Greater Middle East
An Islamist rebel coalition led by al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front has made gains in northwestern Syria in recent weeks, taking the city of Idlib and the town of Jisr al-Shughour, and bringing them to the edge of government-held coastal areas north of the capital. "We will continue our focus on Damascus and on toppling this regime," Nusra leader Abu Mohamad al-Golani told Al Jazeera May 27. "I assure you, Assad's fall won't take a long time."
The 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded at the UN in New York on May 22 without approving a final document—due to US blocking of a provision on creating a Middle East nuclear-free zone. The US blocked the document, saying Egypt and other Arab states tried to "cynically manipulate" the process by setting a March 2016 deadline for Middle East nations to meet on the proposal—including Israel. The US was joined by the UK and Canada in blocking the document. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked US Secretary of State John Kerry for blocking. Israel of course had no vote, as a non-signatory to the NPT. (AP, Interfax, The Guardian, May 23; Xinhua, May 22)
Kurdish forces of the People's Protection Units (YPG) are continuing to press gains against ISIS in northern Syria—even as the "Islamic State" is defeating government forces in both Syria and Iraq, taking the cities of Ramadi and Palmyra in recent days. On May 19, the YPG reported taking a number of villages and farms in the southern countryside of Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) in northeast Syria's Hassakeh governorate. The YPG advance was supported by US-led air-strikes. (ARA News, May 20) The gains come as ISIS continues its campaign of ethnic cleansing against Assyrian Christians in Hassakeh. The YPG has formed an alliance with two Christian military formations, the Syriac Haras al-Khabur and Assyrian Military Council, now fighting ISIS for the towns of Sere Kaniye and Tel Temir. (ARA News, April 23)
ISIS forces on May 20 seized the Syrian city of Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur and famed for its ancient ruins—built by an Arab civilization 2,000 years ago in the Greco-Roman style. The Local Coordination Committees civil resistance network said the entire city came under ISIS control after pro-regime forces staged a "strategic retreat." As ISIS has advanced on Palmyra, there has been growing concern that its archaeological treasures will fall victim to the systematic ISIS campaign of cultural cleansing that has already seen partial destruction of the Iraqi sites of Hatra and Nimrud. UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said: "The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population. I reiterate my appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities at the site. I further call on the international community to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra."
Kuwait's Supreme Court on May 18 upheld the two-year prison sentence against activist Musallam al-Barrack for insulting Kuwait's ruler. Al-Barrack, a former lawmaker, was originally sentenced to five years in prison, but that sentence was later shortened on appeal to two years. The case against al-Barrack began after he gave a speech in October 2012 in which he urged Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah not to "drag the country into a dark abyss" while charging that Kuwait risked becoming an autocratic state under new electoral laws. In March 2013 a protest in Kuwait City consisting of hundreds of al-Barrack's supporters turned violent as it marched toward the parliament building. Police used batons against the protesters and arrested at least a dozen. Al-Barrack was also arrested in 2014 after he revealed documents showing large sums of illegal financial transfers made to senior officials, including judges. After his arrest, more violent protests ensued. Al-Barrack's lawyer stated that his client will surrender to authorities once court paperwork is complete.
An Egyptian court on May 16 sentenced ex-president Mohammed Morsi and more than 100 others to death for their involvement in a mass prison break in 2011. The prison break occurred during the country's 2011 uprising that ousted then-president Hosni Mubarak. Morsi was accused of conspiring with foreign militants to free Islamists during the mass prison breaks. The case was referred by Judge Shaaban el-Shami to the nation's top Muslim theologian for his non-binding opinion on whether the sentences should stand, as is customary for all death sentences in Egypt. Amr Darrag, co-founder of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and cabinet minister under Morsi, denounced the verdict, saying that day would be "remembered as one of the darkest days in Egypt history." Amnesty International also spoke against the verdict, calling for a retrial and stating that all evidence gathered against the former president and his co-defendants was inadmissible as a result of their illegal detention before trial.
Eight supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi were sentenced to life in prison on May 11 for illegal protests and acts of violence committed in Cairo's eastern al-Marg district in July 2014. The defendants allegedly chanted against the army and the police, in addition to damaging public areas and blocking the road in al-Marg. After hearing the testimony of eyewitnesses, the prosecution accused the defendants of joining a terrorist organization, damaging public and private buildings, illegally protesting, and carrying weapons, among other things. Furthermore, the defendants allegedly protested against the death sentences of 14 Muslim Brotherhood leaders in al-Marg and Matariya. Two people were killed and four injured as a result of clashes between protestors and residents of the district.
The dizzyingly escalating crisis across the Middle East was ratcheted up several degrees last week as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf State allies intervened in Yemen, launching air-strikes against the Shi'ite rebels that have seized much of the country. Saudi troops are amassing on the border and there are fears that the air campaign, dubbed "Operation Decisive Storm," may soon be followed by a ground invasion. Within Yemen, Sunni tribes and militants in al-Qaeda's orbit are also battling the Shi'ite rebels, known as Houthis. (CNN, Al Jazeera, March 29; Yemen Post, March 22)