A vivid illustration of just how out of wack things have become on the American "anti-war" (sic) "left" (sic—neither of these terms are accurate). As every Friday since March, on the evening of Sept. 28, I was standing with the Syria Peace Vigil in New York's Union Square. As usual, I was on leafleting duty. As my comrades (including some local Syrian-Americans) stood with signs reading "FREE SYRIA" and "PROTECT IDLIB," I was giving out our statement to passing commuters and strollers. Usually, amid the massive indifference from passers-by, we inevitably get some heartfelt expressions of support (generally from Syrians or other folk of Middle Eastern background)—and lots of hostility from those who have swallowed the pro-Assad line that is purveyed by left, right and center in this country. But that night, the hostility was particularly egregious...
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reported to have fled to Afghanistan via Iran, to escape "Operation Roundup," a final offensive against remnant Islamic State pockets in Syria's eastern desert. The operation was launched last week by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Baghdadi is believed to have reached Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan. According to Pakistani security sources, Baghdadi crossed through the Iranian border city of Zahedan. The sources claimed Baghdadi received protection from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as he passed through the country's territory. ISIS now holds only three towns in Syria—Hajin, a-Baghouz and al-Sussa, all close to the Iraqi border.
A Turkish court has sentenced a former British soldier to seven-and-a-half years for alleged links to Syria's Kurdish YPG militia, considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara. Joe Robinson of Leeds was arrested in Turkey in July 2017 after he apparently posted photos of himself in camouflage, posing beside fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. A court in the western city of Aydin sentenced the 25-year-old for "membership of a terrorist organization" on Sept. 15. Robinson did not attend the trial for health reasons. He is currently on bail and planning an appeal. His Bulgarian fiancée, arrested along with him, was sentenced to nearly two years for "terrorist propaganda," but she is currently in the United Kingdom. The BBC reports that the fiancée, Mira Rojkan, was given a suspended sentence.
The US government has reinforced counter-terrorism controls on aid operations in Syria. New contractual terms require US-funded organizations to get special permission to provide relief in areas controlled by extremist groups. The move further complicates aid operations for those trapped in Syria’s last rebel stronghold, Idlib, where two thirds of its three million people need assistance. The top UN official for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, Panos Moumtzis, told IRIN news agency that donors were, in general, backing away from funding all but the most critical needs in Idlib, fearing aid will fall into the hands of groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Some 50,000 to 60,000 people fleeing war and persecution will start a new life and be on track for a new passport in 2018, but it will be the fewest number of refugees resettled globally any year since 2007, UN figures show. The drop is mainly due to President Donald Trump’s administration slashing the US quota. The United States took in 68% of the 770,000 refugees permanently resettled in the last 10 years, according to the UN—an average of about 51,000 per year. But this calendar year, fewer than 10,000 had made the journey to the United States by the end of July. Developing regions host 85% of the world’s refugees, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.
The long-feared Assad regime offensive on Idlib province appears to have been called off—for now. After meeting in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly agreed to a "buffer zone" in Idlib—a strip some 25 kilometers wide to separate regime forces in the south from rebel and opposition forces in the north. Although it is being called a "demilitarized" zone, it will in fact be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops. There are numerous unanswered questions. Reports indicated the deal stipulates that "all heavy weapons be withdrawn from the zone"—but does that apply to the Russian and Turkish patrols? It is also mandated that what Putin called "radically-minded" rebel fighters would have to pull out of the zone entirely, which is presumably a reference to the Nusra-affiliated jihadist factions. These factions control parts of Idlib city, and it is not clear if the provincial capital will be included in the zone. (BBC News, Haaretz)
In the latest of ongoing weekly demonstrations in Syria's besieged Idlib province, thousands took to the streets after Friday prayers Sept. 14, calling on the world to act to prevent the impending massacre there. One of the biggest demonstrations was held in the city of Maarat al-Nouman in central Idlib, where some 25,000 people, including residents from outlying villages and towns, gathered for the march called by the civil resistance. "There will be no solution in Syria without Assad's fall," read one prominent banner. Russian-led air-strikes have already opened on Idlib ahead of the anticipated offensive by the Assad regime and its allied forces to take the province, now the last significant area of Syria still controlled by the opposition. Air-strikes last week reportedly destroyed a hospital run by the White Helmets in the town of Hass. The UN has provided Russia with the GPS coordinates of 235 schools, hospitals and other civilian sites in Idlib, in the hope that the move will help protect them from being attacked. But Russia and Assad have been repeatedly accused of intentionally bombing hospitals over the course of the Syrian war.
As the Assad regime and its Russian backers prepare an offensive to take Idlib, the last area of opposition control in Syria, the people of the northern province have been holding demonstrations, organized by the civil resistance, waving the Free Syria flag and calling on the world to act to prevent the impending massacre there. Hundreds of civilians have fled the front-line area in the south of the province, as the first Russian-led air-strikes opened this week. A summit between the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran is underway in Tehran to try to arrive at consensus over Idlib's fate, but Moscow and the Islamic Republic refuse to abandon their commitment to an invasion of the province of 3 million, which already faces grave humanitarian conditions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Syrian army is "getting ready" to clear the "cradle of terrorism" in Idlib (EA Worldview, AFP, Al Jazeera, BBC News) Reuters ran gut-wrenching photos of Idlib residents fitting their children with improvised gas-masks—fashioned from plastic sheeting and plastic cups filled with cotton and charcoal—in anticipation of a chemical attack.