Greater Middle East
The Syria Ceasfire Monitor and Syrian Observatory on Human Rights report that the (partial) ceasefire that took effect Feb. 26 has in fact seen plenty of violations. Over 135, inlcuding many civilians, have been killed in regime and Russian air-strikes—and not only on ISIS and Nusra forces, which are officially excluded from the ceasefire, but in "truce areas" not controlled by these groups. But, as sources from the New York Times to The New Arab note, there has indeed been a significant lull in the fighting, which has allowed civil movements to re-emerge in the "free" areas. Residents have been once again taking to the streets under the slogan "The Revolution Continues," chanting and singing for the "fall of the regime," and waving the pre-Baathist flag adopted during the early, largely peaceful stages of the revolution—before the proliferation of armed Islamist factions with black jihadist banners. This has happened repeatedly over the past several days in Idlib, Darayya, Aleppo and elsewhere. Very inspiring video footage of the demonstrations has been posted to Facebook.
Russian and Syrian regime armed forces are deliberately attacking hospitals and other medical facilities as part of a military strategy to clear the way to northern Aleppo, Amnesty International (AI) claimed in a report March 3. AI says the pattern of air-strikes on medical centers appears to be consistent with a violation of international law. Under international law, hospitals are afforded protection from attack as long as the facility is not engaged in "hostile" activity, and is acting in a humanitarian capacity. Testimony collected by AI from doctors in the region suggests that the hospitals are often the first vital civilian resource to be targeted by forces in order to clear out the towns. A report by Physicians for Human Rights says that 346 attacks have impacted medical facilities.
Two Turkish journalists were released from Silivri prison early Feb. 26 after Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that the detention violated their personal liberty, security, and freedom of expression and press. Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, employees of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, were arrested last November for reporting in 2014 that Turkish trucks were smuggling arms to Islamist groups in Syria. The Turkish government denied the allegations and later made contradictory claims that the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid or ammunition to rebel groups. Subsequently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan filed a claim against the reporters and accused them of cooperating with FETO, a secret movement intending to falsely link the Turkish government to terrorist groups. Though Dundar and Gul have been freed, they still face the government's charges and must stand trial on March 25.
Overshadowed in the world news by the greater carnage across the border in Syria, Turkey's Kurdish east is exploding into full-scale war. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries oil from Iraq's Kurdistan Region to Turkey's Mediterreanean coast, is now shut down following a Feb. 25 attack by presumed PKK guerillas. (Reuters, Feb. 27) Street-fighting is ongoing in Diyarbakir's Kurdish district of Sur, where youth continue to defy a curfew. Local activists say civilians have been killed and clashes have caused major damage to Sur's historic mosques and other buildings. Hundreds are trapped in basements in the district, where they have taken shelter from street-fighting and snipers. (MEE, Feb. 27; ANF, Feb. 17)) Kurdish MP Feleknas Uca charged on Feb. 19 that 150 Kurds sheltering in basements in Cizre burned to death when the buildings were set on fire by military forces. (Daily Mail, Feb. 19)
The notion that Syria's Rojava Kurds are collaborating with Russia—and, by extension, the genocidal Bashar Assad regime—is fast gaining currency. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was the latest to make the charge, telling Parliament: "What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force which are making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds' role in all of this." (The Telegraph, Feb. 20) The regime is openly boasting of an alliance with the Kurds' Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Speaking of recent YPG advances against Islamist factions, Bouthaina Shaaban, the regime's top propagandist, said: "The YPG Kurdish units, the armed group of PYD, are cooperating with the Syrian army and Russian air forces to clear northern Syria of terrorism." (Middle East Observer, Feb. 20) The regime UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said: "So the victory, achieved by the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian army in northern parts of Syria is a joint victory for all Syrians." These comments were of course avidly reported in the Turkish press. (Anadolu Agency, Yeni Safak, Feb. 17)
We've long noted that the Israeli security establishment and its neocon allies in Washington are divided between those who would give Bashar Assad a healthy shove and those who would prop him with up as the Devil they know. One faction views him as a bulwark against the jihadists; the other as an ally of Hezbollah even more dangerous to Israel's interests. This is reflected in Washington's "strategy of equivocation," which has over the past five years seen the White tilt now the rebels, now to the dictatorship. This provides convenient quotes from Israeli officials whenever some conspiranoid wants to prove the "fairy tale" that Israel is backing ISIS and other jihadist factions. One such specimen appeared in the Washington Post Jan. 19, when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told the audience that if he had to choose between ISIS and Iran as the new power in Syria, he'd "choose ISIS."
What is happening at the northern Syrian town of Azaz, in Aleppo governorate, could prove critical in determining what the role of the Rojava Kurds will be in the Syrian war and revolution. The Kurdish YPG militia took the nearby Menegh air base on Feb. 10. Since then, Turkey has been shelling YPG forces in the area from across the border, and has issued grim warnings. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu threatened to make the Menagh base "unusable" if the YPG does not withdraw, and promised the "harshest reaction" if Kurdish forces try to take Azaz. (BBC News, Feb. 15) Reuters reported Feb. 15 that 14 people were killed in Azaz when missiles hit a school sheltering displaced families. The account implied the missiles were fired by Russia, which makes sense if Azaz is being held by Turkish-backed rebel forces. But all accounts are maddeningly vague on who is in fact holding Azaz...
On Feb. 12, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG)—made up of the US, Russia, EU, Arab League, Iran and other powers—reached an agreement in (oh, the irony!) Munich for a "cessation of hostilities," to take effect in one week. You can bet that this signals a major escalation in the war. Already diplomats are saying "It's not worth the paper it's printed on." The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made clear the loophole big enough for a fleet of MIGs to pass through. "The truce does not go for terrorists… The military operation against them will be continued." Given the Russian propaganda trick of calling whoever they want to bomb "terrorists," this makes the whole deal utterly meaningless. Specifically, air-strikes on ISIS and the Nusra Front are excluded from the deal, but we shall see if there is any let-up at all in the horrific aerial bombardment of FSA-held territory. Russian and regime air-strikes have already cut off water supplies to the remaining inhabitants in besieged Aleppo. Bashar Assad has wasted no time in announcing that he intends to retake "the whole country" from rebel forces. We hate to agree with John McCain, but he called it when he said the Munich agreement is "diplomacy in the service of military aggression." The deal was arrived at without the participation of the Free Syrian Army, much less any voices of Syria's civil resistance. This "ceasefire" will not result in the ceasing of a single shot from being fired. As with previous bogus "peace" breakthroughts, the result will be much to the contrary. You read it here first. (Daily Sabah, Feb. 14; The Telegraph, EA WorldView, BBC News, BBC News, Feb. 12; Daily Sabah, Feb. 10)