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)
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."
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).
Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC) is warning of an "environmental disaster" following clashes at the country's Ras Lanuf oil terminal that set storage tanks of the Harouge Oil Company on fire. "Further damage to these oil sites could have a huge impact on the Libyan oil sector and the national economy," the statement said. The chief of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, Ibrahim Jadran, launched a military operation in Libya's "oil crescent" last week to take the Ras Lanuf and Sidra terminals from Operation Dignity militia forces. Jadran called Operation Dignity “a terrorist entity.” Operation Dignity and the affiliated "Libyan National Army," led by commander Khalifa Haftar, are loyal to Libya's unrecognized eastern government. (Al Jazeera, June 18; Libya Observer, June 16)
Estimates of the dead vary from 70 to 150 after the latest and worst chemical attack on the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, in the Damascus suburbs. The number is likely to rise, as rescue workers are still reporting new casualties following the gassing at the town of Douma, the last in the enclave that remains in rebel hands. The White Helmets volunteer civil defense group said on Twitter: "More families were found suffocated in their houses and shelters in #Douma. The number of victıms is increasing dramatically, and the ambulance teams and the @SyriaCivilDefe volunteers continue their search and rescue operations." The apparent strike by a "barrel bomb" filled with either sarin or chlorine gas targeted a building where displaced families were sheltering from the ongoing air-raids on Douma.
Russian-backed Assad regime forces are on the verge of taking the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria's Eastern Ghouta enclave, in the Damascus suburbs. A Russian military commander boasted: "The militants are being evacuated from Douma, their last bastion in Eastern Ghouta, and within a few days the humanitarian operation in Eastern Ghouta must be completed." This "humanitarian operation" has seen the near-total destruction of Ghouta by aerial bombardment over the past weeks, with some 1,500 killed. Thousands of fighters and residents have been allowed to evacuate via buses to Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held province, under what was reported as a "surrender agreement." (Al Jazeera, Syria Direct)
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report (PDF) March 15 condemning the pervasive sexual and gender-based violence that has occurred over the past seven years in the Syrian conflict. The report, entitled "I Lost My Dignity: Sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian Arab Republic," was written after UN workers interviewed more than 450 survivors, lawyers, healthcare practitioners and other affected individuals concerning the use of such violence between March 2011 and December 2017. The report details the systemic rape, torture, and other acts of sexual violence perpetrated by government forces and affiliated militias at checkpoints, in detention centers, and during interrogations.
The Trump administration has yet to repatriate Guantánamo detainee Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi to Saudi Arabia, effectively missing the Feb. 20 deadline established in his 2014 plea deal. Darbi pleaded guilty and admitted (PDF) to involvement in al-Qaeda operations including the 2002 attack on a French-flagged oil tanker near Yemen. In his pre-trial agreement (PDF), it was determined that, contingent on his cooperation, he would be sent back to Saudi Arabia to serve the duration of his sentence. Feb. 20 marked four years from the close of the deal and Darbi was not repatriated to Saudi Arabia.