Greater Middle East
Protesters gathered in the town of Atmeh in Syria's opposition-held Idlib province on June 23 to demand the release of a locally based British aid worker arrested by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamist militia formerly known as the Nusra Front that now controls much of the province. Tauqir Sharif, who has been based in Atmeh near the Turkish border since 2013, was detained by HTS earlier in the week in a raid on his home. Footage of the protest showed many women and children among dozens chanting and holding banners calling for Sharif to be freed, as they marched through the town. The crowd finally gathered outside the closed gates of a compound guarded by masked militiamen. Demonstrators also protested closure of education and other social services by HTS, chanting "We want schools to open."
Three years after her arrest and torture by security forces in her native country, Egyptian LGBT activist Sarah Hegazi killed herself in exile in Canada on June 14, prompting an outpouring of sympathy and anger on social media. Hegazi, 30, an openly gay woman and rights advocate, was among a group of activists arrested in September 2017 after raising a rainbow flag at a Cairo concert of the Lebanese indie band Mashrou Leila, which includes gay members. Hegazi was charged with joining an illegal group promoting "deviant thought." She fled to Canada after being released on bail in January 2018. The incident was followed by a harsh crackdown on Egypt's LGBT community.
Amid spiraling inflation and fast-rising prices for food and other basic goods, protests are again emerging in regime-controlled areas of Syria—some reviving slogans of the 2011 revolution. On June 7, an angry protest was held in the southwestern city of Suweida. Crowds moved through the city's central streets, eventually gathering in front of the governorate building, where they chanted, "The people want to topple the regime!" "Revolution, freedom, social justice!" and "Down with Bashar al-Assad!" Discontent has been simmering in the city since local youth launched a campaign dubbed "We Want to Live" at the beginning of the year. The protest was particularly significant, as the Druze-majority province of Suweida has remained loyal to Damascus throughout the nine years of the Syrian uprising.
With testing capacity low and the health system ravaged by five years of war, nobody really knows how many people are infected or dying of COVID-19 in Yemen, but the outlook does not seem good. Hundreds of people in Aden have reportedly died with symptoms that appear consistent with the coronavirus, while in the Houthi-controlled north there are unconfirmed but persistent rumors of a cover-up to mask a rising case count. To make matters worse, the UN—concerned it can't protect its staff from the virus inside their compound—has pulled half of its remaining international workforce out of Sana'a, putting them on flights to Addis Ababa. Some people have remained behind in the Yemeni capital, and others are holed up in Aden (recently deluged by flash floods and a political power struggle), but most foreigners who work for UN agencies will now have to do their jobs remotely. The bulk of the UN's aid workers in Yemen are Yemenis, of course, and they are still in the country, doing their best to fight off a global pandemic that even the world's richest countries are struggling to manage.
A report published by Amnesty International on May 11 found that the Syrian government, supported by Russia, committed a series of war crimes in northwest Syria in late 2019 and 2020. The report found that "attacks from the air and the ground repeatedly struck residential areas and crucial infrastructure." The findings are based on interviews of Syrians on the ground and international aid workers, as well as videos, photographs, satellite imagery, logs of aircraft observations and intercepted aircraft radio communication. The attacks mainly occurred in opposition-held areas of Idlib province, western Aleppo province and northwestern Hama province. The report documents 18 attacks in these areas on schools and medical facilities. The report calls these attacks "serious violations" of international humanitarian law.
The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a diplomatic think-tank established by presidential decree, has issued a report predicting that Russia, Turkey and Iran will soon reach a joint agreement to remove Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from power, replacing him with a transitional government including members of both the regime and opposition, as well as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In its coverage of the report, Russian news agency TASS suggested that Moscow fears a repeat of the "Afghan scenario" in Syria if it continues to back an unpopular regime. It also suggested that Assad is perceived by Moscow as too beholden to Tehran.
Saudi activists and dissidents are disputing official accounts alleging that a northern tribesman who refused government orders to surrender his home to make way for a new mega-project was killed in a shoot-out with security forces. Authorities say Abdul Rahim Ahmad al-Hwaiti, from Tabuk province on the Red Sea, was a "wanted terrorist" who opened fire on State Security agents when they arrived at his home in Khraybah town April 15. But the incident came two days after al-Hwaiti posted a video statement saying he and other local residents were being pressured by the government to give up their properties and accept financial compensation. Al-Hwaiti, a member of the powerful al-Huwaitat tribe, said: "Anyone who refuses to leave the area would be arrested by government agents." He accused the government of a policy of "forced displacement."
Syrian Kurdish officials on April 29 condemned the bombing in Afrin that claimed the lives of at least 40 civilians, including 12 children. The explosive device was apparently attached to an oil tanker and was detonated as it drove through a crowded market. "We in the Syrian Democratic Council condemn and denounce this cowardly terrorist act that targeted innocent civilians and threatens the remaining ones to move and leave their villages and cities," the SDC, political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said in a public statement. It called on the international community to fulfill its responsibilities and "work to end the Turkish occupation of the city of Afrin and all other areas that it occupied."