Now here's a counterintuitive juxtaposition of news stories. The UN mission investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria stated that chemical agents may have been unleashed in five of seven cases investigated, occurring between March and August—not just the Aug. 21 attack at Ghouta. The other four cases that remain under investigation are named as Khan Assal, Jobar, Saraqeb and Ashrafiah Sahnaya. The mission unequivocally concluded that "chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic." (NPR, LAT, Dec. 12) Simultaneously, the US and UK suspended all "non-lethal aid" to the Syrian rebels. The cut-off came days after a newly formed "Islamic Front" seized a base and arms cache from the Free Syrian Army at the Bab al-Hawa crossing on Syria's northwestern border with Turkey. The Islamic Front recently brought together six rebel factions, and seems loosely allied with ISIS, heretofore the major jihadist army.
The Los Angeles Times reported June 19, citing anonymous sources, that "CIA operatives and US special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since late last year, months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming them, according to US officials and rebel commanders." The training is supposedly taking place at bases in Jordan and Turkey. The "directly military aid" that the US has now openly pledged to the Syrian rebels may also be reaching them, as BBC News quotes Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad boasting of having received new weapons shipments that "we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground." However, he denied the new weapons came from the US, implying other powers are also arming the FSA. The Friends of Syria group is scheduled to meet in Qatar next week, to discuss coordinating aid to the rebels. But in Russia, Vladimir Putin said he feared a "political void" in Syria would be filled by "terrorist organizations."
So, it's come to this. After more than 12 years of the United States being at war in Afghanistan, the Taliban have opened a "political office" in Qatar preparatory to negotiations with the Kabul government's High Peace Council and the US—the culimination of a series of preliminary meetings in various countries leading toward direct peace talks. The principal prerequisite that the US set for the talks is that the Taliban commit to not using Afghanistan as a staging ground for terror attacks abroad. (Khaama Press, BBC News, June 18) Through their website Voice of Jiihad, the Taliban oblige: "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has both military as well as political objectives which are confined to Afghanistan. The Islamic Emirate does not wish to harm other countries from its soil and neither will it allow others use Afghan soil to pose a threat to the security of other nations!"
Reprisals are feared in a sensitive part of Ecuador's Amazon rainforest following an attack by "uncontacted" tribesmen in which two members of the Waorani indigenous people were killed March 5. According to a preliminary investigation by the Orellana province public prosecutor's office, the victims were speared to death while walking near their village of Yarentaro, located along the Maxus Oil Road—within both Yasuní National Park, and the Bloc 16 oil exploration division, being developed by Repsol. The victims were identified as a Waorani elder and his wife. A statement by the Organization of the Waorani Nationality of Orellana (ONWO) said the attackers were from an isolated band of the Tageiri-Taromenane, which has long had territorial disputes with the closely related Waorani. The Taromenane are said to be a branch of the Waorani who spurned contact with evangelical missionaries in the 1950s by retreating deeper into the forest, and now roam the interior Yasuní as nomads.
A Qatari poet who has been sentenced to life in prison for insulting the Emir has been granted an appeal now scheduled for Jan. 27, according to his lawyer. Muhammad al-Ajami, 36, was imprisoned in November 2011 after a judge found him guilty of calling for the overthrow of the government of the Gulf sate. Al-Ajami was studying literature at Cairo University when the Tunisian revolution broke out in December 2010. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, al-Ajami wrote a short poem, "Tunisian Jasmine," which he recited to private audiences. The audio of one performance appeared on YouTube, apparently without al-Ajami's knowledge. Al-Ajami was arrested months later when Qatari authorities took note of the video, and held in solitary confinement for nearly a year before being brought to trial. He was charged with "insulting" Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and "inciting to overthrow the ruling system"—an offense that carries the death penalty. Qatar's Court of First Instance sentenced him to a life term on Nov. 29, 2011. The sentence will now be reviewed by Qatar's Court of Appeal. (Al-Jazeera, Dec. 29; Consortium News, Dec. 12)
Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi announced Nov. 17 that peace talks are progressing toward a ceasefire in the recent escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel. Mursi invited Qatar's Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Cairo for ceasefire discussions after the recent violence broke the informal truce brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas in October. After rocket attacks by Palestinian militants into Israel this week, violence began to escalate on Nov. 14 with the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari in a targeted air strike by the Israel Defense Forces. The next day Palestinian forces responded with rocket fire aimed at multiple Israeli cities and towns. Thus far, 45 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed and hundreds more have been injured.