Nusra Front

US tilt to Assad: now it's official

Washington has now made it official that its enemy in Syria is just ISIS and al-Qaeda—and explicitly not the Bashar Assad dictatorship. US Army Col. Ryan Dillon told CNN last week that the Coalition has issued a directive to rebel forces operating out if its base in southern Syria (presumably al-Tanf) that they must be exclusively focused on fighting ISIS and not the Damascus regime. "The coalition supports only those forces committed to fighting ISIS," Dillon said. One rebel faction, Shohada al-Quartyan, has refused to accept this ultimatum, and left the base. An unnamed Coalition representative stated: "We are not in the business of fighting the regime. They [the rebels] can't have multiple objectives and we need to be singularly focused on fighting ISIS." (The New Arab, July 27)

Syria: new popular uprising against al-Qaeda

Residents of Saraqeb town in Syria's Idlib province rose up and drove off fighters of the local al-Qaeda affiliate after jihadists fired on a protest demonstration. The incident began July 18, when Saraqeb residents held self-organized elections for the town council, and raised the Free Syria flag from the radio tower in celebration. Fighters from Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) responded by tearing down the flag, trampling it, and firing in the air in a display of defiance. This sparked general protests against the group's presence in Saraqeb. The following day local media activist Musaab al-Ezzo was killed as HTS militants fired on demonstrators. This only escalated the protests; after his funeral the next day, residents marched on HTS positions chating "Out, out, cowards out!" and "Saraqeb is free, Jolani out!"—a reference to HTS commander Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. HTS again opened fire, but in the face of nearly universal opposition among residents they finally withdrew from the town. 

Civil resistance to Erdogan dictatorship moves

Civil resistance is mounting to the consolidating dictatorship in Turkey, with thousands marching from Ankara to Istanbul, and protests emerging to Presdient Recep Tayyip Erdogan's power-grab. The 450-kilometer cross-country march is now in its 20th day, led by banners reading "Adalet!" (Justice!) The movement began when Enis Berberoglu, an opposition MP from the Republican People's Party (CHP), was arrested for allegedly leaking documents purporting to reveal that the Turkish government is arming jihadists in Syria. It has swelled into a general expression of opposition to the arrests and purges that have unfolded in Turkey since last year's attempted coup.

Syrian refugees return —to face genocide?

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that this year has seen a "notable trend of spontaneous returns" of displaced Syrians to their homes, both from outside and inside the country. Around 31,000 refugees returned from neighboring countries in the first six months of 2017, while more than 440,000 internally displaced persons went back to their homes—a combined total of nearly half a million. The main destinations are said to be Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus—all now largely under regime control after years of heavy fighting against rebel forces. UNHCR representative Andrej Mahecic said Syrians are seeking out family members, checking on property, and "in some cases responding to a real or perceived improvement in security conditions in parts of the country." But he warned that despite hopes over recent peace talks in Astana and Geneva, the "UNHCR believes conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria."  (The Independent, July 1)

Syria: popular uprising against al-Qaeda rule

Under the slogan "The People Are Stronger Than You," thousands of local residents have repeatedly taken to the streets of Ma'arat al-Numan, a town in Syria's northwestern Idlib governorate, to oppose the rule of jihadist forces that have seized control there. The protests broke out after the Qaeda-affiliated militia that controls the town, Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS, an offshoot of the Nusra Front) raided the local headquarters of the Free Syrian Army's Division 13, killing and detaining several FSA fighters on June 8. The biggest reported protest came on June 11, when thousands of residents and civil resistance activists waving Free Syrian flags mobilized to demand the release of the detained fighters.  "We will continue to resist [HTS] in the same way that we peacefully resisted the Syrian regime, and endured its crackdown on protests," Khaled al-Hamid, a 22-year-old protest organizer, told independent news site Syria Deeply. (More at Global Voices)

Syria slides closer to Arab-Kurdish ethnic war

Fierce clashes broke out between Syrian rebel factions and Kurdish fighters in Aleppo province this week, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle ISIS in Raqqa. Fighting erupted in Derat Ezza in the western Aleppo countryside on June 13, after Kurdish fighters attempted to take a rebel base in the area, opposition media reported. The assault was thwarted after the rebels regained the positions with support from Turkish artillery. At least 32 fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups were reported killed in the clashes, as well as dozens of Kurdish militants. (The New Arab, June 14)

Qatar crisis places US regional policing in pickle

In a strange imbroglio, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives on June 5 all announced that they are breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. All but Egypt also cut off all travel links with the country. The Saudi statement accused Qatar of "adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, " and of "supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups" in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Days earlier, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all blocked Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based news websites after Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted as saying "There is no reason behind Arabs' hostility to Iran"—an obvious reference to the Saudis and Bahrain. Qatar quickly responded that the comment had been "fabricated" when hackers took control of the official Qatar News Agency website (which appears to still be down, although the QNA Twitter account is up). (BBC NewsAl Jazeera, May 5; BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 25)

Syria: gas attacks, air-strikes and hypocrisy

An apparent chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun, Idlib governorate, left at least 80 dead April 4. After a bombing of the town, medics reported a "bloodless massacre," saying that they were treating people with symptoms including fainting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth. The hospital where gas-attack victims were being treated was itself bombed in the immediate aftermath, "bringing down rubble on top of medics as they worked," according to AFP. The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib has provided a list of the names of some 70 dead, with more still being identified. Some of the victims were brought across the border to Turkey for treatment, where several died. Turkish authorities say autopsies revealed evidence of exposure to sarin. The UN Security Council immediately called emergency talks on the attack. On April 4, US warships in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air-base outside Homs, from where the Khan Shaykhun attack is said to have been launched. This constituted the first US attack on an Assad regime target throughout the course of the war (not counting last year's accident, immediately apologized for). (CNNCNN, Jurist, BBC News, NYT, NPR)

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