Dictator Bashar al-Assad flew to Vladimir Putin's summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks on the prosecution of the Syrian war and their future plans for the country. Assad congratulated Putin on his new term as president, following his March re-election (amid waves of protest), and (of course) thanked the Russian military for its support in re-conquering Syria. "Stability is improving," Assad told Putin at he opening press conference. Invoking the intermittent Russia-brokered peace talks in Kazakhstan (now largely irrelevant, that most of the country has been re-conquered), Assad added that "we have always wholeheartedly supported the political process, which should proceed in parallel with the war on terrorism." (Reuters) As Assad arrived in Sochi, Putin announced that Russian military vessels with Kalibr cruise missiles would be on permanent stand-by in the Mediterranean to counter what he called the "terrorist threat" in Syria. (Moscow Times)
Iraq's first parliamentary elections since the defeat of ISIS were supposed to herald a return of stability to the country after 15 years of practically incessant war since the US invasion of 2003. But turn-out in the May 12 poll was at a mere 44%—a record low since 2003. And candidates were openly aligned with foreign powers playing for influence in Iraq. Incumbent Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's Nasr (Victory) coalition, backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, appears to be squeaking past more populist tickets seen to be in the sway of Iran. These include the State of Law coalition of current vice president and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who darkly warned that the results could be "rigged through electronic devices" as the returns started to come in. The ruling Dawa Party split into rival coalitions as Abadi and Maliki fell out, and a special law was passed in parliament allowing one party to run in competing lists. A third list, Fatah—headed by Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigades paramilitary militia—is considered solidly pro-Tehran. But the surprise so far is the strong showing of the Sairoon (Marchers) bloc, led by Shi'iite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in an unlikely alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party. Independent of outside powers, Sadr played to resentment against the cronyism and corruption endemic to both factions of Dawa.
Reports have been mounting for months that Assad is replacing those (mostly Sunni Arabs) displaced from his reconquered territories with Iranians and Iraqi Shi'ites, in a form of "sectarian cleansing." Now come reports that Turkey is replacing the Kurds displaced from its conquered "buffer zone" in Syria's north with those displaced by Assad—specifically, the Kurdish residents who fled the town of Afrin are being replaced by Sunni Arabs that fled Eastern Ghouta, according to Middle East Eye. Alarmingly, the Kurdish YPG militia tweeted in reference to the Ghouta displaced now resettled in Afrin: "We reiterate that these terrorists and their families are the main targets of our forces." (Emphasis added.) The tweet was apparently deleted after an outcry, but a screenshot of it remains online. The Arab-Kurdish ethnic war in northern Syria that we have long warned of now seems to be arriving.
Just over a year after Trump's air-strikes on an Assad regime airbase in response to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, we've witnessed a repeat of this episode—although this time the air-strikes were on wider targets, and carried out in conjunction with British and French forces. In response to last week's chemical attack on Douma in Syria's besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave, missiles and warplanes from the USS Donald Cook in the eastern Mediterranean carried out the first Western strikes on targets around the Damascus area. The following targets are reported to have been hit: the Damascus Scientific Research Center, said to be linked to production of chemical and biological weapons; another purported chemical weapons lab in Barzeh; a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs; and headquarters of various elite military units. Iranian forces were apparently also targeted, with a base used by the Republican Guard struck. However, this military action looks like it will be no more sustained than that of last April. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called it a "single shot," and is believed to have put the brakes on the scope "to keep this from escalating." He told reporters after the initial sorties: "Right now we have no additional attacks planned." There are no reports of any deaths in the air-strikes, and the few known casualties are all military personnel. (American Military News, Middle East Eye, Reuters, NYT, CNBC, BBC News)
A new report published by the US-based Project 2049 Institute says that it is "a matter of time" before the People’s Republic of China launches a "short, sharp war" to take the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands, but currently controlled by Japan. The report is entitled "White Warships and Little Blue Men" (PDF)—a reference to China's Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, both of which have seen a dramatic build-up in the past decade, along with the rapid modernization and expansion of the naval forces of the People's Liberation Army. We are not sure we share the assessment that the conflict will be "limited yet decisive," in the paraphrase of Epoch Times...
UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement April 9 saying he is "deeply concerned" about ongoing air-strikes on Douma in Syria's besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave, noting the "killing of civilians" and "destruction of civilian infrastructure," including hospitals and health facilities. The statement said he is "particularly alarmed by allegations that chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations in Douma." It also noted reports of civilians killed by shelling of Damascus from rebel positions in Douma. Guterres called on all sides to abide by Security Council Resolutions 2401, which last month demanded a 30-day halt to hostilitiess. He reiterated that there is no military solution to the conflict.
Russian-backed Assad regime forces are on the verge of taking the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria's Eastern Ghouta enclave, in the Damascus suburbs. A Russian military commander boasted: "The militants are being evacuated from Douma, their last bastion in Eastern Ghouta, and within a few days the humanitarian operation in Eastern Ghouta must be completed." This "humanitarian operation" has seen the near-total destruction of Ghouta by aerial bombardment over the past weeks, with some 1,500 killed. Thousands of fighters and residents have been allowed to evacuate via buses to Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held province, under what was reported as a "surrender agreement." (Al Jazeera, Syria Direct)
A few hundred of the several hundreds of thousands trapped in besieged Eastern Ghouta have been allowed to evacuate to rebel-held Idlib governorate through a "humanitarian corridor" supposedly free of regime and Russian air-strikes. The Assad regime and its allies have now managed to split the enclave into three blocs, each surrounded and under bombardment. Aid groups warn that conditions in the enclave surpass even those seen during the 2016 Aleppo crisis. Ghouta's fall looks increasingly certain, leaving Idlib as the last rebel-held pocket of Syria. (Middle East Eye, NYT)