Greater Middle East
Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels announced March 18 that they have seized "full control" of Afrin, following a two-month offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia in the northern Syrian town and surrounding enclave. One of the three "cantons" that make up the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava has now been lost. The statement announcing the seizure of the enclave was published on the Twitter page of "Operation Olive Branch," as the offensive was officially dubbed. Once "Olive Branch" forces actually penetrated Afrin town, the YPG apparently withdraw to prevent the civilian population from being caught in the fighting. In the prelude to the town's fall, residents described chaos as fleeing civilians were trapped by artillery and by Turkish air-strikes. The "Nothern Brigade" of the Free Syrian Army was named as the key ground force taking control of the enclave under Turkish direction and protection. (NYT, Syria Direct) Turkey's official Anadolu Agency also names Syrian Turkmen militia forces as involved in taking the enclave, and explicitly appeals to ethnic resentment, stating: "Arab tribes welcome liberation of Afrin."
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report (PDF) March 15 condemning the pervasive sexual and gender-based violence that has occurred over the past seven years in the Syrian conflict. The report, entitled "I Lost My Dignity: Sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian Arab Republic," was written after UN workers interviewed more than 450 survivors, lawyers, healthcare practitioners and other affected individuals concerning the use of such violence between March 2011 and December 2017. The report details the systemic rape, torture, and other acts of sexual violence perpetrated by government forces and affiliated militias at checkpoints, in detention centers, and during interrogations.
A few hundred of the several hundreds of thousands trapped in besieged Eastern Ghouta have been allowed to evacuate to rebel-held Idlib governorate through a "humanitarian corridor" supposedly free of regime and Russian air-strikes. The Assad regime and its allies have now managed to split the enclave into three blocs, each surrounded and under bombardment. Aid groups warn that conditions in the enclave surpass even those seen during the 2016 Aleppo crisis. Ghouta's fall looks increasingly certain, leaving Idlib as the last rebel-held pocket of Syria. (Middle East Eye, NYT)
Medical facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta report having received 1,000 dead and upwards of 4,800 wounded over the two-week period ending March 4. This figure is an underestimate, as it does not include information from all medical facilities supported by MSF in the area, or from facilities not supported by MSF. Warplanes of the Assad regime and its Russian allies continue their apparent intentional targeting of hospitals; 15 out of 20 facilities supported by MSF in East Ghouta have been hit by bombing or shelling during the recent escalation.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on March 2 warned Syria that air-strikes, shelling and use of toxic agents in Eastern Ghouta likely constitute war crimes. Zeid asserts that the citizens of Eastern Ghouta are enduring every kind of deprivation, with no aid getting through since November, except for one single convoy of humanitarian aid that managed to reach just 7,200 people, of the hundreds of thousands in the area. "As a direct result, thousands upon thousands of children in Eastern Ghouta are acutely malnourished and profoundly traumatized. And now they are facing one of the most pitiless onslaughts in this long-running and brutal civil war."
The UN Special Rapporteur on torture expressed concerns Feb. 27 after allegations of torture and human rights violations committed by Turkish police arose snce the end of his official visit in December 2016. According to Nils Melzer, those suspected of being involved with the Gülenist Movement or the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party are alleged to be subject to brutal interrogation techniques, such as beatings, electrical shock, exposure to icy water, sleep deprivation, sexual assault and threats, to elicit confessions or incriminating statements against others. Perpetrators have not been held accountable as the state of emergency decree, which exempts public officials from criminal responsibility for actions taken to enforce the state of emergency, has been used to justify the dismissal of any complaints.
Human Rights Watch on Feb. 26 accused Egyptian authorities of escalating arbitrary arrests against political opponents. According to HRW, the arrests, which took place in late January and February, are part of a government strategy to quell political protests ahead of the next presidential election to be held in late March. A statement earlier this month by regional human rights organizations charges that "the Egyptian government has trampled over even the minimum requirements for free and fair elections." The statement accuses President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of creating a repressive environment, and demands that the US and European Union, which provide substantial aid to the Egyptian government, speak out.
A child died and at least 13 other people suffered breathing difficulties after an apparent chemical attack on the besieged Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta Feb. 25, medics and monitors reported. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 civilians had suffered breathing difficulties after regime air-strikes struck the village of al-Shifuniyah. One woman is said to remain in a critical condition. A doctor who treated those affected, told AFP he suspected “chemical weapons, probably a chlorine gas attack." (Japan Times)