Greater Middle East
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow's support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad in an April 2 message delivered by a visiting delegation of the Russia-based Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, headed by the society's chairman Sergei Stepashin. In the message, Putin hailed Assad's war against "international terrorism" that he asserted is "backed" by Western nations. (Xinhua, April 2) The message comes amid reports from Jane’s Defense Weekly that Assad's military started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February. Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to Russia's Defense Ministry and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, confirmed that Moscow is supplying a "lifeline" of ammunition and parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters to Damascus. Alexei Malashenko, Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said: "Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly. If Russia can show it's capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin." (Bloomberg, April 2)
The death toll in the three-year Syrian conflict has exceeded 150,000, a British-based human rights group announced on April 2. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 150,344 persons have died since the uprising began in March 2011. The death toll includes 51,212 civilians, including 7,985 children and 5,266 women. The numbers do not include the 18,000 detainees in regime prisons or the "thousands who disappeared during regime raids and massacres." SOHR estimates that the non-Syrian casualties to be approximately 70,000 more than the documented number, "due to the extreme discretion by all sides of the human losses caused by the conflict and due to the difficulty of communication in Syria." Finally, SOHR called on both sides to peaceably end the conflict.
An estimated 2,000 Armenians from the town of Kessab, on Syria's border with Turkey, have taken refuge in the coastal city Latakia following the occupation of their town by jihadist forces. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) reported on a number of eye-witness accounts of the looting and seizure of Armenian homes, stores, and churches in Kessab. The armed incursion began March 21, as rebels associated with the Nusra Front, Sham al-Islam and Ansar al-Sham crossed from the Turkish side border. Snipers targeted the civilian population and launched mortar attacks on the town and the surrounding villages. Syrian government troops reportedly tried to push the attackers back. (Asbarez, Asbarez, March 25)
Turkish Prime Miniter Tayyip Erdogan's banning of YouTube is making more headlines than the extraordinary leak the prompted the move. Posted to YouTube anonymously, it appears to show Turkey's intelligence chief and cabinet members discussing a possible attack on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Sultan Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan seemed to confirm the leak, telling a crowd of supporters: "They even leaked a national security meeting. This is villainous... Who are you serving by doing audio surveillance of such an important meeting?" The government said in a statement: "It is a wretched attack, an act of espionage and a very heavy crime to record and leak to the public a top secret meeting held in a place where the most delicate security issues of the state are discussed." But outrage over the leak seems intended to distract from the actual conent of the leak...
A Cairo court on March 23 ordered the release on bail of blogger and activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who was imprisoned by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in October 2011 for violating Egypt's controversial protest law and refusing to answer prosecutors' questions. The SCAF accuses Abdel Fatah of inciting violence during protests in October, in which 27 people were killed and 300 people were injured. Abdel Fatah is currently on trial with 24 co-defendants, all of whom are charged with organizing public protests without prior government approval, destroying public property and assaulting members of the police. Abdel Fatah is reportedly known throughout Egypt for his criticism of the nation's shifting regimes. He was imprisoned once during the rule of Hosni Mubarak in 2006, and again during military rule in 2011. Reports indicate that Abdel Fatah's release on bail does not mean he has avoided conviction and sentencing for his alleged crimes.
An Egyptian court in Minya, south of Cairo, on March 24 sentenced to death 529 supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, in a mass trial that lasted only two sessions. The 529 are accused in an attack on a police station that left a senior officer dead in protests last August after Morsi was deposed. All but 147 were tried in absentia; only 16 were acquitted. The verdicts are subject to appeal and may still be overturned. Amnesty International called it the largest issuance of simultaneous death sentences in recent years anywhere in the world. "This is injustice writ large and these death sentences must be quashed. Imposing death sentences of this magnitude in a single case makes Egypt surpass most other countries’ use of capital punishment in a year," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty. (AI, AP, BBC News, March 24)
Syrian government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters on March 16 took the town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border, which was held by rebels inlcuding the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Hours later, in apparent retaliation, the Shi'ite town of Nabi Othman in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley was struck by a suicide bombing that left four dead. (LAT, Reuters, March 17) Meanwhile, in comments sure to warm the heart of Bashar Assad, opposition leader Kamal al-Labwani of the Syrian National Council told Iran's Arabic-language al Alam new service that the Syrian opposition is willing to give up claims to the Golan Heights in return for Israeli military aid. "Why shouldn’t we be able to sell the Golan Heights because it is better than losing Syria and Golan at once," he said. (Haaretz, March 16)
Amnesty International (AI) on March 10 accused Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's forces of committing war crimes (PDF) and crimes against humanity on Palestinian and Syrian civilians in Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. The report, entitled "Squeezing the Life Out of Yarmouk: War Crimes Against Besieged Civilians," discusses the deaths of nearly 200 people since the tightening of the siege and cutting off of access to food and medical supplies in July, with 128 of those deaths caused by starvation. The report also states that government forces and government allies have repeatedly attacked civilian buildings, such as schools, hospitals and mosques in Yarmouk. AI's regional director, Philip Luther, stated that the siege of Yarmouk amounted to "collective punishment of the civilian population," going on to say that the Syrian government must end the siege immediately and allow humanitarian efforts access to assist the citizens. Despite efforts by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to provide aid during January and February, attempts to reach a truce in Yarkmouk to allow for food deliveries to the starving people have repeatedly collapsed.