Report claims Rohingya militant group massacred nearly 100 Hindus

Members of a Rohingya militant group allegedly massacred dozens of men, women and children, execution-style in Hindu villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State last year, according to a new Amnesty International report.

The Myanmar government has blamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for attacking border guards and sparking a violent crackdown which has seen hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh since last year.

In mid-2017, ARSA fighters engaged in “scores of clashes with security forces,” according to Amnesty. At the same time, ARSA committed “serious human rights abuses…including unlawful killings and abductions,” the human rights group said.

“It’s hard to ignore the sheer brutality of ARSA’s actions, which have left an indelible impression on the survivors we’ve spoken to,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International.

On August 25, 2017, ARSA militants attacked a Hindu village in northern Maungdaw Township, and rounded up some 69 men, women and children, the majority of whom were killed, “execution-style,” according to survivors who spoke to Amnesty.

The same day, 46 members of a Hindu community in a nearby village disappeared. As many 99 people could have been killed, Amnesty claims.

“In this brutal and senseless act, members of ARSA captured scores of Hindu women, men, and children and terrorized them before slaughtering them outside their own villages. The perpetrators of this heinous crime must be held to account,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director.

ARSA was able to recruit some villagers to help carry out the attack, but the “overwhelming majority of Rohingya did not,” Amnesty said in its report, which it based on interviews with survivors and photographic evidence of the scene analyzed by forensic anthropological expert.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the Amnesty report. Representatives for ARSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More violence in August

Both of the purported incidents at the hands of ARSA happened on August 25 — the day ARSA attacked members of the country’s security forces.

Myanmar authorities responded to the attack on the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, with what it called a security operations targeting terrorists. But human rights advocates say security forces have indiscriminately targeted Rohingya in what the UN’s top human rights official called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

More than 680,000 have fled the violence into neighboring Bangladesh, bringing stories of summary killings, mass rape and horrific violence against the Rohingya altogether.

A UN official told CNN in March that she’s convinced the Tatmadaw’s actions in August “bear the hallmarks of genocide.”

“It’s hard to ignore the sheer brutality of ARSA’s actions, which have left an indelible impression on the survivors we’ve spoken to. Accountability for these atrocities is every bit as crucial as it is for the crimes against humanity carried out by Myanmar’s security forces in northern Rakhine State,” said Hassan.

Burmese authorities deny allegations of human rights abuses by the military and continue to maintain that the military is going after terrorists.

In September, Burmese state media reported that Myanmar authorities believed ARSA was responsible for a massacre against the region’s Hindu community. Police found 45 bodies in mass graves at the time, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported.

Rohingya are not recognized as an official ethnicity by the Myanmar government, which denies them citizenship, effectively rendering them stateless.

The Myanmar government also does not use the term “Rohingya.” It considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh due to their roots in East Bengal, despite the fact that many Rohingya families have lived in Rakhine State for decades.

Follow this story

US withdrawing aid from northwest Syria

The United States is withdrawing assistance from northwest Syria as the Trump administration reviews hundreds of millions of dollars in stabilization aid to Syria, a State Department official has told CNN.

The withdrawal of assistance comes as the US-led military coalition battles the remaining elements of ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley along the Syrian border of Iraq.

“Two-hundred million dollars of stabilization assistance for Syria is currently under review at the request of the President,” the official said in a statement to CNN. “Distinct from that amount, U.S. assistance for programs in northwest Syria are being freed up to provide potential increased support for priorities in northeast Syria, as will be determined by the outcome of the ongoing assistance review, including the D-ISIS campaign and stabilization efforts.”

While the US-led coalition has cleared the country’s northwestern region of ISIS, al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Nusra Front still maintain a foothold there, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been consolidating gains in territory there that it had lost to rebel forces, raising questions about what the US withdrawal of aid will mean for Syria’s future.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said it is time for Arab allies in the region to take responsibility for Syria in order to allow the United States to focus on priorities on the home front. But there is concern that a withdrawal of US development and reconstruction aid could curtail American influence to reach an outcome in line with longer-term US interests.

The development ultimately could benefit “the Russians and other actors in that region, like the Iranians,” by allowing them more influence in the long-term, said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst.

The lack of US involvement in northwest Syria could also give terrorist groups like the Nusra Front a base from which to mount terror operations and exploit the volatile political situation to their benefit, Leighton said.

CBS News first reported the withdrawal of the aid.

The move to review stabilization efforts across Syria could also complicate the effort to assist in the country’s reconstruction and any related leverage over a political solution to the civil war.

“It is clear that Russia’s interests in Syria are Russia’s interest and not those of the wider international community,” Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees US military operations across the Middle East as head of US Central Command, told a congressional committee earlier this year.

Trump said last month he was eyeing a conclusion of the US military campaign in Syria, where about 2,000 troops are working to finish off the remaining elements of ISIS.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have both warned against a hasty withdrawal from Syria like the 2011 pull-out from Iraq that helped create the conditions that allowed ISIS to take over a sizable portion of the country in 2014.

There is also concern about how US military allies on the ground in Syria, who were instrumental in reclaiming ISIS-held territory, would view a precipitous withdrawal of US investment in Syria.

Such a move would “reverberate for decades to come that the United States is not a trusted partner,” Leighton said, adding that US commitments in the region could be seen as temporary, thereby “limiting the ability of the United States to project power” in the region going forward.

Follow this story

US opens new Embassy in Jerusalem as dozens die in Gaza clashes

The US officially relocated its Embassy to Jerusalem on Monday, formally upending decades of American foreign policy in a move that was met with clashes and protests along the Israeli-Gaza border. At least 43 Palestinians were killed in Gaza as deadly …

Follow this story

Kushner to call for unity at Jerusalem embassy opening

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will call for unity Monday at the opening of the United States’ new embassy in Jerusalem, according to excerpts of his speech released by the White House.

“We believe, it is possible for both sides to gain more than they give — so that all people can live in peace — safe from danger, free from fear, and able to pursue their dreams.

“Jerusalem must remain a city that brings people of all faiths together,” Kushner is expected to say.

Kushner has been leading efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, though any accord would be colored by the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decision to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Follow this story

Kushner to call for unity at Jerusalem embassy opening

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will call for unity Monday at the opening of the United States’ new embassy in Jerusalem, according to excerpts of his speech released by the White House.

“We believe, it is possible for both sides to gain more than they give — so that all people can live in peace — safe from danger, free from fear, and able to pursue their dreams.

“Jerusalem must remain a city that brings people of all faiths together,” Kushner is expected to say.

Kushner has been leading efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, though any accord would be colored by the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decision to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Follow this story

US policy shift in Mideast increases tensions

Days after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, tensions in the Middle East have spiked sharply, raising concerns that the pending U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem will further ratchet up conflict with unpredictable outcomes for the Middle East.

For weeks, the State Department has been working to bolster security at U.S. diplomatic posts around the Muslim world in advance of the embassy move, anticipating possible violence even as administration officials say the issue no longer galvanizes the Mideast the way it once did. The embassy move, they say, will eventually lead to greater regional stability.

But the embassy transfer, set for Monday, will come just days after Israel and Iran traded blows across the Syrian border, firing missiles at each other Wednesday and following up with bristling threats in a steep escalation of tensions.

The U.S. decision to abandon the nuclear accord and recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital has made a combustible region — one with four ongoing conflicts — potentially all the more explosive, some analysts said.

“In this highly tense situation, we’ve now poured gasoline on the fire by removing the Iran nuclear deal, which provided some semblance of constraint,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who now directs the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.

Gasoline on the fire

Former Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross, speaking on NPR, said Trump’s decision to abrogate the terms of the nuclear deal is likely spurring Iran to show the U.S. that it will pay a price. On Wednesday, Iran launched some 20 missiles from Syria toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to the Israeli government.

Riedel added that Trump is now “only a few days away from throwing another can of gasoline on the fire by moving the embassy to Jerusalem. It’s very dangerous. It’s sending the signal that the United States wants to confront Iran, and that’s a signal that the Israelis and the Saudis are all too eager to hear.”

On Friday, the White House issued a statement condemning Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Pointing to missiles fired at Israel from Syria and missiles fired into Saudi Arabia by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, the White House said the events of the week are “further proof that the Iranian regime’s reckless actions pose a severe threat to regional peace and security.”

The embassy move is a contentious issue for Palestinians, who hope to claim part of Jerusalem as their future capital, and for many in the Arab world as it is home to some of the holiest sites in Islam.

Palestinian commentators have noted that the timing of the move feels like salt in a wound, as the ceremony will take place on the anniversary of Israel’s founding — a day they call the “Naqba,” or “disaster,” because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes.

The issue has been so thorny and emotionally fraught that international negotiators had left the question of Jerusalem to the final stages of any peace deal.

Trump administration officials say the move is simply a recognition of a reality and that they do not in any way intend to prejudge the outcome of final borders or sovereignty in a peace deal. Speaking to reporters on Friday, officials also insisted that the move won’t set the region aflame.

“The decision was made because it was viewed to be in the best interests of the United States and something the president had promised during the campaign,” said David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

“The Israelis are obviously desirous of this, and they’ve requested this, and they’re very happy by it,” Friedman said. When asked if the Israelis had made any concessions in return for attaining a long-held goal, Friedman said, “There was no give and take with Israel with regard to this decision.”

The National Security Council’s senior director for strategic assessment, Victoria Coates, said the question of Jerusalem wasn’t the flashpoint it used to be, and pointed to a tweet from Bahrain’s foreign minister saying Israel has a right to defend itself.

“To see a Gulf nation, an Arab nation, like Bahrain come out, recognize Israel as a country — which is something — and then a country that has the right to defend itself against a country like Iran … I think is really powerful, and to make it three days before the embassy move, I think it shows you that the president is absolutely doing the right thing here,” Coates said. “It is not upsetting any regional balance; in fact, his leadership is what’s bringing the region together.”

‘Realities rather than fantasies’

Friedman added that “there are people who are happy with the decision, there are people who are unhappy with the decision. I think it’s far too early to be measuring reactions.”

In the long run, he added, the administration is convinced that the Jerusalem decision “creates an opportunity and a platform to proceed with a peace process on the basis of realities rather than fantasies, and we’re fairly optimistic that this decision will ultimately create greater stability rather than less.”

Even so, the State Department’s security wing has been preparing for weeks to bolster security at embassies throughout the Muslim world in the event there is violence, according to an administration official familiar with the planning.

The region is already on edge. In the most direct confrontation between Israel and Iran to date, the archenemies exchanged fire for hours over the course of a volatile Wednesday night in the Golan Heights. Syria said the Israeli attacks marked a new phase in the conflict there, and vowed to retaliate.

The fiery barrage came less than two days after Trump reimposed nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran despite the opposition of European allies and Russia, and despite repeated confirmation by a UN agency that Iran was complying with the 2015 deal.

On Friday, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, doubled down on Iran’s right to enrich uranium, even as the country seeks a path to maintain the nuclear deal with the other adoptees.

“The president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has been tasked with taking all necessary steps in preparation for Iran to pursue industrial-scale enrichment without any restrictions using the results of the latest research and development of Iran’s brave nuclear scientists,” Zarif posted on his official Twitter page.

While global capitals issued calls for calm, the White House issued a staunch defense of Israel and a warning for Iran.

The administration “strongly support Israel’s right to act in self-defense,” the White House said in a statement Thursday.

“The Iranian regime’s deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East,” the statement said. “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bears full responsibility for the consequences of its reckless actions, and we call on the IRGC and its militant proxies, including Hezbollah, to take no further provocative steps.”

Israel has tried to get Russian cooperation to restrain Iran in Syria, but largely failed. On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss military coordination.

Just hours later, Israel sent a barrage of rockets into Syria in response to the Iranian rocket attack on the Golan Heights.

Syrian state media reported that the country’s “air defenses intercepted dozens of Israeli missiles, some of them destroying a radar site.” An ammunition depot was also hit as “Israeli missiles targeted a number of military positions,” SANA said. Lebanon’s military issued a statement saying that four Israeli warplanes violated Lebanese airspace early Thursday.

‘Dismember the arm of evil’

Netanyahu issued a video statement on YouTube declaring that “our operations are against Iranian targets in Syria, but if the Syrian army will act against us we will act against them.”

He also called on the international community to prevent Iranian “Al Quds” forces from basing in Syria. “We need to unite to dismember the arm of the evil that is spreading itself in every place,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israeli “policy is clear. We will not let Iran base herself in Syria.”

The sudden escalation sent shudders of alarm worldwide.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has warned for months that the conflict in Syria could spiral into a global conflagration, urged “an immediate halt to all hostile acts and any provocative actions to avoid a new conflagration in the region.”

The European Union called on all regional actors to “show restraint and avoid any escalation.” Russia, the UK, Germany and France called for restraint, diplomacy and calm on both sides.

The French Foreign Ministry said President Emmanuel Macron believes that the way to reduce tension lies in renewed negotiations with Iran on a broader deal “that will include its nuclear activities and its ballistic missile program as well as the search for a solution to the crises in the region.”

Riedel noted that the U.S. was no longer playing the role it has traditionally occupied in the Middle East.

“Normally in this scenario,” he said, “the United States would be the leading voice counseling restraint, but that’s no longer the case.”

Follow this story