Greater Middle East
An Amnesty International report published Feb. 7 exposes the "cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners" in a Syrian detention center where an estimated 13,000 have been hanged in the past five years. The mass hangings took place at Saydnaya military prison near Damascus between 2011 and 2015—and there are clear indications that the kiling remains ongoing. Most of those hanged were civilians believed to have opposed the government, with the killings taking place in great secrecy in the middle of the night. The executions take place after summary "trials," with no legal counsel and based on "confessions" extracted through torture.
President Trump's first commando raid left dead the US-born 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American al-Qaeda leader who was himself killed in a US strike five years ago. US special operations forces on Jan. 30 targeted the home of Abdulrauf al-Dhahab, said to be a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in the remote Yemeni district of Yakla. The district is in the central province of al-Baydah, a focal point of US military operations over the past month. The Pentagon said 14 AQAP fighters were killed in the raid, as well as one soldier—said by media accounts to have been a member of SEAL Team 6. Warplanes struck Abdulrauf's home; then US troops descended from helicopters and clashed with local fighters. US helicopters destroyed other homes in the area as fighting intensified. (IANS, NBC, LWJ)
President Trump said Jan. 25 that he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for those displaced by violence, and a leaked draft of his impending executive order apparently directs the State Department and Pentagon to present a plan to him within 90 days. But this was presented in explicitly xenophobic terms—not humanitarian. In making the announcement, he dissed Europe's leaders for taking in Syrian refugees. Trump said that Germany and other European countries made a "tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people... I don't want that to happen here." (LAT, Reuters)
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)
Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh on Jan. 23 handed down a seven-year sentence as well as numerous other punitive measures for a Twitter post the court deemed insulting to the ruling al-Saud family. The SCC, which was established in 2008 to try cases linked to terrorist activity, concluded that the defendant had a connection with two terror groups and was producing online materials that threatened the country's security. Human Rights Watch, which has been calling for the abolition of the SCC since 2012, has previously commented on the court being increasingly used to silence peaceful dissenters, human rights activists, attorneys and opposition clerics.
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.
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) Two 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)
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.