Aid groups working in besieged northern Syria are expressing outrage after a hospital in the town of al-Atareb was destroyed by artillery fire March 21. Six people were killed in the strikes, including a child, and at least 16 injured. The hospital was within the rebel-held pocket of Aleppo province, which has come under renewed bombardment by the Assad regime and Russia in recent weeks after a year-long lull in the fighting. The hospital was jointly supported by the International Rescue Committee and the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS). All the casualties were civilians.
With a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan approaching but a final peace deal stalled, the White House is said to be considering an extension beyond this date for removal of its 2,500 troops remaining in the country. The Washington Post writes that the Biden administration "is likely to postpone a full withdrawal—potentially with Taliban acquiescence—to buy more time to advance a power-sharing proposal they hope can break an impasse in talks between the militants and the Afghan government."
In the first air-strikes on Syria under the Joseph Biden administration, US warplanes on Feb. 26 struck positions of Iran-backed militia forces at Imam Ali airbase outside al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zor province, near the Iraqi border in the country's desert east. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the strikes "destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups," including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. It was also a Tehran-backed paramilitary formation that claimed responsibility for last week's missile attack on al-Harir airbase outside Erbil, in northern Iraq, which is used by US forces. Biden's strikes are clearly retaliation for that attack—which was itself undertaken to avenge the killing of Qassem Soleimani and an allied militia commander in the US drone strike on the Baghdad airport a year earlier. Reports put the number killed in the new strikes at 17, presumably all militia fighters. Imam Ali airbase is overseen by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, whose commanders are also said to be among the slain. (France24, CNN, Middle East Eye, EA Worldview, Al Jazeera, Israel Hayom)
UN investigators into political violence in Mali reported to the Security Council that they found evidence that government forces have committed "war crimes," while jihadists and other armed groups perpetrated "crimes against humanity." The allegations are made in a 338-page report compiled by the International Commission of Inquiry, a three-member panel examining events in Mali over the six years after it spiralled into conflict in 2012. The Commission was created in January 2018 as part of the Agreement for Peace & Reconciliation between rebels and the government, which was signed in 2015 after years of fighting. The report, which has not yet been made public, recommends establishing a special court to try accused perpetrators. (France24, Dec. 23)
President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all US troops from Somalia by mid-January, the Pentagon announced Dec. 4. The US currently has about 700 troops in the country, assisting local forces to fight al-Shaabab and insurgents operating in the name of the Islamic State. The Pentagon statement stressed that the order to "reposition the majority of personnel and assets out of Somalia by early 2021" does not signify a change in policy: "We will continue to degrade Violent Extremist Organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition."
Somali troops clashed with forces from the country's semi-autonomous Jubaland region last week in a flare-up of violence that is raising tensions with neighboring countries and may play into the hands of the militant group al-Shabab. Tensions have been rising since August, when Jubaland's incumbent president, Ahmed Madobe, won regional elections that Mogadishu described as "not free and fair." The central government wanted a loyalist candidate to win, as it seeks greater control over Somalia's regions ahead of upcoming national elections. Kenya, which has troops deployed as part of an African Union peace enforcement operation, is on the side of Madobe, who it sees as an ally against al-Shabab, while Ethiopia has aligned with Mogadishu. Kenya accused Somali troops of encroaching on its territory and destroying property during last week's violence, while the US said that the clashes are a distraction in efforts against al-Shabab. An estimated 56,000 people have been uprooted by the recent fighting. according to the UN.
The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 5 unanimously approved an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by both sides in the Afghanistan conflict. The investigation will focus on "alleged crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan in the period since 1 May 2003, as well as other alleged crimes that have a nexus to the armed conflict in Afghanistan." The Pre-Trial Chamber had rejected a request to open an investigation last year, but the prosecutor appealed based on Article 15 of the Rome Statute. The appeal attempts to resolve the apparent disparity between Article 15, mandating investigations when a prosecutor provides a "reasonable basis to proceed," and Article 53, which allows the court discretion in the interest of justice.The Appeals Chamber’s decision overturned the Pre-Trial Chamber's ruling on the grounds that the determination that the investigation "would not serve the interests of justice" and was an abuse of discretion.
More than a year of US-Taliban negotiations bore formal fruit Feb. 29 with the signing in Doha of what is being called a "peace deal" by Washington's envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, named as leader of the Islamist group. The pact calls for the US to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban fulfills its commitments under the agreement. Afghanistan's government must release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before March 10, after which the "intra-Afghan" talks are to start, with the aim of negotiating a permanent ceasefire. The signing of the pact follows a one-week "Reduction in Violence" by the Taliban. (Khaama Press, NPR, Al Jazeera)