The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad has installed a crematorium at the notorious Saydnaya military prison outside Damascus in order to destroy the remains of thousands of murdered prisoners, the United States charged May 8. "We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison," said Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. The State Department also released commercial satellite photographs showing what it said is a building in the prison complex that has been modified as a crematorium. Jones said Washington's information came from "credible humanitarian agencies" and from the US "intelligence community," and that as many as 50 people per day are thought to be hanged at Saydnaya. In presenting the photographs, Jones said Assad's regime "has sunk to a new level of depravity" with the support of Russia and Iran.
President Donald Trump on May 9 announced approval of a plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the anti-ISIS coalition led by the Rojava Kurds. The aid—including heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored cars and engineering equipment—will boost the prowess of the People's Protection Units (YPG), territorial defense militia of the Rojava autonomous zone and the central pillar of the SDF. "The Syrian Democratic Forces, partnered with enabling support from US and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future," said a Pentagon statement. The move is being taken over strenuous Turkish objections to arming the Syrian Kurds, and will certainly be a contentious point when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Trump in Washington next week. (ANF, NYT, May 9)
Following last week's Turkish air-strikes on Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the autonomous administration in the region is said to have issued a call for a "no-fly zone." Tev-Dem, the self-governance structure for Syria's Kurdish autonomous zone, reportedly issued the call after Turkish raids killed at least 20 fighters of its militia force, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Because US-backed Kurdish forces are basically calling for international protection from US ally Turkey, this development further heightens the contradictions that Washington faces in northern Syria. It is telling that the Tev-Dem statement is aggressively touted by Kremlin mouthpiece Sputnik. It has also been reported by Syria Deeply and UPI.
Recent comments by the Assad regime's ambassador to Russia, Riyad Haddad, appear to indicate that Damascus and Moscow are preparing to cut loose the Rojava Kurds, who they have heretofore been attempting to cultivate as proxies. At issue, predictably, is the Kurdish demand for regional autonomy and a federal solution for Syria. "The Kurds are an integral part of the Syrian people, they have the same rights and obligations as the rest of the Syrian people," Haddad said in comments before the Russian Federation Council, quoted by Kremlin state media outlet Sputnik. "I would like to stress that many Kurds are actually strongly opposing any form of division, either a federation, or cantons, or other forms. That is why we keep on saying that Syria is capable and ready to settle the crisis alone, without interference from the outside." Of course the invocation of non-interference is hilariously ironic in light of massive Russian military intervention in Syria. And the "many Kurds" who supposedly oppose autonomy are conveninently left unnamed.
This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)
We aren't sure whether to be more alarmed or amused. Kyle Orton, an analyst with the ultra-hawkish Henry Jackson Society, has a piece entitled "The West's Inconsistent Approach to Foreign Fighters in Syria," warning that the Kurdish forces the US is backing are in an alliance with anarchists and elements of the Turkish and European armed left. It is bascally regurgitating Turkey's cynical propaganda game of conflating the secular-democratic Kurdish forces and ISIS as equally "terrorist." It portrays the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) as merely an extension of the PKK guerilla movement in Turkey, and waxes paranoid about the leftist volunteers that have come to the Rojava region join them, now apparently organized in an umbrella called the International Revolutionary People's Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF, with its own Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and manifesto on the anarchist website CrimethInc).
Amid a new eruption of massive protests and deadly street clashes in Venezuela comes word that General Motors says it will immediately halt operations in the country after its plant in the industrial hub of Valencia was unexpectedly seized by authorities. GM described the takeover as an "illegal judicial seizure of its assets," and pledged to "vigorously take all legal actions, within and outside of Venezuela" to challenge the expropriation. (CNN, NBC, April 20) But the news comes along with even more unexpected indications of quiet overtures between the governments of Nicolás Maduro and Donald Trump...
US-led air-strikes killed 20 civilians at the ISIS-held town of Albu Kamal, in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor governorate, local media activists reported April 17. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 13 civilians, including five children, were killed in the strike, as well as three ISIS militants. Earlier that day, a US-led strike killed seven civilians, including a child, in the nearby village of Husseinyeh, the monitor said. (Middle East Online) US-led air-strikes in northern Syria and Iraq over the past weeks have killed perhaps upwards of 600 civilians.