Greater Middle East

Syria: first Alawite protest against regime

Members of Syria's Alawite sect took to the streets in the city of Homs on Oct. 2 to protest the horrific twin bombing at an elementary school the previous day.  Although the Alawites have generally been staunch supporters of Bashar Assad, now for the first time they took up anti-regime slogans. Demands included the resignation of the Homs governor and much of Assad's cabinet, if not Assad himself. A Syrian state TV reporter covering the protest was attacked by the angry marchers, who chanted "Liar, Liar, the Syrian media is a liar."

US expands Syria air-strikes; Israel downs fighter

The US-led coalition carried out air-strikes against both ISIS and Nusra Front positions in Syria on Sept. 23. At the same time, US planes took unilateral action against the so-called "Khorasan Group" of ex-Qaeda members "to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests," as a Central Command statement put it. The statement provided no details on the plotting. The Khorasan Group targets were said to be near Aleppo. Reports indicate the group is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Qaeda operative who was supposedly privy to Osama bin Laden's 9-11 plans prior to the attack. The US State Department calls al-Fadhli a "senior facilitator and financier" for al-Qaeda. (Times of IsraelMJ) Meanwhile, the Israeli military shot down a Syrian MiG-21 fighter jet that it said had infiltrated it airspace over the Golan Heights. The wreckage fell on the Syrian-controlled side of the plateau. (Al Jazeera)

Egypt: rights lawyer joins detainee hunger strike

Egypt's rights lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali on Sept. 18 joined an ongoing hunger strike by dozens of Egyptians to demand the release of those said to be unjustly detained by authorities in an attempt to curtail political dissent. Ali, whose Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights brought a case demanding repeal of the controversial protest law under which dozens of youth activists have been detained, said he would be fasting for two days in solidarity with those being held. Over 80 detainees are on hunger strike in Egypt's prisons. The controversial statute, issued late last year, bans protest without prior police authorisation and gives security forces the right to bar any public gathering of more than 10 people. Some 200 others outside prisons, including families of the detainees, activists and journalists, have organised a hunger strike in solidarity.

Rights experts to Bahrain: release political activist

Independent UN rights experts on Sept. 5 called on the government of Bahrain to release human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja due to the absence of evidence against her. Al-Khawaja was arrested in August upon her return to Bahrain and was charged with insulting the king and assaulting police officers. According to a post on al-Khawaja's twitter account, she has not been permitted to see a lawyer since her arrest. The rights experts expressed concern at the rash of apparent political imprisonment of individuals expressing their freedom of opinion, particularly human rights activists.

ISIS eyes Mecca, pledges to destroy Kaaba

Authorities in Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of 88 on suspicion of planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the kingdom and abroad. The Interior Ministry statement didn't cite the "Islamic State" by name, saying only the arrests were related to the "painful reality the region is going through" and denouncing those with "sick ideas" who "spread their extremist opinions and corrupt the youth and drag them to places of strife." Under Saudi law, terrorism suspects can be held up to a year without charges. (WSJ, Sept. 2) When ISIS was seizing northern Iraq in June, one leader boasted that they planned to overrun Saudi Arabia, capture Mecca, and raze the Kaaba. ISIS militant Abu Turab al-Mugaddasi said: "If Allah wills, we will kill those who worship stones in Mecca and destroy the Kaaba. People go to Mecca to touch the stones, not for Allah." (India Today, July 1; APA, Azerbaijan, June 30)

Lebanon: punishment for burning ISIS flag?

Lebanon's Minister of Justice  on Aug. 30 called for the "sternest punishments" for the individuals in Beirut who burned the flag of the militant groups ISIS and the Nusra Front. It is reported that Minister Ashraf Rifi issued a highly criticized statement which has urged the Lebanon state prosecutor to bring charges against the individuals who participated in the public flag-burning at Sassine Square in Beriut. Minister Rifi claims that the flag-burning was insulting to the faith of Islam because inscribed on the ISIS flag includes the Shahada or declaration of Muslim faith, "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet." Under Lebanese law, it is illegal to defame religious symbols. Pictures of the individuals burning the fags were discovered on Facebook. The action was a response to the recent beheading of a member of the Lebanese armed forces by ISIS.

Saudis crack down on Yemeni smuggling pipeline

Border Guard patrols along Saudi Arabia's rugged mountain frontier with Yemen report mounting interceptions of hashish, weapons and other contraband. Over the past nine months, interceptions at the Najran border post alone netted four tons of hashish, as well as explosives, hand grenades, firearms and ammunition. Some 250 smugglers and 25,000 "infiltrators" were also detained at the post, and several vehicles impounded. But Border Guard officials admit that on several occassions the smugglers got away into the wilderness, with agents firing after them. At the Wadi post, to the east of Najran, border guards last month confronted six "infiltrators," killing five and capturing the survivor. Four tons of hashish were confiscated along the border just during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended with the Eid al-Fitr festival July 28—possibly because smugglers thought patrols would be slacking off. On the contrary, Saudi forces beefed up patrols.

One year later, Syrians recall chemical massacre

Aug. 21 marked the one-year anniversary of the chemical weapon attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, found by international investigations to have been the work of the Bashar Assad regime. The Syrian diaspora around the world held protests and vigils marking the event, the one in New York's Times Square the evening of Aug. 22 drawing some 200 wearing matching t-shirts reading "CHEMICAL MASSACRE IN SYRIA: WE WILL NEVER FORGET." Amid Syrian flags (the pre-Assad version used by the rebel forces), protesters laid white-shrouded effigies representing the dead, and as the sun set lit rows of small candles that formed the number 1,476—the sum of those killed in the attack. At the climax of the ceremony, hundreds of the victims' names were read aloud. The protest, co-organized by Save Syrian Children, was dubbed One Year of Breathing Death, in recognition of the fact that chemical attacks in Syria have continued. Organizers said activists have confirmed 27 separate cases of chemical gas use since the UN Security Council passed UNSCR 2118, calling for the destruction of all chemical weapons and chemical weapons facilities in Syria. (WW4R on the scene)

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