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."
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.
A New Year's Day prison riot in Brazil's Amazon riverport city of Manaus left up to 60 dead before aithorities re-established control the following morning—with many of the bodies decapitated, mutilated and burned. The uprising at the Anisio Jobim Penitentiary Complex (COMPAJ) is the bloodiest of several such episodes in recent years, pointing to extreme overcrowding in Brazil's prison system and effective control of many facilities by drug gangs. Authorities in Amazonas state say the COMPAJ rebellion was sparked by a fight between rival gangs. Local media reported that several of the dead had their decapitated bodies thrown over the prison wall. Twelve guards were taken hostage, and a still undetermined number of inmates escaped.
In its yearly report, Human Rights Watch warns that the rise of populist leaders "poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections"—particularly naming Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. On releasing its "World Report 2017," the organization stated: "Donald Trump's election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Europe that reject universal rights, have put the postwar human rights system at risk." It added that "strongman leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security. These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality."