Greater Middle East
The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic on Nov. 28 stressed the need for greater information and accountability to be provided to the families of missing persons and detainees. The report begins by noting that the Syrian government is still carrying out mass public arrests and detentions. These detentions have led to the torture and eventual death of a number of individuals, while their families were induced to pay bribes to learn their whereabouts. The report goes on to say that many families did not learn of their relatives' whereabouts at all until May 2018 when information was provided in bulk by the Ministry of Interior. The Commission notes that even after this information was disclosed it was obfuscated, with causes of death being listed as "heart attack" or "stroke"—while many individuals died on the same day. The Commission infers that mass executions may have occurred in some of these facilities, particularly as so many of them are on military bases.
French prosecutors issued international arrest warrants for three prominent Syrian officials charged with collusion in crimes against humanity on Nov. 5, in what human rights lawyers are calling a major victory in the pursuit of those believed responsible for mass torture and abuse in the regime's detention facilities. The arrest warrants name three leading security officials—including Ali Mamlouk, a former intelligence chief and senior adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, as well as head of the Air Force Intelligence security branch, Jamil Hassan. A third, Abdel Salam Mahmoud—an Air Force Intelligence officer who reportedly runs a detention facility at al-Mezzeh military base in southwest Damascus—was also named. Hassan and Mamlouk are among the most senior Syrian officials to receive an international arrest warrant throughout the course of the conflict. Air Force Intelligence chief Hassan is already the subject of another warrant issued by German prosecutors earlier this year. Both men have been sanctioned by the international community for their role in abuses since the first outbreak of unrest in Syria in spring 2011.
The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Oct. 31 that they have temporarily halted their campaign against ISIS after they were bombarded for the second time in four days by Turkish forces. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledging to "wipe out" the Kurdish YPG militia, calling them "terrorists," his forces in northern Syria attacked YPG positions east of the Euphrates River Oct. 28 and then again two days later. The YPG, or People's Protection Units, constitute the central pillar of the US-backed SDF, which Washington continues to support with some 2,000 embedded troops. At least 10 YPG fighters were reported killed in the Turkish shelling of territory in the Kurdish autonomous canton of Kobani. The SDF said in a statement: "Turkish attacks in the north and ISIS attacks in the south against our troops had forced us to stop our current operation temporarily against ISIS in [its] last pocket... We call [upon] the international community to condemn the Turkish provocations in the safe areas in Syria, and we demand our partners in the International Coalition to show a clear attitude and stop Turkey from launching attacks on the region." The statement claimed the YPG responded to the shelling with artillery and machine-gun fire, destroying a Turkish military vehicle and border post. (EA Worldview, Haaretz)
Saudi state media reported Oct. 19 that the country's attorney general has confirmed prominent journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi died in the country's Turkey consulate, according to the Associated Press. A statement by the attorney general said that Khashoggi was killed after a fight inside the consulate on Oct. 2, and that 18 Saudis are detained pending an investigation. Turkish officials believe that 15 Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, according to reports. His body has not been found.
The US-led Coalition's ongoing failure to admit to—let alone adequately investigate—the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction it caused in Raqqa is a "slap in the face" for survivors trying to rebuild their lives and their city, said Amnesty International a year after the offensive to oust ISIS. On Oct. 17, 2017, following a fierce four-month battle, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the Coalition's Kurdish-led partners on the ground—announced victory over ISIS, which had used civilians as human shields and committed other war crimes in besieged Raqqa. Winning the battle came at a terrible price—almost 80% of the city was destroyed and many hundreds of civilians lay dead, the majority killed by Coalition bombardment. In a letter to Amnesty on Sept. 10, 2018, the US Department of Defense made clear it accepts no liability for the civilian casualties it caused. The Coalition does not plan to compensate survivors and relatives of those killed in Raqqa, and refuses to provide further information about the circumstances behind strikes that killed and maimed civilians.
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.