Middle East Ticker: Assad Regime Destroys Last Hospitals in Aleppo, Tunisia Confronts Its Past, and Another Truce in Yemen Fails
Assad Regime Advances in Aleppo, Destroys Remaining Hospitals
The Assad regime is pressing ahead with an offensive against rebel-held districts in eastern Aleppo. The new push, which according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) includes Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah ground forces, began last Tuesday with renewed airstrikes targeting the few remaining medical facilities in rebel areas. More than 100 civilians have been killed in the past week, and airstrikes have hit multiple hospitals, including repeated strikes against a children’s hospital. The World Health Organization issued a statement on Sunday declaring that “there are currently no hospitals functioning in the besieged area of the city” and medical care is now only available through smaller clinics.
On Monday, Hezbollah fighters were reportedly seizing territory in the Masakan Hanano neighborhood. "If they take control of Masakan Hanano, the government will have line of fire control over several rebel-held neighborhoods and will be able to cut off the northern parts of rebel-held Aleppo from the rest of the opposition-held districts,” SOHR director Rami Abdel-Rahman said. The threat to the remaining civilians besieged in Aleppo has given new urgency to efforts to provide a diplomatic resolution or humanitarian relief. On Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem rejected a U.N. proposal that would have granted local autonomy in exchange for rebel fighters leaving besieged districts. "By Christmas ... due to military intensification, you will have the virtual collapse of what is left in eastern Aleppo; you may have 200,000 people moving towards Turkey—that would be a humanitarian catastrophe," U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his call for the implementation of a no-fly and buffer zone in northern Syria. In particular, he said he hoped the incoming Trump administration will reevaluate U.S. policy. “I hope that in the upcoming process, this will be reassessed especially by the United States and positive steps will be taken,” he said. Speaking on Sunday on the sidelines of an international summit in Lima, Peru, President Barack Obama was circumspect. "Once Russia and Iran made a decision to back Assad and a brutal air campaign and essentially a pacification of Aleppo regardless of civilian casualties, children being killed or wounded, schools or hospitals being destroyed, then it was very hard to see a way in which even a trained and committed moderate opposition could hold its ground for long periods of time," he said. “At this stage, we’re going to need a change in how all parties think about this in order for us to end the situation there.”
Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission
After more than two years of investigation, the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission began broadcasting live testimony on television last Thursday. The commission—which is based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped South Africa’s process of national atonement after the end of Apartheid—has collected nearly 65,000 complaints from Tunisians who say they suffered abuses under authoritarian rule, from 1955 through the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011.
The public testimony covered a portion of the cases that have been presented to the commission. “The first part of the hearings was dedicated to the ‘martyrs of the revolution’, three young men who were killed during the uprisings of 2010/11,” Mariam Salehi writes for openDemocracy. “These were followed by the wife and mother of a ‘disappeared,’” as well as first-hand accounts from academics and authors who suffered torture while imprisoned as political dissidents. Some of those testifying called for criminal prosecutions; others just asked that the country not forget the crimes committed under the authoritarian regime. “I am willing to forgive them as long as they admit to this and explain,” Sami Brahim, who was imprisoned as a student in the 1990s, said of his torturers during the broadcast. “I am not going to sue. If you ask me personally, I just want the truth and for this black period to be written down so this does not happen again. At least our sons and daughters would not have to live this way.”
The public testimony was hailed by many Tunisian politicians as an important step in the country’s democratic transition. The national event is “a sign of the revolution’s success and proof that Tunisia is on the right track to treating its sicknesses and wounds in civilised, and not vengeful, ways,” Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the country’s influential Ennahda party, said. “This event marks Tunisia as an oasis of peace in a region that is on fire. Therefore, this generation has to be proud that it lived to see this day, as many generations died while they were dreaming to see [a day such as this].” But Salehi notes that the Truth and Dignity Commission “seems to be [in] a race against time: one and a half years are left of its initial mandated time...A possible extension for another year depends on the approval of parliament, so does the requested increase of the commission’s budget, which would allow it to hire additional staff and speed up the treatment of files.” The government has not prioritized transitional justice and the commission has been criticized in the Tunisian press as an exorbitant public expense. “Whether the public hearings could help raise and secure much needed political as well as public support for the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission in particular and the transitional justice project in general is one of the important questions for the near and medium future,” she writes.
Another Ceasefire Collapses in Yemen
Saudi Arabia resumed airstrikes in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and across the country on Monday after a ceasefire over the weekend failed to take hold. The planned truce had been pushed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and was accepted by the Houthi rebels and Saudi-led intervention force supporting the ousted internationally-recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but the Hadi government was reluctant to agree to the arrangement. U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters on Friday that he hoped it could provide an opening to resume the peace process. "We are working very closely with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region that can influence (the parties to the conflict)," he said. "We have discovered a stronger and stronger view that this war must come to an end but we have to bring them back to negotiating table.”
That opportunity never came. Disputes prevented the planned implementation of the agreement. Fighting continued in the flashpoint city of Taiz on Thursday, the scheduled start of the truce, and pro-government forces shelled a marketplace in a Houthi-controlled neighborhood. At least 21 people were killed in the attack, Medecins Sans Frontieres reported. The Saudi-led coalition then declared a start to the ceasefire on Saturday, but neither the Houthis or pro-government forces observed the truce. On Monday, the Saudi force resumed its support for the pro-government forces and said they would not seek an extension for the ceasefire. The failed attempt to restart negotiations is a telling indication that, even though Saudi Arabia may want to wind down the war and find a diplomatic resolution, it lacks the control over its local partners to enforce a halt in the conflict.