Greater Middle East
At least 235 have been killed and over 100 wounded in a suicide attack as people gathered for Friday prayers at a mosque in Egypt's North Sinai Nov. 24. Women and children are among the dead. President Sisi vowed a "brutal" response to what is the deadliest militant attack in the country's history. Militants reportedly opened fire on worshippers after the bomb blast, which took place at al-Rawdah mosque in the town of Bir al-Abd, 40 kilometers from the North Sinai provincial capital of al-Arish. Before the attack, the mosque was surrounded by all-terrain vehicles, cutting off escape from the massacre. The mosque is said to be run by a local Sufi order, and includes a zawiya—a lodge used by order members for prayer and chanting. Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the massacre, followers of Sufi Islam have faced numerous attacks by ISIS cells operating in the Sinai Peninsula.
Turkish officials on Nov. 20 banned all events by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) non-governmental groups in Ankara, the country's capital, asserting that the measure will ensure public security. Officials cited Article 11 of the State of Emergency Law, which allows for certain measures to be taken to ensure public safety, stating that these events may garner hostility, jeopardizing crime prevention, general health and morals, or the protection of rights and freedoms of others. Events such as cinema, theater, panels, interviews, exhibitions are banned until further notice, in deference to "social sensitivities."
When the Astana "peace" deal for Syria was announced earlier this year, we predicted that the proposed so-called "de-escalation" zones would actually become kill zones. A condition of every "ceasefire" agreement sponsored either by Russia (like the Astana pact) or the US is that the rebels declare war on the Qaeda-linked factions to have emerged from the (now ostensibly disbanded) Nusra Front. But already beseiged by the Assad regime and Russia, the rebels are in no plight to do so—they've been put in an untenable situation. It was clear the Astana plan was not about peace but about propaganda—providing a cover for continuance of the war. So we were grimly vindicated to see the Nov. 18 New York Times headline, "Marked for 'De-escalation,' Syrian Towns Endure Surge of Attacks."
The Russian Federation on Nov. 17 vetoed a measure before the UN Security Council (UNSC) that would have extended the mandate of a UN panel investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria for 30 days. The UNSC had established the Joint Investigative Mechanism with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2015 with a two-year mandate following the use of chemical weapons in Syria in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Oct. 17 announced that they have "fully cleared" Raqqa of jihadist fighters and "liberated" the city from ISIS. The last group of hold-outs reportedly surrendered. The operation, launched in June, was named for Adnan Abu Amjad, an Arab commander with the SDF who was killed in August in the battle for Raqqa. The SDF coordinated their offensive closely with the US-backed coalition. More than 3,000 bombs have landed on Raqqa since January, devastating schools, hospitals and residential buildings. Less than one percent of Raqqa's 300,000 pre-war population is thought to remain in the city. The city has no electricity or water, and its last functioning bakery was destroyed recently. The Syrian Network for Human Rights counts more than 900 civilians killed over the course of the operation, including at least 570 in coalition air-strikes.
For the first time, after six years of war and escalating atrocities, a member of the Syrian regime's military has been convicted of a war crime. The perpetrator, identified as Mohammad Abdullah, was a low-level soldier who is now in Sweden as a refugee. He was convicted by a Swedish court Oct. 2 of violating human dignity by posing with his boot on a corpse and sentenced to eight months in prison. Abdullah, 32, arrived three years ago in Sweden, where other Syrian refugees recognized him through his Facebook posts and connected him to a photograph he had posted earlier, in which he stands with his boot on the corpse of a man in civilian clothing surrounded by other corpses. As the New York Times notes in its coverage, this is the first conviction of an Assad regime solider in any country, six years after the Syrian revolution was sparked by an incident in which school-children were tortured after painting anti-regime slogans on a wall.
A rare on-the-scene BBC report from Raqqa reveals a grim picture of the ISIS "capital" under months of relentless US bombardment and siege by US-backed ground forces. Reporter Quentin Sommerville depicts a "city fit for no-one," neighborhoods desolate and "ruined." Once you are inside the city, "[a]head lies nothing but destruction and grey dust and rubble. This is a place drained of colour, of life, and of people. In six days inside Raqqa, I didn't see a single civilian... It seems that not a single building has escaped the onslaught. Many have been crushed, flattened, or knocked to one side by the Western coalition's air strikes and artillery. It is a barrage that never ceases. More than two dozen air strikes a day, and hundreds of shells fall on the city." All this to defeat an ISIS force that by now is thought to number only some 400 fighters.