A new Amnesty International report accuses the US of "war crimes" in the bombardment of Raqqa, and the virtual "annihilation" of the city. The fact that the US-led bombardment was in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their campaign to take the city from ISIS has contributed to pitting Kurd against Arab and brought northern Syria closer to ethnic war. Ironically (if predictably), now that the Syrian Kurds have served their purpose in defeating ISIS, Washington is about to kick them overboard—just as Assad and Erdogan alike are preparing offensives against them.
Two months after it was first reported that President Trump had issued an order to freeze over $200 million in "reconstruction aid" to what media accounts called "US-backed rebels" in Syria, details are finally emerging on which groups have had their aid cut. And the first to be mentioned isn't a "rebel" group at all, but the White Helmets—the volunteer unarmed civil defense force that operates in areas under bombardment by the Assad regime and its Russian backers. A spokesperson for the US State Department, which is said to provide some third of the White Helmets' budget, said the group's funding is "under active review." But speaking to Al Jazeera, White Helmets leader Raed Saleh pledged to persevere. He said the group "did not receive any direct funding from the US or any other country"—presumably meaning money was funneled through NGOs. "The White Helmets receives funding from organizations and associations. Our work has not been disrupted and all the projects we are working on will not be halted. Our volunteers are still operating on the ground."
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.
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)
Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels announced March 18 that they have seized "full control" of Afrin, following a two-month offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia in the northern Syrian town and surrounding enclave. One of the three "cantons" that make up the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava has now been lost. The statement announcing the seizure of the enclave was published on the Twitter page of "Operation Olive Branch," as the offensive was officially dubbed. Once "Olive Branch" forces actually penetrated Afrin town, the YPG apparently withdraw to prevent the civilian population from being caught in the fighting. In the prelude to the town's fall, residents described chaos as fleeing civilians were trapped by artillery and by Turkish air-strikes. The "Nothern Brigade" of the Free Syrian Army was named as the key ground force taking control of the enclave under Turkish direction and protection. (NYT, Syria Direct) Turkey's official Anadolu Agency also names Syrian Turkmen militia forces as involved in taking the enclave, and explicitly appeals to ethnic resentment, stating: "Arab tribes welcome liberation of Afrin."
Turkish air-strikes killed four civilians camping in a rural area of northern Iraq's Qandil Mountains as part of a gathering celebrating the traditional Kurdish spring festival, Nowruz. The March 22 air raid on the Choman district of Iraq's Kurdistan Region was ostensibly aimed at positions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But local residents told Kurdistan 24 the young men killed in the strikes, at a site known as Dali Baliani, were all civilians.
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)