Greater Middle East
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!
German federal prosecutors charged two former Syrian intelligence officers with "more than 4,000 alleged cases of torture" in the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz in October. The case, which is anticipated to start in 2020, will be the "first criminal trial worldwide" over alleged crimes against humanity in Syria. The defendants are identified as Anwar R. and Eyad A., with their last names withheld under German law. The two left Syria in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and sought asylum in Germany. However, both were arrested by authorities in February. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) confirmed the allegations against them in a press release, saying:
A US military convoy was spotted headed back into Syria from Iraqi territory—just days after the US withdrawal from northern Syria, which precipitated the Turkish aggression there, had been completed. The convoy was traveling toward the Deir ez-Zor area, presumably to "guard" the oil-fields there, now under the precarious control of Kurdish forces. (Rudaw) Following up on President Trump's pledge to secure the oil-fields, Defense Secretary Mark Esper now tells USA Today that the troops being mobilized to Deir ez-Zor "will include some mechanized forces." USA Today also reports that Esper broached sending armored vehicles now based in Kuwait to defend the Syrian oil-fields.
Turkey and Russia announced a deal for joint control of northeast Syria Oct. 22, as Kurdish forces retreated from the so-called "safe zone" along the border. The 10-point agreement defines the dimensions of the "safe zone," 480 kilometers (270 miles) long and 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep, enclosing the (former) Kurdish autonomous cantons of Kobani and Cezire. It supports Ankara's demand for the withdrawal of the Kurdish YPG militia. In Washington, Trump wasted no time in announcing that his administration will lift the sanctions it had imposed on Turkey in response to the aggression in Syria's north. (EA Worldview, The Hill)
US troops hastened their withdrawal from Syria on Oct. 21, amid the anger of local Kurds and confusion over the future status of American forces in the area. More than 100 vehicles crossed into Iraq that day. The departure of the 1,000 soldiers—including 500 that were embdedded in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—was marked by the US destroying weapons, equipment and facilities to keep them from falling into the hands of Russian, Assadist or Iranian forces. Video showed Kurdish residents, furious at a perceived betrayal by the Americans, berating and attempting to block a convoy of withdrawing US forces as youth pelted the trucks and armored vehicles with stones and rotten fruit.