The Turkish Parliament on Jan. 21 approved a plan which, if approved by popular vote later this year, would increase presidential power within the country and would allow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stay in office until 2029. The referendum plan acquired 339 votes in the 550-member assembly, nine more than required to go to a public vote. Among the new powers granted to the president would be the power to issue decrees, declare a state of emergency, appoint top officials and ministers, and dissolve parliament. In addition, Erdoğan, prime minister with the ruling AK Party, could once again become a leader within that party. Additionally, the referendum states that a president would be allowed to serve two terms of five years. While Erdoğan proclaims this increase in power would allow for stability in a time of turmoil, his opponents worry such powers may lead to authoritarian control of the nation.
Iran's government and companies close to the elite Revolutionary Guards have signed major economic contracts with Syria, gaining control of large areas of the country in what appear to be lucrative rewards for helping President Bashar Assad regain control of territory from rebels. Five memorandums of understanding were signed during a visit by Syrian Prime Minister Emad Khamis to Tehran on Jan. 17, including a licence for Iran to become a mobile phone service operator in Syria, and phosphate mining contracts. "We greatly appreciate Iran's major role in combating terrorism and standing by the Syrian people in every way, politically and economically," Khamis said. Syria will give Iran 5,000 hectares of land for farming, and 1,000 hectares for setting up oil and gas terminals. A deal was also signed on providing lands for animal husbandry.
Russia signed a long-term agreement Jan. 20 to greatly enlarge its military presence in Syria, more than doubling the space for warships at Tartus, Russia's only Mediterranean port, and securing rights to Khmeimim air base, where a second runway is foreseen. The deal came as a Turkish official suggested publicly for the first time that Turkey would accept a Syrian peace deal that would allow Bashar Assad to stay in power. The remarks by the official, deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, represent a fundamental shift. (NYT, Jan. 20) Twi days earlier, Russian and Turkish jets carried out their first joint strikes ins Syria, the Russian defence ministry says. Supposed ISIS targets were hit in al-Bab, Aleppo governorate, where Turkey suffered heavy casualties last month battling the group on the ground. (BBC News, Jan. 18)
US B-2 Stealth bombers and drones carried out a raid against presumed ISIS camps in the Libyan desert Jan. 19, in what will likely be the final air-strikes ordered by President Obama. The operation targeted two camps located just over 40 kilometers southwest of Sirte, the coastal city recently liberated from ISIS by an alliance of local militias. The strikes, which left scores dead, were reportedly ordered several days ago on the basis of information gathered from the air and on the ground. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said militants at the camps "were actively planning operations against our allies in Europe." (Al Jazeera, NPR, ANSA)
Three thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) are fleeing the embattled city of Mosul on a daily basis since the second phase of military operations to liberate the ISIS stronghold began in late December, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). "As the war intensifies inside Mosul city and civilians run out of food, medicine, water and power, the number of refugees taking shelter in the Kurdistan Region has doubled over the past 10 days," Hoshang Mohammed, director of the KRG's Joint Crisis Coordination Center (JCC), announced on Jan. 15, "Three thousand have been displaced on a daily basis, 70 percent of whom have come to the Kurdistan Region."
US President Barack Obama granted 64 pardons and 209 commutations Jan. 17, including commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning. Manning worked as a low-level intelligence analyst where she leaked documents regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2010 to WikiLeaks which exposed abuses of detainees and civilian deaths. The commutation will release Chelsea Manning on May 17. Several Republican leaders have criticized the commutation, including Rep. Mac Thornberry, Sen. John McCain, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, stating that Manning's actions risked national security. Manning's lawyers stated that "Her 35-year sentence for disclosing information that served the public interest and never caused harm to the United States was always excessive, and we're delighted that justice is being served in the form of this commutation." A White House Petition received more than 100,000 signatures in December to commute Manning's sentence.
Isidro Baldenegro López, a Tarahumara indigenous activist in northern Mexico's Chihuahua state who fought for the preservation of forest lands, was assassinated last week, in an attack near the home of a family member in the pueblo of Coloradas de la Virgen, Guadalupe y Calvo municipality. Although the Chihuahua state prosecutor has not officially registered a homicide, Baldenegro's relatives confirmed that he had been slain and buried in the village. The assailants have not been identified, but his relatives say they believe the gunmen were part of the same network that has threatened and slain other local residents for defending the pueblo's forest lands and opposing illegal timber felling.
Oscar López Rivera, the longest-held Puerto Rican political prisoner in the US, was among 209 federal inmates granted clemency by President Barack Obama on Jan. 17. His sentence commuted, López Rivera is now set to be released in May from the federal prison at Terre Haute, Ind. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), in announcing the commutation, said: "Thank you, President Obama, thank you on behalf of millions of Puerto Ricans on the island and around the world." Arrested by the FBI in Chicago in 1981, López Rivera was convicted of "seditious conspiracy" as an adherent of the pro-independence Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN). Other charges included armed robbery, although he was never accused of any actual act of violence. If Obama had not intervened, he would have remained in captivity until June 26, 2023, five months after his 80th birthday.