashed during routine training” over the Mediterranean on Sunday, a mere two days after the alleged strike in Latakia; it is no secret Russia has been building a huge Naval presence in the Med.

In summary, if it is true that Israel has targeted Russian advanced systems, and all the implications that follow, Russia and Syria could be remaining silent for three reasons: firstly, out of embarrassment and an unwillingness to appear weak through lack of ability to retaliate; secondly, one of the parties is complicit; thirdly, they plan to retaliate in kind, ie: a covert operation. The only other explanation is that the strike in Latakia simply did not occur.