Greater Middle East

Russian naval build-up ahead of Idlib offensive

The Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement Aug. 30 explaining its unprecedented build-up of naval forces in the Mediterranean as part of a week-long exercise. It said the maneuvers would involve 26 warships and naval vessels, including two submarines, with 34 aircraft, including missile-armed long-range bombers. (Jane's 360)  But it is obvious that this build-up is timed to coincide (at least) with the planned Assad regime offensive on Idlib, the last Syrian province that remains under opposition control. Russia will certainly be massively backing the regime offensive, which the UN warns could spark a humanitarian catastrophe. With Turkey closing its borders to new refugees, it is unclear that civilians have any place left to flee. Many are already living in camps in Idlib under desperate conditions, with two million in need of humanitarian aid. (AP, SBS)

UN experts see possible war crimes in Yemen

A UN human rights panel report released Aug. 28 suggests that parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have been perpetuating crimes under international law. The Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts on Yemen was appointed (PDF)  by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on the human rights situation in the country, as well as to examine all alleged violations and crimes of international law to occur since the war began in September 2014. The report concluded that air-strikes carried out by the government of Yemen and its coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have caused a majority of the civilian casualties. Other violations included persistent sexual violence and enlistment of young children into the armed forces of both sides in the war.

Did John McCain meet with jihadists in Syria?

Upon his death, many are reviving the discredited claim that John McCain met with ISIS on his Syria trip in 2013. But some are settling for the less ambitious, and perhaps plausible, claim that he met with jihadists who were implicated in atrocities. E.g. the always annoying Ben Norton tweets: "John McCain was a staunch supporter of the CIA-backed, al-Qaeda-linked Salafi extremist opposition in Syria. In fact the late senator posed in a photo with a rebel who was involved in kidnapping 11 Lebanese Shia civilians." He links to a May 10, 2013 Reuters story which cites an undated article in Lebanon's Daily Star (apparently not translated into English) claiming that McCain was photographed in Syria with a rebel "implicated in" the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi'ite pilgrims the previous year. The man in question was apparently one  Mohammad Nour—"identified by two freed hostages as the chief spokesman and photographer for the Northern Storm brigade that kidnapped them."

Woman activist faces execution in Saudi Arabia

Saudi rights advocates are warning of the possible imminent beheading of detained activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who has been provisionally sentenced to death by a Riyadh court. At an Aug. 6 hearing before the Specialized Criminal Court in the capital, the Public Prosecutor recommended the death penalty for six defendants, including Ghomgham and her husband, Moussa al-Hashem, who have been held for nearly three years on charges related to anti-government protests in the Shi'ite-majority eastern region of Qatif. The charges include "participating in protests," "incitement to protest," "chanting slogans hostile to the regime," "attempting to inflame public opinion," "filming protests and publishing on social media," and "providing moral support to rioters." The prosecutor called for their execution based on the Islamic law principle of ta'zir, in which the judge has discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime. A judge is expected to either confirm or reverse the death penalty recommendation at Ghomgham's next hearing in October.

Egypt: 'cybersecurity' law restricts social media

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%.

Afrin and Raqqa: fearful symmetry

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. 

Propaganda and the accounting of death in Syria

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)

Book review: Impossible Revolution

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).

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