We've been waiting for the other shoe to drop in Mali ever since April, when Tuareg rebels seized power in the north, only to be shortly overthrown themselves by an alliance of jihadist militias. Yeah, this is the middle of the Sahara, but how long is the "international community" going to allow an unrecognized extremist-controlled rogue state the size of France to persist? The jihadists continue to up the proverbial ante. Over the weekend, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) advanced into Mopti region, south of rebel-held Timbuktu, seizing the town of Douentza. (See map.) Unbelievably, it appears that this border zone on the edge of the vast rebel territory has been abandoned by the government, and the town was defended only by a local militia, the Ganda Iso (Sons of the Land)—one of several that the region's residents have been organizing autonomously to defend against jihadist aggression or (much more ambitiously) to eventually take back the north. MUJAO also made good on their threat to put to death an Algerian vice consul they had abducted. Mali's government this week reportedly made a formal request for military intervention to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but is apparently refusing to confirm this to its own people, making no mention of it in state media. (AP, Sept. 7; Middle East Online, Sept. 3; MEO, Sept. 2; AFP, Aug. 31)
Now here's a delicious irony. The New York Times reports that US officials say Iran is supplying Syria with arms through Iraqi airspace, and Washington is quietly putting pressure on Baghdad to shut the air corridor down. We noted last year that the Iraq pull-out (which is largely fictional anyway) could paradoxically lead to war with Iran: the Bush/neocon strategy of playing a Shi'ite card against Iraq's Sunni jihadists and Baathists has resulted in a state as much in Tehran's orbit as Washington's. So holding on to Iraq (with its decisively critical oil reserves) as a US client state could necessitate a severe humbling (at least) of Iran. Now the Syria crisis ups the ante further. We've already noted that the US and UK have established an office block in Istanbul to jointly coordinate aid to the Syrian rebels. Now Reuters reports that France is supplying "aid and money" to rebel-controlled "liberated zones" in the northern provinces of Deir al-Zor, Aleppo and Idlib. (See map.) Just as the US is supposed to be drawing down its military commitments in the Greater Middle East, the Syrian dilemma could be propelling the West towards a virtual reconstitution of the Seleucid Empire, which in the Third Century BCE ruled over Syria, Babylon (Iraq), Parthia (Iran) and Bactria (Afghanistan). Only this time, of course, under US-led multinational rule, not Greek.
This week's media headlines about the Syrian crisis have focused on a walk-out by the Syrian delegation at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi called the regime "oppressive"; and a TV interview in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he needed more time to win the war. But the humanitarian situation of hundreds of thousands of people in need of assistance inside Syria has been—as usual, aid workers would say—largely neglected. As violence spreads to previously unaffected areas, internal displacement has reached unprecedented levels. Three million people are in need of food assistance or agricultural support. Many more have been affected by a crumbling economy and a lack of social services, especially health care. Meanwhile, funding for humanitarian aid has not matched the strong rhetoric on Syria in the international community.
AFP on Aug. 27 cites Vatican Radio as reporting that the Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, has fled to Lebanon after his offices in the war-ravaged city were ransacked by what a source in the local Christian community called "unidentified groups who want to start a religious war and drag the Syrian people into a sectarian conflict." Jeanbart told Vatican Radio that he is concerned about the presence of foreign fighters and "jihadists" in Syria. The Telegraph meanwhile reports that the US State Department's Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS) and the UK Foreign Office have established joint control over an apartment block in Istanbul to coordinate aid to those resisting Bashar Assad's regime. The US has reportedly set aside $25 million to support the Syrian opposition, while Britain is putting up £5 million.
A few weeks back we examined the anatomy of the Syrian opposition, noting the various factions, how they fit in to the Great Power chess-game now being played over the country—and asking whether there are any independent secular left elements that progressives in the West can support. It was just brought to our attention that on July 28, Solidarity Federation, website of the British section of the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers Association, ran a statement from a young man identified only by the first name Mazen, who claims to represent a "group of young Syrian anarchists and anti-authoritarians from Aleppo." In plausibly stilted English, he details the eclipse of the civil opposition by armed factions, and the foreign manipulation of the latter—while laying much of the blame for the situation with the Assad regime and its bloody repression. An excerpt:
Syrian forces and their supporting Shabbiha fighters have committed "war crimes and gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law," according to a report released Aug. 15 by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI). The report found that government and Shabbiha forces are responsible for instances of rape, murder, torture and attacks on civilian populations. The report further concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 civilians, including women and children, in al-Houla in May. The COI had previously released an inconclusive report suggesting that government forces in Syria played a role in the deaths. The new report confirms that Shabbiha fighters and government forces were responsible for the massacre. The report also notes that anti-government forces have also committed human rights violations, but says that "these violations and abuses were not of the same gravity, frequency and scale as those committed by Government forces and the Shabbiha."
As urban warfare rages in Damascus and Aleppo, presumed rebel gunmen abducted 47 Iranian pilgrims just outside the capital on Aug. 4. The pilgrims were on a bus taking them from the Shi'ite shrine of Sayyida Zainab, about 10 miles south of Damascus, to the airport to return home when they were kidnapped, according to the Iranian state news agency IRNA. Dubai's Al-Arabiya television aired footage it said it had obtained from Syrian rebels of the captive Iranians, in which the captors charge that they are not actually pilgrims, but members of the Revolutionary Guard.
Amnesty International on Aug. 1 published a report holding the Syrian government responsible for human rights violations in Aleppo that AI claims amount to crimes against humanity. "All-out repression: Purging dissent in Aleppo, Syria" documents how security forces and allied militias routinely used live fire against peaceful demonstrations in and around Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, killing and injuring protesters and bystanders. AI contends that, as the size and frequency of these anti-government protests in Aleppo increased in recent months, government forces employed "reckless and brutal use of force that inevitably led to peaceful demonstrators being killed and injured." The report "details a wide range of systematic, state-directed violations including the deliberate targeting of peaceful protesters and activists, the hunting down of injured protesters, the routine use of torture, the targeting of medics providing life-saving emergency treatment to the wounded, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances." AI further claims that arrested individuals were routinely tortured, threatened and intimidated while in detention, and reiterates its long-standing calls for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.