Greater Middle East
Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh on Jan. 23 handed down a seven-year sentence as well as numerous other punitive measures for a Twitter post the court deemed insulting to the ruling al-Saud family. The SCC, which was established in 2008 to try cases linked to terrorist activity, concluded that the defendant had a connection with two terror groups and was producing online materials that threatened the country's security. Human Rights Watch, which has been calling for the abolition of the SCC since 2012, has previously commented on the court being increasingly used to silence peaceful dissenters, human rights activists, attorneys and opposition clerics.
The Turkish Parliament on Jan. 21 approved a plan which, if approved by popular vote later this year, would increase presidential power within the country and would allow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stay in office until 2029. The referendum plan acquired 339 votes in the 550-member assembly, nine more than required to go to a public vote. Among the new powers granted to the president would be the power to issue decrees, declare a state of emergency, appoint top officials and ministers, and dissolve parliament. In addition, Erdoğan, prime minister with the ruling AK Party, could once again become a leader within that party. Additionally, the referendum states that a president would be allowed to serve two terms of five years. While Erdoğan proclaims this increase in power would allow for stability in a time of turmoil, his opponents worry such powers may lead to authoritarian control of the nation.
Russia signed a long-term agreement Jan. 20 to greatly enlarge its military presence in Syria, more than doubling the space for warships at Tartus, Russia's only Mediterranean port, and securing rights to Khmeimim air base, where a second runway is foreseen. The deal came as a Turkish official suggested publicly for the first time that Turkey would accept a Syrian peace deal that would allow Bashar Assad to stay in power. The remarks by the official, deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, represent a fundamental shift. (NYT, Jan. 20) Two days earlier, Russian and Turkish jets carried out their first joint strikes ins Syria, the Russian defence ministry says. Supposed ISIS targets were hit in al-Bab, Aleppo governorate, where Turkey suffered heavy casualties last month battling the group on the ground. (BBC News, Jan. 18)
Remember the reports of a Russian "withdrawl" from Syria over the summer? They were immediately followed, of course, by a massive escalation of Russia's military intervention, with the destruction of Aleppo by Moscow's warplanes. Let's hope we are not in for a replay. With the departure of most of Russian's war fleet from Syria's coast—most prominently, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov—CNN last week reported: "Russia 'starts to withdraw' forces from Syria." The Interpreter, a neo-Kremlinologist website, flatly contradicts this. It finds that most Russian combat operations have been flown out of ground bases in Syria, not the carrier. At Hmeymim air base (also rendered Khmeimim and Hemeimeem) in Latakia governorate, Russia has now deployed Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Syria and even beyond its borders. Far from withdrawing, The Interpreter says that Russia is "just getting started" with a military build-up in Syria.
Turkish prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for Figen Yüksekdağ, co-chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), on charges of terrorism for her alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A court accepted an indictment prepared by the Van province Chief Public Prosecutor's office calling for a life sentence. Yüksekdağ has been charged with disrupting the unity of the state, supporting "self-rule" in Van, and spreading terrorist propaganda. Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leaders of the mostly Kurdish-led HDP, were arrested in early November. The Turkish parliament voted earlier in the year to lift parliamentary immunity from a select group of MPs who the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan allege have ties with the banned PKK.
On Dec. 27, leaders of the Kurdish autonmous administration in northern Syria, meeting as a Constituent Assembly at the town of Rmeilan (Rimelan), voted to remove the name "Rojava" from the federal system that governs the region. Initially called the "Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria-Rojava," it is now to be named simply the "Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria." (Kurdish Question, Jan. 3) The dropping of the traditional Kurdish name for the region is something of an about-face, following a campaign to revive Kurdish-language toponymy. This would appear to be motivated by the current political re-alignment in Syria, and the final breaking of what some have seen as a de facto alliance between the Kurdish forces and the Bashar Assad regime against Turkish-backed rebel militia.
After initiating talks on Syria that exclude Washington, Turkey and Russia each accused the US of backing what they called "terrorist groups" in the country. The accusations came Dec. 27, the same day both governments agreed to hold further talks in Kazakhstan next month. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had evidence that US-led coalition forces support ISIS as wel as the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG). "They were accusing us of supporting Daesh," Erdogan said at a press conference in Ankara, using the Arabic abbreviation for ISIS. "Now they give support to terrorist groups including Daesh, YPG, PYD. It is very clear. We have confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos." The US State Department issued a requisite statement dismissing Erdogan's claims as "ludicrous." (Al Jazeera, Dec. 21)