Panama announced June 13 that it is breaking its long-standing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing relations with China—a clear political coup for Beijing. The Panamanian statement said it recognized "only one China" and considers to be Taiwan part of it. The change was spurred by an unavoidable fact: China is the second most important Panama Canal user after the United States. Last year it sent 38 million metric tons of cargo through the interoceanic waterway, accounting for 19% of its traffic. The announcement of the diplomatic switch also comes just as Chinese enterprises began building a container port, with natural gas terminals, in Panama's Colón province, on the Atlantic side of the canal. "I think Dominican Republic and Nicaragua will soon follow," Mexico's former ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, tweeted soon after the announcement.
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)
US jets attacked a convoy of forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in southern Hama governorate May 18—ironically within one of the "deconfliction zones" established by the US and Russia. The convoy was apparently approaching the base at al-Tanf, which is used by FSA forces and US advisors. "We notified the coalition that we were being attacked by the Syrian army and Iranians in this point, and the coalition came and destroyed the advancing convoy," said Muzahem al-Saloum of the local FSA militia, Maghawir al-Thawra (also rendered Maghaweer al-Thawra). The pro-Assad militia targeted in the raid was named as Saraya al-Areen, apparently an Alawite force commanded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The regime was also said to be moving Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary forces into the area.
In their White House meeting May 16, President Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of course pledged cooperation in the fight against terrorism. But what is signficant is that Trump, probably none too sophistcated about the complexities of factional politics in the region, was sure to mention the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) by name: "We support Turkey in the first fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and ensure they have no safe quarter. We also appreciate Turkey's leadership in seeking an end to the horrific killing in Syria."
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.