Free Syrian Army militia backed by Turkish forces took the Syrian city of al-Bab from ISIS militants Feb. 23, although fighting continues in some districts. The ISIS fighters withdrew via a route left open for them by the commanders of Operation Euphrates Shield, the joint Turkish-FSA campaign. (Rudaw, Feb. 23) As US-led Iraqi and Kurdish forces close the circle on ISIS in Mosul, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance on Raqqa. The US commander in Iraq predicts the imminent taking of both Mosul and Raqqa. "Within the next six months, I think we'll see both conclude," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend outside Baghdad Feb. 8. The enemy is "overwhelmed anywhere that they are," added Col. John Dorrian, spokesperson for the US-led Combined Joint Taskforce. (Rudaw, Feb. 8)
This week's recapture of the Wadi Barada enclave outside Damascus by the Bashar Assad regime's forces points to a deft strategy by the regime and its Russian backers. The valley had been excluded from the supposed "ceasefire" because of the presence there of a small number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the former Nusra Front, which was officially excluded from the ceasefire. This means, effectively, the ceasefire not only doesn't apply to ex-Nusra, but also does not apply to any forces that have (often of necessity) allied with ex-Nusra—or even that just happen to be near ex-Nusra and not actively fighting them. This strategy seems to have had the desired effect. Nusra's former ally, Ahrar al-Sham, is now reported to have turned on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, sparking an internal civil war within rebel-held areas of Idlib governorate. (Al Jazeera, Feb. 2; Al Jazeera, Jan. 29)
The Russian Defense Ministry announced Jan. 23 that its warplanes have flown their first joint combat mission in Syria with US-led aircraft, according to the Associated Press. The ministry said that two jets from the US-led coalition "participated in an anti-ISIS air-strike alongside Russian aircraft." The Pentagon, however, denied such a mission took place. "The Department of Defense is not coordinating air-strikes with the Russian military in Syria," said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon. US Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a coalition spokesman, said the Russian announcement is "propaganda." However, the new administration of Donald Trump has signalled that it is open to cooperating with Russia in Syria. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that President Trump "would work with any country that shares our interest in defeating ISIS." (ARA News, FoxtrotAlpha, Jan. 24)
Remember the reports of a Russian "withdrawl" from Syria over the summer? They were immediately followed, of course, by a massive escalation of Russia's military intervention, with the destruction of Aleppo by Moscow's warplanes. Let's hope we are not in for a replay. With the departure of most of Russian's war fleet from Syria's coast—most prominently, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov—CNN last week reported: "Russia 'starts to withdraw' forces from Syria." The Interpreter, a neo-Kremlinologist website, flatly contradicts this. It finds that most Russian combat operations have been flown out of ground bases in Syria, not the carrier. At Hmeymim air base (also rendered Khmeimim and Hemeimeem) in Latakia governorate, Russia has now deployed Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Syria and even beyond its borders. Far from withdrawing, The Interpreter says that Russia is "just getting started" with a military build-up in Syria.
After initiating talks on Syria that exclude Washington, Turkey and Russia each accused the US of backing what they called "terrorist groups" in the country. The accusations came Dec. 27, the same day both governments agreed to hold further talks in Kazakhstan next month. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had evidence that US-led coalition forces support ISIS as wel as the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG). "They were accusing us of supporting Daesh," Erdogan said at a press conference in Ankara, using the Arabic abbreviation for ISIS. "Now they give support to terrorist groups including Daesh, YPG, PYD. It is very clear. We have confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos." The US State Department issued a requisite statement dismissing Erdogan's claims as "ludicrous." (Al Jazeera, Dec. 21)
A team of two gunmen killed three security officers and two civilians in an attack on police station and an office of the National Security Committee (KNB) in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty July 18. While no group has yet taken responsibility for the attack, the shootings come a month after a deadly assault in the northwestern town of Aktobe. In the June 6 incident, a number of militants in Aktobe stole guns from sporting goods stores and attacked a military post. In the ensuing shoot-out, 12 of the attackers were killed and nine were detained. Within days, a court in Aktobe convicted the nine and three alleged accomplices of plotting the attack on behalf of ISIS. The suspects in the Almaty attack remain at large. A "terrorism alert" has been declared in the city. While this is the first report of an ISIS franchise in Kazakhstan, depressed oil prices are causing economic chaos in the Central Asian nation. (Russia Direct, EurasiaNet, NYT, Bloomberg)
Hundreds have been detained in protests across Kazakhstan over a new government policy to privatize farmlands and open the agricultural sector to foreign capital. The protest campaign began in early May, when the government announced the new policy, with large demonstrations reported in Astana, Almaty, Karagandy and other cities. City squares have been repeatedly occupied in defiance of an official ban on public gatherings. The crackdown has extended to the media, with several journalists arrested. But video footage posted to YouTube shows police in Kyzylorda charging unarmed demonstrators in scenes reminiscent of the massacre of striking oil-workers in Zhanaozen in 2011.
On Dec. 31 the US Department of Defense said five prisoners at Guantánamo Bay will be released to the government of Kazakhstan as part of an effort by the Obama administration to expedite the closing of the facility. An interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force conducted a comprehensive review of the cases of Asim Thabit Abdullah al-Khalaqi, Muhammad Ali Husayn Khanayna, Sabri Muhammad Ibrahim al-Qurashi, Adel al-Hakeemy and Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lufti. The men were unanimously approved for transfer. After the transfer, 127 detainees will remain at Guantánamo Bay.