Reports are emerging of a clash between Russian forces and an Iran-backed militia in Syria—pointing to mounting tensions between the two most significant foreign powers backing the Assad regime. At least 11 were killed in the fighting in the city of Aleppo April 16. The clash began near a vegetable market in Khaldiya district, and quickly escalated to the use of heavy weaponry, with ground-to-air missiles fired on nearby areas within the city. At least some of the casualties are believed to be civilians. The militia was unnamed, but Tehran is backing numerous Shi'ite militias in Syria, many made up of volunteers from Iran and Iraq. The clash followed recent Israeli air-strikes on Iranian targets near Aleppo, and Tehran-backed factions apparently accused Russia of green-lighting Israel's attacks, or even coordinating with Tel Aviv on the strikes. (Syria Call, Middle East Monitor, Arab Weekly)
Syria's last opposition-controlled province of Idlib has receded from the headlines since a joint Russian-Turkish deal was announced last September, forestalling an Assad regime offensive on the province and establishing a "demilitarized zone" policed by the two foreign powers. But shelling and bombardment of the province by Assadist and Russian forces has escalated over the past month—and much of the shells and missiles are falling within the "demilitarized zone." Most recently, five civilians were injured April 14 in a regime air-strike on the Idlib villages of Urum al-Jawz and Bsanqul and Jabal al-Arabaeen, outside the town of Ari, within the demilitarized zone. UN Senior Humanitarian Advisor for Syria Najat Rochdi told reporters in Geneva last week that over 100,000 Idlib residents have fled their homes since February as a result of increased fighting. More than 90 civilians, half of them children, were killed in the province in March. As ever, medical facilities and schools continue to be targeted.
In an amusingly grim development April 8, Donald Trump formally designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a "foreign terrorist organization," and Tehran's Supreme National Security Council immediately retaliated by issuing a statement declaring the Pentagon's Central Command a "terrorist organization." Both moves mark a first, in applying the designation to actual government entities. Trump's signing statement charged that the IRGC "actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft." Iran's state news agency IRNA said in a statement that the Islamic Republic "declares that it considers the regime of the US a 'state sponsor of terrorism' and 'the Central Command of America, known as CENTCOM' and all forces related to it 'terrorist groups.'"
Authorities in the Netherlands have arrested a Dutch volunteer—known by the nom de guerre Andok—who fought with the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) against ISIS in northern Syria's Raqqa in 2017. The Dutch Public Prosecution said in a statement April 2 that Andok, 24, had traveled to France in December 2016 and later went to the Syrian battle zone. He was identified in a broadcast for the Dutch TV program EenVandaag in September 2017, the prosecutor's office said. However, in the interview he did not show his face nor reveal his real name. He was detained upon his arrival at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, and appeared the following day before an examining judge in Rotterdam, who placed him in custody for two weeks pending formal charges.
An Egypt-mediated ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian factions in the besieged Gaza Strip was declared March 26 following two days of Israeli air-strikes and Palestinian rocket fire. Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of strikes across the Strip, while at least 50 rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Residential and commercial buildings were struck by Israeli warplanes, with at least seven Palestinians reported injured. The escalation came after a Gaza rocket struck an house north of Tel Aviv, injuring seven Israelis. (Ma'an) With the air-strikes underway, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Donald Trump in Washington for the signing of a presidential proclamation officially recognizing the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory. At the joint press conference, Trump said, "We do not want to see another attack like the one suffered this morning north of Tel Aviv," adding, "We will confront the poison of anti-Semitism." Netanyahu called Trump's recognition a "diplomatic victory," adding that "Israel won the Golan Heights in a just war of defense." (Ma'an)
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the complete "territorial defeat" of the Islamic State (ISIS) on March 23. The SDF "declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100% territorial defeat of ISIS," Mustafa Bali, head of the force's press office, announced on Twitter. "On this unique day, we commemorate thousands of martyrs whose efforts made the victory possible," Bali added. Some 11,000 fighters of the SDF, a Kurdish-led umbrella force of Kurds, Arabs, and Christians of northern Syria, died in the war against ISIS. In Iraq, more than 1,800 Peshmerga were killed battling the group. The Iraqi army has not released their official figures casualties, but it is believed to be in the thousands.
Even amid growing media portrayals that Bashar Assad has won the war in Syria, the first real hope has emerged that the dictator will face war crimes charges before the International Criminal Court. A group of Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan after surviving torture and massacres this week submitted dossiers of evidence to the ICC in an attempt to prosecute Assad. Although Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, which establishes the court's jurisdiction, lawyers in London are citing recent precedent set by the ICC in extending jurisdiction for the crime of forcible population transfers across international borders. London barrister Rodney Dixon of Temple Garden Chambers, representing the group of 28 refugees, said: "The ICC exists precisely to bring justice to the victims of these most brutal international crimes... There is a jurisdictional gateway that has opened up finally for the ICC prosecutor to investigate the perpetrators who are most responsible." In his letter to chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, Dixon notes last year's ICC ruling on Rohingya refugees, allowing an investigation of non-signatory Burma to proceed. (The Guardian, BBC News)
The secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee, Saeb Erekat, issued a statement rejecting the US-led conference that opens today in Warsaw, ostensibly aimed at brokering Middle East peace. Said Erekat: "Today we face a reality whereby the US Trump administration, in cooperation with the Polish government, is pushing yet a new initiative to annihilate the Palestinian national project." (Ma'an) The meeting was first announced last month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after his anti-Iran speech in Cairo, and is widely perceived as an effort to rally world powers behind Washington's drive against Tehran. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is to be among the speakers. Poland has been making some efforts to resist turning the conference into a propagandistic anti-Iran meeting, underscoring its commitment to the nuclear deal that the US has now disavowed. But as Warsaw's former ambassador to Afghanistan Piotr Lukasiewicz told Al Jazeera: "[Poland] has lost control over the general message of the conference to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia." The notable absentees from the summit are meanwhile convening their own meeting in the Russian ski resort of Sochi. The rival summit is bringing together Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's Hassan Rouhani, officiallty to discuss the situation in Syria and the pending withdrawal of US troops there. (EuroNews)