Greater Middle East
It is looking like the supposed diplomatic breakthrough on Syria could actually end up only escalating the war. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin last week to hash out a common position. (AFP, Dec. 15) This came just days after Kerry explicitly disavowed that the US is seeking "regime change" in Syria—making the US tilt to Assad clearer than ever, and vindicating Putin in his move to start bombing Syira. On Dec. 18, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution establishing a six-month time-table for "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" in Syria. "Free and fair" elections are to be held within 18 months under UN supervision with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to vote. However, the official press release on the resolution made no mention of dictator Bashar Assad—and the notion that he will preside over such a transition defies five years of horrific reality.
Disturbing reports emerged Dec. 14 that the Russian navy forced a Turkish merchant ship to change course in a brief confrontation in the Black Sea. Russian naval forces were apparently protecting vessles that were towing two oil drilling platforms that are being disputed between Russia-annexed Crimea and Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea last year, the Chernomorneftegaz drilling company—a subsidiary of Ukraine's parastatal Naftogaz—was seized by the Crimean regional parliament. Ukraine says it will challenge the seizure before international arbitrators. Chernomorneftegaz's drilling platforms, operating in international waters off the Ukrainian port of Odessa, were being relocated to Russian territorial waters when they were bocked by a Turkish merchant ship. Moscow's Defense Ministry said the incident was "resolved" when a Russian missile cruiser chased the Turkish vessel off. In another incident reported one day earlier, the Defense Ministry said its destroyer Smetlivy "fired warning shots" to deter a Turkish fishing vessel in the Aegean Sea "to avoid a collision." Turkey's military attaché in Moscow was summoned to the Ministry over the incident. (Daily Sabah, Dec. 15; RT, Dec. 14; RT, Dec. 13)
The mutual hypocrisy of the Russo-Turkish game for control of Syria continues to become more grimly amusing. Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu today accused Russia of attempting "ethnic cleansing" with its air-strikes in northern Syria. "Russia is trying to make ethnic cleansing in the northern Latakia [region] to force [out] all Turkmen and Sunni populations who do not have good relations with the [Syrian] regime," Davutoglu told reporters in Istanbul, according to the BBC News. He added that the Russian air-strikes are "strengthening" ISIS. Turkmen areas in Latakia have indeed been coming under vicious Russian aerial bombardment, and it is plausible that these air-strikes are ethnically taregted. But Turkey has also been conniving with ISIS and other jihadist forces that are bent on "cleansing" Kurds, Yazidis and Assyrians. The fact that Moscow (for its own propagandistic purposes) is now making such charges doesn't mean that they aren't true! And Turkey's plans for a "buffer zone" in northern Syria are clearly aimed at expunging the Kurdish autonmous zone in the region. What's more, Turkey is arguably already commiting ethnic cleansing in its renewed counter-insurgency campaign against Kurdish rebels within its own territory.
Human Rights Watch is calling on the Obama administration to cancel a pending arms sale to Saudi Arabia in the absence of serious investigations into alleged laws-of-war violations in Yemen. On No. 17, the Pentagon announced that the State Department had approved a sale of $1.29 billion worth of air-to-ground munitions such as laser-guided bombs and "general purpose" bombs with guidance systems. "The purchase replenishes the Royal Saudi Air Force's current weapons supplies, which are becoming depleted due to the high operational tempo in multiple counter-terrorism operations," the Pentagon statement said. But HRW's Joe Stork countered: "The US government is well aware of the Saudi-led coalition's indiscriminate air attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen since March. Providing the Saudis with more bombs under these circumstances is a recipe for greater civilian deaths, for which the US will be partially responsible."
A split in the Syrian rebel forces could actually be salubrious. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a broad and very loose alliance that includes both secular pro-democratic elements and "moderate" (sic) Islamists—the latter considerably more hostile to the very secular-minded Kurds. A clean break between those who support or oppose a multi-ethnic secular post-Assad Syria is inevitable and would clear the political air. Unfortunately, this split is also breaking down along ethnic lines—and is embroiled with the Russo-Turkish game being played for northern Syria. The specter of ethnic warfare and Great Power intrigues threatens to further derail the Syrian revolution and escalate the already confused civil war.
A prominent human rights lawyer was fatally shot Nov. 28 while delivering a press statement in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Tahir Elci was an influential figure in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, and he was the head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association. Elci was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after the shooting. Elci claimed he had received death threats in recent weeks via his Twitter account. Last month, Turkish authorities arrested Elci for his public statement that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is not a terrorist organization. The PKK, a separatist group officially launched in 1984, is considered a terrorist group by the government of Turkey, the US and the EU. Two police officers and a journalist also suffered injuries during the shooting. The conflict between the government and the PKK has increased in recent months, after a two-year ceasefire. Following Elci's death, government officials have suggested that Elci was killed during a gun fight between the Turkish police and the PKK. The Diyarbakir Bar Association claim that Elci was targeted in a planned attack.
The situation on Turkey's Syrian border has only escalated since Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane two days ago. A Russian rescue helicopter was shot down by Syrian rebels while searching for the two pilots of the downed warplane. The helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in a regime-held area of Syria's Latakia governorate. The rebels were using (possibly CIA-supplied) US-made TOW missiles. (The Mirror) One pilot was rescued in the joint Russian-Syrian operation and brought to a base in Latakia, Moscow says. A Russian marine was also reported killed during the rescue mission. The other pilot was shot by rebels as he parachuted from the hit plane, according to Moscow. (AP)
Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border Nov. 24, aparenently after it violated Turkish airspace. Vladimir Putin said the Su-24 was hit by air-to-air missiles fired by Turkish F-16s while it was flying over Syrian territory. A military statement from Ankara said the plane violated Turkish airspace in Hatay province and was warned "10 times in five minutes." Reports indicate the plane crashed in Syrian territory, near Yamadi village of Latakia governorate. (Al Jazeera, BBC News) The two pilots reportedly survived the crash but were captured and summarily executed by members of a Turkmen rebel militia. (Reuters) There is some ambiguity about what actually constitutes the border in this area, as Turkey has established a military-controlled buffer zone in Latakia.