Russia this week completed a high-tech security fence along annexed Crimea's border with mainland Ukraine. The fence, more than 60 kilometers long, is topped with barbed wire and equipped with hundreds of sensors. Russia's FSB security agency in a statement called the fence a "boundary of engineering structures," and said it is necessary to prevent "infiltration attempts by saboteurs," also citing traffic in drugs, arms and other contraband. The statement boasted of "the most complicated system of alarm sensors in the Isthmus of Perekop," the stretch of land where annexed Crimea borders the Ukrainian mainland.
In Episode 23 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg notes the assassination of Raed Fares, a courageous voice of the civil resistance in besieged Idlib province, last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution. The resistance in Idlib, which liberated the territory from the Bashar Assad regime in popular uprisings seven years ago, is now also resisting the jihadist forces in the province, expelling them from their self-governing towns and villages. Their hard-won zones of popular democracy face extermination if this last stronghold is invaded by Assad and his Russian backers. As Assad and Putin threaten Idlib, Trump's announced withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast is a "green light" to Turkey to attack Rojava, the anarchist-inspired Kurdish autonomous zone. The two last pockets of democratic self-rule in Syria are each now gravely threatened. Yet with Turkey posing as protector of Idlib, the Arab revolutionary forces there have been pitted against the Kurds. The Free Syrian Army and Rojava Kurds were briefly allied against ISIS and Assad alike four years ago, before they were played against each other by imperial intrigues. Can this alliance be rebuilt, in repudiation of the foreign powers now seeking to carve up Syria? Or will the US withdrawal merely spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war in northern Syria? Weinberg calls for activists in the West to repudiate imperial divide-and-rule stratagems, and demand the survival of liberated Idlib and Rojava alike. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
The New York Times reports Dec. 19 that President Trump has ordered a "rapid withdrawal of all 2,000 United States ground troops from Syria within 30 days." Trump tweeted the announcement: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." Hardly coincidentally, this comes just as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Pentagon's main partner on the ground, are on the brink of capturing the last town in Syria still under ISIS—Hajin, on the banks of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate. The Independent reports that SDF fighters have now entered the town aft6er a three-month siege. Also not coincidentally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just days earlier warned of an imminent offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that makes up the core of the SDF. Erdogan said Dec. 12 that Turkey will launch an operation against the YPG "in a few days," adding that it is "time to realize our decision to wipe out terror groups east of the Euphrates." The Euphrates River has until now served as a border between Turkey's "buffer zone" in northern Syria and areas still under Kurdish control. Turkey is now preparing to cross it—with evident US connivance.
Well, this is all too telling. Seeking to legitimize his regime now that he's reconquered most of Syria (with massive Russian military help), Bashar Assad has just welcomed the first Arab League leader to Damascus since the war began in 2011—and it is none other than President Omar Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. As BashirWatch recalls, Bashir has been evading justice for 11 years. The Assad regime's official news agency SANA said the two dictators discussed the "situations and crises faced by many Arab countries," stressing the need to build "new principles for inter-Arab relations based on the respect of the sovereignty of countries and non-interference in internal affairs." (Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye)
The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Oct. 31 that they have temporarily halted their campaign against ISIS after they were bombarded for the second time in four days by Turkish forces. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledging to "wipe out" the Kurdish YPG militia, calling them "terrorists," his forces in northern Syria attacked YPG positions east of the Euphrates River Oct. 28 and then again two days later. The YPG, or People's Protection Units, constitute the central pillar of the US-backed SDF, which Washington continues to support with some 2,000 embedded troops. At least 10 YPG fighters were reported killed in the Turkish shelling of territory in the Kurdish autonomous canton of Kobani. The SDF said in a statement: "Turkish attacks in the north and ISIS attacks in the south against our troops had forced us to stop our current operation temporarily against ISIS in [its] last pocket... We call [upon] the international community to condemn the Turkish provocations in the safe areas in Syria, and we demand our partners in the International Coalition to show a clear attitude and stop Turkey from launching attacks on the region." The statement claimed the YPG responded to the shelling with artillery fire, destroying a Turkish military vehicle and border post. (EA Worldview, Haaretz)
The "buffer zone" through Syria's northern Idlib province, negotiated by Russia and Turkey to forestall an Assad regime offensive on the opposition-held portion of the province, officially takes effect this week. Rebels began withdrawing heavy weapons from the zone at the start of the month, but said that fighters are remaining. Fighters from designated "radical terrorist groups"—primarily Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—are supposed to withdraw entirely from the zone. HTS initially said it would comply on a "de facto" basis, but the zone is being implemented despite the fact that a deadline has been missed for withdrawal of all its fighters. The zone, some 20 kilometers wide, stretches from Latakia to Aleppo, through Idlib and portions of Hama province. (See map.) (Qantara, Oct. 17; AFP, Oct. 10; BBC News, Oct. 8; EA Worldview, Oct. 7) But Bashar Assad insisted that the so-called "demilitarized zone" is temporary. Addressing the central committee of his Baath Party, Assad reiterated his pledge to retake "every inch" of Syrian territory: "This province and other Syrian territory remaining under the control of terrorists will return to the Syrian state." (EA Worldview, Oct. 8)
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)
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.