Greater Middle East
Russia announced that it is preparing to deploy troops to police the borders of planned "de-escalation zones" in Syria after finalizing an agreement with Turkey and Iran. The word came from Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev following the latest round of ongoing talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana. (Reuters, July 4) We've noted that the so-called "de-escalation zones" or "safe zones" could become kill zones, where Russia and Assad will be able to bomb with (even greater) impunity—as they will officially not be "safe" for ISIS, and Moscow and Damascus have long used the propaganda trick of conflating all rebel forces with ISIS. Now, with the US also sending ground troops to join the forces fighting ISIS, American and Russian soliders could find themselves in close proximity, with greater of odds of ending up shooting at each other—potentially leading to unparalleled catastrophe.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that this year has seen a "notable trend of spontaneous returns" of displaced Syrians to their homes, both from outside and inside the country. Around 31,000 refugees returned from neighboring countries in the first six months of 2017, while more than 440,000 internally displaced persons went back to their homes—a combined total of nearly half a million. The main destinations are said to be Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus—all now largely under regime control after years of heavy fighting against rebel forces. UNHCR representative Andrej Mahecic said Syrians are seeking out family members, checking on property, and "in some cases responding to a real or perceived improvement in security conditions in parts of the country." But he warned that despite hopes over recent peace talks in Astana and Geneva, the "UNHCR believes conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria." (The Independent, July 1)
Security forces in southeastern Turkey, where authorities have been waging a brutal counterinsurgency war against Kurdish guerillas, reported the seizure this month of 2,290 kilograms of hashish and 6,632 kilograms of unprocessed cannabis "in an operation against the drug activities of the PKK terrorist organization." The operation took place June 8 in five villages of conflicted Diyarbakır province, with seven suspects taken into custody.
Human Rights Watch on June 22 accused the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of backing "Yemeni forces that have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused dozens of people during security operations." According to HRW, the UAE claims that the it provides financial and military aid to the Yemeni troops under the guise of fighting ISIS. However, HRW has traced the disappearance or arbitrary detention of 38 individuals to Yemeni forces backed by the UAE. The UAE also runs two secret prisons in Yemen, according to HRW. In a report also released on Thursday, the Associated Press found at least 18 secret prisons run by either the UAE or by troops receiving the Emirates' support.
Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court has temporarily halted decisions regarding a deal to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia until it can establish who has jurisdiction over them. The Egyptian government agreed to transfer the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, in April 2016, based on the belief that they had always belonged to Saudi Arabia. In June 2016 the transfer was invalidated by a lower court in Cairo, but that decision was overturned by another court. Egypt's parliament last week agreed to go through with the plan despite public protests. Both the Egyptian and Saudi governments say the islands, which have been under Egyptian protection since 1950, are Saudi territory. The protesters, however, assert that Egypt's sovereignty over the islands was established before Saudi Arabia was founded.
Under the slogan "The People Are Stronger Than You," thousands of local residents have repeatedly taken to the streets of Ma'arat al-Numan, a town in Syria's northwestern Idlib governorate, to oppose the rule of jihadist forces that have seized control there. The protests broke out after the Qaeda-affiliated militia that controls the town, Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS, an offshoot of the Nusra Front) raided the local headquarters of the Free Syrian Army's Division 13, killing and detaining several FSA fighters on June 8. The biggest reported protest came on June 11, when thousands of residents and civil resistance activists waving Free Syrian flags mobilized to demand the release of the detained fighters. "We will continue to resist [HTS] in the same way that we peacefully resisted the Syrian regime, and endured its crackdown on protests," Khaled al-Hamid, a 22-year-old protest organizer, told independent news site Syria Deeply. (More at Global Voices)
Fierce clashes broke out between Syrian rebel factions and Kurdish fighters in Aleppo province this week, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle ISIS in Raqqa. Fighting erupted in Derat Ezza in the western Aleppo countryside on June 13, after Kurdish fighters attempted to take a rebel base in the area, opposition media reported. The assault was thwarted after the rebels regained the positions with support from Turkish artillery. At least 32 fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups were reported killed in the clashes, as well as dozens of Kurdish militants. (The New Arab, June 14)
In a strange imbroglio, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives on June 5 all announced that they are breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. All but Egypt also cut off all travel links with the country. The Saudi statement accused Qatar of "adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, " and of "supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups" in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Days earlier, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all blocked Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based news websites after Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted as saying "There is no reason behind Arabs' hostility to Iran"—an obvious reference to the Saudis and Bahrain. Qatar quickly responded that the comment had been "fabricated" when hackers took control of the official Qatar News Agency website (which appears to still be down, although the QNA Twitter account is up). (BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 5; BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 25)