Greater Middle East

ISIS mounts new attack on Kobani

ISIS, retreating before an advance by Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria, launched a new attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani June 25, with a wave of at least three car bombs as well as random shootings of inhabitants, leaving 45 civilians dead. "Groups of ISIS fighters are driving around Kobani's alleys and streets killing civilians," a local Kurdish commander told Rudaw news agency. CNN said ISIS militants disguised as Kurdish fighters infiltrated the town. Eyewitnesses said some gunmen spoke Kurdish and knocked on doors telling locals to come out. "People rushed out and were killed," one resident said. Al Jazeera also reported that ISIS fighters were wearing Kurdish and Free Syrian Army uniforms. Kobani was liberated from an ISIS siege in January after months of heavy fighting. The town became a powerful symbol of resistance, some calling it the "Kurdish Stalingrad."

Syria: UN investigates new chemical attacks

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released a report June 23 stating that both government and rebel forces are targeting civilians in Syria's civil war. The report finds: "Indiscriminate attacks on civilian-inhabited areas are committed across Syria by most, if not all, of the warring parties. The Government, with its superior firepower and control of the skies, inflicts the most damage in its indiscriminate attacks on cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods not under its control. Non-State armed groups continue to launch attacks on Government-held localities, usually from nearby ground positions, causing civilian deaths and injuries." It also states: "New reports were received of the use of chlorine and/or phosgene gas during attacks on the towns in Idlib governorate, including Saraqib, Sarmin, and Idlib city, in March and April 2015. These incidents are currently under investigation."

Bahrain sentences Shi'ite opposition leader

A Bahraini court June 16 sentenced prominent Shi'ite leader Sheikh Ali Salman (official profile) to four years in prison for insulting the Interior Ministry, inciting others to break the law, and inciting hatred against Sunnis. Salman, secretary-general of al-Wefaq political opposition group, was arrested in late December for speeches made between 2012 and 2014. Salman was found not guilty of inciting violence and calling for the overthrow of the monarch. Had he been convicted for those offenses, Salman could have faced a life sentence in prison.

Kurds punished for success against ISIS

Talk about "No good deed goes unpunished." Now that the Kurds of Rojava (northern Syria) are nearly within striking distance of Raqqa, the ISIS de facto capital, charges are mounting of a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Kurdish forces against Arabs and Assyrians. BBC News on June 15 reported the welcome development that the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) have taken the border town of Tal Abyad from ISIS. From here it is a straight shot of less than 100 kilometers down a major road to Raqqa (see map). The report says that more than 16,000 residents have fled the Tal Abyad area into Turkey—but only says they have fled the fighting, not targeted attacks by the YPG.

Syria: Nusra Front renegades in Druze massacre

Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front acknowledged on June 13 that its followers were responsible for a massacre at the Druze village of Qalb Loze, Idlib governorate, saying they had violated orders and would face justice. Twenty Druze villagers were reportedly killed June 10 when Nusra militants opened fire in an incident that began with the militants' attempt to seize a local home. (Reuters, June 13) Following the massacre, five of the largest militias in Idlib, all members of the Jaysh a-Fatah coalition, issued a statement condemning the killings. The militias—identified as Ahrar al-Sham, the Sham Front, Ajnad al-Sham, Thuwar al-Sham and Fastaqm Kama Umrat—declared that "Islam forbids spilling people's blood whatever their sect is." The massacre was also condemned by the more secular Syrian National Coalition. (Mkaradjis blog, June 13) In the wake of the massacre, Israel is said to be considering creation of a "safe zone" on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights to protect Druze residents of the area. (Times of Israel, June 14)

White House criticizes Egypt, supports military aid

The Obama administration sent a formal report (PDF) to Congress criticizing the Egyptian government for its human rights abuses and lack of movement toward democracy but still supporting $1.3 billion to Egypt in mostly military aid. The report, signed by Secretary of State John Kerry and submitted quietly on May 12, condemned Egypt's due process restrictions and a "lack of fair trial safeguards," pointing to mass trials, mass death sentences and extremely poor prison conditions. Government agents and police have largely not been held responsible for rights violations. Current laws "effectively ban...most forms of street protest...including peaceful dissent." While Egypt has a general "democracy roadmap" that has been implemented in part, "the overall trajectory of rights and democracy has been negative." Ultimately, however, the report cites its counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State as a key reason Egypt remains of "vital importance" to the US from a security perspective. The report recommends continued support to Egypt despite the growing list of grievances.

Drone strike survivors file suit against US

The families of two Yemeni men who were killed by US drone strikes filed a lawsuit June 7 against the US, claiming that the men, Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber, were "innocent bystanders" who were wrongfully killed. The lawsuit, which seeks no monetary relief, states that the men were not "likely targets of the strike that killed them," as both men spent their lives preaching against al-Qaeda and terrorism. The lawsuit further alleges that the killings were in violation of the Torture Victim Prevention Act's ban on extrajudicial killings (PDF) and that the government knew within hours that a mistake had been made. The lawsuit specifically names President Barack Obama, former defense secretary, Leon Panetta former CIA director David Petraeus and three unknown defendants.

Saudi Court upholds lashing for blogger

A Saudi court on June 8 upheld blogger Raif Badawi's sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam through electronic channels." The blogger ran the Liberal Saudi Network for four years before being arrested by Saudi authorities. Badawi was originally charged with insulting Islam for co-founding the religious discussion website Free Saudi Liberals. He was detained in June 2012, and his case was referred to the Public Court of Jeddah in December with a recommendation to try him for the crime of apostasy. Sharia-based Saudi law is not codified and judges do not follow a system of precedent; however, apostasy is a capital offense which can be punishable by death. The blogger received his first 50 lashes this January, but floggings have been delayed since, for reasons that have not been made public. A medical report shows that he was not fit for punishment. 

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