Greater Middle East
Russia's Defense Ministry on Sept. 18 denied that Moscow's warplanes bombed positions of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir ez-Zor governorate. Both the SDF and the Pentagon reported the strikes, which left six Kurdish fighters injured on the eastern outskirts of Deir ez-Zor city. US forces were apparently embedded with the SDF unit, although no casualties were reported among the Americans. A Pentagon official said the US-led coalition denied a Russian military request to strike an area where there were SDF fighters and coalition advisors, but the Russians apparently decided to attack anyway. (EA Worldview)
A Turkish court ordered the release of an imprisoned Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentarian on Sept. 7, according to an HDP statement. Ayhan Bilgen is the former speaker of the HDP and had been jailed over allegations of terrorism. The release follows a "Conscience and Justice Watch" at the Constitutional Court building to demand action for those unjustly and unlawfully imprisoned. The current Turkish government has removed and arrested more than 150,000 people after a failed coup last year.
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.
Days after again vowing that Ankara will not tolerate a Kurdish state in Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has deployed additional artillery and tanks along the border, signaling an imminent offensive to take the Kurdish-held contested enclave of Afrin. This could be the start of a wider Turkish offensive—reportedly to be dubbed "Euphrates Sword"—to reduce or expunge the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava and establish a Turkish "buffer zone" in Syria north. Ominously, China's Xinhua news agency reports that Russia has meanwhile mobilized troops to Afrin, to back up the Kurdish militia that controls the enclave, the People's Protection Units (YPG). The independent Kurdish wesbite Rudaw also reports that Russian "military observers" have been deployed to Afrin and neighboring al-Shahba to "maintain security"—raising the threat of direct Russo-Turkish military confrontation.
Jihadist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on Aug. 28 took over the city council building in Idlib, capital of the governorate of that name in northwest Syria and the biggest opposition-held city in the country. HTS fighters siezed the building a week after civil authorities refused to hand over control. HTS has in recent weeks won control of much territory in Idlib governorate, in ongoing battles with the rival Ahrar al-Sham faction. However, HTS continues to face resistance from residents and many of the more than 150 local councils in the governorate, with demonstrations against their rule by civil resistance activists in many areas.
Seven volunteers of the White Helmets civil defense organization were killed on Aug. 12 by a gang that raided their headquarters in Sarmin, Idlib province, in northwest Syria. The victims were shot in the head. The attackers stole money, two mini-buses serving as ambulances, and equipment. The bodies were discovered soon after dawn by the next shift of volunteers arriving for duty. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but it came amid tension in the area. Idlib province is currently being rocked by clashes between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, the Nusra Front offshoot aligned with al-Qaeda) and the rival Ahrar al-Sham. Sarmin is controlled by HTS, which has denounced the attack.
The Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northern Syria has set dates for local council and regional assembly elections—a move immediately rejected by the Bashar Assad regime. Deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters from Damascus that the elections "will be a joke. Syria will never ever allow any part of its territory to be separated... We believe that in the north of Syria we have Syrian citizens who will not endanger the situation in the country or move ahead to any manifestation of dividing Syria. Those who will move in those directions know what price they have to pay."
Washington has now made it official that its enemy in Syria is just ISIS and al-Qaeda—and explicitly not the Bashar Assad dictatorship. US Army Col. Ryan Dillon told CNN last week that the Coalition has issued a directive to rebel forces operating out if its base in southern Syria (presumably al-Tanf) that they must be exclusively focused on fighting ISIS and not the Damascus regime. "The coalition supports only those forces committed to fighting ISIS," Dillon said. One rebel faction, Shohada al-Quartyan, has refused to accept this ultimatum, and left the base. An unnamed Coalition representative stated: "We are not in the business of fighting the regime. They [the rebels] can't have multiple objectives and we need to be singularly focused on fighting ISIS." (The New Arab, July 27)