M!ddleEasterners Newsblog: 19-26 August
International tensions over Syria flared last week in the wake of suspected chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Wedneday 21st August, numbers of dead range from several hundred to over a thousand.
Although a handful of incidences exhibiting the characteristics of chemical attacks occurred in March and April this year, these were never confirmed due to the Assad regime’s sluggishness in allowing international peacekeeping forces to examine the sites. In fact, UN weapons inspectors arrived in Syria just days before the most recent attack, having only just been granted a mandate to examine three of the sites where alleged chemical attacks happened in March.
The scale of the attacks in Ghouta on Wednesday last week prompted Western politicians and UN representatives to call for an open investigation by UN weapons inspectors; even Russia – Assad’s fiercest supporter – insisted that his government cooperate in this matter.
UN chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Ghouta on Monday 26 August to take samples from victims at the site, but were subjected to sniper fire. Nonetheless, they managed to collect material and none were injured. Their primary objective is to ascertain whether or not chemical weapons were used; a secondary goal is to try to glean who was responsible based on the type of missiles used.
Regardless of whatever concrete evidence may or may not be found, this last incident has created a shockwave at an international level. Pressure on the Western powers to intervene is mounting, whilst Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is concerned about the ‘growing hysteria’ and the ‘catastrophic consequences’ which could arise as a result of Western intervention. Lavrov insisted that an end to the civil war could not be found through military intervention, and stated that Russia was not willing to go to war over this issue, whatever the West’s course of action might be.
Some fear that the West might use the Ghouta attacks as a ‘pretext’ for military intervention. Indeed, it has been reported that Britain has moved warplanes and military transporters to her airbase in Akrotiri, Cyprus – a key base for British military interests in the Middle East, less than 100 miles from Syria.
Meanwhile, US president Barack Obama is reportedly ‘weighing a military strike’ of ‘limited scope and duration’ against Syria, and French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has stated that France’s reaction ‘could take the form of a reaction with force.’
Approximately 42 people have been killed and 400 wounded in a series of bomb blasts in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday 23 August. The attacks were directed at Sunni mosques and are thought to be a result of heightened sectarian tensions in the country stirred by the war in neighbouring Syria. Just a week prior to these attacks, a car bomb in the Shia district of Beirut killed twenty-seven.
No group has come forward yet to claim responsibility for the attacks, although several suspects have been detained by Lebanese forces and are being interrogated.
Palestinians at Qalandiya refugee camp in the West Bank clashed with Israeli police forces on Monday 26 August, whilst they attempted to detain an alleged terrorist. Live fire was used against the protestors, leaving nineteen civilians wounded and three dead.
On the same day, hackers infiltrated Google’s Palestinian domain, http://google.ps/, leaving a message on the page in protest of Google Maps’ failure to recognise Palestine. The tongue-in-cheek message left by the hackers read: “uncle google we say hi from palestine to [remind] you that the country in google map not called israel. its called Palestine”.
Israeli city planners have decided to go ahead with the construction of a new settlement in East Jerusalem. Ramat Shlomo will consist of 1,500 new apartments and will almost certainly compromise the recently revived Israel-Palestine peace talks. When plans for the settlement were unveiled to American Vice President Joe Biden in 2010 they caused a diplomatic rift between the US and Israel; nonetheless, officials have approved plans to lay down infrastructure for the settlement.
by ICSR Research Intern Stephanie de Ryckman de Betz