Syria

Syria: reprieve for Idlib; flashpoint at al-Tanf?

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 Reports indicated the deal stipulates that "all heavy weapons be withdrawn from the zone"—but does that apply to the Russian and Turkish patrols?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)

Thousands rally in Idlib as Assad offensive looms

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.

Syria: Kurds to join regime offensive on Idlib?

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.

Syria: did Kurdish militia fire on protesters?

A disturbing report from the Assyrian Policy Institute provides details on an incident in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli in which Kurdish militia fighters supposedly opened fire during a protest by local Assyrian Christians. Footage of the incident was first posted on YouTube, and tweeted by opponents of the Kurdish autonomous administration. According to the report, the unrest began on Aug. 28 when private Assyrian schools in Qamishli were invaded by a mixed force of "militiamen belonging to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)," and allied Sutoro and Dawronoye militias. The PYD militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG), is the central pillar of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Sutoro, affiliated with the Syriac Military Council, and Dawronoye are both leftist Assyrian formations in the orbit of the PYD. The militia forces attempted to order the schools closed; staff resisted, and protesters gathered. Children reportedly held signs reading "Don't deprive us of our right to education" and "We want our schools, our freedom, and our childhood." Protestors chanted, "We will remain Assyrians and die in this land." The report actually said it was Sutoro fighters that fired in the air to break up the protest—contrary to representations on YouTube and Twitter portraying Kurdish troops firing on the demonstrators.

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)

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."

Turkey bombs Yazidi territory in Iraq

Authorities in Ezidikhan, the self-declared Yazidi autonomous homeland in northern Iraq, issued a statement protesting a Turkish air-raid on their territory Aug. 19. The attack, which took place four days earlier, was apparently a targeted assassination of Yazidi leader Zeki Şengali, who is a representative of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), the international body in the political orbit of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Four members of the Yazidi territorial militia, the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS), were also killed in the attack, and a home destroyed. The raid actually took place as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was on an official trip to Turkey, sparking outrage from some Iraqi officials. "It is a disrespect to Iraq when Turkey crosses our border at the same time as the Iraqi prime minister was visiting them," said Dawid Shex Jundy, a member of Nineveh Provincial Council.

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. 

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