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)
We've already noted the strange bedfellows in the Rojava Kurds' political push to forestalll a US withdrawal from northern Syria, which would be a green light for Turkey to attack their autonomous zone. Well, they just got a little stranger with the arrival in Washington last month of Ilham Ahmed, co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, civilian wing of the Kurdish-led US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. She and her delegation actually met with Trump at the Trump International Hotel after they touched down Jan. 29. The prez reportedly told the group "I love the Kurds," and promised that they are "not going to be killed" by Turkish forces. (Al Monitor) Making it even more surreal, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, best friend of fascist dictator Bashar Assad on Capitol Hill, brought Ahmed to the State of the Union address on Feb. 5 as her special guest. Gabbard tweeted about it, and the Turkish newspaper Takvim ran a photo of Ahmed standing beside Trump at the SOTU. We wonder if Ahmed, who represents a radical-left Kurdish revolutionary movement that is influenced by anarchism, is aware that the presidential bid of her host Gabbard has been endorsed by David Duke—who shares Tulsi's fondness for Assad.
Numerous media sources are reporting that Vladimir Putin has dispatched a team of private mercenaries to Venezuela to help back up the besieged government of President Nicolás Maduro. Reuters cites claims that some 400 military contractors from the Wagner group have arrived in Caracas. Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) is a Russian firm already contracted by Moscow's Defense Ministry to provide personnel for the wars in Ukraine and in Syria. Moscow Times quotes Yevgeny Shabayev, ataman (commander) of the Khovrino Cossack paramilitary group, as saying that the mercenaries were flown to Havana on two chartered aircraft, where they were transfered to commerical flights to Caracas. Shabayev said Cossacks had been recruited for the force to serve as a kind of Praetorian Guard for Maduro. "Our people are there directly for his protection," he said. The Russian news site Lenta.ru cited Shabayev saying a "military conspiracy had been discovered in Maduro's inner circle, and therefore it was necessary to replace his personal security with loyal people."
Authorities in Ezidikhan, the self-declared Yazidi autonomous homeland in northern Iraq, appointed an Investigative Team on Genocide this week, pursuant to a law mandating establishment of the body passed by the Ezidikhan Governing Council last month. The team will primarily be looking at massacres and enslavement that targeted the Yazidi people when ISIS was in control of their territory from Augusr 2014 to November 2015. But the team will also examine possible crimes and complicity by the Iraqi national government, its allied paramilitary forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and foreign powers such as Turkey. The body is cooperating with the UN investigative team also working in the area, with an eye toward eventual establishment of an International Tribunal on Genocide for Yezidi and Neighboring Peoples (ITGYNP). But the Yazidi team's senior investigator, Abdul Qader al-Rawi, made clear: "Unlike the UN investigation, the Ezidikhan Investigative Team is not constrained by the Iraqi government’s claims for sovereign immunity." (Ezidikhan Public Information Bureau, Jan. 13)
A suicide blast cliamed by ISIS killed 19 people in the contested north Syrian town of Manbij Jan. 16. The blast targeted a US military patrol that was stopped for lunch at local restaurant, and among the dead were four Americans: two US service members, a defense contractor and a Defense Department civilian employee. The blast comes just weeks after Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, with his administration crowing about how ISIS has been defeated. Just hours after the blast, Vice President Pence embarrassingly boasted: "Thanks to the courage of our armed forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities." (NYT, CNN) But an ISIS resurgence is actually a lesser concern than a US withdrawal setting off a scramble for Syria's north that could spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war.