Greater Middle East
Militants from the Qaeda-aligned insurgent group ISIS destroyed a Sufi Muslim shrine as they advanced on Tal Maaruf village in Syria's Kurdish-majority Hassakeh province, residents said Feb. 27. ISIS militants "blew up the shrine, and burned a mosque and a police station," said Massoud Akko, a Kurdish journalist and native of Hassakeh province, told Lebanon's Daily Star. ISIS also came under fire in their stronghold of Raqqa, as even rival jihadists criticized the group’s intention to impose a special "jizya" tax on Chrsitians and other religious minorities in their areas of control—including the provincial capital.
British police counter-terrorism forces announced on Feb. 25 the arrest of Moazzam Begg in his hometown of Birmingham, England, along with three other individuals on suspicion of terrorism offenses related to the war in Syria. Begg was a detainee at Guantánamo Bay, and he was one of the last detainees from the UK to be returned. British authorities have expressed concern about their citizens fighting in jihadist groups in Syria, and Begg is the most high profile arrestee in connection with the UK's attempt to minimize influence in the Syrian conflict. The police reported Begg is suspected of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas. According to British counter-terrorism laws, the police are authorized to detain Begg for up to 14 days, and police will conduct a search of the arrestee's vehicles and electronic devices.
A presidential panel in Yemen on Feb. 10 released a plan to transform the country into a "federal state of six regions" as part of its US-brokered political transition. Interim President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi convened the panel last month, at the end of a "national dialogue" on new territorial divisions to be incorporated into a new constitution this year. The former North Yemen is to be broken up into the regions of Azal, Saba, Janad and Tahama; the former South Yemen into Aden and Hadramout. The capital city of Sanaa is to have "a special status in the Constitution to guarantee its independence and impartiality," said a report in the state news agency. The port city of Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, would also have "independent legislative and executive powers."
Riot police in Istanbul used water cannons against demonstrators Feb. 9 in the latest protest against a bill that would increase government control over the Internet. Last month, demonstrators attempted to occupy Istanbul's main Taksim Square in protest of the law, before being evicted by riot police with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. The bill, granting Turkey's telecommunications authority the ability to block websites or remove content without a court order, has been approved by parliament and awaits the signature of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey made almost 1,700 requests for Google to remove material from the web in the first six months of 2013—more than three times any other country, and a rise of nearly 1,000% in one year. Google says most of the requests were turned down. (AFP, Feb. 9; Jurist, Feb. 7; Euronews, Jan. 18)
Egypt's military is denying that its chief of staff, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, told Kuwaiti newspaper al-Siyasah that he will run for president in elections that are still yet to be scheduled. The newspaper quoted him as saying he could "not reject the demand" of the people that he should stand. Former strongman Hosni Mubarak meanwhile said in an interview with an independent Egyptian journalist that al-Sisi would be the next president. "The people want Sisi and the people's will shall prevail," journalist Fajer al-Saeed quoted Mubarak as telling her at the armed forces hospital where he is being held in Cairo.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported (PDF) Jan. 30 that Syrian authorities deliberately demolished residential neighborhoods with explosives and bulldozers in Damascus and Hama over the last year. The report found that the demolitions are related to the violent conflict in Syria between the government and opposition forces. HRW officials determined the correlation between the armed conflict and the demolitions from eyewitness testimonies, statements from government officials and the military's involvement in the demolitions. HRW believes this destruction to be in violation of the Hague Regulations, which forbid the unnecessary destruction of the enemy's property, and the Geneva Conventions (PDF), which prohibits the "extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly." HRW urges the Syrian government to halt wanton destruction of property and urges the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Turkish armed forces on Jan. 29 attacked a convoy of al-Qaeda-linked rebel group ISIS in Syria in, destroying three vehicles, according to Turkish media reports. Turkish F-16s apparently struck the convoy "after militants opened fire on a military outpost" on the Turkey-Syria border. (Al Jazeera, Jan. 29) The skirmish comes amid reports that both ISIS and the Nusra Front, both al-Qaeda affiliates, have seized control of most of Syria's oil and gas resources, which lie in the country's north near the Turkish border, and are using the proceeds to underwrite their wars against both rival rebels and the Bashar Assad regime. While the oil and gas fields are in decline, control over them has been key to the growing power of the two groups. ISIS is even said to be selling fuel to the Assad government—lending weight to claims by opposition leaders that the regime is secretly backing the Qaedists to weaken the other rebel armies and discourage international support for their cause. (NYT, Jan. 28; The Telegraph, Jan. 20)
The Cairo Criminal Court on Jan. 20 sentenced outspoken ultraconservative Islamist leader and former presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail to a year in prison for comments allegedly made at another trial. In that trial, during which he stood accused of attempting to conceal the US citizenship of his mother in order to qualify for a presidential bid, Abu-Ismail reportedly stated, "The court is void ... This is not a real judiciary in the first place." Abu-Ismail was a top ally and supporter of former Egyptian president Muhammed Morsi, and his supporters have seen his prosecution as part of the crackdown on Morsi supporters in the wake of the military coup that ousted him from power in 2013.