STAND’s Weekly News Briefs are compiled weekly by members of the STAND Education Task Force.
This week’s update focuses on the recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria, parliamentary elections in Burma, and the deepening multi-faceted nature of the conflict in Yemen.
Middle East and North Africa
Chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict since 2013. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and a specific UN task force have investigated the multitude of attacks, and in 2016, the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report that explicitly accused President Bashar al-Assad’s government for the occurrences.
In April 2017, the issue of chemical warfare in Syria took center stage after one of the deadliest attacks of the war occurred in rebel-held northern Syria. According to witnesses, medical professionals, and rescue workers, sarin gas, or a similar chemical nerve agent, struck dozens of civilians after warplanes dropped bombs in the area. Within a day, there were over 100 reported fatalities and many others injured.
President Bashar al-Assad has denied the Syrian government’s involvement in the attack. Representatives from Assad’s regime have instead blamed insurgents for the episode. The Trump administration responded to the gas attacks by issuing a missile strike on the Al Shayrat airfield in Syria, aimed at military equipment used by the Assad regime. In response to the U.S. missile strike, STAND issued a statement condemning the use of chemical weapons, noting civilian casualties caused by American airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and urging Congressional approval for any further military action.
On Monday of this week, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on 271 employees of the Syrian government’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, more than doubling the number of Syrian individuals and entities under sanctions by the U.S. This action seeks to punish those responsible for the chemical weapons attack earlier this month, and to deter future attacks.
Nationwide elections were held in Burma on Sunday, April 2, in which nearly half of the parliamentary seats went to Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The popularity of Suu Kyi and the NLD has declined since it came into power in 2015 due to Suu Kyi’s passive response to ethnic conflicts dividing the region. The election nevertheless reaffirmed the party’s status as the most popular in the country for those citizens who voted. However, just five percent of Burma’s population was eligible to vote in the election, a direct result of the denial of ethnic minority citizenship in the country.
Suu Kyi has remained virtually silent on the humanitarian crisis surrounding killing and displacement of the Rohingya population, which has garnered her intense international criticism. The leader’s silence cost the NLD many seats in the minority ethnic regions of the nation. Though Aung San Suu Kyi has promised to bring peace, her silence has spoken volumes about her priorities as a leader for many in the nation.
Prior to the election, Aung San Suu Kyi gave a public address, recognizing the lack of reform since the conflicts arose. The leader also assured her constituents that she would prioritize ending the ethnic tension that has divided the country almost to the point of war. Suu Kyi reaffirmed her commitment to ending the conflict and regaining harmony within the nation, noting afterward that the NLD would be willing to step aside if another party were more qualified and capable to lead.
In elections held in Rakhine state, a western region dominated by the Rohingya ethnic minority group, the NLD fell short and the lower house seat was given to the chairman of the Arakan National Party who has been known to stand adamantly against the Muslim Rohingya population.
The multifaceted nature of the conflict in Yemen continues to deepen as Iran and Saudi Arabia engage in a conflict that could seriously tip the balance of power in the Middle East. Both sides consider the conflict a significant flashpoint of both strategic and propagandic value, providing both with the opportunity to display their military influence throughout the region. Iran has been accused of sending weapons and supplies as well as ideological support to the Houthi rebels. Despite numerous reports attesting to deepening Iranian support for the Houthis, Iran continues to deny arming the rebels. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition has significantly backed the Hadi government through the provision of military support, notably air strikes. Their support has helped the Hadi government take back the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid base from Houthi rebels, and has garnered intense criticism for the use of munitions against civilians. In late February, the coalition used cluster munitions on a farm in Northern Yemen. Indiscriminate attacks and airstrikes have resulted in the deaths and wounding of thousands of civilians in Yemen.
Organizations like Human Rights Watch and STAND have repeatedly called for countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom to stop the transfer of munitions and arms to the Saudi-led coalition so long as they continue to launch attacks on civilians and civilian facilities such as hospitals. The Trump administration has continued the Obama administration’s partnership with the Saudi-led coalition by selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
In the UK, Prime Minister May has defended the British relationship with Saudi Arabia, citing crucial national security, strategic, and diplomatic interests. Yemen continues to remain in a state of humanitarian crisis as a majority of the population remains displaced or in extreme need of basic necessities such as food, water, and medical supplies. Indiscriminate attacks by both sides of the conflict have disproportionately affected civilians and displaced persons, such as those from Somalia, who have become increasingly affected as the conflict continues to spill outside of Yemen’s borders. Missiles launched by Houthi forces in March, for example, resulted in the deaths of two dozen worshippers in a mosque in Yemen’s western Marib province. A boat carrying Somali refugees off the coast of Yemen was attacked by a helicopter suspected to have been directed by the Saudi-led coalition, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people. In response to these rampant human rights violations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for an independent mechanism to hold those guilty of human rights violations accountable.
Emily Lyford is STAND’s Southeast Asia Coordinator, focusing mainly on Burma. She is a freshman at the University of New Hampshire where she majors in Neuroscience and Behavior.
Ana Delgado is STAND’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, focusing mainly on Syria. She is a junior at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in Political Science and Peace, War, and Defense.
Jason Qu is STAND’s Emerging Conflicts Coordinator, focusing today on Yemen. He is a Senior at Bronx High School of Science.