Turkey’s frightening trifecta: ISIS, Erdogan & U.S. nukes

Christopher Dickey writes: Immediately after the coup [last July], which involved some Turkish air force officers, the Incirlik air base used by the United States in the war against the so-called Islamic State was cordoned off and effectively shut down for several days. Its Turkish commander was placed under arrest and frog-marched off the base.

Given the Turkish government’s behavior and the country’s evident instability, it’s of no small concern that under NATO’s “nuclear sharing” program, an estimated 50 to 90 atomic weapons reportedly are located at Incirlik (PDF). Although these B61 munitions are considered “tactical” weapons, each thermonuclear device has a potential blast yield of about 340 kilotons—more than 20 times that of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

In the immediate aftermath of the Incirlik blockade and arrests last summer, spurious reports played up by Russian propagandists claimed the nukes had been moved from Incirlik to Romania. That was not the case. But there remains wide sentiment among security analysts that those nukes should be moved somewhere more secure.

As a Congressional Research Service report (PDF) noted at the time, concerns were based on “both the ongoing political uncertainties in Turkey, including the evolving state of U.S.-Turkish relations, and the base’s proximity to territory controlled by ISIS.”

The Syrian border is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Incirlik. Towns like Al Bab and Dabiq, until recently under the control of the so-called Islamic State, are slightly further.

The argument for leaving the nukes in Turkey was to reassure Ankara against a threat from Russia. But given the obvious and growing rapprochement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Erdogan’s increasingly overt hostility toward his NATO allies, leaving thermonuclear weapons on the bomb racks of Incirlik seems to many a pointless and dangerous exercise. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan’s growing army of volunteer citizen informers

Financial Times reports: Browsing Facebook at home one Saturday, Bilgin Ciftci saw a post that made him chuckle. It was a montage of images of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan placed alongside Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. In the first, the president and the shrivelled inhabitant of Middle-earth shared a look of astonishment. The second showed both figures wide-eyed with wonder. In the third, Erdogan gnawed on a chicken drumstick while Gollum bit into a scaly fish.

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Ciftci, a doctor from the western town of Aydin, clicked “share” and thought no more of it. But a few weeks later, he was summoned to see the police and charged with insulting the president — a criminal offence in Turkey. He lost his job at a public hospital and became trapped in a legal ordeal that has so far dragged on for more than 18 months. At one stage, the judge appointed a panel of Tolkien experts to advise whether Gollum should be deemed good or bad (they ruled that he is good at heart).

Amid the absurdity, there was another, darker layer to the story. When he shared the meme, Ciftci, 48, believed he was only showing it to those in his private Facebook network. But the police had a screenshot of his page. They had not hacked his account or snooped on his computer. The truth was far more unsettling: he had been betrayed by someone he knew. Ciftci deduced that the culprit was the husband of one of his relatives. When he called up to confront him, the relative first denied it and then hung up the phone.

Ciftci’s ordeal reflects something bigger happening in Turkey, something that could come straight from the pages of a dystopian novel. On an almost weekly basis, stories emerge of friends, colleagues and even spouses reporting each other for a catalogue of offences. “This has become a phenomenon in our society,” says Ciftci from a café near Aydin courthouse, an institution now more familiar than he could ever have imagined. “There are people who are more royalist than the king. They become citizen informers.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkish referendum casts a shadow over Germany

Der Spiegel reports: A man in a long, black beard stops and spins around. “What did you say?” he screams in Turkish over the heads of the Hamburg police officers. His adversary leans over a metal barricade and screams again: “You dog!” Behind him, fellow protesters chant: “Murderer Erdogan! Murderer Erdogan!” They hold signs in the air reading “Hayir,” or “No.” The reference is to the upcoming April referendum in Turkey on proposed amendments to the country’s constitution.

The liberal Alevi Cultural Center, along with several other organizations, was behind the demonstration, called to protest the appearance of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu in Hamburg. In response, dozens of people gathered in the northern German city late last Tuesday afternoon to heckle supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The bearded man is furious. “You are the dog,” he screams towards the demonstrators. He then adds: “Are you Christians or what?!” His face is contorted in anger as though he has just uttered the worst curse he can imagine.

When asked about it later, he says he doesn’t have anything against Christians, but he does add that they are weak and don’t have true faith. “Germany is going to the dogs. Should I let my children grow up in such a country? I can hardly bear the Islamophobia anymore.” The man was born here and speaks perfect, accent-free German. “Yeah,” he says, “we’re not stupid. We understand everything that is going on here, including German hypocrisy. That’s why we are going to emigrate to Turkey soon.”

He’s standing next to a white metal fence at the entrance to the Turkish consulate-general’s residence in Hamburg. People waving Turkish flags are streaming into the front yard of the elegant building on Alster Lake. Some have wrapped themselves in the banners or wound them around their heads. For the neighbors in this Hamburg neighborhood, it is a strange scene: on the one side are the demonstrators calling out “Erdogan! Dictator!” On the other are 300 supporters of the president chanting “Allahu akbar!”

The evening’s events exposed the deep divisions in Turkish society that have been created by the constitutional referendum campaign. President Erdogan is seeking to tighten his grip on power by making himself head of government in addition to his current role as head of state. But it is by no means clear that he will get his way. Which is why he is also doing all he can to secure the vote of Turkish citizens living overseas, thus making the conflict over Turkey’s future into a German conflict as well — one which is becoming a threat, and deepening rifts within German society as well. [Continue reading…]

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Russian-backed Syria talks derailed as rebels boycott

Reuters reports: Russian-led peace talks on Syria were derailed on Tuesday as rebels backed by Turkey boycotted a third round of meetings in Kazakhstan and the Kremlin indicated there were international divisions over the process.

Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, said the rebels’ reasons for staying away were unconvincing and their decision came as a surprise. Describing the rebels as Turkish proxies, the Syrian government envoy said Ankara had broken “its commitments” to the Astana process.

The rebels said on Tuesday they would not attend the talks, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, because of what they called Russia’s unwillingness to end air strikes on rebel-held areas and its failure to get the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militia to abide by a ceasefire. [Continue reading…]

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The spat between Turkey and the Netherlands is all about winning votes

Ishaan Tharoor writes: The escalating crisis between Turkey and the Netherlands is a startling example of how this year’s crucial election campaigns can flare into international incidents.

The Dutch go to the polls this Wednesday for a parliamentary election seen as a bellwether for Europe’s political future, and all eyes are focused on far-right, Euroskeptic, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders. Meanwhile, Turkey will hold a referendum next month on constitutional revisions that would scrap the country’s parliamentary system in favor of an executive presidency under the powerful President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In their electoral bids, Erdogan and Wilders have found useful bogeymen in one another’s nations.

“The explanation for the Dutch-Turkish ‘crisis’ this weekend is pretty straightforward,” wrote Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde in a message to Today’s WorldView. “Both countries are currently engulfed in electoral campaigns that are dominated by authoritarian nativism.” [Continue reading…]

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Mike Flynn and Trump administration defined by conflicts of interest

The Washington Post reports: Attorneys for Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that Flynn might need to register with the government as a foreign agent — a phone call that raised no alarms within Trump’s team, despite the unusual circumstance of having a top national security post filled by someone whose work may have benefited a foreign government.

The firm Flynn headed, Flynn Intel Group, was hired last year when Flynn was an adviser to the Trump campaign by the Netherlands-based firm ­Inovo BV, which is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tay­yip Erdogan. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Caller reports: While serving as a top adviser on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Michael Flynn signed a contract in which he agreed to utilize an “investigative laboratory” made up of elite former intelligence officials, including a former CIA director, to conduct research and make “criminal referrals” on behalf of a Dutch shell company linked to the Turkish government, federal records show.

But Flynn appears to have over-promised on the contract, which was signed on Aug. 9 between his firm, Flynn Intel Group, and Inovo BV, the shell company.

R. James Woolsey, the former CIA director identified by his title in the contract as a member of Flynn Intel’s “investigative laboratory,” says he was not aware of and never agreed to perform any of the work laid out in the contract.

The investigative work promised by Flynn Intel was most likely focused on Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric exiled in the U.S. whose extradition is being sought by the Turkish government. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s testy campaign over ‘executive presidency’ sows divisions at home and abroad

The Washington Post reports: So far in a rancorous election season, the Turkish government or its opponents have invoked Nazi Germany, terrorist groups, fifth columnists and a Latin American dictator.

And that was in the campaign’s first two weeks.

There is more than a month to go before a referendum in April that will allow Turks to vote on a series of constitutional amendments that could give Turkey’s dominating leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vast new powers and allow him to remain in office for more than a decade.

But already, the poisonous rhetoric surrounding the campaign has aggravated tensions in this sharply divided nation, raising fears about the aftermath of the vote — and surged beyond Turkey’s borders, upending its foreign alliances. On Sunday, as part of an escalating feud with the Dutch government, Erdogan warned that the Dutch would “pay a price” after Turkish ministers were prevented from visiting the Netherlands over the past two days, according to Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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Netherlands cancels Turkish foreign minister’s visit in spiraling feud between Europe and Turkey

The Washington Post reports: The Dutch government on Saturday prevented Turkey’s foreign minister from visiting the Netherlands to address Turkish voters there, in a breach of diplomatic protocol that reflected sharply worsening tensions between Turkey and Europe.

The Dutch government said in a statement it had decided to withdraw landing rights for the foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, because of the “risks to public order and security” that a visit by him would pose. Earlier Saturday, Cavusoglu had warned that Turkey would impose “sanctions” on the Netherlands if his flight was canceled, according to local Turkish media.

Reacting later in the day to the cancellation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Dutch “Nazi remnants” and “fascists” and suggested that Dutch diplomats would be prevented from traveling to Turkey. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Several hundred demonstrators waving Turkish flags gathered outside the Turkish consulate in the Dutch city of Rotterdam on Saturday, demanding to see the Turkish minister for family affairs as a dispute between the two countries escalated.

Police erected metal barriers and patrolled on horseback to keep the demonstrators away from the consulate as the crowd grew with more pro-Turkish protesters arriving from Germany.

Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya traveled by road to the Netherlands from neighboring Germany after the Dutch government revoked landing rights for a plane carrying Turkey’s foreign minister earlier on Saturday.

Dutch TV footage showed police stopping the minister’s convoy near the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam and preventing her from entering the building. [Continue reading…]

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UN accuses Turkey of killing hundreds of Kurds

The New York Times reports: Turkey’s military and police forces have killed hundreds of people during operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey, the United Nations said on Friday in a report that listed summary killings, torture, rape and widespread destruction of property among an array of human rights abuses.

The report, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, details how operations by the Turkish infantry, artillery, tanks and possibly aircraft drove up to half a million people from their homes over a 17-month period from July 2015 to the end of 2016.

Though the report is focused on the conduct of security forces in southeastern Turkey, the 25-page document underscores the deepening alarm of the United Nations over the measures ordered by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since a failed coup attempt last July.

The state of emergency Mr. Erdogan imposed after the coup attempt appeared to “target criticism, not terrorism,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said here on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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With a show of Stars and Stripes, U.S. forces in Syria try to keep warring allies apart

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. military is getting drawn into a deepening struggle for control over areas liberated from the Islamic State that risks prolonging American involvement in wars in Syria and Iraq long after the militants are defeated.

In their first diversion from the task of fighting the Islamic State since the U.S. military’s involvement began in 2014, U.S. troops dispatched to Syria have headed in recent days to the northern town of Manbij, 85 miles northwest of the extremists’ capital, Raqqa, to protect their Kurdish and Arab allies against a threatened assault by other U.S. allies in a Turkish-backed force.

Russian troops have also shown up in Manbij under a separate deal that was negotiated without the input of the United States, according to U.S. officials. Under the deal, Syrian troops are to be deployed in the area, also in some form of peacekeeping role, setting up what is effectively a scramble by the armies of four nations to carve up a collection of mostly empty villages in a remote corner of Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Former Trump aide Flynn says $530,000 worth of lobbying work may have helped Turkey

The Associated Press reports: President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was fired from his prominent White House job last month, has registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for $530,000 worth of lobbying work before Election Day that may have aided the Turkish government.

Paperwork filed Tuesday with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit said Flynn and his firm were voluntarily registering for lobbying from August through November that “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.” It was filed by a lawyer on behalf of the former U.S. Army lieutenant general and intelligence chief.

After his firm’s work on behalf of a Turkish company was done, Flynn agreed not to lobby for five years after leaving government service and never to represent foreign governments.

Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, U.S. citizens who lobby on behalf of foreign government or political entities must disclose their work to the Justice Department. Willfully failing to register is a felony, though the Justice Department rarely files criminal charges in such cases. It routinely works with lobbying firms to get back in compliance with the law by registering and disclosing their work.

According to the new paperwork, Flynn’s firm took on the Turkish-related lobbying work in August while he was a top Trump campaign surrogate. Flynn Intel disclosed in its filing that in mid-September, the company was invited by Alptekin to meet with Turkish officials in New York.

Alptekin acknowledged Wednesday that he had set up the meeting between Flynn and the two officials. He said they met at an undisclosed hotel in New York. Alptekin said Flynn happened to be in New York while the Turkish officials were attending United Nations sessions and a separate conference Alptekin had arranged.

“I asked one of Gen. Flynn’s staff if he was in town and would be available to meet and they got in touch with him,” said Alptekin, who owns several businesses in Turkey.

Among those officials, the documents said, were Turkey’s ministers of foreign affairs and energy. Flynn’s company did not name the officials but reported the two worked for Turkey’s government “to the best of Flynn Intel Group’s current understanding.” [Continue reading…]

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‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists

The Washington Post reports: The biggest surviving rebel stronghold in northern Syria is falling under the control of al-Qaeda-linked extremists amid a surge of rebel infighting that threatens to vanquish what is left of the moderate rebellion.

The ascent of the extremists in the northwestern province of Idlib coincides with a suspension of aid to moderate rebel groups by their international allies.

The commanders of five of the groups say they were told earlier this month by representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that they would receive no further arms or ammunition until they unite to form a coherent front against the jihadists, a goal that has eluded the fractious rebels throughout the six years of fighting.

The freeze on supplies is unrelated to the change of power in Washington, where the Trump administration is engaged in a review of U.S. policy on Syria, U.S. officials say. It also does not signal a complete rupture of support for the rebels, who are continuing to receive salaries, say diplomats and rebel commanders.

Rather, the goal is to ensure that supplies do not fall into extremist hands, by putting pressure on the rebels to form a more efficient force, the rebel commanders say they have been told.

Instead it is the extremists who have closed ranks and turned against the U.S.-backed rebels, putting the al-Qaeda-linked groups with whom the moderates once uneasily coexisted effectively in charge of key swaths of territory in Idlib, the most important stronghold from which the rebels could have hoped to sustain a challenge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Moderate rebels still hold territory in southern Syria, in pockets around Damascus, and in parts of Aleppo province where they are fighting alongside Turkish troops against the Islamic State.

But the loss of Idlib to the extremists has the potential to prolong — or at least divert — the trajectory of the war at a time when the United Nations is reconvening peace talks in Geneva aimed at securing a political settlement. The talks opened Thursday with little sign that progress was likely. [Continue reading…]

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Syria is on the brink of partition – here’s how it got there

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

After nearly six years of uprising, conflict and chaos, the partition of Syria is imminent. President Bashar al-Assad will of course rail against it; his crucial ally Iran will probably resist too, and the marginalised US won’t even acknowledge the prospect. But the lines are nonetheless being drawn.

With pro-Assad forces back in control of Aleppo city, a newly co-operative Turkey and Russia are ready to pursue partition as a short-term resolution. The Syrian opposition and many rebels will embrace it as their best immediate option, and the leading Kurdish political and military groups will settle for whatever autonomy they can get. If things continue shaping up this way, by the end of 2017, Syria will quite probably become a country of four parts.

The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime is set to hold much of the south and west, and most of Syria’s cities. There’ll most likely be a Turkish/rebel area, effectively a “safe zone”, in parts of northern Syria; the Syrian opposition will probably control Idlib province and possibly other pockets of territory in the northwest; while the Kurds will have some form of autonomy in the northeast.

A settlement like this has been a long time coming. Neither the Assad regime nor its enemies will settle for just a part of Syria, and both have survived years of intense conflict. The opposition and rebels still control territory from the north to the south; Assad clings on with the help of Russian aerial bombardments and Iranian-led ground forces. All the while, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia are still defending territory against both IS and the Assad regime.

If the lines of a potential partition were clear some time ago, what stood in the way of recognising them was the challenge of Aleppo city. Without recapturing it, the Assad regime had no hope of claiming an economic recovery (however disingenousouly) in the areas it controlled, let alone in the entire country. But the city was surrounded by opposition-controlled territory; Assad’s military was far too depleted to change the game, and even with outside support, its campaign would be protracted.

[Read more…]

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Turkey’s Erdoğan paves way for April vote on consolidation of power

The Guardian reports: Turkey’s president has approved a bill granting him broad new powers under an executive presidential system, paving the way for a referendum in mid-April on the proposed changes.

The 18-article bill was passed by parliament last month without garnering the two-thirds majority needed to become law. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s approval allows the proposed constitutional changes to go to a public vote.

Senior Turkish officials have said the referendum is likely to take place on 16 April.

The constitutional overhaul would allow Erdoğan to run for two more terms in office, potentially governing as a powerful executive until 2029. It is backed by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and its nationalist allies in parliament.[Continue reading…]

ThinkProgress reports: President Donald Trump’s disdain for liberal democratic norms is something he shares with authoritarian Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Turkish opposition leader told ThinkProgress.

“During the election process [Trump] was polarizing and scandalizing, but he convinced people to vote for him,” said Turkish MP Hişyar Özsoy, vice co-chair the left-leaning Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). “Erdogan also.”

Özsoy said Trump has sent a message that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law aren’t among his top priorities. Erdogan has taken a similar stance over the course of his 12 years in power, as he consolidated his rule over Turkey by dismantling the democratic process and disregarding human rights. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s plan for refugee zones in and around Syria will not materialize

Yezid Sayigh writes: U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to fulfill one of his many campaign promises last week. A draft of his executive order on immigration appeared on January 25 and raised the possibility of U.S. action to set up safe zones for displaced Syrians. Trump confirmed this in a television interview the same day, saying “I’ll absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people.”

Reactions varied. Members of the Syrian opposition cautiously welcomed anything that would reduce the bloodshed in their country, while in Moscow a Kremlin spokesperson warned the proposal might “further aggravate the situation with refugees.”

The flurry of excitement was cut short, however, as the final version of the executive order published on January 27 dropped all mention of safe zones. And yet Trump returned to the theme two days later during phone calls to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, in which he requested their support for safe zones in Syria (and Yemen) according to an official White House statement.

What are Trump’s real intentions? More importantly, who will police a safe zone if one is established?

The initial draft of the executive order gave some clues. Most significant was the proposal “to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region.” This suggested a rebranding exercise, in which refugee concentrations in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon or their absorption in Gulf states would be labeled “safe zones.” Expediently for Trump, this would remove the burden of financial outlay from U.S. shoulders, while precluding any need for military action to protect refugees inside Syria.

Furthermore, even if the original draft of the executive order had been preserved, it only directed the secretaries of state and defense to “produce a plan.” But contingency planning does not commit the U.S. administration to any course of action, nor does it make action probable. [Continue reading…]

Middle East Eye reports: Lebanon’s president has insisted that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will remain in office, saying he wants Syrian refugees currently in his country to go home.

“President Assad will stay, and those who are asking for his departure are ignoring Syria,” newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun told French TV channel LCI on Monday.

Aoun, a former army general during the country’s civil war, was elected president in October, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum as part of a political deal that made Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri prime minister.

“We were facing the prospect of a second Libya here, but for the Assad regime that represents the only power that through its capacities restored the regime, a restoration that has united everyone and the government,” Aoun said.

Aoun is an ally of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Iran-backed party, which is fighting in Syria on Assad’s behalf.

The Lebanese militia and political party were critical to Aoun’s ascendancy to the presidency.

“Lebanon cannot take in Syrian refugees indefinitely on its territory,” the 81-year-old said. “We hosted them for humanitarian reasons, and they must return to their country.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria deal draws Iran into alliance with Russia and Turkey

The Washington Post reports: Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed Tuesday to the outlines of a plan to reinforce a cease-fire in Syria, establishing the three most significant allies of the protagonists in the conflict as guarantors to a peace process.

The deal concluded two days of talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, that drew Iran into a burgeoning alliance with Russia and Turkey over ways to secure a settlement. It set broad but vague parameters for a cease-fire enforcement mechanism and committed the three countries to jointly fight the Islamic State and Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. It will also provide a test of Russia’s new role as the lead power broker in efforts to secure a sustainable, long-term solution to the war.

The United States, which is not a party to the emerging peace process, said it welcomed any “actions that sustainably de-escalate violence and reduce suffering in Syria,” according to a statement issued by the State Department in Washington. [Continue reading…]

Martin Chulov writes: Russia and Turkey had much on the line at the Astana peace talks, but at the end of the two-day summit on Syria, their returns were – at face value – modest. The gathering culminated in a predictable communique, endorsed by Iran, which aims to strengthen a nominal ceasefire in place since 30 December.

But other, more enduring, themes emerged from the gathering. First, Russia, one of the six-year war’s main protagonists, is serious about negotiating an end to the conflict and is prepared to do more than ever to achieve that. Second, although the Assad regime is winning on the battlefield with the robust backing of Moscow and Iran, it has a relatively weak diplomatic hand.

The long predicted moment when Russia will need to declare its intentions towards Bashar al-Assad is closer than ever. So too is a reckoning for the Syrian leader with his other patron, Iran, against whom Russia and Turkey have increasingly sided since Iranian-backed forces led the recapture of Aleppo.

For the first time, Russia broke ranks with the Assad regime at Astana, chiding it for claiming that al-Qaida was leading an assault on the Wadi Barada area near Damascus, and suggesting that Iranian and Syrian forces, not the opposition, were breaching the ceasefire. It also overtly legitimised two groups that Syrian officials had long labelled as terrorists, the conservative Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, both significant components of the armed opposition. [Continue reading…]

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