Greater Middle East
President Donald Trump on May 9 announced approval of a plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the anti-ISIS coalition led by the Rojava Kurds. The aid—including heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored cars and engineering equipment—will boost the prowess of the People's Protection Units (YPG), territorial defense militia of the Rojava autonomous zone and the central pillar of the SDF. "The Syrian Democratic Forces, partnered with enabling support from US and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future," said a Pentagon statement. The move is being taken over strenuous Turkish objections to arming the Syrian Kurds, and will certainly be a contentious point when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Trump in Washington next week. (ANF, NYT, May 9)
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Ben Emmerson on May 5 said that Saudi Arabia's anti-terrorism laws are too broad and pose a threat to individual rights. He noted that Saudi Arabia's definition of terrorism, which includes "endangering 'national unity' or undermining 'the reputation or position of the State,'" is over-inclusive and should conform to international law, which maintains that terrorism must include "acts or threats of violence." Emmerson also expressed concern about the reported prosecution of writers and activists for non-violent actions. He urged Saudi Arabia's government to establish an "independent national security and due process review mechanism" to re-examine those prosecuted for political expression.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said May 1 that it has found new evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in at least four recent attacks targeting civilians. The report, "Death by Chemicals: The Syrian Government's Widespread and Systematic Use of Chemical Weapons," states that local residents and activists in Khan Sheikhoun town identified at least 92 people who likely died from chemical exposure. It also named three pieces of additional evidence to support the finding that the government has been committing crimes against humanity:
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said May 1 that Egypt's recent security measures have been encouraging the very radicalization they were trying to control. In a press conference in Geneva, al-Hussein criticized the increased security measures Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has instituted since the bombings of Christian churches last month. While condemning the attacks, al-Hussien said that al-Sisi's declaration of a three-month state of emergency was only likely to increase radicalization. Al-Hussein said that the state of emergency was leading to "massive numbers of detentions, reports of torture, and continued arbitrary arrests" which "facilitates radicalization in prisons." He continued that "the crackdown on civil society through travel bans, freezing orders, [and] anti-protest laws...is not the way to fight terror." Al-Hussein concluded that "national security...must be a priority for every country, [but not] at the expense of human rights."
Turkish authorities removed more than 3,900 people from their positions in the civil service and military pursuant to a new national security law published on April 29. Those removed included prison guards, clerks, academics, and employees of the religious affairs ministry, all of whom the government alleged had links to terrorist organizations. This is the latest action by the Turkish government since a state of emergency was issued after a failed coup attempt in July of last year. Also on April 29, Turkey blocked the website Wikipedia on the grounds that it posed a threat to national security.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ratified a law April 27 that will allow him to appoint head judges in the country's highest courts. The amended law, which was ratified when it was published in the official gazette, allows el-Sisi to chose one of three potential judges nominated by each court to be the head of that court. Previously, leadership passed to the most senior member of the court, and the president was expected to sign off on the leadership role in a process that was largely ceremonial. El-Sisi and supporters of the change insist that the move is necessary to strengthen his administration's authority as they tackle issues such as terrorism, but members of the Egyptian judiciary have resisted the change.
Recent comments by the Assad regime's ambassador to Russia, Riyad Haddad, appear to indicate that Damascus and Moscow are preparing to cut loose the Rojava Kurds, who they have heretofore been attempting to cultivate as proxies. At issue, predictably, is the Kurdish demand for regional autonomy and a federal solution for Syria. "The Kurds are an integral part of the Syrian people, they have the same rights and obligations as the rest of the Syrian people," Haddad said in comments before the Russian Federation Council, quoted by Kremlin state media outlet Sputnik. "I would like to stress that many Kurds are actually strongly opposing any form of division, either a federation, or cantons, or other forms. That is why we keep on saying that Syria is capable and ready to settle the crisis alone, without interference from the outside." Of course the invocation of non-interference is hilariously ironic in light of massive Russian military intervention in Syria. And the "many Kurds" who supposedly oppose autonomy are conveninently left unnamed.
We aren't sure whether to be more alarmed or amused. Kyle Orton, an analyst with the ultra-hawkish Henry Jackson Society, has a piece entitled "The West's Inconsistent Approach to Foreign Fighters in Syria," warning that the Kurdish forces the US is backing are in an alliance with anarchists and elements of the Turkish and European armed left. It is bascally regurgitating Turkey's cynical propaganda game of conflating the secular-democratic Kurdish forces and ISIS as equally "terrorist." It portrays the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) as merely an extension of the PKK guerilla movement in Turkey, and waxes paranoid about the leftist volunteers that have come to the Rojava region join them, now apparently organized in an umbrella called the International Revolutionary People's Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF, with its own Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and manifesto on the anarchist website CrimethInc).