Gaza Strip/Hamas – A suicide bomber killed a Hamas guard in southern Gaza early on the 17 Aug 17 officials said, in what sources described as a rare militant attack against the Palestinian group. “Early this morning security forces stopped two people approaching the southern border (with Egypt),” an interior ministry spokesman in the Hamas-run territory said in a statement. “One of them blew himself up,” it added. Later a medical source confirmed a member of Hamas’ security services had died in the attack. The source named the man as Nidal al-Jaafari, 28. Eyewitnesses said hundreds of security forces were deployed along the border after the explosion, which occurred near Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. Gazan security sources said they believed the attacker to be a radical. Islamists Hamas have run Gaza for a decade but have been regularly criticized by more radical groups in the strip. It would be the first time a suicide attack has targeted Hamas forces in Gaza, the security sources said. Hamas has recently boosted its forces along the border with Egypt as it seeks to improve relations with Cairo.
Gaza Strip/Egypt – An Islamist killed a Hamas security official on the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt on the 17 Aug 17 in what was described as the first suicide bombing against Hamas. Hamas, which runs Gaza and has an uneasy truce with Israel, has stepped up patrols on the frontier aiming to prevent hard-line extremists moving to and from the Sinai Peninsula, where Da’esh insurgents have battled Egyptian troops for years. Hamas has also worked to prevent extremists from breaching the truce that ended its 2014 war with Israel, Gaza's other neighbour. "A security force stopped two persons who approached the border. One of them blew himself up and was killed. The other was wounded," the Hamas-run interior ministry said in a statement. It said several Hamas security officials were hurt, and hospital officials told reporters that one of them died of his wounds. An extremist group claimed the men who clashed with Hamas as its members, saying they tried to reach Sinai so as to attack Israel from there. Israel and Egypt have been cooperating in Cairo's crackdown on the Da’esh terror group in Sinai. "The brothers didn't find a place to breathe in Gaza, so they headed towards the Sinai front to take part in the fight against the Jews and those who protect them there," said a statement posted on a pro-Salafi website, Ibn Taymia Media Centre. Hamas has been pursuing improved relations with Egypt, which keeps its border crossing with Gaza largely shut. Cairo has accused the group in the past of aiding Sinai militants. Hamas has denied those allegations. Gaza's Salafis are proponents of global holy war endorsed by the Da’esh terror group and Al Qaeda. Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings in Israel in the past, seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It has shown little tolerance for Salafi movements, detaining many of their members and raiding homes in searches for weapons.
Iran/Jordan/Turkey/Israel/Germany/United States – The Iran-backed cyber-espionage group CopyKittens has increased activities, launching attacks on governments, defence companies and academic institutions in support of Tehran’s political agenda, a report said on the 13 Jun 17. An investigative study by Israeli firm ClearSky Cybersecurity and Trend Micro called Operation Wilted Tulip traced CopyKittens’ activities to 2013, shedding light on its work patterns and possible motivations. The report revealed that CopyKittens’ activities mostly centred on espionage of strategic targets, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Germany and the United States. The group extracted information from government organisations, academic institutions, online news sites and NGOs with the objective of gathering “as much information and data from target organisations as possible,” the report said. CopyKittens used rudimentary techniques, such as phishing, malicious e-mail attachments and, more recently, watering hole attacks to gather information. “It’s more that the methods they are using are efficient. They are getting out the data that they need to,” said Robert McArdle, director of research at Trend Micro, adding that the group’s lack of refinement makes it relatively easy to track CopyKittens’ activities compared to more sophisticated campaigns that could go on for years without being detected. McArdle said CopyKittens’ methods are of the more traditional variety, using exploits to take advantage of out-of-date systems, so if the user is missing updates or patches, an automatic infection is more likely. A lot of the group’s attacks go after the most vulnerable parts of any organisation — humans. “In any computer network security chain, the weakest link in always the human element,” said Iyad Barakat, a London-based digital analyst. “Groups more sophisticated than CopyKittens will try to target the human element in the chain, using techniques like a watering hole attack to simply extract passwords because these methods save them time, effort and usually have a higher success rate than the more sophisticated ones.” McArdle said an effective method to gain the human element’s trust is a social engineering campaign, which uses a number of psychological tricks to get the information needed to access a computer network. “Social engineering is relatively quick and easy to do in terms of setting up fake e-mail accounts or fake Facebook accounts or whichever social networking profile you are going with,” McArdle said, adding that effort is required to manage these resources and accounts. Social engineering can’t be stopped with traditional protection methods, said David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab. “Social engineering works and even if businesses have the right protection, without the right staff education they can fall victim,” Emm said. “Awareness is low in the Middle East as generally Western businesses have had longer to grapple with such issues.” One effective trick that CopyKittens used, McArdle said, is reaching important targets through other compromised accounts. Once CopyKittens gained access to an e-mail account in an organisation, it would not immediately try to take over higher-level targets in the company but log on and wait for a natural conversation to start between the person whose account it controls and the target. It might then reply to an e-mail thread, saying: “You might want to open this link.” During the Gulf Information Security Expo and Conference in May in Dubai, experts urged for more cybersecurity cooperation between countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Middle East cyber-security market is projected to grow to $22.14 billion by 2022, with Saudi Arabia expected to contribute the largest share.
CopyKittens is an espionage group that has been attacking Israeli targets since at least August 2014. Among the targets are high ranking diplomats at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and well-known Israeli academic researchers specializing in Middle East Studies. Matryoshka is the name we gave the malware built by CopyKittens. It is a multi-stage framework, with each part integrates into the subsequent one. CopyKittens assembled Matryoshka from code snippets picked from public repositories and online forums, hence their nickname. Matryoshka is spread through spear phishing with a document attached to it. The document has either a malicious macro that the victim is asked to enable, or an embedded executable the victim is asked to open. DNS requests and answers are used for command and control communication and for data exfiltration. Based on the type of targets, delivery, and malware used – we estimate that CopyKittens are a state actor or are endorsed by one. (Read the full report: The CopyKittens attack group.)
Iran/United States – An Iranian drone came within 30 meters of a U.S. Navy fighter jet that was waiting to land on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz as it travelled in the central Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Central Command said 8 Aug 17. U.S. military statements said an F/A-18E Super Hornet jet was in a holding pattern above the USS Nimitz when a QOM-1 Iranian drone "executed unsafe and unprofessional altitude changes" nearby. "The F/A-18E manoeuvred to avoid collision with the QOM-1 resulting in a lateral separation of approximately 200 feet [61 meters] and a vertical separation of approximately 100 feet [30 meters]." The Navy said sailors had made repeated radio calls for the drone to stay clear of the flight operations around the USS Nimitz. A U.S. Navy official told VOA that the incident was a "single run-in," but the drone had been flying in an area around the carrier for about three hours. The drone was not armed at the time of the incident, the official added. The near-collision marked the "13th unsafe and/or professional interaction between U.S. and Iranian maritime forces" this year, according to the Navy and Central Command statements. Last month, the USS Thunderbolt fired multiple warning shots at an Iranian vessel in the Persian Gulf that came within 140 meters of the ship at a high rate of speed.
Iran/Israel – Iran is building sites to produce precision-guided missiles in Syria and Lebanon, with the aim of using them against Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on the 28 Aug 17. At the start of a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Netanyahu accused Iran of turning Syria into a "base of military entrenchment as part of its declared goal to eradicate Israel." "It is also building sites to produce precision-guided missiles towards that end, in both Syria and in Lebanon. This is something Israel cannot accept. This is something the U.N. should not accept," Netanyahu said. Israel has pointed to Tehran’s steadily increasing influence in the region during the six-year-old Syrian conflict, whether via its own Revolutionary Guard forces or Shi’ite Muslim proxies, especially Hezbollah. On the 23 Aug 17 Netanyahu, in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. Russia, also an Assad ally, is seen as holding the balance of power in achieving a deal on Syria’s future. Israel fears an eventual Assad victory could leave Iran with a permanent garrison in Syria, extending a threat posed from neighbouring Lebanon by Hezbollah. Netanyahu accused Iran of building the production sites two weeks after an Israeli television report showed satellite images it said were of a facility Tehran was constructing in northwest Syria to manufacture long-range rockets. The Channel 2 News report said the images were of a site near the Mediterranean coastal town of Baniyas and were taken by an Israeli satellite. In parallel to lobbying Moscow, Israel has been trying to persuade Washington that Iran and its guerrilla partners, not ISIS, pose the greater common threat in the region.
Iran – Analysis: How the tide is turning against Iran (28 Aug 17) – As ISIS is losing ground in its two last enclaves of Raqqa and Deir el-Zor, there are many rightfully concerning reports of Iran seeking to chip further control in Syria. All the while, there are also signs of contradictory remarks heard from senior Iranian officials, parallel to indications on the ground of how international counterparts are seeking their own interests that fall completely against those of Tehran’s. Such incoherency signals nothing but troubling times ahead for Iran in losing its grasp of strategic interests across the Middle East, including Syria.
‘Not tantamount to meddling’
Similar sentiments were heard recently from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Zarif exerted himself to defend Tehran’s carnage in other countries under the pretext of a mandate to defend human rights. “The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic, based on the constitution, is a policy that is naturally founded on human rights. What is the meaning of human rights? It means defending the rights of innocent against oppressors… We have this definition in our constitution. This is not tantamount to meddling,” he claimed. Zarif’s remarks were followed by Suleimani’s insight. “There were friends in high places, in our country’s domestic and foreign hierarchy, who argued not to get involved in Syria and Iraq, and sit back and respectfully defend the revolution. One individual asked you mean we go and defend dictators? The leader (referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) provided a clear response in saying when you look at the countries we have relations with, who is a dictator and who is not? We simply look at our interests,” he explained.
A troubling slate
The relations Khamenei refers to promote an image into the very nature of his establishment. Bashar Al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria can be read as a reign of death and destruction. With Iran’s support and in the absence of a coordinated global response over 500,000 have been killed, scores more injured, over 12 million are internally displaced or forced to seek refuge abroad, and swathes of the country is left in ruins. Iraq’s former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, another figure described as Tehran’s puppet, has a similar report card unfortunately gone neglected. The Sunni community was the main target of Al-Maliki’s Iran-backed wrath, fuelling the rise of ISIS. In Yemen the Houthis and ousted dictator Ali Abdullah Salah have also been at the receiving end of Iran’s support. As the Saudi-led coalition advances against Iran’s disastrous efforts, signs of major rifts, and even reports of clashes between the two forces, constitute a major quagmire for Tehran. The Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy offspring brought to life by the IRGC back in the early 1980s, are known to instigate the Syrian war by supporting Al-Assad, and pursuing Tehran’s interest wherever needed across the Middle East. Looking abroad, Iran has established cosy relations with North Korea and Venezuela, both dictators whose people are starving. The Pyongyang-Tehran axis is especially raising concerns considering their close nuclear and ballistic missile collaboration.
Iran’s own dictatorship
This is a regime provoking a variety of bellicosities. Recent threats by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi of relaunching certain nuclear activities are reminders of the dangers of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Extending equally to such concerns, and not receiving adequate consideration, is Iran’s ongoing human rights violations. Over 100 executions were reported in the month of July alone. This comes after more than 3,000 were sent to the gallows during Rouhani’s first term.
More recent cases include the ongoing hunger strike of dozens of political prisoners in a jail west of Tehran going on for nearly four weeks now. These inmates are protesting prison guards resorting to violence and other repressive measures used to impose further pressures. Concerned of this and the overall situation in Iran, Amnesty International in a statement demanded Iranian authorities “allow international monitors, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, to conduct independent, unannounced inspections of Raja’i Shahr Prison and other prisons across the country.” While this and many other such cases deserve an international inquiry, they do signal a significant change in tone of courage in Iran’s powder keg society against the ruling regime.
From others’ perspectives
Fortunately, there is an end to be seen in the Syrian war. However, six years after the spark of that revolution, the Syrian people have suffered tremendously mainly due to Obama’s compelling kowtowing to Iran. The war has been draining Iran, forcing it to seek the support of other parties, including Russia. The more parties with stakes in Syria, and with the US taking a far more active stance, the more Iran sees its future in the country threatened. As the Levant’s forthcoming is being blueprinted, high on the agenda must be thwarting Iran’s interests. With ISIS defeated in Iraq, there will be no legitimacy for Iran’s presence in Iraq in any shape or form. The same argument goes for Syria. The international community, coming to realize Iran’s destructive nature, should take the initiative and demand the eviction of all Iranian elements from Syria, including IRGC members and foreign proxy members transferred from abroad.
Peace is the end
All said and done, comprehending Iran’s regime thrives on the mentality of spreading crises across the region is vital. Ceasefire and reconciliation are not in this regime’s nature, knowing increasing public demands will follow. This regime has failed to provide in elementary needs inside Iran for the past four decades. Thus, satellite states abroad will be no exception. Peace and tranquillity in the Middle East hinges on containing Iran’s influence from all its neighbouring countries and a complete end to its lethal meddling. A new chapter is being written in this flashpoint region’s history.
Iraq/Da’esh – Islamic State group suicide bombers killed seven members of Iraq's security forces in an attack on an Iraqi police and army base the 16 Aug 17 in Baiji, north of Baghdad, the interior ministry and a local official said. "Five Daesh suicide bombers, wearing explosive belts attacked a police and army base at dawn in the Al-Masafi district," the town's mayor Mohammad Mahmoud said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. "Seven members of the security forces were killed and six wounded" in the ensuing firefight, he said. Interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan confirmed the toll and said the "five suicide terrorists" were also killed. IS captured Baiji, a Sunni Arab town around 200 kilometres (120 miles) from the capital, in Jun 14 during a lightning offensive that saw the jihadist group rout security forces and grab swathes of Syria and northern Iraq. Baiji was the scene of some of the longest-running battles between IS and Iraqi forces. The town lies at a major crossroads and its recapture by Iraqi security forces was seen as key to preparing the ground for offensives in Anbar province and later Mosul. The town and its nearby oil refinery, Iraq's largest, were recaptured in late 2015 with air support from a US-led coalition and a host of tribal groups and militias.
Iraq/Da’esh – A car bombing has struck a busy market area in eastern Baghdad, killing at least 12 people, Iraqi officials said on the 28 Aug 17. The explosives-laden car went off at the wholesale Jamila market in Baghdad's Shia district of Sadr City on the morning of the 28 Aug 17 a police officer said. The explosion also wounded 28 other people, he said, saying the death toll was expected to rise further. At least one soldier was seen being evacuated from the scene, which was sealed off by security forces. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group claimed responsibility in an online statement on its media arms, the Aamaq propaganda agency.
Israel/Iran/Lebanon/Syria – Israeli media are reported on the 16 Aug 17 that Iran is building a factory in northwest Syria to manufacture long-range rockets. The reports feature satellite images showing a site under construction in northwest Syria near the Mediterranean coastal town of Baniyas that purportedly could be used to produce and store the weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned recently that Iran is augmenting its presence in Syria as the six-year civil war there has turned more favourably toward Tehran's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Our policy is clear: We vehemently oppose the military build-up by Iran and its proxies, primarily Hizballah, in Syria and we will do whatever it takes to protect Israel's security," Netanyahu said in a speech last week. Iran, which has not officially commented on the Israeli reports, is Israel's avowed enemy and for years has provided Assad with military advisers and militias to wage his civil war. An Israeli Channel 2 television news report showed images it said were taken by an Israeli satellite showing a weapons-factory construction site and indications that explosives would be stored there. The report compared images of buildings it said were of a rocket factory near Tehran to structures at the Syrian site, and said there was a strong resemblance between them. The Times of Israel reported that the missile factory is being built in a bastion of support for the embattled Assad government and could be used for the production and underground storage of Scud missiles capable of striking Israel. It said dirt berms could be seen around the factory buildings in satellite photos to protect them from attack. It added that the same site can viewed by anyone on Google maps. The Times said Iran was also helping Hezbollah build subterranean factories in Lebanon to make Fateh-110 medium-range missiles that would be able to reach most parts of Israel. Israeli Defence Minister Avidgor Liberman last month publicly warned Hezbollah and Iran against building the weapons factories. "We are fully aware" of the rocket factories, Liberman told military correspondents at a briefing in Tel Aviv. "We know what needs to be done.... We won't ignore the establishment of Iranian weapons factories in Lebanon." The alarms raised by Israel about Iran establishing a long-term military presence in Syria and Lebanon have been heeded by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has said this year it will not accept any peace settlement in Syria that allows Iran to maintain a military presence in the country. U.S. news reports say Israeli intelligence officials will discuss the situation in Syria and Lebanon with U.S. counterparts in a visit to Washington this week.
Kuwait/Iran – Kuwaiti authorities arrested 13 members of the Hezbollah-affiliated Abdali cell who had been missing since Jul 17. The suspects were convicted, most in absentia, of weapons smuggling and spying for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement to carry out “hostile acts” in Kuwait it was reported on the 21 Aug 17. Kuwait’s Interior Ministry announced the capture of 12 suspected members of the cell in different parts of the country. Security services arrested another person a day later and a search for two other individuals continued. A total of 25 Kuwaiti nationals and an Iranian had been charged in the case. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, on an official visit to Kuwait, pledged his country’s support in countering the Hezbollah cell. “We clearly said that we condemn what happened regarding Abdali cell and that Lebanon is prepared to cooperate, with all its apparatus, to end this issue.” Hariri said in a statement after meeting with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.“There is a great Kuwaiti resentment towards it and they are right about it and we in Lebanon will cooperate on this issue,” Hariri said. Hariri’s Future Movement party, earlier in August, slammed Hezbollah for its involvement in the Abdali case, warning that it could compromise relations with Kuwait and other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In 2016, Kuwait and other GCC members expelled a significant number of Lebanese nationals over alleged links to Hezbollah. “We are here to express our condemnation of the findings of the three-year trial of the Abdali cell, which proved that some ‘Hezbollah’ members were part of it,” the Future Movement said in a statement after its delegation met with Kuwait’s ambassador to Lebanon. Lebanon’s Interior Ministry vowed to cooperate with Kuwaiti officials. Iran-sponsored Hezbollah denied having any affiliation with the terror cell. Kuwait logged an official complaint in July with the Lebanese government, asking it to “assume its responsibilities towards irresponsible practices by Hezbollah” and take measures to deter “heinous” practices by the Iran-sponsored group. Following a meeting with Hariri, Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah said Kuwaiti officials requested Beirut keep them informed on measures taken to fend off those trying to undermine Kuwait’s security and stability. The Abdali case has also been a sore point in Kuwaiti-Iranian relations, despite Kuwait’s traditional role as a regional mediator and peace broker. On July 20, Kuwaiti officials closed Iran’s cultural mission and military offices and requested the Iranian Embassy reduce its diplomatic mission from 19 representatives to four. Tehran blamed the diplomatic spat on an “American-Zionist” conspiracy. Iran reacted harshly to recent developments in the Abdali case, with the Iranian Embassy in Kuwait filing an official complaint against a local publication for stating it was connected to the Abdali terror cell. The Abdali cell was uncovered in August 2015 during a major security campaign to crack down on sleeper networks nationwide. The campaign was initiated after a bombing attack on the Shia Imam as-Sadiq Mosque. Kuwaiti authorities found large quantities of weapons hidden on farmland linked to the group and in three other houses across the country, including 19 tonnes of ammunition, 14 kilograms of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, 204 grenades and electric detonators. Kuwaiti investigators said the weapons were smuggled from Iran by sea. The cell’s ringleader was convicted of meeting with Iranian officials at their diplomatic mission in Kuwait, as well as with Iranian officials in Tehran, including IRGC representatives, to facilitate the smuggling of weapons.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.
Syria/Chemical Weapons (Whether it’s by conspicuously hampering inspections, unaccounted chemical weapons shells or lying about research motives, Syria has succeeded at gassing it’s people while world looks on. 17 Aug 17) – In the spring of 2015 a Syrian major general escorted a small team of chemical weapons inspectors to a warehouse outside the Syrian capital Damascus. The international experts wanted to examine the site, but were kept waiting outside in their car for around an hour, according to several people briefed on the visit. When they were finally let into the building, it was empty. They found no trace of banned chemicals. "Look, there is nothing to see," said the general, known to the inspectors as Sharif, opening the door. So why were the inspectors kept waiting? The Syrians said they were getting the necessary approval to let them in, but the inspectors had a different theory. They believed the Syrians were stalling while the place was cleaned out. It made no sense to the team that special approval was needed for them to enter an empty building. The incident, which was not made public, is just one example of how Syrian authorities have hindered the work of inspectors and how the international community has failed to hold Syria to account, according to half a dozen interviews with officials, diplomats, and investigators involved in eliminating Syria's weapons of mass destruction. A promise by Syria in 2013 to surrender its chemical weapons averted U.S. air strikes. Many diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe that promise was a ruse. They suspect that President Bashar al-Assad's regime, while appearing to cooperate with international inspectors, secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability. They say Syria hampered inspectors, gave them incomplete or misleading information, and turned to using chlorine bombs when its supplies of other chemicals dwindled. There have been dozens of chlorine attacks and at least one major sarin attack since 2013, causing more than 200 deaths and hundreds of injuries. International inspectors say there have been more than 100 reported incidents of chemical weapons being used in the past two years alone. "The cooperation was reluctant in many aspects and that's a polite way of describing it," Angela Kane, who was the United Nation's high representative for disarmament until June 2015, said. "Were they happily collaborating? No." "What has really been shown is that there is no counter-measure, that basically the international community is just powerless," she added. That frustration was echoed by U.N. war crimes investigator Carla del Ponte, who announced on Aug. 6 she was quitting a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. "I have no power as long as the Security Council does nothing," she said. "We are powerless; there is no justice for Syria." The extent of Syria's reluctance to abandon chemical weapons has not previously been made public for fear of damaging international inspectors' relationship with Assad's administration and its backer, Russia, which is giving military support to Assad. Now investigators and diplomatic sources have provided telling details: - Syria's declarations about the types and quantities of chemicals it possessed do not match evidence on the ground uncovered by inspectors. Its disclosures, for example, make no mention of sarin, yet there is strong evidence that sarin has been used in Syria, including this year. Other chemicals found by inspectors but not reported by Syria include traces of nerve agent VX, the poison ricin and a chemical called hexamine, which is used to stabilise sarin. - Syria told inspectors in 2014-2015 that it had used 15 tonnes of nerve gas and 70 tonnes of sulphur mustard for research. Inspectors believe those amounts are not "scientifically credible." Only a fraction would be needed for research, two sources involved in inspections in Syria said.
- At least 2,000 chemical bomb shells, which Syria said it had converted to conventional weapons and either used or destroyed, are unaccounted for, suggesting that they may still be in the hands of Syria's military.
- In Damascus, witnesses with knowledge of the chemical weapons programme were instructed by Syrian military officials to alter their statements midway through interviews with inspectors, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.
The head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international agency overseeing the removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, conceded serious questions remain about the completeness and accuracy of Syria's disclosures. "There are certainly some gaps, uncertainties, discrepancies," OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu, a Turkish diplomat, said. But he rejected criticism of his leadership by Kane and some other diplomats. Kane said that Uzumcu should have turned up the pressure on Syria over the gaps in its reporting and done more to support his inspectors. Uzumcu countered that it was not his job "to ensure the full compliance" of treaties on chemical weapons, saying that the OPCW was mandated to confirm use of chemical weapons but not to assign blame. Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, insisted that Syria was completely free of chemical weapons and defended the country's cooperation with international inspectors. "I assure you that what was called the Syrian chemical weapons programme has ended, and has ended with no return. There are no more chemical weapons in Syria," he said in an interview. Sharif did not respond to requests for comment about the incident at the warehouse.
On Aug. 21, 2013, hundreds of people died in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta, a district on the outskirts of Damascus. The colourless, odourless nerve agent causes people to suffocate within minutes if inhaled even in small amounts. Assad's forces were blamed by Western governments. He has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and blames insurgents for the attack. In the wake of the atrocity, the United States and Russia brokered a deal under which Assad's government agreed to eradicate its chemical weapons programme. As part of the deal, Syria joined the OPCW, based in The Hague, Netherlands, promising to open its borders to inspectors and disclose its entire programme - after previously denying it had any chemical weapons. Syria declared it had 1,300 tonnes of chemical weapons or industrial chemical stocks, precisely the amount that outside experts had estimated. In an OPCW-led operation, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, that stockpile was shipped overseas for destruction with the help of 30 countries, notably the United States. But there were two significant problems. First, inspections did not go smoothly. Days after the Ghouta sarin attack, OPCW inspectors heading for the area came under sniper fire. They made it through to Ghouta eventually and were given just two hours by Syrian authorities to interview witnesses and take samples. The team confirmed that sarin had been used. And in May 2014 a joint United Nations-OPCW convoy was hit by explosives and AK-47 fire while attempting to get to the site of another chemical attack in the northern town of Kafr Zita. That mission was aborted. On the return journey some of the team were detained for 90 minutes by unidentified gunmen. Syria's foreign ministry issued a statement blaming terrorists for attacking the convoy. It is unknown exactly how many times the work of inspectors has been hampered, but Syrian tactics have included withholding visas, submitting large volumes of documents multiple times to bog down the process, last-minute restrictions on site inspections and coercing certain witnesses to change their stories during interviews, four diplomats and inspectors involved in the process said. The OPCW team has carried out 18 site visits since 2013, but has now effectively given up because Syria has failed to provide sufficient or accurate information, these sources said. The second problem was a switch of tactics by Assad's forces. While the United Nations and OPCW focused on ridding Syria of the stockpile it admitted having, Assad's forces began using new, crude chlorine bombs instead, according to two inspectors. As many as 100 chlorine barrel bombs have been dropped from helicopters since 2014, they said. Syria has denied using chlorine. Although less poisonous than nerve gas and widely available, chlorine's use as a weapon is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed when it joined the OPCW, an intergovernmental agency that works with the United Nations to implement the convention. If inhaled, chlorine gas turns into hydrochloric acid in the lungs and can kill by drowning victims in body fluids. A source involved in monitoring Syria's chemical weapons for the OPCW said Damascus began using chlorine as "a weapon of terror" to gain a battlefield advantage when one of its bases in Kafr Zita was threatened with being overrun in 2014. "The base was surrounded by opposition. The government forces wanted to depopulate the area. That's why they started using chlorine," said the source. A senior official who has worked with United Nations and OPCW investigators said two helicopter squadrons dropped chlorine barrel bombs, drums filled with chlorine canisters, from two air bases. To produce such a quantity must have required technical staff and logistical support, suggesting the operation was overseen by senior commanders, the official said. The introduction of a new type of chemical weapon came at an awkward time for the OPCW, said the source involved in studying Syria's chemical weapons for the weapons monitoring group. It was keen to remove Syria's declared stockpile and reluctant to start a probe into alleged government violations that could jeopardise Syrian cooperation. The goal of removing the stockpile, which Western governments feared could fall into the hands of Islamic State, took precedence over the chlorine attacks, the source said. OPCW head Uzumcu denied there had been a reluctance to investigate reports of chlorine attacks, pointing out that in 2014 he set up a fact finding mission to look into them. This mission was not tasked with assigning blame, however. It concluded that the use of chlorine was systematic and widespread. Uzumcu said the team's conclusions were handed to the OPCW executive council. It condemned the use of chlorine and passed the findings to the United Nations. A spokesman for the United Nations said it was the role of the OPCW to determine whether or not a member state was in breach of the chemical weapons ban. Kane, the former U.N. high representative for disarmament, said that Uzumcu should have tackled Syria over its lapses in reporting to the OPCW, including undeclared chemicals and a failure to report the government's Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which was, in effect, the programme's headquarters. "Why, my God, three-and-a half years later, has more progress not been made in clearing up the inconsistencies? If I was the head of an organisation like that ... I would go to Damascus and I would confront these people," Kane said. Uzumcu said the OPCW was constrained by its founding treaty, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. The OPCW has no obligation to act when one of its members violates the convention, he said. Determining blame for the use of chemical weapons is the task of a separate United Nations-OPCW mission in Syria, the Joint Investigative Mechanism, established in 2015. A spokesman for the Joint Investigative Mechanism referred questions to the OPCW. "The secretariat has fulfilled, accurately and entirely, the tasks they were asked to fulfil and will remain within our limitations as far as our mandate is concerned," Uzumcu said. He said some states have suspicions that the Syrian government hid stocks of chemical precursors that might be used for the production of certain nerve agents, including sarin. But he said there was no conclusive evidence. Uzumcu said he regretted that relations had broken down between Russia and the United States on the OPCW executive council, which has the power to impose restrictions on Syria's membership and report it to the U.N. Security Council for non-cooperation. Uzumcu said his office was still seeking answers from the Assad administration about undeclared chemicals, aerial bombs and the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which has overseen Syria's chemical weapons since the 1970s. Syrian officials have maintained that no supporting documentation exists for the programme, which included dozens of storage, production and research facilities.
The Syrian crisis has had a profound effect on the way the OPCW operates. For two decades the organisation had reached consensus on most decisions, only calling on the 41-member executive council to vote on a handful of occasions. Syria marked a clear divide on the council. In 2016, when an inquiry by the United Nations and OPCW found that Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks, the United States sought to impose sanctions on those responsible through the executive council, but then dropped the proposal, the details of which were not made public. A text drafted by Spain condemned the attacks but removed any reference to sanctions. It was supported by a majority, including Germany, France, the United States and Britain, but opposed by Russia, China, Iran and Sudan. The United States has since placed sanctions on hundreds of Syrian officials it said were linked to the chemical weapons programme. President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base, but division on the OPCW governing body and at the United Nations has prevented collective action against the continuing attacks. Western governments accused Moscow of trying to undermine investigations by the United Nations and OPCW in order to protect Assad; Syria says the inspection missions are being used by Western countries to force regime change. Russian officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Former U.N. chief weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom, who is now chief scientist for the U.N.-OPCW mission, said it is critical that perpetrators of chemical attacks are put on trial to deter future use of weapons of mass destruction. His team should be reporting back to the U.N. by mid-October, he said. A key unsolved question is what happened to the 2,000 aerial bombs that Syria said it had converted to conventional weapons, a process that would be costly and time-consuming. "To my knowledge, the Syrian government never furnished any details of where, when and how they changed the bombs' payload," said an OPCW-U.N. source, who took part in investigations in 2015-2016. He said there clearly was "a real, high-level, command structure behind this." Syrian officials did not respond to requests for comment about the bombs. The team is also examining the deaths of almost 100 people on April 4 when a gas attack hit Khan Sheikhoun, a town in the rebel-held province of Idlib near the Turkish border. Samples taken from people exposed to the chemicals and tested by the OPCW confirmed sarin use. Meqdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister said in the interview that Syrian forces were not to blame, repeating earlier denials by Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. Sellstrom said the presence of sarin so long after Syria was supposed to have dismantled its chemical weapons programme posed difficult questions. "Is there a hideout somewhere, or is there production somewhere and how much is available?" he said, adding that the reported use of aerial bombs in Khan Sheikhoun could point to the Syrian forces keeping some strategic weapons as well. The attack means either "that someone can produce sarin today, or sarin has been hidden," Sellstrom said.
Yemen/Great Britain – The British government and the Merchant Navy on the 17 Aug 17 have issued a warning alerting commercial ships of the potentiality of being attacked by remote controlled booby-trapped boats or rocket launchers. The concerned ships involve those passing through Bab-el-Mandeb strait and Gulf of Aden. The warning was issued after two commercial carriers were attacked by rockets at the southern entrance of Bab el-Mandab in broad daylight near the Yemeni isle of Perim. The booby-trapped boats headed towards the ship with high acceleration. The statement said: “In previous situations of the sort, attacks were launched via hand grenades, or rocket-propelled grenades. However, the last two attacks involved booby-trapped boats which blew up some distance away from the targeted ship, however the intention was to detonate the hull.”