Senators slam Trump plan to pardon vets accused or convicted of war crimes

HuffPost reports:

President Donald Trump’s reported plans to pardon several U.S. servicemen accused or convicted of war crimes elicited bipartisan criticism in the Senate on Tuesday.

“I think it’s a terrible idea to pardon someone who is legitimately convicted of committing war crimes. It’s unthinkable,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told HuffPost when asked about the New York Times report.

According to the Times, the White House over the weekend requested the necessary paperwork to issue a pardon for a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes who was turned in by the men who served with him.

Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher is charged with firing on civilians in Iraq in 2017 and fatally stabbing a wounded teenage ISIS fighter. He allegedly bragged about racking up civilian kills and threatened members of his SEAL team if they reported him. He has pleaded not guilty.

Others who are reportedly up for a pardon include a former Blackwater security contractor who was found guilty of shooting dozens of unarmed Iraqis and an Army Green Beret accused of killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010. [Continue reading…]

How Assad’s torture machine crushed dissent

 

Trump shows signs he will pardon servicemen accused or convicted of war crimes

The New York Times reports:

President Trump has requested the immediate preparation of paperwork needed to pardon several American military members accused or convicted of war crimes — including high-profile cases of murder, attempted murder and desecration of a corpse — indicating that he is considering pardons for the men on or around Memorial Day, according to two United States officials.

The requests are for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher of the Navy SEALs, who is scheduled to stand trial in the coming weeks on charges of shooting unarmed civilians and killing an enemy captive with a knife while deployed in Iraq.

They are also believed to include the case of a former Blackwater security contractor recently found guilty in the deadly 2007 shooting of dozens of unarmed Iraqis; the case of Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, the Army Green Beret accused of killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010; and the case of a group of Marine Corps snipers charged with urinating on the corpse of a dead Taliban fighter. [Continue reading…]

Iran threat debate is set off by images of missiles on small boats

The New York Times reports:

The intelligence that caused the White House to escalate its warnings about a threat from Iran came from photographs of missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf that were put on board by Iranian paramilitary forces, three American officials said.

Overhead imagery showed fully assembled missiles, stoking fears that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at United States naval ships. Additional pieces of intelligence picked up threats against commercial shipping and potential attacks by Arab militias with Iran ties on American troops in Iraq.

But just how alarmed the Trump administration should be over the new intelligence is a subject of fierce debate among the White House, the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and America’s allies.

The photographs presented a different kind of threat than previously seen from Iran, said the three officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about it publicly. Taken with the other intelligence, the photographs could indicate that Iran is preparing to attack United States forces. That is the view of John R. Bolton, President Trump’s hard-line national security adviser, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

But other officials — including Europeans, Iraqis, members of both parties in Congress and some senior officials within the Trump administration — said Iran’s moves might mostly be defensive against what Tehran believes are provocative acts by Washington. [Continue reading…]

Iranians do want regime change — but not the kind Washington hawks are pushing

Vali Nasr writes:

Talk of “regime change” is once again in the air, and this time Iran is in the gun sights.

President Trump — who withdrew from the nuclear deal Iran had signed with the United States, Europe, Russia and China — still insists that his goal is diplomacy. Only “maximum pressure” will bring Iran back to the negotiating table, the White House says: That’s the rationale for punishing economic sanctions that are aimed at reducing Iran’s exports to zero.

Even as the United States showily dispatched an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Middle East last week, the president asked Iran’s leaders to call him, with the White House going so far as to send Tehran a telephone number through the Swiss Foreign Ministry. Tehran said not to expect a call.

Trump’s talk of negotiations rings hollow. Washington’s strategy, it has been clear for some time, is to oust the current Iranian leadership through economic pressure and, if necessary, a nudge from the military. No wonder national security adviser John Bolton and other hawkish officials had asked the Pentagon for a plan that includes sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East, should Iran (or a “proxy”) make an aggressive military move. The White House is discussing an even broader range of military responses to Iranian provocations, according to recent reports. [Continue reading…]

Trump tells Pentagon chief he does not want war with Iran

The New York Times reports:

President Trump has told his acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, according to several administration officials, in a message to his hawkish aides that an intensifying American pressure campaign against the clerical-led government in Tehran must not escalate into open conflict.

Mr. Trump’s statement, during a Wednesday morning meeting in the Situation Room, came during a briefing on the rising tensions with Iran. American intelligence has indicated that Iran has placed missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf, prompting fears that Tehran may strike at United States troops and assets or those of its allies.

No new information was presented to the president at the meeting that argued for further engagement with Iran, according to a person in the room. But Mr. Trump was firm in saying he did not want a military clash with the Iranians, several officials said. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

Iran’s most prominent military leader has recently met Iraqi militias in Baghdad and told them to “prepare for proxy war”, the Guardian has learned.

Two senior intelligence sources said that Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran’s powerful Quds force, summoned the militias under Tehran’s influence three weeks ago, amid a heightened state of tension in the region. The move to mobilise Iran’s regional allies is understood to have triggered fears in the US that Washington’s interests in the Middle East are facing a pressing threat. The UK raised its threat levels for British troops in Iraq on Thursday.

While Suleimani has met regularly with leaders of Iraq’s myriad Shia groups over the past five years, the nature and tone of this gathering was different. “It wasn’t quite a call to arms, but it wasn’t far off,” one source said.

The meeting has led to a frenzy of diplomatic activity between US, British and Iraqi officials who are trying to banish the spectre of clashes between Tehran and Washington and who now fear that Iraq could become an arena for conflict. [Continue reading…]

Skeptical U.S. allies resist Trump’s new claims of threats from Iran

The New York Times reports:

As the Trump administration draws up war plans against Iran over what it says are threats to American troops and interests, a senior British military official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he saw no increased risk from Iran or allied militias in Iraq or Syria.

A few hours later, the United States Central Command issued an unusual rebuke: The remarks from the British official — Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State — run “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”

The rare public dispute highlights a central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran.

Over the last year, Washington has said Iran is threatening United States interests in the Middle East, encouraging aggression by Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, shipping missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen and allowing its naval forces to behave belligerently in the Persian Gulf.

All are concerns that have been leveled against Iranian forces for years.

“We are aware of their presence clearly and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because of the environment we are in,” General Ghika said.

But he said, “No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”

Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington — where John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Trump into backing Iran into a corner.

One American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential internal planning, said the new intelligence of an increased Iranian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the military planning being driven by Mr. Bolton. The official also said the ultimate goal of the yearlong economic sanctions campaign by the Trump administration was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the United States. [Continue reading…]

Inside Syria’s secret torture prisons: How Bashar al-Assad crushed dissent

The New York Times reports:

Syrian security officers hung Muhannad Ghabbash from his wrists for hours, beat him bloody, shocked him with electricity and stuck a gun in his mouth.

Mr. Ghabbash, a law student from Aleppo, repeatedly confessed his actual offense: organizing peaceful antigovernment protests. But the torture continued for 12 days, until he wrote a fictional confession to planning a bombing.

That, he said, was just the beginning.

He was flown to a crammed prison at Mezze air base in Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he said guards hung him and other detainees from a fence naked, spraying them with water on cold nights. To entertain colleagues over dinner, he and other survivors said, an officer calling himself Hitler forced prisoners to act the roles of dogs, donkeys and cats, beating those who failed to bark or bray correctly.

In a military hospital, he said, he watched a nurse bash the face of an amputee who begged for painkillers. In yet another prison, he counted 19 cellmates who died from disease, torture and neglect in a single month.

“I was among the lucky,” said Mr. Ghabbash, 31, who survived 19 months in detention until a judge was bribed to free him.

As Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, closes in on victory over an eight-year revolt, a secret, industrial-scale system of arbitrary arrests and torture prisons has been pivotal to his success. While the Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, fought armed rebels for territory, the government waged a ruthless war on civilians, throwing hundreds of thousands into filthy dungeons where thousands were tortured and killed.

Nearly 128,000 have never emerged, and are presumed to be either dead or still in custody, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group that keeps the most rigorous tally. Nearly 14,000 were “killed under torture.” Many prisoners die from conditions so dire that a United Nations investigation labeled the process “extermination.” [Continue reading…]

The U.S. has slashed its refugee intake. Syrians fleeing war are most affected

The Washington Post reports:

Mariam Rastanawi fled Homs, Syria, in 2012, hoping to escape a protracted civil war amid fears that remaining in her native country would amount to a death sentence. Seeking refuge in the United States, a country she saw as sympathetic to her plight, she and her husband waited years in exile without a permanent home.

In March, they were shocked to learn that they were being admitted to the United States as refugees, and their spring arrival in Indianapolis was akin to winning the lottery. The country used to allow thousands of Syrians to immigrate, but the flow of Syrian refugees is at an almost complete stop.

“We are so happy, thank God,” Rastanawi said through a translator. “We didn’t think it would be this long.”

Under the Trump administration, the number of refugees allowed into the United States has fallen to its lowest level since the resettlement program began in 1980. And few groups have been as affected as Syrians, who have been fleeing a brutal civil war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead since it began in 2011.

The number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States in fiscal 2016 was 12,587. In fiscal 2018, the United States admitted 62.

“Syrian refugees are the largest population of refugees seeking resettlement,” said Nazanin Ash, vice president of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. “Their vulnerability is increasing while U.S. policy is reducing admissions.” [Continue reading…]

Russia and Turkey landgrab ‘behind fresh Syria bombardment’

The Guardian reports:

Renewed bombardment in north-west Syria that has displaced 200,000 people and destroyed 12 healthcare centres could have been sparked by Russia and Turkish moves to entrench their zones of influence as the seven-year conflict winds down, according to regional diplomats.

The bombardment in Idlib province began two weeks ago and has intensified in recent days, prompting rescue workers to describe an “unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe”.

The violence has sparked fears of a final, devastating, showdown in the most densely packed corner of Syria – the last part of the country to remain outside regime control.

Hospitals and clinics in the southern end of Idlib and northern edge of neighbouring Hama province have been systematically attacked by Russian warplanes, observers on the ground and monitoring groups have confirmed. The blitz has raised the spectre of a long-anticipated ground attack on the province, where a cornered population of at least 3 million people has nowhere left to run.

However, two senior diplomats believe such a scenario is less likely than a limited campaign that gives Russian and Syrian forces a foothold in Idlib, in return for allowing Turkey to deepen its current zone of control further to the east. [Continue reading…]