Greater Middle East
Just 24 hours into 2016, Saudi Arabia made world headlines with the execution of a dissident Shi'ite cleric—sparking violent protests in Iran, and a breaking off of diplomatic relations. But this just punctuated a very busy year for the Saudi execution state, with most of the victims receiving little international attention, and many sent to the chopping block for victimless crimes—prominently including drug possession.
Shi'ite protesters have repeatedly mobilized in Bahrain over the past week to demand the release of imprisoned dissident cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, as the kingdom's Court of Appeals prepares to hear his case. Salman was detained in December 2014 on charges of attempting to overthrow the ruling al-Khalifah regime and collaboration with foreign powers. He has strongly denied the charges, asserting that he seeks reforms in the kingdom through peaceful means. In June 2015, Salman was sentenced to four years on charges including insulting the Bahraini Interior Ministry and inciting others to break the law, although he was acquitted of seeking regime change. He is now challenging his conviction. The Bahrain demonstrations come weeks after Saudi Arabia's execution of a dissident Shi'ite leader sparked angry protests in Iran and a diplomatic crisis. The Saudi execution also brought Shi'ites to the streets in Bahrain, although it received far less international media coverage. Illustrating the degree of polarization, the new wave of Bahraini protests have received virtually no international coverage except from Iranian state media such as Press TV and Hezbollah's Al Manar.
A Jan. 12 suicide blast in Istanbul's historic Sultan Ahmet district killed 10, at least eight of them German tourists. Turkish authorities have detained 68 supposed ISIS operatives in the attack. In news sure to warm the hearts of Europe's xenophobes, Turkish authorities are saying the actual perpetrator had recently registered as a Syrian refugee. (BBC News, Today's Zaman, Reuters) Given that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not tried pin the blame on the Kurdish guerillas of the PKK, the evidence that ISIS was behind the blast must be pretty darn incontrovertible. However, Erdogan couldn't keep from exploiting the timing of the attack to take some bogus shots at the PKK and their foreign left-wing sympathizers...
Russian aerial terror is again reported from Syria. At least 12 children and an adult were killed by a Russian air-strike at a school in Anjara, just outside Aleppo. Dozens more children and their teachers were injured in Jan. 11 strike, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Photos released on social media show toppled desks covered in dust and rubble lying below a gaping hole in the building. In video footage released on Twitter, one child recounted how her class was set to take an exam when the air-strike hit. (CSM) Schools in Douma, outside Damascus, are closed until further notice after cluster-bomb attacks by Russian warplanes last month Of the 60 civilians killed in Dec. 13 air-strikes on the town, eight were children. Another was the headmistress of a school that came under attack, who ran out into the playground to save try to save children as the bombs started falling. (The Telegraph)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on June 8 warned that the use of cluster bombs by the Saudi-led coalition against neighborhoods in Yemen may amount to a war crime. Cluster bombs spread bomblets over a wide area, many of which do not immediately explode, allowing the bomblets to kill or maim civilians long after a conflict ends. They were prohibited by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions treaty (PDF) adopted by 116 countries, not including Saudi Arabia, Yemen or the US. Of particular concern, the coalition has utilized indiscriminate bombing on several civilian areas in the city of Sanaa, including a wedding hall, chamber of commerce and a center for the blind. In a field visit the UN confirmed use of these munitions, finding remnants of 29 cluster bombs.
Imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (official website)—a recent recipient of the prestigious European human rights award, the Sakharov Prize—has suffered fainting spells and deteriorating health owing to the lengthy hunger strike he initiated more than 20 days ago. According to Ensaf Haidar, Badawi's wife who was recently granted asylum in Canada, the strike was initiated primarily to protest Badawi's transfer to a different prison in Saudi Arabia. However, neither the government of Canada nor Amnesty International in Canada has been able to confirm the hunger strike. Regardless, Canada has expressed its commitment to continue its calls for clemency on Badawi’s behalf. Haidar stated that she last spoke with Badawi two weeks ago, and had been kept informed of Badawi's condition by a contact in Saudi Arabia whom she declined to identify. Haidar had been separated from Badawi for the past four years and was hoping to be reunited with him by the end of 2015.
While the world media cheer the taking of Ramadi in Iraq—supposedly by government troops, but in fact spearheaded by sectarian Shi'ite militias—comparatively little note is made of advances against ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). An alliance of revolutionary Kurds and secular Arab militias, the SDF continues to take ground from ISIS in Syria's north. On Dec. 27, the SDF announced the taking of the strategic Tishreen Dam, which had been held by ISIS for over a year, and generates electricity for much of Syria's north. Its taking will ease electricity and water shortages in Kobani, the Kurdish town where the tide was first turned against ISIS in the region a year ago. SDF officer Rami Abdel Rahman told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the eastern Euphrates Valley is now cleared of ISIS and "the battles are now on the western bank of the river." (Rudaw, Dec. 27)
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.