Greater Middle East
President Barack Obama is set to announce plans to send 250 more US troops to Syria, media accounts indicate—but they are vague on exactly which forces the troops will be backing. There are already some 50 Pentagon special operations troops embedded with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but accounts say the new effort will be to bring more Arab militias into the fight against ISIS. The SDF itself was created to ally the Kurdish YPG militia with Arab factions, to give the US-backed anti-ISIS forces greater legitimacy with the Syrian opposition and Arab states. So will the new effort be to bring more Arab fighters under the SDF umbrella, or to have US forces backing Arab factions that resist allying with Kurds?
Thousands marched in Cairo on April 15 to protest President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's decision to turn two disputed islands over to Saudi Arabia. Crowds chanted slogans such as "Sisi – Mubarak," "We don't want you, leave," and "The people want the downfall of the regime"—the iconic slogan of the Arab Revolution. Security forces responded with tear-gas; at least 25 were detained and are being held on charges of violating Egypt's controversial anti-protest law. More protests are planned for this weekend, and on April 22 security forces carried out pre-emptive arrests of noted activists in an apparent effort to head them off. Cafes in downtown Cairo were raided and activists seized from their homes, prisoners' rights group Freedom for the Brave said in a statement on Facebook. Pre-emptive arrests were also reported in Alexandria and in Gharbeyyia governorate.
One of the greatest tragedies on the global stage now is that revolutions are going on in both Syria and Turkey—and they are being pitted against each other in the Great Game. First we look at Syria, where the partial "ceasefire" in place for over a month is finally breaking down. The critical event seems to have been the April 18 bombing of a marketplace in the northwestern town of Maarat al-Noaman by regime warplanes, killing dozens. The town is controlled by Nusra Front, which was not included in the "ceasefire," but the victims of the bombardment were overwhelmingly civilians. The town's residents had no love of Nusra, and civil resistance activists had repeatedly taken to the streets there over the past month to oppose the jihadist militia and the Bashar Assad regime alike. (NYT, April 19) In the aftermath of the market bombing, the Jaysh al-Nasr, on the of main FSA-aligned militias, announced the opening of a new "battle" against regime forces. (Reuters, April 18)
An exhaustive investigation, written up as "The Assad Files" by Ben Taub, appears in this week's issue of New Yorker magazine. It reports the findings of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an independent investigative body founded in 2012 in response to the Syrian war. Over the past four years, its network—aided by a high-placed mole—has smuggled more than 600,000 documents out of Syria, many "from within Assad's highest level security committee, called the Central Crisis Management Cell." Established after the initial 2011 uprising against the Bashar Assad dictatorship, the cell met daily in Damascus and was chaired by Mohammad Said Bekheitan, a leader of the ruling Baath Party. CIJA lawyers say the documents clearly implicate Assad and his circle in war crimes including the systematic torture and execution of opponents. Stephen Rapp, a former chief UN prosecutor in the Rwanda genocide cases, told the New Yorker: "When the day of justice arrives, we'll have much better evidence than we’ve had anywhere since Nuremberg."
Among the luminaries at the Bernie Sanders rally in Brooklyn's Prospect Park this Sunday, April 17, is to be Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who has emerged as one of the populist candidate's foremost partisans. Gabbard made headlines in February when she stepped down from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders. Her resignation statement (video online at Facebook) railed against "interventionist wars of regime change," winning easy applause from the peaceniks. "As a veteran of two Middle East deployments, I know firsthand the cost of war.," she promisingly opened. But scratch the surface of her rhetoric just a little and it quickly becomes apparent that Gabbard's politics are downright sinister...
Turkey has been forcibly returning up to 100 refugees to Syria per day since mid-January, Amnesty International (AI) reported April 1. In addition to Turkish authorities rounding up refugees in migrant camps near the border, AI has also alleged that some migrants attempting to register in Turkey were, instead, removed back to Syria. The report criticized the recent migrant deal between Turkey and the EU, expressing concern over the possible future of the refugees to be sent back to Turkey after arriving in Greece. "If the agreement proceeds as planned, there is a very real risk that some of those the EU sends back to Turkey will suffer the same fate" AI said. If true, the allegations are illegal under not only international law, but the laws of the EU, and Turkey itself.
That's the delicious claim in the Los Angeles Times headline of March 26: "CIA-armed militias are shooting at Pentagon-armed ones in Syria." Obviously, it is getting lots of circulation on Facebook, with its imputation of imperial incompetence. This refers to the fighting between the Kurdish YPG militia and FSA-aligned factions at Azaz and elsewhere in Aleppo governorate. There is no doubt that the Pentagon has aided the YPG. As the story notes, there are some 50 Pentagon special operations troops embedded with the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The story doesn't mention widespread reports that the Pentagon has established an air-base ar Rmeilan, Hasakah governorate, to coordinate aid to the SDF. But we have questioned how much (if any) CIA aid has reached the FSA—and especially the Islamist factions at Azaz. There the article is short on specifics, asking us to accept that these factions are "CIA-armed" on tautological grounds. If everyone says it, it must be true.
The Assad regime has announced the taking of Palmyra and its adjacent archaeological site from ISIS, though Russian air-strikes appear to have been the decisive factor. Russian state media (RT, Sputnik) shamelessly crow of the city's "liberation." The Western media have hardly been less ebullient. Daily Mail displays footage released by the regime, showing no sign of damage to the ancient ruins, but bloodstains on the wall of the amphitheater, which was used for public executions. (In fact, temples were destroyed at the site.) But Muzna al-Naib of Syria Solidarity UK spoke on British TV in much darker terms about the city's transfer. She called Assad and ISIS "two faces of the same coin," and said she spoke to activists in the city who told her "nothing has changed." She pointed out that even before ISIS took the city last May, artifacts were looted by Assad's Shabiha militia. She recalls that Palmyra was the site of a regime prison where many have been tortured to death and hundreds massacred over the years. She says that 50% of city's neighborhoods have been destroyed by the regime's cluster bombs in recent days. She calls the city's change of hands part of a "propaganda game" by both Assad and ISIS. The city "was handed to ISIS," and the threat to its ancient artifacts exploited to get international attention; now its recovery "is being used for the same thing." She protests that people in the West seem "more concerned about the artifacts than the people on the ground." (Via Facebook)