Bill Weinberg

Russian naval build-up ahead of Idlib offensive

The Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement Aug. 30 explaining its unprecedented build-up of naval forces in the Mediterranean as part of a week-long exercise. It said the maneuvers would involve 26 warships and naval vessels, including two submarines, with 34 aircraft, including missile-armed long-range bombers. (Jane's 360)  But it is obvious that this build-up is timed to coincide (at least) with the planned Assad regime offensive on Idlib, the last Syrian province that remains under opposition control. Russia will certainly be massively backing the regime offensive, which the UN warns could spark a humanitarian catastrophe. With Turkey closing its borders to new refugees, it is unclear that civilians have any place left to flee. Many are already living in camps in Idlib under desperate conditions, with two million in need of humanitarian aid. (AP, SBS)

Did John McCain meet with jihadists in Syria?

Upon his death, many are reviving the discredited claim that John McCain met with ISIS on his Syria trip in 2013. But some are settling for the less ambitious, and perhaps plausible, claim that he met with jihadists who were implicated in atrocities. E.g. the always annoying Ben Norton tweets: "John McCain was a staunch supporter of the CIA-backed, al-Qaeda-linked Salafi extremist opposition in Syria. In fact the late senator posed in a photo with a rebel who was involved in kidnapping 11 Lebanese Shia civilians." He links to a May 10, 2013 Reuters story which cites an undated article in Lebanon's Daily Star (apparently not translated into English) claiming that McCain was photographed in Syria with a rebel "implicated in" the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi'ite pilgrims the previous year. The man in question was apparently one  Mohammad Nour—"identified by two freed hostages as the chief spokesman and photographer for the Northern Storm brigade that kidnapped them."

China: anti-Islam police state —and Muslim protest

A UN human rights committee this week raised the alarm about reports that China is holding up to a million Uighurs in what are being termed "counter-extremism centers" in the western Xinjiang autonomous region. Gay McDougall of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination raised the claims at a two-day meeting on China held at the UN's Geneva headquarters. McDougall termed the centers "political camps for indoctrination,”  and raised the prospect that Beijing has "turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp." Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have submitted reports to the UN committee detailing claims of mass detention. The World Uyghur Congress said in its report that detainees are held indefinitely without charge, and forced to shout Communist Party slogans. (BBC News, Reuters)

Afrin and Raqqa: fearful symmetry

Reports of rights abuses in the north Syrian enclave of Afrin, taken by Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army allies from Kurdish defenders in March, continue to mount.  An Amnesty International alert issued Aug. 1 charges that Afrin residents have been arbitrarily detained and tortured, with houses and businesses looted and confiscated, and schools destroyed or taken over by militia forces. These abuses mostly took place "at the hands of Syrian armed groups equipped and armed by Turkey," while "Turkey’s armed forces have turned a blind eye." Thousands of children have had their education disrupted by the take-over of their schools for use by rebel militias and even directly by Turkish troops. 

Global revolt against automotive terror

Bangladesh has seen huge demonstrations over the past week, as tens of thousands of university students and schoolchildren protest lax traffic enforcement after two young students were killed by a speeding bus July 29. The driver was apparently racing another bus to pick up passengers. The protests have for days paralyzed Dhaka, with roadblocks erected on major thoroughfares. In one case, protesters stopped a police SUV carrying a deputy inspector general, only to find that the vehicle had no registration, and its driver didn’t have a license. Rubber bullets and tear-gas have failed to break the roadblocks. (GlobalNews, BBC)

Propaganda and the accounting of death in Syria

The US on Aug. 6 harshly condemned the Syrian regime over thousands of death notices it has released in recent weeks, saying they confirm suspicions of mass detentions, torture and murder. State Department representative Heather Nauert said that over 117,000 people are believed to have been detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, with "the vast majority" suspected to be in regime custody "across a network of prisons where regime officials torture and murder civilians to intimidate and silence any opposition" to Bashar Assad's rule. (Anadolu Agency)

2008 Tibetan uprising remembered in Queens

Students for a Free Tibet held a 10-year commemoration of the 2008 Tibetan uprising at a hall n the Queens neighborhood of Astoria, New York City, on Aug. 4. The 2008 uprising, which began in Lhasa in March, continued for weeks and spread across the Tibetan plateau. It was put down at a cost of some 20 lives, by official Chinese figures. But Tibetan rights groups and the government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India, claim that hundreds were "disappeared" in a subsequent wave of repression, with some 200 presumed killed. Amid all this, the Beijing Olympics were held that summer. Students for a Free Tibet and allied groups held protests around the world to highlight the repression—including within China itself during the Games. Photos at the Astoria hall showed activists unfurling banners on the Great Wall and on Mount Everest in Tibet, as well as stateside sites like the Golden Gate bridge.

Book review: Impossible Revolution

The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy
by Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Haymarket Books, Chicago 2017

This book is a necessary corrective to the dominant perception—left, right and center—that the opposition in Syria are all jihadists and dictator Bashar Assad the best bet for "stability." Long a left-wing dissident in Assad's Syria, Saleh is a veteran of the dictator's prisons. Here, he traces the origins of the Syrian revolution to agony caused by the regime's "economic liberalization" (socialist phrases aside), describes the initially unarmed opposition's popular-democratic nature, and discusses the struggle to keep the Free Syrian Army accountable to this grassroots base after it became clear a military dimension to the revolution was necessary. He makes the case that the Assad regime can be termed "fascist" even by the most rigorous definition and has been making good on its pledge to "burn the country" before ceding power. He also analyzes the emergence of "militant nihilism" in the form of ISIS and al-Qaeda (he rejects the word "terrorist" as propagandistic).

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