Greater Middle East
Vladimir Putin took the world by surprise with his March 14 announcement that he is ordering the Russian military to withdraw most of its forces from Syria—just as the new round of peace talks is opening in Geneva. Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its air base at Khmeimim (also rendered Hemeimeem) in coastal Latakia governorate, and they have since September flown near-daily combat sorties. Russia boasts that thanks to its air support, the Damascus regime has extended its control to 400 towns and villages over an area of 10,000 square kilometers. Moscow also emphasized that it will keep its base at Khmeimim, as well as another at the port of Tartus, just down the coast. (See map.) (AP, RT)
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), comprised of Syrian opposition groups, stated March 11 that they will attend peace discussions with the Damascus government facilitated by the UN that will begin next week. The HNC seeks a transitional government with full executive powers, and no role for President Bashar al-Assad or his associates. These peace negotiations will likely discuss possible federal division of Syria. Last month the UN Security Council last month approved the Syria ceasefire plan, which has been successful so far. These peace talks will follow the first round of negotiations that failed in early February during a Russian-backed government offensive.
Kuwait's Supreme Court on March 7 upheld the four-year prison sentence against an activist found guilty of insulting judges on Twitter. Ahmad Fadhel was convicted for writing comments considered offensive to a number of judges in Kuwait. Three top judges sued Fadhel for defamation, and a lower court issued the four-year sentence in October 2014. The appeals court upheld the sentence last February, and now the ruling by the Supreme Court is final.
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)