Greater Middle East
The Obama administration has reportedly proposed a new agreement to Russia's government for military cooperation in Syria, sharing target information and coordinating air-strikes. In exchange, Moscow would agree to pressure the Assad regime to stop bombing certain Syrian rebel groups. The US would not give Russia the exact locations of these groups, but specify geographic zones that would be safe from aerial assaults. (WP, June 30)
Armed groups in Aleppo, Idlib and surrounding areas in Syria's north have carried out a "chilling wave" of abductions, torture and summary killings, Amnesty International charges in a new briefing. The briefing, "Torture was my punishment," charges that some of the named rebel groups are believed to have the support of governments such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US "despite evidence that they are committing violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war)." Groups including Nusra Front, al-Shamia Front and Ahrar al-Sham have established their own shari'a "justice systems" in areas they control, with their own "unofficial" prosecution offices, police forces and detention centers, imposing punishments amounting to torture for perceived infractions. (AI, July 5)
Suicide bombings hit three cities in Saudi Arabia within 24 hours—including Medina, striking near the Prophet's Mosque, resting place of Muhammed and Islam's second holiest site. Four security officers were killed in that attack, which came during Maghreb prayers, as Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. A suicide blast also struck near the US consulate in the coastal city of Jidda, wounding two security officers. And a suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shi'ite mosque in the eastern city of Qatif, although only the only casualty there was the attacker. There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but the attacks are pretty obviously the work of ISIS. (CNN, BBC News, Al Arabiya, NYT)
ISIS is reported to have claimed responsibility for today's triple bomb and shooting attack at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport that left at least 36 dead and some 150 wounded. (BiaNet) The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) explicitly disavowed the attack, and stated their belief that it was carried out by "Daesh terrorists," using the popular pejorative for ISIS in the Middle East. (Sputnik) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was constrained by these twin statements from explicitly blaming the Kurds in the attack, but still said: "I hope that the Ataturk Airport attack, especially in Western countries...will be a milestone for the joint fight against terrorist organizations, a turning point." (RT) This was a barely veiled criticism of US support for the PKK's sibling organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military arm the People's Protection Units (YPG), in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria.
Russian and US warplanes are each backing rival sides as the Assad regime and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) race to take the ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa. The Kurdish-led forces are in the lead. SDF fighters this week entered the ISIS-held city of Manbij, a key step toward Raqqa. (Al Jazeera, June 23) ISIS is meanwhile reported to have taken back large areas of territory in Raqqa governorate that had recently been taken by regime forces. (Al Jazeera, June 21) The Russian air-strikes in support of the regime forces, as ever, are more indiscriminate. Local monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (which operates "underground" in ISIS-controlled territory) reports that 32 civilians were killed and 150 injured in Russian strikes on Raqqa city. (Al Jazeera, June 22)
At least 224 people were killed in the first week of Ramadan in Syria, with the majority of the deaths resulting from bombings by regime and Russian warplanes, according to figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (Al Jazeera, June 13) Some of the worst carnage came when regime helicopters bombed the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya—hours after the arrival of its first food aid since 2012, residents said. The bombardment prevented the aid from being delivered to residents overnight. (BBC, June 10) Despite Moscow's announced "withdrawal" from Syria, Russia and the Assad regime continue with their atrocious campaign of bombing hospitals, with the most recent case in beseiged Aleppo. Air-strikes hit three hospitals in the rebel-held side of the city June 8, including a pediatrics center supported by the United Nations. (NYT, June 8) On the first day of Ramadan, June 6, at least 17 civilians including eight children were killed in air-strikes on a market in ISIS-held al-Asharah town, in Deir Az-Zour governorate. (The New Arab, June 6)
An Egyptian court on June 4 began the trial of a journalist union leader as well as two board members who were charged with spreading false news and harboring wanted reporters. About a month prior, union leader Yahya Qalash denounced authorities for the arrest of two protesting journalists who sought refuge in the headquarters of the union, known as the Press Syndicate. (The two were wanted for online comments opposing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and allegedly calling for a "coup.") Though Qalash initially called for the interior minister's resignation and a presidential apology, he withdrew his comments later to defuse tensions. Amnesty International has publicly opposed the trial, accusing the government of cracking down on the freedom of expression and creating a "state of fear." The defendants have requested postponement and will continue the hearing later this month.
The US responded this week to the Syrian Kurds' declaration of autonomy, with State Department spokesman Mark Toner saying: "We've...made it clear to these Kurdish forces [in Syria] that they should not seek to create autonomous, semi-autonomous zones." He added that Kurdish forces in Syria "should not seek to retain the territory that they liberate, rather that they should make sure it's returned to whatever civilian authorities there are and able to—so that all displaced people can return there." This is a barely veiled reference to accusations that Syrian Kurdish forces are engaging in "ethnic cleansing" against Arabs and Turkmen in areas liberated from ISIS. But not only are these charges dubious, but Toner's statement ignores that often the only "civilian authorities" are in fact those of the Kurdish autonomous administration. More ominously, he warned that the US is in close dialogue with Turkey on the question and understands Ankara's "concerns regarding Kurdish forces in northern Syria." (This as Turkey is wagng a brutal counterinsurgency against Kurdish rebels within its own territory, to Washington's silence.) Ironically, he added that the Kurdish militias in Syria "are effective fighting forces and that they are willing to take on and dislodge Daesh," using the popular pejorative for ISIS in the Middle East.