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)
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.'"
Libya's weak UN-backed government is bracing for an offensive on Tripoli by the country's strong eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar, generally referred to as a "renegade general." Haftar ordered his "Libyan National Army" forces amassed on the outskirts to advance on Tripoli and "conquer" it whether by peaceful means or force. Militias loyal to the "official" government are scrambling to erect defenses. (Libyan Express, Al Jazeera) Tellingly, the newly-formed Western Region coalition of anti-Hafter forces are calling their operation to defend the capital "Wadi [Ouadi] Doum 2." This is a reference to an airstrip built by Qaddafi in northern Chad to support local rebels, where Hafter was defeated and captured by Chadian government forces in 1987, in an operation backed by French support. (Libya Herald) Today, the tables have turned, and both France and Hafter oppose the rebels fighting the current Chadian government. Several hundred fighters from Chad's rebel Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) were expelled from southern Libya by Hafter's LNA last month, and reportedly surrendered to the French-backed Chadian military. (Defense Post)
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.
Direct talks between US officials and the Taliban are advancing in Qatar, aimed at ending the decades-long conflict in Afghanistan. Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for the first time met the US special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, on March 4. (Al Jazeera) In a parallel process being brokered by Russia, Taliban representatives and Afghan politicians opposed to President Ashraf Ghani met in Moscow last month. The Taliban refuse to recognize Ghani's government, calling it a "puppet" of the US. (Al Jazeera) But advocates for Afghan women view both these sets of talks with increasing skepticism, voicing their concern that hard-won rights could be bargained away.
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.
As in the Venezuela crisis, Donald Trump, the great enthusiast for dictators, is making a cynical pretense of concern for democracy in Iran. Fortunately, his latest bit of exploitation of the Iranian protesters has blown up in his face. Noting the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, he issued a tweet yesterday featuring a meme with an image of a student protester from the 2017 anti-austerity uprising and the words: "40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future." He also tweeted the same message in the Persian language. Today, the courageous photographer who snapped the image at the University of Tehran in December 2017, Yalda Moayeri, comes forward to express her outrage at its co-optation by Trump, telling the New York Times: "I felt cheated and abused, it causes me great sorrow to see the man who is inflicting so much pain upon me and my compatriots to use my image for his own agenda. I did not take this risk to have someone using it to pressure us Iranians even further." She added: "His sanctions are devastating our lives. Our money became worthless. People are becoming poor. Because of his travel ban, many Iranians cannot visit their family members in the United States. My father lives there and I can't go either. I just don't want to be any part of his agenda against Iran."