Syria

China prepares to deploy elite forces to Syria

China is preparing to deploy elite troops to Syria in support of dictator Bashar al-Assad's forces, fearing the presence of Islamist militants in its far western territory of Xinjiang, according to media reports in the region. The Chinese Ministry of Defense intends to send two units known as the "Night Tigers" and the "Tigers of Siberia" from the People's Liberation Army Special Operations Forces to aid Assad regime troops against militant factions, according to an Arabic-language report in the UAE's New Khaleej. Some 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang are fighting in various militant formations in Syria, the Syrian ambassador to China Imad Moustapha told Reuters earlier this year. Last week, during a meeting with Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised the regime's efforts at tackling militants from the supposed East Turkestan Islamic Movement. (The New Arab, Nov. 29; Middle East Monitor, Nov. 28)

US to demand arms back from Rojava Kurds

The Donald Trump administration plans to ask Kurdish fighters in Syria to return weapons "loaned" for the fight against ISIS, an unnamed official told Al-Monitor. This was revealed the same day the White House made its first official comment on claims by the Turkish foreign minister that US support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would be coming to an end. "Once we started winning the campaign against ISIS, the plan and part of the process is to always wind down support for certain groups," White House mouthpiece Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a briefing on Dec. 1. "Now that we're continuing to crush the physical caliphate...we're in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups. But that doesn't mean stopping all support of those individual groups."

Syria: 'de-escalation' zones become kill zones

When the Astana "peace" deal for Syria was announced earlier this year, we predicted that the proposed so-called "de-escalation" zones would actually become kill zones. A condition of every "ceasefire" agreement sponsored either by Russia (like the Astana pact) or the US is that the rebels declare war on the Qaeda-linked factions to have emerged from the (now ostensibly disbanded) Nusra Front. But already beseiged by the Assad regime and Russia, the rebels are in no plight to do so—they've been put in an untenable situation. It was clear the Astana plan was not about peace but about propaganda—providing a cover for continuance of the war. So we were grimly vindicated to see the Nov. 18 New York Times headline, "Marked for 'De-escalation,' Syrian Towns Endure Surge of Attacks."

Russia vetoes Syria chemwar investigation —again

The Russian Federation on Nov. 17 vetoed a measure before the UN Security Council (UNSC) that would have extended the mandate of a UN panel investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria for 30 days. The UNSC had established the Joint Investigative Mechanism with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2015 with a two-year mandate following the use of chemical weapons in Syria in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

SDF declare Raqqa 'fully liberated' from ISIS

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Oct. 17 announced that they have "fully cleared" Raqqa of jihadist fighters and "liberated" the city from ISIS. The last group of hold-outs reportedly surrendered. The operation, launched in June, was named for Adnan Abu Amjad, an Arab commander with the SDF who was killed in August in the battle for Raqqa. The SDF coordinated their offensive closely with the US-backed coalition. More than 3,000 bombs have landed on Raqqa since January, devastating schools, hospitals and residential buildings. Less than one percent of Raqqa's 300,000 pre-war population is thought to remain in the city. The city has no electricity or water, and its last functioning bakery was destroyed recently. The Syrian Network for Human Rights counts more than 900 civilians killed over the course of the operation, including at least 570 in coalition air-strikes.

Conviction in Syrian regime war crime —at last

For the first time, after six years of war and escalating atrocities, a member of the Syrian regime's military has been convicted of a war crime. The perpetrator, identified as Mohammad Abdullah, was a low-level soldier who is now in Sweden as a refugee. He was convicted by a Swedish court Oct. 2 of violating human dignity by posing with his boot on a corpse and sentenced to eight months in prison. Abdullah, 32, arrived three years ago in Sweden, where other Syrian refugees recognized him through his Facebook posts and connected him to a photograph he had posted earlier, in which he stands with his boot on the corpse of a man in civilian clothing surrounded by other corpses. As the New York Times notes in its coverage, this is the first conviction of an Assad regime solider in any country, six years after the Syrian revolution was sparked by an incident in which school-children were tortured after painting anti-regime slogans on a wall.

Further internationalization of Syrian war

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that Turkey is conducting a "landmark" military operation in Syria's Idlib governorate, extending the area brought under the control of Ankara and its rebel allies in last year's Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIS. Now the target is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). a formation led by militias to emerge from the former Nusra Front, some with apparent ties to al-Qaeda. (Al Jazeera, Oct. 9; Daily Sabah, Oct. 7) The Euphrates River has emerged as a border between Turkey's de facto "buffer zone"in northern Syria and areas still under Kurdish control—for now. However, Kurdish enclaves still remain west of the river, including the likely flashpoint town of Afrin. (See map.)

Trump and Putin team up to destroy Syria

A rare on-the-scene BBC report from Raqqa reveals a grim picture of the ISIS "capital" under months of relentless US bombardment and siege by US-backed ground forces.  Reporter Quentin Sommerville depicts a "city fit for no-one," neighborhoods desolate and "ruined." Once you are inside the city, "[a]head lies nothing but destruction and grey dust and rubble. This is a place drained of colour, of life, and of people. In six days inside Raqqa, I didn't see a single civilian... It seems that not a single building has escaped the onslaught. Many have been crushed, flattened, or knocked to one side by the Western coalition's air strikes and artillery. It is a barrage that never ceases. More than two dozen air strikes a day, and hundreds of shells fall on the city." All this to defeat an ISIS force that by now is thought to number only some 400 fighters.

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