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Chemical weapons use from Syrian war stokes Ukraine’s fears

The chilling scenes from Syria of victims twitching and gasping for air after chlorine cylinders were dropped from helicopters in towns and villages were broadcast over and over in the course of country’s civil war.

Legal and moral taboos were shattered. Hundreds were killed, including many children, in dozens of poison gas attacks widely blamed on President Bashar Assad’s forces under the protection of his chief ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Several years later, concerns are growing that such weapons could be used in Ukraine, where Russian forces have been waging a devastating war for weeks.

As the conflict drags on, Western officials and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have warned that Putin could deploy chemical agents.

“The world must react now,” Zelenskyy said.

Officials say they are investigating an unconfirmed claim by a far-right Ukrainian regiment that a poisonous substance was dropped in the besieged city of Mariupol this week. The claim could not be confirmed by independent sources, and Ukrainian officials say it could have been phosphorus munitions – which cause horrendous burns but are not classed as chemical weapons.

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Lowering the threshold

Putin has threatened to broaden the Ukraine war into a nuclear conflict, but it is unclear if chemical agents will be used to support his military operations. Analysts say the Syria war set a horrific precedent in terms of deploying chlorine, sulfur and the nerve agent sarin, completely disregarding international norms and with no accountability.

“From what we’re seeing now, it seems that Russia has drawn the conclusion that it’s safe to continue this modus operandi from Syria in the Ukrainian context as well,” said Aida Samani, legal adviser with Civil Rights Defenders, a Sweden-based group.

“Of course, that undermines the international regulations that we have in place and lowers the threshold for the use of such weapons,” Samani added.

She has joined with other nongovernmental organizations to file a criminal complaint on behalf of a group of Syrians living in Sweden against the Syrian government for war crimes and crimes against humanity related to its use of chemical weapons.

Western officials say Russia may be looking to borrow from the Syria playbook, where Assad’s forces tested the international community’s resolve by gradually ramping up the brutality of attacks and methods.

Part of the equation in Syria was the difficulty of proving anything in the aftermath of such attacks, largely due to the lack of immediate access. Assad, with Russia’s backing, consistently cast a cloud of confusion, accusing the opposition of fabricating evidence or deploying poison gas themselves to try to frame him.

An investigative mechanism set up by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons blamed Syrian government forces for multiple chemical attacks in Syria, including the use of chlorine and sarin in an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed about 100 people. At least one mustard gas attack was blamed on the Islamic State group, which held territory in Syria and Iraq for several years during the war that killed half a million people.

In comments reminiscent of Syria, Russia accused Ukraine of running chemical and biological labs with U.S. support, leading to accusations Moscow was seeking to stage a false-flag incident. Ukraine does have a network of biological labs that have gotten funding and research support from the U.S. — but they are part of a program seeking to reduce the likelihood of deadly outbreaks by pathogens, whether natural or manmade. The U.S. efforts date to the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s program for weapons of mass destruction.

Red lines

The assault early on the morning of Aug. 21, 2013, on the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus known as Ghouta shocked a world that had grown largely numb to the carnage of Syria’s civil war.

Fueling the international outrage were dozens of online videos showing victims in spasms, gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth. The attack crossed what then-U.S. President Barack Obama had called a “red line” for possible military intervention in the Arab country.

Obama came close to ordering U.S.-led military strikes but abruptly backed down after failing to secure the necessary support from the U.S. Congress and instead struck a deal with Moscow to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal.

By August 2014, Assad’s government declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed. But Syria’s initial declaration to the OPCW has remained in dispute, and the attacks continued.

In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump launched several dozen cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for a suspected nerve gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib province that killed about 100 people. Experts from the U.N. and the chemical weapons watchdog blamed the Syrian government for the attack.

As Moscow pushes its offensive in Ukraine, world leaders and policymakers are grappling with how the West should respond to a Russian battlefield use of chemical or biological weapons. Members of Congress said the Biden administration and its allies will not stand by if that happens.

Unlike Syria, however, Russia is a nuclear power. Any reaction risks triggering a nuclear confrontation, which Putin has already alluded to.

Achieving Justice

Samani, of Civil Rights Defenders, faults the international community for not making a real effort to seek accountability for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

“There hasn’t really been any political appetite to explore how, for example, a special tribunal could be set up for Syria,” she said.

Last week, she and a group of NGOs presented new information relevant to the sarin gas attacks on Khan Sheikhun in 2017 and Ghouta in 2013 to investigative authorities in Germany, France and Sweden.

But justice appears to be a long way off.

“Holding the perpetrators of these crimes accountable for the use of illegal weapons is the first deterrent to ensure that they do not recur,” said Haneen Haddad, project leader for the Syrian Archive, a Syrian-led project that documents human rights violations and other crimes committed in Syria.

“Without meaningful accountability, cruel actors and their enablers think that they can do terrible things without real consequence from the international community.”

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Hundreds of stolen cars recovered in global Interpol operation funded by the UAE

A United Arab Emirates-funded global police operation targeting stolen vehicle trafficking has led to the recovery of hundreds of cars, trucks and motorbikes and almost half a million stolen cigarettes in just two weeks, Interpol announced on Wednesday.

Operation Carback saw frontline police at seaports and land border crossings in 77 countries use Interpol’s secure global police communications network – I-24/7 – to check vehicles and their owners against Interpol’s databases and instantaneously detect potential criminals or criminal activity.

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Interpol launched its ‘Reducing Vehicle Crime and Theft’ Program in 2016 with funding from the United Arab Emirates via Interpol’s ‘Foundation for a Safer World’, which financed Operation Carback 2022.

Since May 2016, the foundation has been supporting seven key Interpol initiatives by donating $52 million over a period of five years, as part of a contribution agreement between the Foundation and the UAE government.

In just over two weeks, Operation Carback led to the identification of 1,121 stolen cars and 64 motorcycles, the arrest or detention of 222 suspected stolen vehicle traffickers, the detention of eight suspected people smugglers, the detection of 26 fraudulent vehicle documents and the seizure of 480,000 stolen cigarettes.

Officers raided chop shops – places where stolen vehicles are dismantled into parts that are smuggled or sold online – with confiscations triggering further investigations into car crime gangs globally.

Interpol supported the operation by crosschecking information collected in the field against its international databases, with Frontex also supporting the European leg of frontline operations.

Experts from Interpol’s Stolen Motor Vehicles Unit were deployed to key locations to assist national law enforcement with database checks in the field as well as in exchanging, analyzing and acting on operational data.

With the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) typically removed from stolen cars, on-the-ground assistance from Interpol enabled national law enforcement to connect with car manufacturers to identify vehicle origin.

Because stolen vehicles are frequently trafficked to finance and carry out crime ranging from drug trafficking, arms dealing and people smuggling to corruption and international terrorism, the Interpol General Secretariat headquarters is analyzing intelligence gathered during Operation Carback to identify links with other crime areas.

“With vehicles usually smuggled beyond borders and ending up thousands of miles away from where they were stolen, an international operation like Carback is crucial to enabling police to tackle the networks behind global car trafficking,” said Ilana de Wild, Interpol’s director of organized and emerging Crime.

“The main key to the success of Operation Carback is the wealth of information contained in Interpol’s Stolen Motor Vehicle database, and the fact that throughout the operation police in the field were able to access this crucial data.”

Last year, Interpol identified some 248,000 stolen vehicles thanks to the SMV database. More than 130 countries shared their national data with Interpol, and carried out more than 280 million searches.

The UAE has close links with Interpol and in November it was announced that the country’s Major General Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi, of the UAE’s interior ministry, had been elected as the new President of Interpol.

The senior police official will serve the four-year term in Lyon, France.

The new appointment makes him the first candidate from the Middle Eastern region to be elected into the position since the global crime fighting agency was founded in the 1920s.

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‘If Putin was a woman, there would be no Ukraine war’: UK’s Johnson

Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have started the war in Ukraine if he was a woman, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“If Putin was a woman, which he obviously isn't, but if he were, I really don't think he would've embarked on a crazy, macho war of invasion and violence in the way that he has,” Johnson told German broadcaster ZDF on Tuesday evening.

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Putin's invasion of Ukraine is “a perfect example of toxic masculinity”, he said, calling for better education for girls around the world and for “more women in positions of power”.

The British Prime Minister acknowledged that “of course people want the war to end”, but for the moment “there's no deal available. Putin isn't making an offer of peace”.

Western allies must support Ukraine to enable it to be in the best possible strategic position in the event that peace negotiations with Moscow do become possible, he added.

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Spain begins natural gas exports to Morocco following diplomatic row

Natural gas has started flowing from Spain toward Morocco through a pipeline that stopped flowing in November amid a diplomatic row between Morocco and Algeria, data from Spanish gas grid operator Enagas showed on Wednesday.
Algeria decided last year not to extend a deal to export gas through a pipeline running through neighboring Morocco to Spain, halting nearly all of Morocco’s gas supply, as relations between Rabat and Algiers worsened.
In April, Algeria warned Madrid not to re-export Algerian gas supplies to its Southern neighbor after Energy Minister Teresa Ribera confirmed plans to reverse the flow of the Maghreb Europe pipeline and begin exportation of natural gas to Morocco.
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“A certification process guarantees that this gas is not of Algerian origin,” a spokesperson for Enagas said on Wednesday.
In March, Spain angered its main gas supplier Algeria by supporting a Moroccan plan to offer autonomy to Western Sahara, prompting Algiers to suspend its 20-year-old friendship treaty with Madrid and causing a diplomatic crisis.
The shift was well received in Rabat as Morocco decided to return its ambassador to Spain after almost a year of absence following a long diplomatic dispute.
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