Taliban leaders confirmed that long-planned direct talks with the US took place in Doha, capital of Qatar, Oct. 12. The Taliban said in a statement (PDF) that their delegation met with US special adviser for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. The statement said the two sides discussed the prospects for an end to the presence of the foreign forces in Afghanistan, and the return of "true peace" to the country. (Khaama Press, Long War Journal, Oct. 13) These overtures come as the US is stepping up operations against ISIS in Afghanistan. In an Aug. 25 air-strike in Nangarhar province, the US claimed to have killed Abu Sayed Orakzai, top ISIS commander in Afghanistan. (CNN, Sept. 3) Earlier in August, more than 200 ISIS fighters and their two top commanders surrendered to Afghan government forces in Jowzjan province to avoid capture by Taliban insurgents, after a two-day battle that was a decisive victory for the Taliban. (NYT, Aug. 1)
In Episode 19 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg discusses the urgent need for solidarity with Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution, and looks at heroic examples of the civil resistance there, which is standing up to the Assad regime and jihadists alike—such as Rania Kisar, who has been running schools and other civil institutions; and Radio Fresh, which is continuing to broadcast in defiance of threats and censorship from the jihadists. The weekly Friday demonstrations in Idlib continue to keep alive the spirit of the 2011 Arab Revolution, demanding a democratic future for Syria. In a victory for the forces organizing in solidarity with Idlib around the world, the long-planned Assad regime invasion of the opposition-held province has been postponed (at least) in a deal negotiated by Russia and Turkey, buying time for the survival of the revolution. But those who stand in solidarity with Idlib in New York City have themselves been threatened and physically attacked by followers of sectarian pseudo-left factions that support the genocidal Assad regime. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reported to have fled to Afghanistan via Iran, to escape "Operation Roundup," a final offensive against remnant Islamic State pockets in Syria's eastern desert. The operation was launched last week by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Baghdadi is believed to have reached Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan. According to Pakistani security sources, Baghdadi crossed through the Iranian border city of Zahedan. The sources claimed Baghdadi received protection from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as he passed through the country's territory. ISIS now holds only three towns in Syria—Hajin, a-Baghouz and al-Sussa, all close to the Iraqi border.
A Turkish court has sentenced a former British soldier to seven-and-a-half years for alleged links to Syria's Kurdish YPG militia, considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara. Joe Robinson of Leeds was arrested in Turkey in July 2017 after he apparently posted photos of himself in camouflage, posing beside fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. A court in the western city of Aydin sentenced the 25-year-old for "membership of a terrorist organization" on Sept. 15. Robinson did not attend the trial for health reasons. He is currently on bail and planning an appeal. His Bulgarian fiancée, arrested along with him, was sentenced to nearly two years for "terrorist propaganda," but she is currently in the United Kingdom. The BBC reports that the fiancée, Mira Rojkan, was given a suspended sentence.
The US government has reinforced counter-terrorism controls on aid operations in Syria. New contractual terms require US-funded organizations to get special permission to provide relief in areas controlled by extremist groups. The move further complicates aid operations for those trapped in Syria’s last rebel stronghold, Idlib, where two thirds of its three million people need assistance. The top UN official for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, Panos Moumtzis, told IRIN news agency that donors were, in general, backing away from funding all but the most critical needs in Idlib, fearing aid will fall into the hands of groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
The long-feared Assad regime offensive on Idlib province appears to have been called off—for now. After meeting in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly agreed to a "buffer zone" in Idlib—a strip some 25 kilometers wide to separate regime forces in the south from rebel and opposition forces in the north. Although it is being called a "demilitarized" zone, it will in fact be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops. There are numerous unanswered questions. Reports indicated the deal stipulates that "all heavy weapons be withdrawn from the zone"—but does that apply to the Russian and Turkish patrols? It is also mandated that what Putin called "radically-minded" rebel fighters would have to pull out of the zone entirely, which is presumably a reference to the Nusra-affiliated jihadist factions. These factions control parts of Idlib city, and it is not clear if the provincial capital will be included in the zone. (BBC News, Haaretz)
As the Assad regime and its Russian backers prepare an offensive to take Idlib, the last area of opposition control in Syria, the people of the northern province have been holding demonstrations, organized by the civil resistance, waving the Free Syria flag and calling on the world to act to prevent the impending massacre there. Hundreds of civilians have fled the front-line area in the south of the province, as the first Russian-led air-strikes opened this week. A summit between the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran is underway in Tehran to try to arrive at consensus over Idlib's fate, but Moscow and the Islamic Republic refuse to abandon their commitment to an invasion of the province of 3 million, which already faces grave humanitarian conditions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Syrian army is "getting ready" to clear the "cradle of terrorism" in Idlib (EA Worldview, AFP, Al Jazeera, BBC News) Reuters ran gut-wrenching photos of Idlib residents fitting their children with improvised gas-masks—fashioned from plastic sheeting and plastic cups filled with cotton and charcoal—in anticipation of a chemical attack.
Armed street clashes have rocked Tripoli over the past week, as militias linked to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) have vied for control of the Libyan capital with rival militias that have launched an offensive on the city from the southeast. The most significant of these is the 7th Brigade from the town of Tarhuna—also known as as the Kaniat Brigade, led by the Kani brothers. The 7th Brigade has rejected the truce, vowing to continue fighting until it "cleanses Tripoli of militias." The 7th Brigade has reportedly assumed control of the airport. There have been reports that that GNA has launched air-strikes on Tarhuna, but these were denied by the Presidential Council, which said that the strikes targeted only "aggressor" postitions inside Tripoli. The city's electricity has intermittently gone out amid the fighting, and access to Facebook—the only news source for most Libyans—has been blocked, although it is unclear by whom. The GNA has declared a state of emergency in the city, and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has formed a "crisis committee" to try to broker peace. But warlord Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi, who is loyal to Libya's unrecognized eastern government, anticipated the fall of Tripoli, saying that "liberating the Libyan capital is inevitable." (Middle East Eye, Libya Observer, Libya Observer, Libya Observer, Libya Observer, Libya Observer, Libya Observer, Al Jazeera, Libya Herald, Reuters )