On Saturday, a car bomb in Masyaf, Syria, killed key Syrian rocket scientist Aziz Asbar and his driver, and Syria and Hezbollah quickly pointed the finger at Israel. "In this case, the accusations were well founded," The New York Times reported Monday, citing information passed on by a senior intelligence official from an unidentified Middle Eastern nation. The official said Israel's Mossad assassinated Asbar who, as head of a top-secret weapons lab called Sector 4, was working assiduously with Iran to retrofit Syria's SM600 Tishreen rockets to create precision-guided missiles capable of accurately hitting Israeli cities.
Only an Israeli prime minister can legally authorize a Mossad "negative treatment" operation, or assassination. "Israel did not claim responsibility," the Times notes. "It never does. But the Mossad has a long history of assassinating scientists developing weaponry seen as a threat," dating back to attempts on German scientists working for Egypt in the 1950s. Iran has been the Mossad's most frequent target recently. "Since 2007 it has assassinated six Iranians, most of them scientists involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs on their way to work in the morning," the Times reports. "An Iranian general in charge of a missile project was also blown up in his headquarters along with 17 of his men," and "Israeli operatives have also killed a number of Syrians." You can read more about Israel's assassination program and Asbar's work and death at The New York Times. Peter Weber
At least 221 people were killed Wednesday in southwestern Syria, in what local officials and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group believe were coordinated attacks.
Multiple suicide bombings were carried out in Suweida, a government-controlled town south of the capital Damascus, as well as in villages to the north and east. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the bombings, and officials said militants also forced their ways into homes and killed the people inside. "It's the bloodiest death toll in Suweida province since the start of the war [in 2011]," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
ISIS has lost most of its territory in Syria, remaining in small areas of southern and eastern Syria. Catherine Garcia
Israeli troops evacuated 422 people from Syria to Jordan overnight Saturday and Sunday at the request of the United States and several European countries. The original plan was to evacuate 800, but complications including gains by the Islamic State hindered the rescue mission.
The evacuees were "White Helmet" volunteers, a civil defense group that conducts search and rescue operations, evacuations, and medical work in rebel-held areas of Syria. The group and their families were located in the Golan Heights area. Syrian government troops are advancing into the region, and the Bashar al-Assad regime considers the White Helmets a terrorist organization though they are credited with saving more than 100,000 lives.
The evacuees will be granted asylum and resettled in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. "Humanity dictates that many of these brave first-aiders should now find protection and refuge, some of them in Germany," said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The Canadian Foreign Ministry likewise expressed a "deep moral responsibility to these brave and selfless people." Bonnie Kristian
"We are seeing a massive displacement inside Syria," Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations regional coordinator for Syria, said Monday. "From January to April, there were over 920,000 newly displaced people," he continued. "This was the highest displacement in that short period of time we have seen since the conflict started."
This new wave of internal displacement brings the total refugee population inside Syria to about 6.2 million, while another 5.6 million Syrians are refugees outside their country's borders. The last widely accepted death toll estimate was 470,000 killed in the conflict as of 2016; subsequent estimates put it as high as 511,000 and as low as 188,000. Syria's total population in 2010, before the civil war began, was about 20 million.
Moumtzis highlighted recent escalation in fighting and airstrikes in and near the city of Idlib as particular cause for concern. Idlib is supposed to be a de-escalation zone, and it is already serving as a temporary home to civilians displaced from Aleppo. For those living in Idlib now, "there is no other Idlib to take them out to," Moumtzis said. "Really, this is the last location. There is no other location to further move them." Bonnie Kristian
The Syrian military said Monday that after fighting for a month, it has captured an area of southern Damascus from the Islamic State, and the capital is now, for the first time since the country's civil war began in 2011, under full government control.
Government forces were able to take back the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk and the Hajar al-Aswad district, and they will now focus on the territory held by rebels in southern Syria. President Bashar al-Assad's forces have been assisted by Iranian-backed militias, including Hezbollah out of Lebanon, and after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called on Iran to leave Syria, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters that his country's "presence in Syria has been based on a request by the Syrian government and Iran will continue its support as long as the Syrian government wants."
A monitoring group said that 1,600 people, including hundreds of ISIS militants, left southern Damascus on Saturday and Sunday, heading toward the eastern desert after agreeing to a deal with the Syrian government, The Associated Press reports. Catherine Garcia
Investigators say Syrian and Russian authorities blocked them from site of suspected chemical attack
Syrian and Russian authorities have reportedly blocked a watchdog group from investigating a suspected chemical attack in Syria.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an independent watchdog group, sought to visit the city of Douma, near Damascus, to investigate a recent attack, The Associated Press reports. The U.S. has accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons against civilians in Douma earlier this month, killing around 40 people. Russia, a Syrian ally, has claimed that the event was staged, and both nations have denied the use of poison gas.
The OPCW tried to visit the site of the alleged attack to investigate, but local officials said that the team lacked proper permissions from the United Nations, AP reports. A U.N. spokesperson disputed that claim, telling AP that the OPCW group had been fully cleared by the U.N. to investigate in Douma.
Instead of allowing investigators to access Douma, Syrian authorities said that the OPCW team could interview a group of 22 witnesses. Officials in the U.S. are concerned that Russians may have tampered with evidence at the site, Reuters reports, a charge a Russian official denied Monday. The OPCW group planned to collect samples and document evidence, not assign blame for the incident.
The U.S. launched a series of strikes late Friday in response to the alleged chemical attack, targeting chemical weapons facilities and a research center. Russia and Syria reported that missiles were shot down and failed to cause major damage, but President Trump said the strikes were "perfectly executed." Read more at The Associated Press. Summer Meza
"We can all see that a Russia disinformation campaign is in full-force this morning, but Russia's desperate attempts at deflection cannot change the facts," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Saturday at a Security Council meeting following U.S.-led strikes on Syria. President Trump ordered the attack Friday in response to what Washington believes was chemical weapons use by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week.
Haley argued "there is clear information demonstrating" the Assad regime's culpability. "The pictures of dead children were not fake news," she said. "They were the result of the Syrian regime's barbaric inhumanity. And they were the result of the regime and Russia's failure to live up to their international commitments to remove all chemical weapons from Syria."
The ambassador also indicated the Trump administration is prepared to launch further strikes on Syria if chemical weapons are used again. "The time for talk ended last night," she announced. "The United States is locked and loaded. When our president draws a red line, our president enforces a red line." Watch an excerpt of Haley's comments below. Bonnie Kristian
Nikki Haley: "We can all see that a Russian disinformation campaign is in full force this morning. But Russia’s desperate attempts at deflection cannot change the facts... The pictures of dead children were not fake news." (via CBS) pic.twitter.com/j2m3ajmWjF
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) April 14, 2018
Some congressional Democrats and Republicans alike slammed President Trump for ordering military strikes on Syria without seeking congressional authorization:
The Constitution gives Congress the power to authorize military action. If @realDonaldTrump wants to expand American military involvement in Syria's civil war, he must seek approval from Congress – & provide a comprehensive strategy with clear goals & a plan to achieve them.(2/2)
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) April 14, 2018
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called the strikes "illegal" and "reckless." "Today, it's a strike on Syria — what's going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?" Kaine asked. "The last thing Congress should be doing is giving this president a blank check to wage war against anyone, anywhere." Minority leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave more neutral responses, calling for caution and strategy without condemning the strikes.
On the other side of the aisle, libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) used language similar to Kaine's:
These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal, and reckless. The next speaker of the House must reclaim congressional war powers as prescribed in Article I of the Constitution. @SpeakerRyan has completely abdicated one of his most important responsibilities.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) April 14, 2018
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a frequent Amash ally, tweeted a litany of questions for those, especially Republicans, supporting the strikes:
For those who say POTUS can order strikes w/o Congress:
1) can he strike China/Russia/Britain under same authority?
2) can he bomb Assad’s living quarters?
3) is there a limit to size of weapon? (MOAB? Nuke?)
4) can he send troops?
5) did Obama have same authority in Libya?
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) April 14, 2018
In the Senate, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) likewise called on Trump to seek congressional authorization. Paul said on Fox News Thursday he objects to the idea that the president can just "go to war when he wants, where he wants." Bonnie Kristian