Greater Middle East
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a cybersecurity law Aug. 18 that gives the government broad authority to block websites deemed to constitute a threat to national security or the economy, imposing prison terms for anyone found guilty of running or just visiting such sites. Amnesty International described the new law as giving "the state near-total control over print, online and broadcast media." The Cairo-based Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression said more than 500 websites had already been blocked in Egypt prior to the new law being signed. There is another cybersecurity law before the president, which would place all Twitter accounts with more than 5,000 followers under government supervision. With street protests in Egypt all but banned, the Internet has been one of the last spaces left for dissent. Sisi has been in power since 2013 and won an election this past spring with 92% of the vote. Sisi ran virtually unopposed, and the turn-out was only 40%.
Reports of rights abuses in the north Syrian enclave of Afrin, taken by Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army allies from Kurdish defenders in March, continue to mount. An Amnesty International alert issued Aug. 1 charges that Afrin residents have been arbitrarily detained and tortured, with houses and businesses looted and confiscated, and schools destroyed or taken over by militia forces. These abuses mostly took place "at the hands of Syrian armed groups equipped and armed by Turkey," while "Turkey’s armed forces have turned a blind eye." Thousands of children have had their education disrupted by the take-over of their schools for use by rebel militias and even directly by Turkish troops.
The US on Aug. 6 harshly condemned the Syrian regime over thousands of death notices it has released in recent weeks, saying they confirm suspicions of mass detentions, torture and murder. State Department representative Heather Nauert said that over 117,000 people are believed to have been detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, with "the vast majority" suspected to be in regime custody "across a network of prisons where regime officials torture and murder civilians to intimidate and silence any opposition" to Bashar Assad's rule. (Anadolu Agency)
The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy
by Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Haymarket Books, Chicago 2017
This book is a necessary corrective to the dominant perception—left, right and center—that the opposition in Syria are all jihadists and dictator Bashar Assad the best bet for "stability." Long a left-wing dissident in Assad's Syria, Saleh is a veteran of the dictator's prisons. Here, he traces the origins of the Syrian revolution to agony caused by the regime's "economic liberalization" (socialist phrases aside), describes the initially unarmed opposition's popular-democratic nature, and discusses the struggle to keep the Free Syrian Army accountable to this grassroots base after it became clear a military dimension to the revolution was necessary. He makes the case that the Assad regime can be termed "fascist" even by the most rigorous definition and has been making good on its pledge to "burn the country" before ceding power. He also analyzes the emergence of "militant nihilism" in the form of ISIS and al-Qaeda (he rejects the word "terrorist" as propagandistic).
During last week's wave of coordinated ISIS attacks that left 250 dead in Syria's regime-held southern governorate of Suweida, the militants also went door-to-door in Druze villages, abducting several women and children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the number at 20 women and 16 children. The militants are believed to have escaped with them into their remaining strongholds in Syria's eastern desert. The attack wave—dubbed "Black Wednesday," for July 25, the bloodiest day—followed visits by Russian military delegations to Suweida, during which Druze elders and community leaders were urged to cooperate in the disarming of the populace. This was apparently aimed at suppressing the Rijal al-Karama (Men of Dignity), a Druze self-defense militia that had emerged over the past years of violence in Syria—independent from the regime, but neither explicitly aligned with the rebels. The ISIS assault came immediately after regime weapons seizures in Druze villages, leading to theories of regime complicity in the attacks. (YNet, Enab Baladi, Syria Call)
Representatives of the US-backed Kurdish-led alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces are holding talks in Damascus with the Assad regime, apparently with an eye toward regime recognition of the Kurdish autonomous zone in exchange for unity against further Turkish expansion in northern Syria. "A delegation from the Syrian Democratic Council is paying a first official visit to Damascus at the invitation of the government," the council's Arab co-chair Riad Darar said. "We are working towards a settlement for northern Syria. We hope that the discussions on the situation in the north will be positive." The SDF controls more than 27% of Syrian territory. (France24) In effect, that means this region is under the Rojava autonomous administration, which is the real political force behind the SDF. The Rojava leadership's cooperation in a Syrian carve-up deal may be the price of survival for their autonomous zone. But it would certainly vindicate the long-standing accusations of Kurdish collaboration with Assad—despite Assad's previous refusal to recognize the autonomous zone. It would also yet further heighten the risk of Kurdish-Arab ethnic war in northern Syria.
A group of independent UN human rights experts on July 26 called (PDF) upon Bahrain to put an end to rights violations and investigate events surrounding the "State of National Safety" declared in 2011. The experts warned against military courts exercising jurisdiction over civilians, and discrimination against women and the Shi'ite population. The report called for abolition of the death penalty, and a halt to the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners. While the "State of National Safety" officially ended after three months, the report noted an April 2017 amendment to the constitution granting military courts jurisdiction over civilians outside of a declared state of emergency.
The Trump administration has decided to release $195 million in military aid to Egypt that had been frozen last year because of human rights concerns, the State Department announced July 25. The decision is intended to recognize "steps Egypt has taken over the last year in response to specific US concerns," the statement said. A high-level Egyptian military delegation had been in Washington for talks prior to the announcement. The funds, falling under Foreign Military Financing, are intended for Egypt to buy US-made military equipment. Human rights groups slammed the decision by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying he had squandered valuable leverage over President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at a time when his regime's rights record only seems to be worsening. "Repression is breeding resentment, and in some cases radicalization," said Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. "That will ultimately further destabilize Egypt and undermine American interests."