Greater Middle East

Opening shots of new Russo-Turkish war?

The situation on Turkey's Syrian border has only escalated since Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane two days ago. A Russian rescue helicopter was shot down by Syrian rebels while searching for the two pilots of the downed warplane. The helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in a regime-held area of Syria's Latakia governorate. The rebels were using (possibly CIA-supplied) US-made TOW missiles. (The Mirror) One pilot was rescued in the joint Russian-Syrian operation and brought to a base in Latakia, Moscow says. A Russian marine was also reported killed during the rescue mission. The other pilot was shot by rebels as he parachuted from the hit plane, according to Moscow. (AP)

Russian warplane down: heightened contradictions

Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border Nov. 24, aparenently after it violated Turkish airspace. Vladimir Putin said the Su-24 was hit by air-to-air missiles fired by Turkish F-16s while it was flying over Syrian territory. A military statement from Ankara said the plane violated Turkish airspace in Hatay province and was warned "10 times in five minutes." Reports indicate the plane crashed in Syrian territory, near Yamadi village of Latakia governorate. (Al Jazeera, BBC News) The two pilots reportedly survived the crash but were captured and summarily executed by members of a Turkmen rebel militia. (Reuters) There is some ambiguity about what actually constitutes the border in this area, as Turkey has established a military-controlled buffer zone in Latakia.

Syria: protests break out in ISIS-held town

Residents of the ISIS-held northern Syrian town of Manbij, Aleppo governorate, have carried out unprecedented protests against jihadist rule, according to activists. Posts on the Manbij Mubasher Facebook page indicate that several small protest gatherings had taken place in the town on Nov. 12. "In response to the oppressive practices of ISIS against residents of the city of Manbij…tens of citizens came out to criticize the group last Thursday afternoon and called on it to leave the city," Manbij Mubasher reported. "Demonstrations took place on the Jarablus road and several streets [in the town] in the form of small gatherings, which the group met with gunfire and arrests."

Saudi Arabia sentences Palestinian poet to death

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Nov. 20 that a Saudi Arabia court has sentenced Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for apostasy or abandoning his Muslim faith. The organization's researcher in the Middle East, Adam Coogle, said that he had seen the trial documents and confirmed the death sentence. According to Coogle, Fayadh's original sentence was four years in prison and 800 lashes, but this changed after another judge revised the sentence to death three days ago when the case was brought for retrial after Fayadh's appeal was dismissed. According to Mona Kareem, a migrant rights activist from Kuwait, Fayadh's identification documents had been confiscated during his arrest in January 2014, after which the judges and prosecutor for his case were changed. Kareem said that the new judge passed the verdict without even speaking to Fayadh. Kareem speculated that Fayadh is in reality being punished for posting a video online showing the Mutaween (religious police) lashing a man in public. According to Fayadh, he has no legal representation and has been given 30 days to appeal against his ruling.

Saudi Arabia executions break 20-year record

Amnesty International (AI) reported Nov. 9 that Saudi Arabia has executed a record 151 people this year, the highest number since 1995. In 2014 the total number of executions carried out was 90, and so far this year the number is up by 68 percent. AI said that almost half of all the executions carried out in 2015 were for offenses that are not considered "most serious crimes" under the international human rights laws. Saudi Arabia also reportedly continues to impose the death sentence on individuals under the age of 18, violating child human rights laws. AI's Middle East deputy director James Lynch said, "Instead of intimidating people with the threat of state sanctioned killing, the Saudi Arabian authorities should halt all impending executions and urgently establish a moratorium on executions as well as overhaul the Kingdom's deeply flawed justice system."

Syria: anti-ISIS forces advance —despite everything

Since launching their offensive on ISIS-controlled territory in northern Syria a week ago, the Kurdish-Arab alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, also rendered DFS or QSD) says it has recaptured 36 villages in Hasakah governorate and is advancing towards Raqqa, the "Islamic State" capital. (See map.) The SDF leadership said in a statement Nov. 7: "Within a week of anti-ISIS operations, we have liberated 350 square km held by Daesh (ISIS) terrorists, including 36 villages, 10 farms, 2 gas stations and 6 border posts." The statement also claimed 196 ISIS "terrorists have been killed since the operation started," and "13 SDF fighters have been martyred during the battles so far." (ARA News, Kurdish Info)

Egypt: officials arrest prominent rights activist

Egyptian authorities on Nov. 8 arrested prominent human rights activist and journalist Hossam Bahgat after military officials questioned him concerning a report he wrote on the secret trial of former military officers. Bahgat, who writes for Mada Masr, was charged with "publishing false news that harms national interests and disseminating information that disturbs public peace." Rights groups such as Amnesty International  have called the arrest a "blow for freedom of expression." [Sic*]

Turkey attacks Kurdish positions on Syrian border

Turkish military forces attacked positions of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) at the Syrian border town of Gire Spi (Arabic: Tal Abyad), the Kurdish militia reported Oct. 25. Two fire-fights of two hours each were reported over the night. There was no mention of casualties on either side, but the development raises fears that Turkey is moving to establish its "buffer zone" in what is now the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava in northern Syria.

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