Fierce clashes broke out in Damascus this week after rebel fighters infiltrated the city through tunnels, breaching the regime's security perimeter. The surprise offensive marked a rare advance after months of steady losses for rebel forces across Syria. The Iraqi Shi'ite militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba announced that it has joined pro-regime forces in the defense of Jobar and Abbasin districts, the outlying areas that came under attack. The militia is said to be effectively led by officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, against ponting to Tehran's critical role in support of the Bashar Assad regime.
A new Qaeda affiliate in Syria has claimed responsibility for a March 11 double bomb attack targeting Shi'ite pilgrims in Damascus that killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more. Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two buses with their windows blown out, the surroundings splattered with blood and littered with lost shoes and clothing. The attack took place near Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named for one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus. The pilgrims had arrived to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine outside Damascus, where the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization) said the attack was "a message to Iran" over its support for the Bashar Assad regime. The group is identified as a breakaway faction of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front) that has maintained ties with al-Qaeda. (BBC News, Reuters)
A suicide attack on a Sufi shrine Feb. 16 killed at least 75 worshippers and wounded dozens more—the deadliest in a string of blasts in Pakistan this week. At least 250 others were wounded, with the only hospital in the area overwhelmed. The blast went off outside the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan, Sindh province. The blast took place during Dhamal, a weekly dance ritual, with hundreds of devotees present inside the shrine and lined up to enter. The Islamic State's Khorasan Province claimed responsibility for the attack. (Hindustan Times, Indian Express, BBC News, Al Jazeera)
A Pakistani anti-terrorism court acquitted 112 individuals suspected of taking part in the 2013 burning of 150 Christian homes and two churches in Lahore's Josep Colony. Ghulam Murtaza Chaudhry, the lawyer defending the suspects, stated that the suspects were acquitted because of a lack of evidence. Chaudhry stated the testimony of the plaintiffs was inconsistent and they could not identify those accused. The suspects were being charged under Pakistan's blasphemy law, which outlaws blasphemy against any recognized religion and provides penalties that range from a fine to death. At the time the acquittal was handed down, all 112 suspects were out on bail.
Iran's government and companies close to the elite Revolutionary Guards have signed major economic contracts with Syria, gaining control of large areas of the country in what appear to be lucrative rewards for helping President Bashar Assad regain control of territory from rebels. Five memorandums of understanding were signed during a visit by Syrian Prime Minister Emad Khamis to Tehran on Jan. 17, including a licence for Iran to become a mobile phone service operator in Syria, and phosphate mining contracts. "We greatly appreciate Iran's major role in combating terrorism and standing by the Syrian people in every way, politically and economically," Khamis said. Syria will give Iran 5,000 hectares of land for farming, and 1,000 hectares for setting up oil and gas terminals. A deal was also signed on providing lands for animal husbandry.
Remember the reports of a Russian "withdrawl" from Syria over the summer? They were immediately followed, of course, by a massive escalation of Russia's military intervention, with the destruction of Aleppo by Moscow's warplanes. Let's hope we are not in for a replay. With the departure of most of Russian's war fleet from Syria's coast—most prominently, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov—CNN last week reported: "Russia 'starts to withdraw' forces from Syria." The Interpreter, a neo-Kremlinologist website, flatly contradicts this. It finds that most Russian combat operations have been flown out of ground bases in Syria, not the carrier. At Hmeymim air base (also rendered Khmeimim and Hemeimeem) in Latakia governorate, Russia has now deployed Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Syria and even beyond its borders. Far from withdrawing, The Interpreter says that Russia is "just getting started" with a military build-up in Syria.
Several militias operating in Iraq have been committing war crimes—using weapons manufactured in 16 different countries, including the US, Russia, China and Iran—according to a report (PDF) issued Jan. 5 by Amnesty International. The report discusses the actions of four particular militia groups—Munathamat Badr (Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), 'Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata'ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) and the Saraya al-Salem (Peace Brigades). These militias operate under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq, which include 40 or 50 distinct militias. Iraq's prime minister designated these PMUs as an official part of the Iraqi military in February.
An Iraqi militia, backed by the government, executed four men suspected of having ties to ISIS, Human Rights Watch reported Dec. 18. Because the men were never tried, HRW claims their executions constitute war crimes. The human rights organization said that although the executions took place in November, the Iraqi government has still not condemned them. It also reported that members of the Iraqi security forces witnessed at least one execution and did nothing. The men were killed in a village outside of Mosul during the militia's operation to retake that city. HRW named the Hashad al-Jabour militia, an alliance of Sunni tribes, as the organization that carried out the executions. Hashad al-Jabour is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a militia group given legal status to fight ISIS.