Free Syrian Army militia backed by Turkish forces took the Syrian city of al-Bab from ISIS militants Feb. 23, although fighting continues in some districts. The ISIS fighters withdrew via a route left open for them by the commanders of Operation Euphrates Shield, the joint Turkish-FSA campaign. (Rudaw, Feb. 23) As US-led Iraqi and Kurdish forces close the circle on ISIS in Mosul, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance on Raqqa. The US commander in Iraq predicts the imminent taking of both Mosul and Raqqa. "Within the next six months, I think we'll see both conclude," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend outside Baghdad Feb. 8. The enemy is "overwhelmed anywhere that they are," added Col. John Dorrian, spokesperson for the US-led Combined Joint Taskforce. (Rudaw, Feb. 8)
Politicians wielding a dehumanizing rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world, warned Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. The report, "The State of the World's Human Rights" (PDF), warns that the consequences of "us vs them" rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak. "President Trump's policies have brought the US to a level of human rights crisis that we haven't seen in years," said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "As the world braces itself for a new executive order, thousands of people inside and outside of US borders have had their lives thrown into chaos as a result of the president's travel ban. This administration, like other governments across the world, is playing politics with people's lives. President Trump and leaders across the globe should be reaffirming and upholding international human rights protections, not exploiting fear and prejudice for their own agendas."
Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo during the final month of the battle for the city, Human Rights Watch said Feb. 13. Through phone and in-person interviews with witnesses and analysis of video footage, photographs, and posts on social media, Human Rights Watch documented government helicopters dropping chlorine in residential areas on at least eight occasions between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13, 2016. The attacks, some of which included multiple munitions, killed at least nine civilians, including four children, and injured around 200. The attacks took place in areas where government forces planned to advance, starting in the east and moving westwards as the frontlines moved, Human Rights Watch said.
Late last year, when the evacuation of Aleppo began as the city fell to Assad regime forces backed by Russian air-strikes, we noted that residents were being sent to Idlib governorate, which is both under control of jihadist factions and also targeted for air-strikes and eventual conquest by the regime and its Russian patrons. So secularists fleeing Aleppo were likely to find no refuge from either regime or opposition forces in Idlib. Now comes the news that Radio Fresh, voice of the embattled secularist civil resistance in the Idlib town of Kafranbel, is being censored by the jihadists—and finding a creative way to resist. The FM station's manager Raed Fares told BBC News that they've been broadcasting hours of barnyard sounds each day to protest and mock censorious orders from local militants of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front). "They tried to force us to stop playing music on air," said Fares. "So we started to play animals in the background as a kind of sarcastic gesture against them."
Syria's embattled dictator Bashar Assad was quoted by his own official news agency SANA Feb. 7 saying he found President Trump's stance on the war in his country to be "promising." This word was headlined by Reuters, but it is worth noting the full quote. Assad told a group of Belgian reporters: "What we heard as statements by Trump during the campaign and after the campaign is promising regarding the priority of fighting terrorists, and mainly ISIS, that’s what we’ve been asking for during the last six years. So, I think this is promising, we have to wait, it's still early to expect anything practical. It could be about the cooperation between the US and Russia, that we think is going to be positive for the rest of the world, including Syria. So, as I said, it's still early to judge it."
An Amnesty International report published Feb. 7 exposes the "cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners" in a Syrian detention center where an estimated 13,000 have been hanged in the past five years. The mass hangings took place at Saydnaya military prison near Damascus between 2011 and 2015—and there are clear indications that the kiling remains ongoing. Most of those hanged were civilians believed to have opposed the government, with the killings taking place in great secrecy in the middle of the night. The executions take place after summary "trials," with no legal counsel and based on "confessions" extracted through torture.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was in the news last week, as she traveled to Syria to meet with genocidal dictator Bashar Assad, part of an entourage that included unsavory figures from the fascistic Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The right-wing Liberty Conservative defends the trip, writing: "Why Tulsi Gabbard’s Visit To Syria Was The Right Thing To Do." The Observer, owned by Trump's top advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, also cheers on the Gabbard-Assad meet, under a headline that could be lifted from just about any lefty anti-war website: "War Hawks Jump on Progressives to Push for Intervention in Syria." Likewise providing gushy coverage of Tulsi's lovefest with the accused war criminal are Russian state propaganda organ RT, which hails her for sparking "outrage" in the DC "establishment," and the borderline fake news sites popular on the "left," MintPress and Global Research.
This week's recapture of the Wadi Barada enclave outside Damascus by the Bashar Assad regime's forces points to a deft strategy by the regime and its Russian backers. The valley had been excluded from the supposed "ceasefire" because of the presence there of a small number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the former Nusra Front, which was officially excluded from the ceasefire. This means, effectively, the ceasefire not only doesn't apply to ex-Nusra, but also does not apply to any forces that have (often of necessity) allied with ex-Nusra—or even that just happen to be near ex-Nusra and not actively fighting them. This strategy seems to have had the desired effect. Nusra's former ally, Ahrar al-Sham, is now reported to have turned on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, sparking an internal civil war within rebel-held areas of Idlib governorate. (Al Jazeera, Feb. 2; Al Jazeera, Jan. 29)