Israeli Air Strikes, Chinese Pushback, Chemical Weapons: Stakes Rise In Syria



DAMASCUS - The situation in Syria has gotten both more dangerous and more complicated over the past 72 hours.

On Monday, Chinese officials indirectly criticized Israel’s weekend strikes in Syria, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a five-day visit to China. During a morning press conference, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China urges restraint, without naming any particular country.

"We oppose the use of military force and believe any country's sovereignty should be respected," spokeswoman Hua Chunying was quoted as saying by Israeli daily Haaretz. "China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability."

This statement comes in the wake of two Israeli airstrikes on war-torn Syria, both confirmed by anonymous officials, as well as troubling new signs of the use of chemical gas in the conflict. Here’s a round-up of the latest events around Syria:

Air Raids

Israel launched an air strike Sunday morning that devastated Syrian targets that sources declared were Iranian missiles headed for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, reports Reuters. Typically Israel does not confirm such missions explicitly, but anonymous officials confirmed the strikes to multiple sources.

This strike, near Damascus, followed confirmations by anonymous Israeli officials on Saturday morning that the Israel Air Force (IAF) had carried out another strike on Friday on missiles bound for Hezbollah, making it the second in two days and the third this year, reports the New York Times.

Syrian state television said the bombing of the military research facility at Jamraya and two other sites caused "many civilian casualties and widespread damage," but it gave no specific details, writes Haaretz. A Syrian doctor from the military hospital told the New York Times that more than 100 soldiers had died in the blasts.

According to Reuters, Hezbollah is yet to comment on the strikes.

Chemical Warfare

A leading UN investigator gave testimony on Sunday, saying there were “ strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” that the Syrian rebels had used the nerve agent sarin.

According to the BBC, Carla del Ponte gave Swiss TV no exact details of when and where the volatile gas had been used, however, she said her panel had not yet seen evidence of Assad’s government forces using chemical weapons.

Carla del Ponte. Photo by Rama

March saw two alleged chemical attacks take place in Aleppo and Damascus, reports RT, while in December 2012 there was one in Homs as well, with accusations being traded back and forth between the government and the anti-Assad opposition.

Three weeks ago, an Israeli military expert declared that it was Assad’s government that had used the poisonous chemical gas. Gen. Brig Itai Baron told a conference in Tel Aviv that Assad has access to a huge arsenal of chemical weapons and was putting them to use, writes the Jerusalem Post.

U.S. Support Or Step Back?

In the face of Chinese opposition, U.S. lawmakers called Sunday on President Barack Obama to provide intelligence and training to Syrian rebels through Arab states, writes the AFP, to speed up the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

A proposed co-ordination among the neighboring countries and the Arab League should aim to leave a stabilizing force in place for the country that has been in civil war for more than two years now.

Obama, who weeks ago declared that chemical warfare would be a “game changer”, has pressed for further evidence before taking any action, as has the UK, writes the BBC.

Obama with Netanyahu in March. Photo by Pete Souza

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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