Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Russian troops in Syria have killed over 5783 civilians – SNHR report (Infographic)

On January 27, the Syrian human rights organization Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) issued a statement describing the scale of the deliberate attacks by Russian forces on the civilian population in Syria. Human rights activists revealed horrifying statistics about the Syrian operation by the Russian Federation for the period from September 30, 2015 to December 31, 2017.

Deadly statistics

According to SNHR, Russian forces killed at least 5783 civilians, among them 1596 children and 992 women. The Russians committed at least 294 massacres (killing 5 people or more at a time). The Russian military killed at least 53 health care workers, conducted 817 attacks on vital civilian facilities, including 141 attacks against medical facilities. In addition, Russian troops used cluster munitions in 217 attacks, and incendiary munitions in 113 attacks.
In the statement, human rights defenders emphasize that Russian troops attacked not only Syrian rebels and their bases, but deliberately and repeatedly bombed civilians, including with prohibited munitions. Because of these actions, the regime of Bashar Al-Assad gained advantage in many provinces in Syria – Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa. According to SNHR, 2.3 million Syrians were forced to flee their homes and become refugees, fearing reprisals from the combined Russian, Iranian, and Assad’s regime forces.
Russia claims that it is trying to find a political solution to the situation in Syria, while continuing  deliberate killings of the civilian population, destroying medical facilities and schools, as well as other vital objects of civilian infrastructure. In addition, Russia has violated the agreements reached in the direct talks with the representatives of the Syrian opposition and signed by the Russian side.

Massacres and chemical attacks

The Russian Federation took no action to prevent another chemical attack in East Ghouta by a Russian ally – the forces of Bashar al-Assad. This attack had civilian victims too. On January 23, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Russia had violated the obligations of the framework agreement, according to which it was supposed to guarantee that Assad’s regime would abandon its use of chemical weapons in 2013. Under the same agreement, the chemical weapons were supposed to be submitted to destruction under the supervision of international observers.
Syrian and international human rights organizations continue to appeal to legal norms, as well as the conscience of the Russian side, hoping that Russian forces will stop its cynical attacks against Syrian civilians. However, their appeals are not stopping the aggressor. Bombardments, chemical attacks, and massacres continue.

From the collective to the individual responsibility of Russian pilots

On the issue of war crimes in Russia in Syria, it is important to understand that there are specific perpetrators of each of them. The killings of civilians in Syria are a responsibility of both the top leadership of Russia and the people who follow its criminal orders.
InformNapalm international volunteer community has repeatedly raised the topic of personal responsibility in their publications. Previously, the community volunteers published the database of the 116 Russian pilots and crew members in Syria, which displays the information in several infographics grouped by types of aircraft and tail numbers.
The release of the article with pilot data sparked indignation in Russian media, who called the leak of these ‘secret data’ extremely dangerous.

US officials estimate Taliban strength at a minimum of 60,000 fighters

NBC News reports that US and Afghan officials estimate the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan to be a minimum of 60,000 fighters. This updated figure is significant, because as the report notes, for years the only previous estimate was approximately 20,000:
In 2014, US officials told NBC News that the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan was about 20,000. Four years later, one US defense official said the current Taliban strength is at least 60,000. Another senior U.S. official said 60,000 “passes the sniff test,” while a third official said 60,000 is “a place to start.”
An Afghan official told NBC News earlier this month that the Afghan estimate of Taliban strength is also 60,000. That marks a significant increase from the estimate of 35,000 that Afghanistan’s TOLOnews attributed to an Afghan defense official in 2011.
Given all of the information available to FDD’s Long War Journal, I believe this latest assessment to significantly more accurate. I am quoted in the above-referenced article that 60,000 would be my low-end estimate. In fact, with the amount of territory up for grabs and fighting taking place, that number could easily be doubled.
The report went on to note that one official thinks it’s a “fool’s errand” to estimate Taliban strength as “the fighters often change their allegiance from one terror group to another”:
The US military does not release official numbers on how many Taliban are in Afghanistan. One US official called such estimates a “fool’s errand” because the fighters often change their allegiance from one terror group to another.
“It’s a wildly varying planning figure,” the official said, explaining the US military needs a marker to plan to fight but is hopeful many fighters are not ideological and will eventually lay down their arms and “find a reason to identify with Afghanistan nationalism and the larger good.”
Part of the reason for the apparent increase in Taliban strength is integration between the Taliban and a separate group of Islamist militants, the Haqqani network. According to the Pentagon’s June 2017 Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report, “Haqqani and Taliban integration has become so robust that many observers no longer look at them as separate entities, but as factions within the same group.”
There is a lot to unpack in those three short paragraphs, but here are the three key issues with those statements.
1) If the fighters “change their allegiance from one terror group to another,” what difference does that really make? The groups they are moving between are still comprised of jihadists who are battling the Afghan government and Coalition forces.
2) Unfortunately, some US officials remain blind to the fact that the Haqqani network is a integral part of the Taliban and view it as some sort of separate entity. This is both shortsighted and incorrect. As we’ve explained numerous times here at FDD’s Long War Journal, both the Taliban and Haqqani leaders have repeatedly denied there is separation between the two. Siraj Haqqani, the operational leader of the Haqqani Network, is one of two deputies to the Taliban’s emir. He also serves as the Taliban’s top military commander and leads its Miramshah Shura, one of four Taliban subcommands. His father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, sits on the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, also known as the Quetta Shura. Haqqani Network leaders have served as Taliban shadow governors for Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. The Taliban claims credit for attacks that the US and Afghan government blame on the Haqqani Network. Statements by Haqqani network leaders are routinely released at Voice of Jihad, the Taliban’s official propaganda arm.
3) Hope is not a strategy. One disillusioned US official says, according to NBC News, that he is “hopeful many fighters are not ideological and will eventually lay down their arms and ‘find a reason to identify with Afghanistan nationalism and the larger good.'” US officials have hoped this for years, and yet the Taliban remains more potent than ever. Hopefully, US officials will begin to recognize the commitment of the Taliban.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Court finds government spying law unlawful

Court finds government spying law unlawful

The Court of Appeal has ruled that a spying law rushed through Parliament by Theresa May as Home Secretary in 2014 was unlawful.
Existing investigatory powers have been placed under the spotlight by a judgment handed down today regarding the use of the UK's surveillance apparatus to investigate non-serious crimes.
The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA) was rushed through Parliament as "emergency" legislation in 2014, with MPs given only one day to debate it.
It was challenged by Labour MP Tom Watson and Conservative MP David Davis alongside campaign group Liberty and eventually found unlawful by the High Court and the EU Court of Justice (CJEU).
Although one of the founding members of the action, David Davis MP took his name off of the challenge after being named Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
At the time of the CJEU, the Home Office said it was "disappointed with the judgment" which established that the UK's data retention laws - which now force ISPs to collect and store everybody's internet activity for an entire year - were too broad.
Campaigners have warned about the abuse of anti-terror laws by authorities in the UK for many years, with councils using investigatory powers to investigate dog fouling, fly tipping and breaches of the smoking ban.
The Court of Appeal has found that DRIPA was in breach of British people's rights because it did not sufficiently restrict access to the data that is collected about them, and allowed it to be used to investigate non-serious crime.
The Court also found that the law did not protect the public by requiring the police and public bodies to get a warrant to access the data, but instead were allowed to sign-off on this access themselves.
DRIPA expired at the end of 2016 and was replaced by the Investigatory Powers Act (IP Act), which has now begun to come into force.
Liberty is also challenging the IP Act in a case to be heard before the High Court later this year, as the British legal system attempts to establish how civil liberties can be respected in regards to the public's activities online.
Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said: "Yet again a UK court has ruled the Government's extreme mass surveillance regime unlawful.
"This judgment tells ministers in crystal clear terms that they are breaching the public's human rights. The latest incarnation of the Snoopers' Charter, the Investigatory Powers Act, must be changed.
"No politician is above the law. When will the Government stop bartering with judges and start drawing up a surveillance law that upholds our democratic freedoms?"
The Home Office was not immediately able to comment.

What makes Russia’s new spy ship Yantar special?

Yantar in Bosphorus, file pic

The Russian navy is very proud of its new spy ship, the Yantar, which is now doing Argentina a favour by helping to search for a missing submarine.
Argentina has given up trying to rescue the 44 crew aboard the ARA San Juan, which disappeared on 15 November. But it still wants to find the diesel-electric submarine.
Enter the Yantar, officially an oceanographic research vessel, but actually bristling with surveillance equipment, and the mother ship for manned and unmanned deep-sea submersibles.
A Russian ROV - remotely operated underwater vehicle - is scouring the ocean floor off Argentina.
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan
But what else has the Yantar (Russian for "amber") been up to?

Targeting undersea cables

The Yantar's movements were apparently what prompted a warning last month from the UK military that Russia could disrupt or cut vital undersea communications cables.
Dozens of fibre-optic cables span the globe and Nato also has dedicated military cables on the ocean floor.
The Yantar is capable of tampering with them, says Igor Sutyagin, a London-based expert on the Russian military. But there is no evidence that it has done so.
"It's difficult to tap into optical fibres - it's just light inside, not electrical data," he told the BBC. "It would be easier just to cut the cable."
A BBC graphic showing a cross-section of an undersea communications cable
Mr Sutyagin noted that in the 1970s, during the Cold War, the US Navy had lost control of a Sosus undersea listening post for tracking submarines in the Atlantic. Sosus stands for "Sound Surveillance System".
The US military concluded that a Soviet submarine had cut the cables.
A news report from the Russian parliament says the Yantar can do just such clandestine work, using deep-diving submersibles.
Mr Sutyagin, of the Royal United Services Institute, says the Yantar belongs to Russia's Main Directorate of Underwater Research (GUGI in Russian), part of the defence ministry.
The 108m-long (354ft) vessel has a crew of 60 and went into service in 2015. It was built in the Baltic port of Kaliningrad, the first in a series called Project 22010. A second, called Almaz, will soon be on its way to the navy.
The Yantar can deploy the three-man submersibles Rus and Konsul, which can dive to about 6,000m (20,000ft).
Rus submersible

Spying on the US

The Russian parliamentary report noted that in the summer of 2015 the Yantar had deployed near the US Kings Bay naval base in Georgia.
"According to Pentagon officials, the Russians were gathering intelligence on US submarines' equipment, including underwater sensors in the DoDIN network," the Russian report said.
Mr Sutyagin said the US underwater sensors near Kings Bay would be interesting for the Russian military, which might wish to copy the US technology.
In late 2016 the Yantar was found to be loitering over undersea communications cables off the Syrian coast, including some links to Europe.
The ship's strange movements were tracked by a website called Covert Shores. The Yantar's frequent stops at points along a cable route suggested that a submersible was examining the sea floor, the report said.

Search and rescue

Besides the Argentina mission, the Yantar has been used previously for search and recovery.
The Russian parliamentary report said the ship had located two Russian fighter jets - a Su-33 and a MiG-29 - that crashed into the Mediterranean in 2016, during the Syria war.
The Yantar "recovered secret equipment from the planes in good time", the report said.
That could be secret radar or missile data, or the "identification, friend or foe" system, Mr Sutyagin said.
In 2000 a ship like the Yantar might have saved some Kursk sailors' lives and literally salvaged the Russian navy's reputation.

Mystery of ARA San Juan

Map: Area where the ARA San Juan disappeared on 15 Nov

Kabul mourns 100 dead after ambulance bomb

a group of men carrying a coffin up a dusty hill, with city buildings in the distance

More than 100 people are now known to have been killed in a suicide bombing on Saturday in Kabul.
Attackers drove an ambulance past a police checkpoint to get to a crowded street in a district full of government buildings and embassies.
Afghanistan's government has declared a day of mourning for Sunday, as funerals take place and relatives search hospitals for survivors.
The Taliban - a hardline Islamist group - said it was behind the attack.
It was the deadliest attack in Afghanistan for months and took place a week after an attack on a Kabul hotel in which 22 people were killed.
Interior minister Wais Barmak said a number of people died in hospital overnight and the death toll now stood at 103, with 235 wounded. Most of the injured are men.

What happened in the latest attack?

Witnesses say the area - also home to offices of the European Union, a hospital and a shopping zone known as Chicken Street - was crowded with people when the bomb exploded on Saturday at about 12:15 local time (08:45 GMT).
Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, said the attacker got through a security checkpoint after telling police he was taking a patient to nearby Jamhuriat hospital.
He detonated the bomb at a second checkpoint, said Mr Rahimi.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the use of an ambulance was "harrowing".
Media captionWATCH: How the attack unfolded
A Taliban spokesman later linked the attack to US efforts to assist Afghan forces with troops and air strikes.
In a statement, Zabihullah Mujahid said: "If you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don't expect Afghans to grow flowers in response."

At the scene: Sorrow and anger in Kabul

By BBC Pakistan Correspondent Secunder Kermani
Outside the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital in central Kabul a middle-aged women breaks down in tears, screaming hysterically: "Mother, mother!"
A young man, a bandage around his hand, is trying to console her - but is sobbing furiously himself.
Every few minutes a hospital official announces a name on a loudspeaker, and an anxious relative rushes to enter the hospital building to get an update about his or her relative.
As well as sorrow, there's anger in Kabul. One man standing outside another hospital tells me he blames the government for not doing more to stop this attack and the many others that have preceded it over the past year.
Kabul used to be one of the most secure places in the country - now it increasingly feels like one of the most dangerous.
Back at the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, a man is making his way to the morgue to look for his cousin's body. He tells me they've already seen dozens of corpses in different hospitals. He doesn't find his cousin's remains here either, and so sets off to continue his search.

What was the response?

The Afghan government has condemned the bombing as a crime against humanity, and accused Pakistan of providing support to the attackers.
The Taliban control large swathes of Afghanistan and parts of neighbouring Pakistan.
Pakistan denies supporting militants that carry out attacks in Afghanistan. This month, the US cut its security aid to Pakistan, saying it had failed to take action against terrorist networks on its soil.
US President Donald Trump condemned the attack and said it "renews our resolve and that of our Afghan partners".
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: "Indiscriminate attacks against civilians are a serious violation of human rights and humanitarian laws, and can never be justified."
In France, the Eiffel Tower turned off its lights at midnight on Saturday as a mark of respect for the dead and injured.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo wrote on Twitter: "The city of Paris and Parisians are with the Afghan people who are once again facing terrorist barbarity," she said.

How does it compare to other recent attacks?

The attack is the deadliest in Kabul in several months.
In October, 176 people were killed in bomb attacks across Afghanistan in one week. The country's security forces in particular have suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Taliban, who want to re-impose their strict version of Islamic law in the country.
In May, 150 people were killed by a suicide bomb attack in Kabul. The Taliban denied any role, but the Afghan government says its affiliate, the Haqqani group, carried it out with support from Pakistan.

Analyst: Anti-terror centre’s dual role may be hard to fulfill


A counter-messaging centre (CMC) to fight violent extremism in Malaysia seems to have a dual role that could be hard to fulfill successfully, an analyst has said.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reportedly announced earlier this week that the CMC, managed by the police, had started operations a month ago.
He was quoted as saying the fight against terrorism is expected to yield better results now that the CMC is fully operational.
“The CMC was created to monitor social media for any suspicious activities and information related to the Islamic State (IS), whether it is perpetrated by Malaysians, foreign terrorist fighters or extremist organisations in the country,” Zahid was quoted as saying by Singapore’s Straits Times.
Patrick Blannin, a counter-terrorism and intelligence analyst at Australia’s Bond University, said the report had explained the CMC’s strategic role as also being a source of information to assist in the creation of intelligence.
“Time will tell whether its counter-messaging label is justified,” Blannin told FMT.
“Will it disseminate counter-narratives to offset online propaganda, and if so, will it be effective?
“The CMC will need to be viewed as a legitimate source of information for this counter-messaging strategy to work.
“Legitimacy is hard to establish if the CMC is, at least operationally, an information gathering mechanism.”
On whether the CMC should not be used for intelligence gathering , Blannin said the centre could be both but not overtly.
“Moreover, the metrics for ‘success’ need to incorporate its dual role,” he explained.
“The CMC may succeed as an information gathering mechanism but fail as a counter-messaging tool, and/or vice-versa. We must examine the government’s strategic objectives for the CMC.”
Blannin added that the definition of a successful counter-terrorism measure is one that achieves its intended objectives without negatively affecting any other measure deployed at the same time.
On the question of whether other countries separate these two roles or put them together in one entity, Blannin said it is not that they “are” separate, but they should be “seen” to be separate.
“Moreover, counter-messaging generally is a strategy-oriented diplomatic tool and thus is directed by the foreign ministry, whereas intelligence is a tactical-oriented law enforcement/military tool which is directed by the relevant departments,” he said.
“Additionally, counter-messaging should be viewed as a proactive anti-terror measure rather than a reactive counter-terrorism measure.
“The question is not should they be combined, rather, can they be combined to achieve the policy objective, and, does the government have a legacy of effective inter-agency cooperation.”
Zahid, who is also the home minister, said the centre was needed to prevent recruitment, planning or even incidents of violent extremism.
“The series of successful arrests of militants by the police previously came before the centre began its operations. We can expect better results now,” he said.
He said it is easier for the authorities to share intelligence with domestic and international agencies such as Aseanapol and Interpol thanks to their increased preparedness.
The CMC will collaborate with the Malaysian foreign ministry and the King Salman Centre For International Peace to “ensure all eyes are on such activities,” said the report.
“I’m satisfied with how the centre is being managed,” Zahid was reported as saying.

Russian Jet Buzzed American Spy Plane Over Black Sea, U.S. Says

A Navy EP-3 spy plane in 2016. The same type of plane was involved in an encounter with a Russian jet on Monday, the State Department said. CreditUnited States Navy

A Russian fighter jet buzzed an American spy plane over the Black Sea on Monday, United States officials said, in what the State Department characterized as an “unsafe” flyby.
In a statement, the department called the intercept “the latest example of Russian military activities disregarding international norms and agreements.”

American officials said the two planes came within a scant five feet of each other. In the statement, the State Department said that the Russian plane crossed “directly in front of the EP-3’s flight path,” in a reference to the Navy spy plane.
This is not the first time that the United States has accused Moscow of flying dangerously close to American aircraft and ships. Russia routinely has demonstrated its displeasure with American military flights over Syria, the Baltics and the Black Sea by flying planes close to American ships and spy planes.
In 2016, for instance, there were three encounters in one month. On April 29, a Russian fighter plane performed a barrel roll near an Air Force reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, and Moscow said the American plane did not have its transponder turned on, an accusation the United States denied.
Two weeks before that, a Russian jet buzzed an American guided missile destroyer, the Donald Cook. Russia accused the United States of sailing the Cook close to Russia’s border in the Baltics.
Two days later, a Russian warplane intercepted an American reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea at what American officials said was an unsafe distance, prompting a protest from the Pentagon.
Monday’s encounter was first reported by Russia’s RIA news agency.
“The Russian side was flagrantly violating existing agreements and international law, in this case the 1972 agreement for the prevention of incidents on and over the high seas,” the State Department statement said. “We call on Russia to cease these unsafe actions that increase the risk of miscalculation, danger to aircrew on both sides and midair collisions.”

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Turkish tanks grind US policy into mud of northern Syria

Turkish-backed forces continue their advance despite heavy fog and rain

There are many layers to the cruelty of Tariq Tabaq’s fate: that he escaped Syria’s war yet still died by its hand; that the missile killed him as he prayed in Turkey.
The biggest irony, though, is that the uprising he fled six years ago has now evolved into a global power tussle in which Syrians hold little sway.
The rocket that slammed through the roof of a mosque in the Turkish border town of Kilis on Wednesday evening, killing Mr Tabaq, 28, and one Turkish citizen, was fired across the border by a Syrian Kurdish militia in retaliation for the assault launched against them by the Turks.

Al Qaeda head blames Islamists for failure of Arab uprisings

Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, discusses the failures of the Arab uprisings in a newly-released audio message. As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, released the 12-minute, Arabic recording online earlier today.
Zawahiri speaks on the seventh anniversary of the Arab uprisings, which began in several countries in late 2010 and early 2011. His message is titled, “Seven Years Later, Where is the Salvation?” Zawahiri complains that “all of the revolutions were suppressed except Syria, which entered the spiral of international solutions,” meaning that powerful nations are now dictating the course of events.
The “reigning regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya” have all “returned,” only “more ferocious and corrupt” than before, Zawahiri complains. He claims that the jihadis should learn from this “bitter experience.” The number one lesson he seeks to impart is that jihadists cannot compromise on their ideology the same way many other Islamist parties did.
Indeed, Zawahiri blames Islamist groups, such as the Ennahda party in Tunisia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for the failure of the Arab revolts to deliver sharia-based governance in several countries. The al Qaeda honcho claims that the “Muslim masses” called for sharia to be implemented, but the Islamists were only interested in power, making “concessions” that compromised their ideology. Zawahiri argues that Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood were eager to placate the West and America, yet this path only led to the return of the same criminal regimes that were deposed in the first place.
Of course, Zawahiri’s reading of history is highly selective. He ignores many of the actors who rose up against their oppressive governments in 2010 and 2011. And while the calls for sharia governance were heard at the time, they were not nearly as universal as the al Qaeda emir would have listeners believe.
Zawahiri’s latest message is similar to the one he released in Aug. 2016. He complained at the time that the Arab uprisings had “failed” in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. He likened the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to a “poultry farm,” which raises “chickens” to be pleased “with what they are given,” but leaves them “ignorant” of the predatory threats that surround them. In mid-2016, Zawahiri was uncertain about Libya, but had hope for Syria. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Zawahiri compares members of the Muslim Brotherhood to chickens.]
However, Osama bin Laden’s successor now counts the Libyan revolt among those that failed. And he laments that nations are able to control the Syrian conflict through funding and some groups’ fear of being labeled terrorists. The latter point is a reference to the US-led effort to designate certain jihadist groups as terrorist organizations. One of the reasons that al Qaeda’s “unity” project in Syria stalled is that some rebels fear the designations will tarnish them. Although Zawahiri doesn’t mention it, al Qaeda itself initially sought to hide the extent of its network in Syria, in part, to avoid international scrutiny.
Zawahiri’s latest message, as well as his Aug. 2016 statement, are very different from al Qaeda’s initial reaction to the Arab uprisings.
Osama bin Laden surmised that there was a “sizable” contingent “within the Brotherhood” that was evolving in the jihadists’ direction. Bin Laden also wrote in his personal journal shortly before his death that the Arab revolts were a unique opportunity for his cause. In addition, al Qaeda ordered its men to cooperate with Islamist groups throughout Arab-majority countries in an attempt to steer them toward the jihadist ideology. In Syria, for example, al Qaeda’s men have cooperated with Islamists and Salafists of various stripes and even groups backed by the West.
While Zawahiri laments the failure to achieve al Qaeda’s longstanding goal of sharia governance in several countries, it does not mean that he thinks all is lost. Even though widespread sharia governance hasn’t taken root, al Qaeda still maintains an insurgency footprint in multiple areas within these countries. Even though it has faced setbacks, al Qaeda’s guerrilla forces are fighting in more countries today than on Sept. 11, 2001 — a fact that Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza, has crowed about in the not-so-distant past.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.