Greater Middle East
Turkish forces, backed by allied factions of the Free Syrian Army, are now in their third day of an offensive on the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, and have captured a number of villages—despite stiff resistance from the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkish air-strikes are making the critical difference, and are taking the predictable toll in civilian casualties. Afrin's Kurdish authorities report that a poultry farm in the village of Jalbara was hit, killing eight civilians. Turkish warplanes also struck al-Ashrafiya neighborhood in Afrin city, killing six civilians, including a child. In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would not "step back" in the assault, and claimed to have the support of the Great Powers—including both Russia, which supposedly had troops backing the YPG in Afrin, and the US, which has been backing the YPG against ISIS as part of the Pentagon-directed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Kurdish question in northern Syria has really put US imperialism in a bind—its most effective anti-ISIS allies on the ground are the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), regarded as "terrorists" by longtime NATO ally Turkey. We've been wondering if the US would dump the SDF in deference to Turkey after they had succeeded in taking Raqqa from ISIS, or continue to groom them as a proxy force to carve out an influence sphere in Syria's north—thereby risking its alliance with Turkey. Washington has been tilting first one way, then the other. Just weeks ago, the White House announced it would be demanding back the weapons it has supplied to the SDF to fight ISIS. Now comes the news that the Pentagon intends to train SDF fighters as a special force to control the northern border zone.
Well, this is a telling irony. The Rojava Kurds, who have been repeatedly accused of collaborating with Bashar Assad, have now just been dissed by the dictator as "traitors." Assad told his official news agency SANA Dec. 18: "All those who work under the command of any foreign country in their own country and against their army and people are traitors, quite simply, regardless of their names, and that is our evaluation of the groups that work for the Americans in Syria." This is clearly a reference to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been received aid from the United States—although to fight ISIS, and definitely not the Assad regime. The core group in the SDF, the Kurdish YPG militia, has intermittently clashed with the regime.
China is preparing to deploy elite troops to Syria in support of dictator Bashar al-Assad's forces, fearing the presence of Islamist militants in its far western territory of Xinjiang, according to media reports in the region. The Chinese Ministry of Defense intends to send two units known as the "Night Tigers" and the "Tigers of Siberia" from the People's Liberation Army Special Operations Forces to aid Assad regime troops against militant factions, according to an Arabic-language report in the UAE's New Khaleej. Some 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang are fighting in various militant formations in Syria, the Syrian ambassador to China Imad Moustapha told Reuters earlier this year. Last week, during a meeting with Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised the regime's efforts at tackling militants from the supposed East Turkestan Islamic Movement. (The New Arab, Nov. 29; Middle East Monitor, Nov. 28)
The Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR-UK) on Nov. 28 called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate allegations of war crimes in Yemen by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), especially concerning the recruiting of foreign nationals to serve in an army of mercenaries. AOHR-UK sent letters to the governments of Australia, Chile, El Salvador, Colombia and Panama, all countries where the recruitment has taken place, asking that they "withdraw their citizens from these dangerous formations and take measures against the UAE in accordance with the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries of 1989." (See text of Convention.)
The Donald Trump administration plans to ask Kurdish fighters in Syria to return weapons "loaned" for the fight against ISIS, an unnamed official told Al-Monitor. This was revealed the same day the White House made its first official comment on claims by the Turkish foreign minister that US support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would be coming to an end. "Once we started winning the campaign against ISIS, the plan and part of the process is to always wind down support for certain groups," White House mouthpiece Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a briefing on Dec. 1. "Now that we're continuing to crush the physical caliphate...we're in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups. But that doesn't mean stopping all support of those individual groups."
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."