Greater Middle East
An Egyptian court on June 4 convicted 43 foreign and domestic non-governmental organization (NGO) employees of engaging political activity without proper documentation and of receiving funds from abroad in violation of Egyptian law. Those convicted include Europeans, Egyptians, other Arabs and at least 16 Americans, 15 of whom were convicted in absentia. The court ordered closure of the NGOs after meting out fines and prison sentences to employees ranging from one to five years. Affected NGOs include the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House (FH), the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Lebanon's hashish heartland of the Bekaa Valley, hit by rocket-fire from Syria on June 1, has become increasingly embroiled in the civil war raging across the border. The fertile valley, which was occupied by Syria from 1976 to 2005, is a patchwork of Sunni and Shi'ite areas, and during Lebanon's civil war in 1980s the hashish and opium trade there funded sectarian militias. There are now ominous signs of a return to this deadly rivalry. In late March, gunmen from the Sunni town of Arsal—a conduit for arms and fighters for the Syrian rebels—kidnapped a member of the powerful Shi'ite Jaafar tribe, who was absconded across the border to the rebel-held Syrian town of Yabroud, north of Damascus. The Jaafars retaliated by kidnapping six Arsal residents—ransoming them to raise the ransom money to free their comrade held in Yabroud. Lebanese security forces helped oversee the hostage exchange, and no charges were brought. Arsal has also been the target of occasional cross-border shelling, presumably by the Syrian military. On May 27, unidentified gunmen attacked a Lebanese border checkpoint near the town, killing three soldiers.
Police in Istanbul on the morning of May 31 raided a protest encampment that had been established in Taksim Gezi Park—one of the few remaining green spots in the city center, which authorities have slated to bulldoze to build a new shopping mall. Police set fire to the tents in which protesters were still sleeping, and used pepper spray and tear-gas. One student had to undergo surgery after injuries to his genitals. Street-fighting in the area continues, and protests have spread to Ankara. Tens of thousands have watched the demonstrations online at lifestream.com/revoltistanbul. The park had been under occupation since May 27, but the issue has gone beyond saving a green space to more generalized opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a "neoliberal Islamist" formation that has been tilting sharply right, establishing alcohol-free zones and advocating restrictions on abortion. Richard Seymour in The Guardian writes that "a struggle over a small park in a congested city centre has become an emergency for the regime, and the basis for a potential Turkish spring." (More coverage at BIANet, NYT, Euronews.)
Syrian elite troops are backing up an offensive apparently led by Hezbollah against rebels in the strategic town of Qusayr, as the UN Human Rights Council debates a resolution condemning the assault. Russia meanwhile protests a European Union decision to lift its arms embargo on the Syrian rebels, and says it will respond by supplying Damascus with S-300 air-defense missiles. This, in turn, is decried as a "threat" by Israel, which warns it could launch air-strikes to destroy any deployed missiles. "The situation is beginning to show worrying signs of destabilizing the region as a whole," said UN rights chief Navi Pillay.
Turkey will build a 2.5-kilometer wall along the Cilvegözü post on the border with Syria to prevent illegal crossings, Trade and Customs Minister Hayati Yazıcı announced May 23. The border crossing lies within 10 kilometers from Reyhanlı town, where a twin bomb attack killed 51 and wounded more than 100 on May 11. A protocol with the Turkish Armed Forces has already been signed for the construction of the wall, Yazıcı said. (Hürriyet Daily News via France24, May 24)
Israeli missiles struck a research center near Damascus, setting off explosions and causing casualties, Syria's state news agency reported May 5. If confirmed, it would be the second Israeli strike on targets in Syria in three days. Two previous Israeli air-strikes, one in January and one on May 3, targeted weapons reportedly bound for Hezbollah. (AP, May 5) On May 4, a former senior official in the Bush administration said the use of chemical weapons in Syria might have been an Israeli-instrumented "false flag operation." Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, told Current TV: "We don’t know what the chain of custody is. This could’ve been an Israeli false flag operation, it could’ve been an opposition in Syria... or it could've been an actual use by Bashar Assad. But we certainly don’t know with the evidence we’ve been given. And what I'm hearing from the intelligence community is that that evidence is really flakey." (JP, May 4)
Egyptian police arrested 12 "Black Bloc" protesters in clashes outside Cairo's presidential palace April 27. Protesters hurled rocks and fire bombs at the walls of the presidential palace in the Heliopolis suburb, and torched a police vehicle. The clashes come days after the detainment of 22 suspected Black Bloc members on court order. On May 1, a court refused an appeal to release the young men, who have been ordered to remain in custody for a second 15-day period. On their Facebook page, the Blac Bloc say they are a "generation born of the blood of the martyrs" from the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Prosecutor general Talaat Abdallah has accused the group of "terrorism."
The People's Protection Committees (YPG), armed wing of Syria's main Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), joined forces with Syrian rebels last month, helping them overrun the strategic Sheikh Maksud neighborhood on a hilltop north of Aleppo. "We have the same goal as the rebel fighters," YPG commander Engizek told AFP last week. "It is to seek the ouster of Assad." But days later, militiamen of PYD—considered to be the Syrian offshoot of Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—clashed with Free Syrian Army forces in the Kurdish neighborhood. The internecine fighting started after FSA rebels accused YPG forces of attacking a rebel convoy and otherwise secretly collaborating with the government. "The YPG have been on the government side from the beginning," said Khalid Alhayani, an FSA brigade commander. "When we entered [the area], we asked YPG if we could use their territory to hit government check points. They would agree but then report to the government our plans." (Global Post, April 26; Japan Times, April 23)