Geopolitics

Game Changer? New Evidence Of Syrian Use Of Chemical Weapons

ARUTZ SHEVA, HAARETZ, JERUSALEM POST (Israel); REUTERS

Worldcrunch

TEL AVIV - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against civilians, an Israeli Intelligence official stated on Tuesday.

Haaretz reports that the head of the Research Division at Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun said: “To the best of our professional understanding, the regime has used lethal chemical weapons on a number of occasions, including the incident on March 19”.

Addressing a security conference at Tel Aviv University, he went on to describe the evidence that led him to this conclusion, including pictures of the affected area, as well as descriptions of victims with foam coming out of their mouths. The most likely agents used relied on sarin, which acts as a nerve agent and is fatal even in low doses.

"In Syria there is a large arsenal of chemical weapons, more than 1,000 tons of chemicals, thousands of aerial bombs and quite a lot of warheads and surface-to-surface missiles that can be armed with chemical weapons," said Brun.

A Syrian soldier takes aim. Photo by U.S. Dept. Of Defense

He also said there was a possibility that Syria's chemical weapons could find their way into the hands of terrorists, "who don’t undertake normal cost-benefit calculations."

Attempts to transfer advanced weapons systems between Assad’s regime and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah were also addressed by Brun. Regarding what some reports recently deemed an Israeli attack on Syria, he affirmed: “the SA-17 missile launchers that were bombed in Syria were going to be transferred to Hezbollah.”

This issue, writes Haaretz, was also addressed by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Monday, when he said that the transfer of advanced weaponry was crossing a red line and when such a thing was done, “we act.”

Reuters reports that U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel seconded his Israeli counterpart, describing the use of chemical weapons as a “game changer.”

According to the Jerusalem Post, there have been three alleged Syrian chemical weapons attacks -- the aforementioned March 19 attack near Aleppo, another near Damascus, also in March, as well as one in Homs in December. In each case, Assad’s government and the rebels have blamed each other.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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