In Brief

US and Russia spar over vetoed Syria sanctions

Anger as Moscow blocks UN sanctions over regime's use of chemical weapons

Syria: Russian helicopter shot down by rebels

1 July 2016

A Russian military helicopter has been shot down by rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, killing three crew members and two officers on board.

Graphic footage released by anti-government activists allegedly shows several bodies lying amid the burning wreckage of a Mi-8 helicopter.

"In the video, a number of men, some of them armed, cheered around the bodies, shouting 'Allahu akbar'," the New York Times reports. "One of them jumped on a body, joyfully."

Russia, a key military ally of the Syrian government, confirmed the attack, which it said occurred as the helicopter returned from delivering humanitarian aid to the besieged city of Aleppo. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the shooting.

"This is the single worst loss of life for Russia since it launched its air offensive in Syria in support of President [Bashar] Assad towards the end of last year," says the BBC's Arab affairs editor, Sebastian Usher.

The claim that the helicopter was on a humanitarian mission will be "open to question" as Russia has mostly used its air power to back military offensives by pro-government forces, he adds.

"It will further inflame feelings in Russia against rebels in Syria," Usher says. "Graphic images posted online of the aftermath of the incident will add fuel to the fire."

Syrian rebels have launched an offensive to capture eastern Aleppo, which is currently held by government forces. The UN warns that 300,000 people are trapped in the area with little food or medical supplies.

"Regime forces have several lines of defence protecting Aleppo's western neighbourhoods," says Al Jazeera's Milad Fadel, who is embedded with rebel fighters on the edge of the city.

"This battle could last several days, or maybe even weeks," he adds.

Syria: US plans military alliance with Russia

1 July

The Obama administration has proposed a new alliance with Russia, pledging to deepen military cooperation in Syria if the Kremlin persuades President Bashar al-Assad's regime to stop bombing US-supported rebels.

The agreement, which has been the subject of weeks of negotiations and personally approved by President Barack Obama, would see US forces join with the Russian air force against the same targets. They would coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, which is primarily engaged in fighting the Russian-backed Assad.

In return, Russia would agree to pressure the Syrian regime to stop bombing rebel groups the US does not consider to be terrorists.

If the plan is put into action, both military forces will "cooperate at an unprecedented level, something the Russians have sought for a long time", says The Independent.

However, many in the US administration, including Defence Secretary Ash Carter and a majority in Congress, are opposed to the deal. They say it contains no punitive consequences for the Russians or the Assad regime if they fail to hold up their end of the bargain.

"One big flaw is that it's clear that the Russians have no intent to put heavy pressure on Assad," says Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria.

Critics also argue the deal could leave rebel groups worse-off while boosting's Assad's beleaguered forces.

For Russian leader Vladimir Putin, increased military cooperation is seen as "an acknowledgement of Russian importance and a way to gradually unwind Russia's isolation following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine", says The Independent.

On Wednesday, CIA director John Brennan said: "There's going to be no way forward on the political front without active Russian cooperation and genuine Russian interest in moving forward."

Tony Blair calls for 'proper ground war' with Islamic State

25 May

Tony Blair yesterday called for a "proper ground war" against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as he sought to defend himself from the potentially explosive conclusions of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war.

In one of his most candid speeches about his time in office, the former prime minister admitted that he had "underestimated profoundly" the forces that had been at work in the region and which would be released by the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

"The lesson is simple. It is that when you remove a dictatorship out come these forces of destabilisation, whether it is al-Qaeda on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side," he said.

Blair admitted his understanding of the Middle East is "a lot deeper today" than when he was in power and said the experience had led him to call for a more evolutionary solution to regime change in the wake of the Arab spring.

He has made similar admissions of culpability before, "but these remarks, weeks before the July publication of the Chilcot report, are likely to be seen as his chief line of defence", says The Guardian.

A source close to the Chilcot Inquiry told The Sunday Times that the long-awaited report into the Iraq war was to offer an "absolutely brutal" verdict on the failings of the military action and Blair's role in the lead-up to it.

Set to "savage" the former PM and other officials, the report "will also say that we really did make a mess of the aftermath", a source told the Sunday Times.

However, Blair once again refused to apologise for the invasion, insisting that the roots of Islamic State went back "many decades" and were not a result of the 2003 invasion or the sectarianism of the Maliki government that followed.

While he refused to explicitly mentioned the Chilcot report, "he gave a strong steer on his likely response to any criticisms he is likely for face", says the BBC's political correspondent Iain Watson, while also making it clear "he would be unapologetic for his role in taking Britain to war in 2003".

Syria: More than 100 killed in attacks on Assad strongholds

23 May

More than 100 people have been killed in a series of coordinated explosions in the Syrian coastal province of Latakia.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacking the cities of Jableh and Tartus, which are controlled by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and lie close to Russian air and naval bases.

Five suicide bombs and two car bombs ripped through both locations simultaneously, according to Al Jazeera. A hospital and a major bus station were among the targets. "It is the first time in this war that simultaneous attacks of this scale [have taken] place in Latakia," says the broadcaster.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 73 people had been killed in Jableh, the majority of them women and children, while another 48 people died in Tartus.

"Fighting has increased in other parts of Syria in recent weeks as world powers struggle to revive a threadbare ceasefire in western Syria and after peace talks in Geneva this year broke down," The Guardian reports.

The country's information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said attacks against civilians are evidence that IS militants are unable to mount a military challenge against the Syrian army.  

"We will not be deterred," he told al-Ikhbariya TV. "We will use everything we have to fight the terrorists."

Moscow has expressed alarm at the rise in tension and terrorist activity.  "Of course [it] cannot but heighten concern," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. "It is further proof of how fragile the situation is in Syria and demonstrates the necessity to continue active steps towards resuming talks." 

Assad forces accused of using sarin gas in Syria

17 May

The Syrian regime has used sarin nerve gas – once declared a "red line" issue by the US President Barack Obama – for the first time since 2013, an Israeli official has claimed.

Bombs laden with the odourless, invisible toxin were dropped by President Bashar al-Assad's air force three weeks ago, the official said, killing scores of Islamic State (IS) fighters as they tried to seize two air bases north of Damascus.

The casualties were much heavier than would have been expected from the use of chlorine gas, leading Israeli analysts to conclude that the far more deadly sarin had been used, according to one official who spoke to the Daily Telegraph.

If confirmed, it would be the first time Syrian forces used the gas since 21 August 2013, when as many as 1,400 people in rebel-held areas of Damascus were killed by sarin and VX gas. The regime denied it was involved in the attack at the time.

That came one year after Obama said that use of chemical weapons was a "red line" that the US would not tolerate and which would trigger air strikes on the Syrian regime.

After the 2013 attack, a deal was reached, with Syria agreeing to dispose of all its chemical weapons. US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time: "We got 100 per cent of the chemical weapons out."

According to The Telegraph's source, however, Assad may have given up his stocks of mustard and VX gas – but he "probably" held onto sarin and chlorine. Since 2013, the regime has used less-deadly chlorine gas "several dozen" times, says the newspaper.

Until now, however, Assad had held back from provoking Obama by using sarin – which causes convulsions, paralysis and death within minutes – or any other more deadly chemical weapon.

Even before the Israeli report surfaced, says The Telegraph, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had questioned whether Syria had really given up its stockpiles.

Ahmet Uzumcu said: "We are not yet there. There are still questions. I am not able to say whether Syria has declared everything or whether Syria continues to possess some chemical weapons or some munitions. I hope that we will be able to clarify the remaining questions."

Strike on Syrian refugee camp could be a war crime, says UN

6 May

An attack on a refugee camp in Syria could amount to a war crime if found to be deliberate, the United Nations has warned.

Stephen O'Brien, the UN humanitarian affairs chief, said he was "horrified and sickened" by the air strike, which killed at least 28 people in the rebel-held Idlib province, near the border with Turkey.

"If this obscene attack is found to be a deliberate targeting of a civilian structure, it could amount to a war crime," he said.

It remains unclear who was responsible for the air strike, with unconfirmed reports suggesting it was carried out by Syrian or Russian planes.

"The suspicion will fall initially on the Syrian government," said O'Brien. "We will want to make sure that they, or whoever it is, are fully held to account for this absolutely abominable act.

Photographs show tents burnt to the ground and body parts strewn across the camp.

"Two air strikes obliterated this tented settlement," the BBC's Lyse Doucet reports. "Women and children who fled here for safety are now buried here beneath their blackened tents."

Journalist Alaa Fatraoui, who visited the camp after the attack, described the strike as "revenge" against the Syrian people. "There are absolutely no armed men there, they're all civilian refugees, homeless people living on the street," he told The Guardian.

International condemnation was swift, with Washington warning there was "no justification" for the attack while Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described it as "horrifying".

The bombing occurred hours after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wrote to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to thank him for his military support and promised to achieve a "final victory" over rebels.

This is despite the extension of a temporary truce around the city of Aleppo. "Many in the opposition believe that with strikes like this there's proof the government is not serious about the cessation of hostilities," Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reports. 

The attacks have raised fears about the safety of the thousands of refugees near Turkey. "Ankara has repeatedly called for safe zones in the area to protect the refugees from air strikes," says the Guardian. "But the proposals have been met with a shrug by western powers involved in the conflict."

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