Twin explosions have left at least 20 dead and some 80 wounded at the cathedral in Jolo, capital of Sulu province in the restive southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The first blast went off inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel as Sunday mass was about to start. This was followed a few seconds later by another blast in the cathedral's parking area. The attack came just days after the Bangsamoro Organic Law was approved by voters in the region, creating a new Muslim-led autonomous government, The new Bangsamoro autonomous region replaces the weaker Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). More than 1.5 million ARMM residents voted "yes" to BOL ratification, while some 199,000 voted "no." Of the five provinces in the autonomous region, the only one to reject the BOL was Sulu—by a vote of some 163,500 to 137,630.
Authorities in Ezidikhan, the self-declared Yazidi autonomous homeland in northern Iraq, appointed an Investigative Team on Genocide this week, pursuant to a law mandating establishment of the body passed by the Ezidikhan Governing Council last month. The team will primarily be looking at massacres and enslavement that targeted the Yazidi people when ISIS was in control of their territory from Augusr 2014 to November 2015. But the team will also examine possible crimes and complicity by the Iraqi national government, its allied paramilitary forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and foreign powers such as Turkey. The body is cooperating with the UN investigative team also working in the area, with an eye toward eventual establishment of an International Tribunal on Genocide for Yezidi and Neighboring Peoples (ITGYNP). But the Yazidi team's senior investigator, Abdul Qader al-Rawi, made clear: "Unlike the UN investigation, the Ezidikhan Investigative Team is not constrained by the Iraqi government’s claims for sovereign immunity." (Ezidikhan Public Information Bureau, Jan. 13)
A suicide blast cliamed by ISIS killed 19 people in the contested north Syrian town of Manbij Jan. 16. The blast targeted a US military patrol that was stopped for lunch at local restaurant, and among the dead were four Americans: two US service members, a defense contractor and a Defense Department civilian employee. The blast comes just weeks after Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, with his administration crowing about how ISIS has been defeated. Just hours after the blast, Vice President Pence embarrassingly boasted: "Thanks to the courage of our armed forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities." (NYT, CNN) But an ISIS resurgence is actually a lesser concern than a US withdrawal setting off a scramble for Syria's north that could spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war.
Assad regime artillery struck areas of Syria's opposition-held Idlib province Jan. 12 after militants allegedly tried to infiltrate regime-held areas, according to state news agency SANA. The shelling was reportedly focused on the town of Tamanaa near Maaret al-Numan, which was seized from Turkish-backed rebels by jihadist forces earlier in the week. The was apparently part of a ceasefire agreement ending an internal conflict between rival opposition forces in Idlib. Much of the governorate's territory was reportedly turned over to the so-called "Salvation Government"—administrative arm of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor organization to disbanded al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. Constituent militias of the rival Turkish-backed National Liberation Front have reportedly retreated to the Turkish-held enclave of Afrin across the border in Aleppo governorate. (Rudaw, AFP) These ominous developments may spell an end to Idlib's reprieve from the threatened Assad offensiive on the province since establishment of a joint Turkish-Russian buffer zone there.
Talk about strange bedfellows! This week witnessed the surreal spectacle of US National Security Adviser John Bolton, the most bellicose neoconservative in the Trump administration, visiting Turkey to try to forestall an Ankara attack on radical-left, anarchist-leaning Kurdish fighters that the Pentagon has been backing to fight ISIS in Syria. "We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States," Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem before leaving for Ankara. Refering to the Kurdish YPG militia, a Turkish presidential spokesman responded: "That a terror organization cannot be allied with the US is self-evident." Bolton left Turkey without meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then publicly dissed the National Security Adviser's stance as a "serious mistake." (Al Jazeera, Politico)
In Episode 23 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg notes the assassination of Raed Fares, a courageous voice of the civil resistance in besieged Idlib province, last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution. The resistance in Idlib, which liberated the territory from the Bashar Assad regime in popular uprisings seven years ago, is now also resisting the jihadist forces in the province, expelling them from their self-governing towns and villages. Their hard-won zones of popular democracy face extermination if this last stronghold is invaded by Assad and his Russian backers. As Assad and Putin threaten Idlib, Trump's announced withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast is a "green light" to Turkey to attack Rojava, the anarchist-inspired Kurdish autonomous zone. The two last pockets of democratic self-rule in Syria are each now gravely threatened. Yet with Turkey posing as protector of Idlib, the Arab revolutionary forces there have been pitted against the Kurds. The Free Syrian Army and Rojava Kurds were briefly allied against ISIS and Assad alike four years ago, before they were played against each other by imperial intrigues. Can this alliance be rebuilt, in repudiation of the foreign powers now seeking to carve up Syria? Or will the US withdrawal merely spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war in northern Syria? Weinberg calls for activists in the West to repudiate imperial divide-and-rule stratagems, and demand the survival of liberated Idlib and Rojava alike. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
The New York Times reports Dec. 19 that President Trump has ordered a "rapid withdrawal of all 2,000 United States ground troops from Syria within 30 days." Trump tweeted the announcement: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." Hardly coincidentally, this comes just as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Pentagon's main partner on the ground, are on the brink of capturing the last town in Syria still under ISIS—Hajin, on the banks of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate. The Independent reports that SDF fighters have now entered the town aft6er a three-month siege. Also not coincidentally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just days earlier warned of an imminent offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that makes up the core of the SDF. Erdogan said Dec. 12 that Turkey will launch an operation against the YPG "in a few days," adding that it is "time to realize our decision to wipe out terror groups east of the Euphrates." The Euphrates River has until now served as a border between Turkey's "buffer zone" in northern Syria and areas still under Kurdish control. Turkey is now preparing to cross it—with evident US connivance.
The export of oil from northern Iraq's contested enclave of Kirkuk is to resume under a deal struck between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Iraq's Ministry of Oil announced Nov. 16. With Baghdad's Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline disabled during fighting with ISIS, the so-called KRG pipeline is currently the only method of delivering Kirkuk oil to foreign markets other than through Iran. That route has now also been cut off by the resumption of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But Baghdad and the KRG have long been at odds over terms, and the situation was worsened with the central government's seizure last year of Kirkuk and its oil-fields, which had been in Kurdish hands since the KRG routed ISIS from the enclave in 2014. US National Security Advisor John Bolton welcomed the agreement between Baghdad and the KRG as a "promising first step to return to 2017 levels." The KRG pipeline is jointly owned by the Erbil-based KRG, BP and, as of a deal struck one year ago, Russia's Rosneft. (Rudaw, S&P Global, Nov. 16; Reuters, April 19; Rudaw, April 3)