Greater Middle East
Days after Trump's announced imminent withdrawal of US troops from Syria, Turkey has started massing tanks and troop carriers on its southern border, preparing to move into the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava once American soldiers have left. Turkish forces are reported arriving in the border towns of Kilis and al-Rai, after Ankara's foreign minister said they will push into Syria as soon as possible. Mevlut Çavusoglu told reporters Dec. 25 that "if Turkey says it will enter, it will." He said the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is "determined" to move against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that is the central pillar of the (heretofore) US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
In Episode 23 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg notes the assassination of Raed Fares, a courageous voice of the civil resistance in besieged Idlib province, last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution. The resistance in Idlib, which liberated the territory from the Bashar Assad regime in popular uprisings seven years ago, is now also resisting the jihadist forces in the province, expelling them from their self-governing towns and villages. Their hard-won zones of popular democracy face extermination if this last stronghold is invaded by Assad and his Russian backers. As Assad and Putin threaten Idlib, Trump's announced withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast is a "green light" to Turkey to attack Rojava, the anarchist-inspired Kurdish autonomous zone. The two last pockets of democratic self-rule in Syria are each now gravely threatened. Yet with Turkey posing as protector of Idlib, the Arab revolutionary forces there have been pitted against the Kurds. The Free Syrian Army and Rojava Kurds were briefly allied against ISIS and Assad alike four years ago, before they were played against each other by imperial intrigues. Can this alliance be rebuilt, in repudiation of the foreign powers now seeking to carve up Syria? Or will the US withdrawal merely spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war in northern Syria? Weinberg calls for activists in the West to repudiate imperial divide-and-rule stratagems, and demand the survival of liberated Idlib and Rojava alike. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
The New York Times reports Dec. 19 that President Trump has ordered a "rapid withdrawal of all 2,000 United States ground troops from Syria within 30 days." Trump tweeted the announcement: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." Hardly coincidentally, this comes just as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Pentagon's main partner on the ground, are on the brink of capturing the last town in Syria still under ISIS—Hajin, on the banks of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate. The Independent reports that SDF fighters have now entered the town aft6er a three-month siege. Also not coincidentally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just days earlier warned of an imminent offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that makes up the core of the SDF. Erdogan said Dec. 12 that Turkey will launch an operation against the YPG "in a few days," adding that it is "time to realize our decision to wipe out terror groups east of the Euphrates." The Euphrates River has until now served as a border between Turkey's "buffer zone" in northern Syria and areas still under Kurdish control. Turkey is now preparing to cross it—with evident US connivance.
Well, this is all too telling. Seeking to legitimize his regime now that he's reconquered most of Syria (with massive Russian military help), Bashar Assad has just welcomed the first Arab League leader to Damascus since the war began in 2011—and it is none other than President Omar Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. As BashirWatch recalls, Bashir has been evading justice for 11 years. The Assad regime's official news agency SANA said the two dictators discussed the "situations and crises faced by many Arab countries," stressing the need to build "new principles for inter-Arab relations based on the respect of the sovereignty of countries and non-interference in internal affairs." (Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye)
The UN Committee against Torture posted a letter online Dec. 11 that calls on Saudi Arabia to release over a dozen imprisoned activists and cites credible claims of improper treatment, sexual assault and torture. The UN group charged with overseeing compliance with the Convention Against Torture claims that seven activists have been held without official charges since May 2018 and subjected to inhumane treatment. The monitoring group also called for another six peaceful activists to be released, including Raif Badawi, a blogger who has been publicly lashed and is currently serving a 10-year sentence for expressing dissenting opinions. The statement calls for a review of cases of corporal punishment to ensure that Saudi Arabia is upholding its obligations under the Convention Against Torture.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights issued a statistical report on the number of Syrian war victims on the occasion of World Human Rights Day Dec. 10. The statistics show that 560,000 people have been killed since March 2011, including civilians, soldiers, rebel fighters, and "martyrs" who died under torture in the regime prisons. The Observatory found: "Over 93 months...Syrians have been crushed between the jaws of death, with each day declaring a decrease in their numbers..." The Observatory documented the deaths of 104,000 Syrians in the regime's prisons, likely under torture in most cases, with 83% executed in these prisons between May 2013 and October 2015. In this period, 30,000 were killed in Saydnaya prison alone, according to the Observatory. The remainder of the total were killed in fighting, with civilians constituting a large plurality at 111,330. The rest were from various armed factions.
The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic on Nov. 28 stressed the need for greater information and accountability to be provided to the families of missing persons and detainees. The report begins by noting that the Syrian government is still carrying out mass public arrests and detentions. These detentions have led to the torture and eventual death of a number of individuals, while their families were induced to pay bribes to learn their whereabouts. The report goes on to say that many families did not learn of their relatives' whereabouts at all until May 2018 when information was provided in bulk by the Ministry of Interior. The Commission notes that even after this information was disclosed it was obfuscated, with causes of death being listed as "heart attack" or "stroke"—while many individuals died on the same day. The Commission infers that mass executions may have occurred in some of these facilities, particularly as so many of them are on military bases.
French prosecutors issued international arrest warrants for three prominent Syrian officials charged with collusion in crimes against humanity on Nov. 5, in what human rights lawyers are calling a major victory in the pursuit of those believed responsible for mass torture and abuse in the regime's detention facilities. The arrest warrants name three leading security officials—including Ali Mamlouk, a former intelligence chief and senior adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, as well as head of the Air Force Intelligence security branch, Jamil Hassan. A third, Abdel Salam Mahmoud—an Air Force Intelligence officer who reportedly runs a detention facility at al-Mezzeh military base in southwest Damascus—was also named. Hassan and Mamlouk are among the most senior Syrian officials to receive an international arrest warrant throughout the course of the conflict. Air Force Intelligence chief Hassan is already the subject of another warrant issued by German prosecutors earlier this year. Both men have been sanctioned by the international community for their role in abuses since the first outbreak of unrest in Syria in spring 2011.