As Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies continue their advance on Kurdish-held Afrin, Russia and its Syrian regime allies continue their advance on rebel-held Iblib. Both offensives are taking a horrific toll in civilian casualties, but the parallels don't end there. Even as they ostensibly oppose each other, both Turkey and Assad are accused of conniving with ISIS forces to weaken the defenders of the respective enclaves. And the twin aggressions in Afrin and Idlib come amid a sudden and rapid internationalization of the Syrian war.
The Unites States is facing a pretty surreal contradiction, with blustering Trump and his cannabis-phobic Attorney General Jeff Sessions holding the federal reins, as legalization takes effect in California. The Philippines is looking at a similar paradox. Ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte is again sending the National Police back into drug enforcement, after he was pressured to withdraw them by a public outcry over their slaying of thousands of innocent civilians since he took office in June 2016. And on New Year's Eve, he won a grim victory as the Philippine Congress voted to extend his declaration of martial law in the conflicted southern island of Mindanao through the end of 2018.
Some rare good news is reported from Iran, where a reform of the country's drug laws may save the lives of thousands now on death row. Some 5,000 people are currently awaiting execution for drug offenses in the Islamic Republic, and all of them could now have their sentences reviewed, according to the New York Times. The move, part of a legal reform in the works since 2016, is aimed at reducing the number of executions in the country. Iran has seen ghastly mass executions of drug convicts in recent years, driving a spike in hangings that has appalled human rights groups. Iran saw 1,000 executions last year—making it second only to China, which keeps its stats on use of the death penalty secret.
Turkish forces, backed by allied factions of the Free Syrian Army, are now in their third day of an offensive on the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, and have captured a number of villages—despite stiff resistance from the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkish air-strikes are making the critical difference, and are taking the predictable toll in civilian casualties. Afrin's Kurdish authorities report that a poultry farm in the village of Jalbara was hit, killing eight civilians. Turkish warplanes also struck al-Ashrafiya neighborhood in Afrin city, killing six civilians, including a child. In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would not "step back" in the assault, and claimed to have the support of the Great Powers—including both Russia, which supposedly had troops backing the YPG in Afrin, and the US, which has been backing the YPG against ISIS as part of the Pentagon-directed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Kurdish question in northern Syria has really put US imperialism in a bind—its most effective anti-ISIS allies on the ground are the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), regarded as "terrorists" by longtime NATO ally Turkey. We've been wondering if the US would dump the SDF in deference to Turkey after they had succeeded in taking Raqqa from ISIS, or continue to groom them as a proxy force to carve out an influence sphere in Syria's north—thereby risking its alliance with Turkey. Washington has been tilting first one way, then the other. Just weeks ago, the White House announced it would be demanding back the weapons it has supplied to the SDF to fight ISIS. Now comes the news that the Pentagon intends to train SDF fighters as a special force to control the northern border zone.
So by now we've all heard. President Trump, in an Oval Office meeting with a bipartisan group of senators, apparently referred to "shithole countries" whose nationals should not be welcomed in the US. The meeting was ostensibly on possibilities for a compromise immigration deal to protect the now suspended DACA program in exchange for Democratic support for some version of Trump's border wall. But the comment evidently came up regarding Trump's decision to end Temporary Protected Status for folks from Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries. According to sources speaking to the Washington Post, Trump said: "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump suggested the US should instead bring more people from countries such as (white) Norway. "Why do we need more Haitians?" Trump is reported to have said. "Take them out."
The unrecognized but de facto independent republic of Somaliland made rare headlines when its parliament on Jan. 8 voted to instate criminal penalties for rape—which was actually a groundbreaking move in the region. Forty-six of the 51 MPs present in the lower house approved the law, which must now go through the upper house before being signed by the president. Convicted rapists may now face 30 years in prison. (AFP) Until now, a victim's family would often force her to marry her rapist to avoid being "shamed." Once again, the stable, secular and unrecognized government of Somaliland outpaces in social progress the unstable, reactionary and basically fictional "official" government of Somalia. As BBC News sadly notes, "There is still no law against rape in Somalia."
Among the coca-growing peasants of Bolivia's Yungas region (the country's prime legal cultivation zone) is a substantial Afro-Bolivian population—descendants of slaves who were brought in by the Spanish colonialists to work in the silver mines and haciendas centuries ago. Some have inter-married with the indigenous Aymara people of the Yungas, forming a distinctive Afro-Aymara culture. The Guardian on Dec. 6 notes the 10th anniversary of the coronation of the "King of the Afro-Bolivians," Julio I—said to be South America's last reigning monarch, although he lives as a cocalero and grocery-shop keeper in the little village of Mururata. His dominion—recognized by the Bolivian government—extends to a few dozen rural villages as well as some city dwellers that together make up the 25,000-strong Afro-Bolivian community.