Greater Middle East
Over half a million people are on the move in northwestern Syria's Idlib province as Bashar Assad's Russian-backed forces follow up their long aerial campaign with a ground offensive. The front line is closing on the provincial capital, the Turkish border is sealed to people trying to flee, and health services are collapsing. Eight aid agencies have issued a statement saying that the Idlib warzone is already a winter "humanitarian catastrophe," as options shrink for temporary accommodation and camps for the displaced are overflowing. As rebel defenses collapse, displaced civilians are dismantling their own homes before they flee to deny looters property they expect never to see again. Decisions made by Turkey in the coming days will be key for the future of the millions of people in the region: Turkish forces and groups they back have been directly involved in recent fighting around the strategic town of Saraqeb, exchanging fire with Syrian government forces, according to Turkish media. Russia says "terrorist" rebels are mounting an "aggressive" campaign of attacks on government-held territory. Russia and Assad show little sign of slowing their offensive despite calls for restraint from the EU, the UN, and the United States.
The Court of Cassation of Belgium on Jan. 28 upheld a lower court's judgement and ruled that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is not a "terrorist organization." The case, one of several in Belgium relating to the nature of the PKK, stems from an investigation into three local Kurdish supporters of the party by Belgian judicial authorities. The legality of the investigation was challenged, and in May 2017 the Court of Appeals ruled for the three activists. The Federal Prosecutor's appeal of this ruling has now been rejected. Speaking to Kurdish news agency ANF after the high court decision, one of the three targeted leaders, Zübeyir Aydar of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), said: "The Court of Cassation ruling recognizes the fact that the Kurdistan freedom struggle cannot be accused of terrorism, that what is in question is not terror but a war, and the PKK is a party of this war. This is a first in Europe and we hope it will set an example to other countries." A case has been pending since November 2018 before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg challenging the European Union's listing of the PKK as a "terrorist organization."
Moscow has certainly been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days. Jan. 13 saw the first direct meeting in years between the intelligence chiefs of Turkey and Syria's Assad regime, supposedly deadly rivals. The head of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) Hakan Fidan met with Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, in a sure sign of a Russian-brokered rapprochement between the burgeoning dictatorship of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the entrenched dictatorship of Bashar Assad. Sources said discussions included "the possibility of working together against YPG, the terrorist organization PKK's Syrian component, in the East of the Euphrates river." (Daily Sabah, Reuters)
Reviving Friday demonstrations that were a tradition of the Syrian revolution, activists in besieged Idlib province in the north filled the Idlib city center on Jan. 10, flying the Free Syria flag, chanting slogans against the Assad regime and Russia, and demanding international action against the ongoing bombardment of the province. The demonstrators especially expressed their sympathy and support for the displaced persons from Maarat al-Nuaman, a town which has come under especially intense bombardment in recent weeks. The Assad regime and Russia launched their bombing campaign in April, largely violating the de-escalation zone deal reached between Russia and Turkey. (OrientNet)
More than 20 shepherds were killed Jan. 4 in eastern Syria, with pro-opposition activists claiming that Iran-backed militias were responsible. The shepherds were slain in the Maadan area, on the border of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces, and also near the line between territory held by the Assad regime and that held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The regime is being massively backed by Iranian forces, and Iran-backed militia units had established checkpoints along the border of the zones of control. The media-activist network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently claimed the shepherds were shot and stabbed in retaliation for the US assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq a day earlier. Damascus state media blamed the massacre on ISIS. Soleimani's elite Quds Force intervened in Syria to prop up the Assad regime along with Russia in 2015. (EA Worldview)
More than 235,000 people have fled from their homes in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province over the past days, as the Assad regime and Russia escalate their campaign of aerial bombardment. A report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that Ma'arrat An Nu'man and other towns in the province are now "almost empty," while internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the extreme northwest of the province are rapidly swelling. "Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected," the report states. Perversely, the renewed offensive comes days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended cross-border aid convoys into Idlib from Turkey for another year—essentially condemning many of those not directly killed by the bombs to death by starvation and exposure. (BBC News, Al Jazeera, The New Humanitarian, France24)
Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor announced Dec. 23 that five people have been sentenced to death and three sentenced to prison terms in connection with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. The verdict revealed that charges had been dismissed for the remaining three of the 11 that had been on trial. The trial did not find that the killing was premeditated. Among those not indicted were two top Saudi officials, who were exonerated due to lack of evidence. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for the Washington Post, entered the consulate to obtain marriage documents in October 2018, only to be killed there, his body dismembered and later taken from the consulate. The remains have yet to be found.
Before Donald Trump left the London NATO summit in a huff, he made the startling claim at a press conference that the United States can do "what we want" with the oil-fields now under its control in northeast Syria. The Dec. 2 remarks are provided via White House transcript: "And I wanted to say that, in keeping the oil, ISIS was trying to, as you know, regain control of the oil. And we have total control of the oil. And, frankly, we had a lot of support from a lot of different people. But, right now, the only soldiers we have, essentially, in that area, are the soldiers keeping the oil. So we have the oil, and we can do with the oil what we want." This faux pas, jumped on by the British tabloid press, recalls Trump's 2016 campaign trail boast of his plans for Syria: "I'll take the oil"—and turn the seized fields over to Exxon!