Under the slogan "The People Are Stronger Than You," thousands of local residents have repeatedly taken to the streets of Ma'arat al-Numan, a town in Syria's northwestern Idlib governorate, to oppose the rule of jihadist forces that have seized control there. The protests broke out after the Qaeda-affiliated militia that controls the town, Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS, an offshoot of the Nusra Front) raided the local headquarters of the Free Syrian Army's Division 13, killing and detaining several FSA fighters on June 8. The biggest reported protest came on June 11, when thousands of residents and civil resistance activists waving Free Syrian flags mobilized to demand the release of the detained fighters. "We will continue to resist [HTS] in the same way that we peacefully resisted the Syrian regime, and endured its crackdown on protests," Khaled al-Hamid, a 22-year-old protest organizer, told independent news site Syria Deeply. (More at Global Voices)
Fierce clashes broke out between Syrian rebel factions and Kurdish fighters in Aleppo province this week, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle ISIS in Raqqa. Fighting erupted in Derat Ezza in the western Aleppo countryside on June 13, after Kurdish fighters attempted to take a rebel base in the area, opposition media reported. The assault was thwarted after the rebels regained the positions with support from Turkish artillery. At least 32 fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups were reported killed in the clashes, as well as dozens of Kurdish militants. (The New Arab, June 14)
Several civilians were killed June 8 when US-led air-strikes reportedly targeted Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital in northern Syria, with white phosphorus—banned by the Geneva Convention as a weapon of war. The reports came both from Syrian state media and local activists on the ground in Raqqa, who posted footage online, showing the skies of above the city lit by a rainfall of glowing ordnance. The report comes as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are preparing a final offensive to take Raqqa. (Xinhua)
In a strange imbroglio, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives on June 5 all announced that they are breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. All but Egypt also cut off all travel links with the country. The Saudi statement accused Qatar of "adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, " and of "supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups" in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Days earlier, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all blocked Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based news websites after Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted as saying "There is no reason behind Arabs' hostility to Iran"—an obvious reference to the Saudis and Bahrain. Qatar quickly responded that the comment had been "fabricated" when hackers took control of the official Qatar News Agency website (which appears to still be down, although the QNA Twitter account is up). (BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 5; BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 25)
President Trump announced his decision June 1 to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on Climate, signed by 195 nations and formally joined by 147, including the US. The United States now joins Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations in the world not supporting the accord. Nicaragua, it should be noted, failed to join because the terms of the accord are not binding, and it was therefore considered too weak. Syria is consumed by internal war, and was iced from the negotiations by restrictions on its envoys traveling to the talks. The agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, came into force on Nov. 4, 2016, just days before Trump was elected. Each country sets its own commitments under the accord. The United States, second-largest emitter on the planet after China, had committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. It also commited up to $3 billion in aid for poorer countries to address climate change by 2020. (ENS, June 2; NYT, June 1; WP, May 31)
Iran's long-dormant militant group, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), was blamed for a hit-and-run attack on security forces that left two Border Guards dead near the city of Urmieh (also rendered Urmiya) on May 28. Commander of the Iranian Border Guards, Qassem Rezayee, responded by warning Turkey to take measures against the movement of "terrorist" groups along the frontier. He said that Iranian authorities "consider Turkey responsible, and the country should account for this act.... The Iranian forces will certainly give a crushing response to these moves." Iran's Foreign Ministry has also lodged a protest with Turkey over the incident. Turkey recently started construction of a security wall on its border with Iran to prevent infiration of Kurdish militants. (Press TV, May 29; Xinhua, Kurdistan24, May 28; Kurdistan24, May 14)
The horrific Manchester suicide bombing of May 22 is said to have been carried out by a son of Libyan refugees, and speculation is rife that he was linked to militant networks rather than being a lone wolf. The UK's right-wing tabs are responding predictably. The Daily Star screams that Libya has become an "ISIS breeding ground where THOUSANDS of terrorists are created." We are told that the attacker's older brother "was recently arrested in the Middle Eastern country after intelligence suggested he was about to commit an attack there." After thusly revealing that they don't know where Libya is (it's in North Africa, not the Middle East), the Star goes on to sensationalize about the jihadist threat there. Embarrassingly, it cites a UN report from November 2015 (yes, more than a year and a half ago) that warned, "ISIS has clearly demonstrated its intention to control additional territory in Libya."
Over the past month, air-strikes carried out by the US and its coalition partners in Syria have killed the highest number of civilians on record since the bombing campaign began in September 2014, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A total of 225 civilians, including 36 women and 44 children, were killed in the period between April 23 to May 23 by the Observatory's count. At least 122 ISIS fighters and eight members of militias loyal to the Syrian regime were also killed in US-led strikes over the same period.