Greater Middle East
The "buffer zone" through Syria's northern Idlib province, negotiated by Russia and Turkey to forestall an Assad regime offensive on the opposition-held portion of the province, officially takes effect this week. Rebels began withdrawing heavy weapons from the zone at the start of the month, but said that fighters are remaining. Fighters from designated "radical terrorist groups"—primarily Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—are supposed to withdraw entirely from the zone. HTS initially said it would comply on a "de facto" basis, but the zone is being implemented despite the fact that a deadline has been missed for withdrawal of all its fighters. The zone, some 20 kilometers wide, stretches from Latakia to Aleppo, through Idlib and portions of Hama province. (See map.) (Qantara, Oct. 17; AFP, Oct. 10; BBC News, Oct. 8; EA Worldview, Oct. 7) But Bashar Assad insisted that the so-called "demilitarized zone" is temporary. Addressing the central committee of his Baath Party, Assad reiterated his pledge to retake "every inch" of Syrian territory: "This province and other Syrian territory remaining under the control of terrorists will return to the Syrian state." (EA Worldview, Oct. 8)
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Saudi Arabia to immediately account for the whereabouts of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Multiple news outlets reported Oct. 6 that Turkish authorities, who have been investigating his disappearance, believe that Khashoggi is dead and was killed inside the consulate. "CPJ is alarmed by media reports that Jamal Khashoggi may have been killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul," said CPJ Deputy executive director Robert Mahoney. "The Saudi authorities must immediately give a full and credible accounting of what happened to Khashoggi inside its diplomatic mission. The country has stepped up its repression of critical journalists in the past year at home. We hope this has not now spread abroad."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Egyptian government Oct. 3 to immediately identify the whereabouts of and free Ezzat Ghoneim, a prominent human rights lawyer who has been missing for approximately three weeks. Ghoneim was arrested on March 1 on his way home from work. His whereabouts were not known for three days until a group of lawyers were granted access to him in a prosecutor's office in Cairo. These lawyers learned that, during the time he was missing, he was being interrogated by law enforcement officers. He was questioned as a defendant in a state security case in which he, a popular blogger, three journalists and a student were accused of spreading false news and "supporting a terrorist group." Following these interrogations, Ghoneim continued to be detained. On Sept. 4 a judge reviewed Ghoneim's detention and ordered his release conditioned on his reporting to a police station every two weeks. However, according to his wife, police refused to release him, citing the need for further "instructions from the National Security Agency." His wife again reported to the police station where he was being held on Sept. 13, when she was informed that he had already been released. She claims that neither she nor any of their friends have seen him since his supposed release.
An Istanbul Court of Appeals on Oct. 2 upheld the life sentences of six individuals, including prominent journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak, on charges of assisting the plotters of a failed military coup in 2016. The journalists were originally sentenced in February, along with 221 other defendants, and appealed to the higher court for their release. All defendants were charged with being linked to a US-based religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt. Since the coup attempt, tthe Turkish government has been carrying out purges and arrests aimed at removing supposed Gulen supporters from state institutions and society generally. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called on the US to either arrest or extradite Gulen from his Pennsylvania home.
In Episode 19 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg discusses the urgent need for solidarity with Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution, and looks at heroic examples of the civil resistance there, which is standing up to the Assad regime and jihadists alike—such as Rania Kisar, who has been running schools and other civil institutions; and Radio Fresh, which is continuing to broadcast in defiance of threats and censorship from the jihadists. The weekly Friday demonstrations in Idlib continue to keep alive the spirit of the 2011 Arab Revolution, demanding a democratic future for Syria. In a victory for the forces organizing in solidarity with Idlib around the world, the long-planned Assad regime invasion of the opposition-held province has been postponed (at least) in a deal negotiated by Russia and Turkey, buying time for the survival of the revolution. But those who stand in solidarity with Idlib in New York City have themselves been threatened and physically attacked by followers of sectarian pseudo-left factions that support the genocidal Assad regime. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
Yemen war crime investigators on Sept. 25 called upon the UN Human Rights Council to renew their mandate and allow the continued inquiry into Yemen's internal conflict, calling the situation in the county "extremely alarming." The Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, in their initial report (PDF), released in August, found evidence that "members of the Saudi-led coalition, the Yemeni government, and the Houthi armed group have been committing abuses, including indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians, arbitrary and abusive detention, and recruitment of children." At the time of the report, the experts recommended that their mandate be renewed. However, Saudi Arabia and other coalition members have pressed the council to discontinue the inquiry.
A Turkish court has sentenced a former British soldier to seven-and-a-half years for alleged links to Syria's Kurdish YPG militia, considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara. Joe Robinson of Leeds was arrested in Turkey in July 2017 after he apparently posted photos of himself in camouflage, posing beside fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. A court in the western city of Aydin sentenced the 25-year-old for "membership of a terrorist organization" on Sept. 15. Robinson did not attend the trial for health reasons. He is currently on bail and planning an appeal. His Bulgarian fiancée, arrested along with him, was sentenced to nearly two years for "terrorist propaganda," but she is currently in the United Kingdom. The BBC reports that the fiancée, Mira Rojkan, was given a suspended sentence.
The US government has reinforced counter-terrorism controls on aid operations in Syria. New contractual terms require US-funded organizations to get special permission to provide relief in areas controlled by extremist groups. The move further complicates aid operations for those trapped in Syria’s last rebel stronghold, Idlib, where two thirds of its three million people need assistance. The top UN official for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, Panos Moumtzis, told IRIN news agency that donors were, in general, backing away from funding all but the most critical needs in Idlib, fearing aid will fall into the hands of groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).