With China accused of detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims without trial in its western province of Xinjiang, a BBC investigation analyzed satellite data to determine that the detention camp system in the region is rapidly expanding. Reviewing images from the European Space Agency's Sentinel satellite service, the BBC finds at least 40 such facilities across Xinjiang, half built within last two years—with a big thrust of construction just in the past six months. Among the largest is a "massive, highly secure compound" still being built at Dabancheng, about an hour's drive from the provincial capital, Urumqi. It is enclosed within a two kilometer-long exterior wall punctuated by 16 guard towers.
In Episode 18 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg looks back at the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement of the closing years of the Cold War, when the Western Shoshone people, whose traditional lands were being contaminated by the nuclear blasts at the US government's Nevada Test Site, made common cause with the Kazakh people of Central Asia who opposed Soviet nuclear testing at the Semipalatinsk site. Kazakh activists travelled to Nevada to join protests at the Test Site, while Western Shoshone leaders travelled to Kazakhstan to join protests at Semipalatinsk. This initiative eventually evolved into the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, which as recently as 2016 held an International Conference on Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World in Astana, Kazakhstan, again attended by Western Shoshone leaders. The story of indigenous peoples impacted by nuclear testing on their usurped lands has come to us from several places around the world, including the French test site at Gerboise Bleue in Algeria—known to the local Tuareg nomads as Tanezrouft. Other examples are the Chinese test site at Lop Nur, on lands of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, and British testing on Aboriginal lands at Maralinga, in the Australian outback. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement provides an inspiring example of indigenous peoples and their supporters building solidarity across hostile international borders and superpower influence spheres. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
Dictator Bashar al-Assad flew to Vladimir Putin's summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks on the prosecution of the Syrian war and their future plans for the country. Assad congratulated Putin on his new term as president, following his March re-election (amid waves of protest), and (of course) thanked the Russian military for its support in re-conquering Syria. "Stability is improving," Assad told Putin at he opening press conference. Invoking the intermittent Russia-brokered peace talks in Kazakhstan (now largely irrelevant, that most of the country has been re-conquered), Assad added that "we have always wholeheartedly supported the political process, which should proceed in parallel with the war on terrorism." (Reuters) As Assad arrived in Sochi, Putin announced that Russian military vessels with Kalibr cruise missiles would be on permanent stand-by in the Mediterranean to counter what he called the "terrorist threat" in Syria. (Moscow Times)
Russian-backed Assad regime forces are on the verge of taking the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria's Eastern Ghouta enclave, in the Damascus suburbs. A Russian military commander boasted: "The militants are being evacuated from Douma, their last bastion in Eastern Ghouta, and within a few days the humanitarian operation in Eastern Ghouta must be completed." This "humanitarian operation" has seen the near-total destruction of Ghouta by aerial bombardment over the past weeks, with some 1,500 killed. Thousands of fighters and residents have been allowed to evacuate via buses to Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held province, under what was reported as a "surrender agreement." (Al Jazeera, Syria Direct)
International backers of negotiations to end the conflict in Syria should ensure that any transitional process includes a robust independent body to investigate thousands of "disappeared," Human Rights Watch said Aug. 30, the UN-designated International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has determined that the use of enforced disappearance by the Syrian government is widespread, and may amount to a crime against humanity. Human Rights Watch called for creation of an independent institution in charge of investigating the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared, as well as unidentified human remains and mass graves in Syria.
The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad has installed a crematorium at the notorious Saydnaya military prison outside Damascus in order to destroy the remains of thousands of murdered prisoners, the United States charged May 8. "We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison," said Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. The State Department also released commercial satellite photographs showing what it said is a building in the prison complex that has been modified as a crematorium. Jones said Washington's information came from "credible humanitarian agencies" and from the US "intelligence community," and that as many as 50 people per day are thought to be hanged at Saydnaya. In presenting the photographs, Jones said Assad's regime "has sunk to a new level of depravity" with the support of Russia and Iran.
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)
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)