Weekly Roundup: Turkish offensive in Northern Syria, secret Egypt-Israel alliance in the Sinai, and withdrawal of US troops from Iraq


Turkey

Turkey continued Operation Olive Branch, its offensive in Northern Syria, throughout the week. President Erdoğan claimed on January 4th that Turkish forces have killed 935 Kurdish fighters so far, and the Turkish Armed Forces announced on February 5th that it had killed an additional 15 in operations inside Turkey’s borders. Also on February 5th, Turkish Armed Forces announced the capture of the strategic Dikmetas village and Surgeya hill near Afrin. Turkish forces seized a cache of weapons, including anti-air missiles, on February 2nd. Analysts note that Turkey is using the operation as a chance to test domestically produced weaponry, and Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli voiced the need for “native and national” arms in a series of comments on January 28th.

On February 2nd, the Constitutional Court denied an appeal for the release of jailed journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan, both of whom were detained in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt for alleged links to terror organizations. The journalists’ lawyer called the decision “unlawful.”

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stressed on February 3rd that Turkey remains in favor of Syrian territorial integrity, despite Operation Olive Branch. He also blamed the US and Europe for rocket attacks that Turkey claims have killed seven Turkish civilians and injured 113, citing weaponry provided to Kurdish militias under train-and-equip programs. Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu also reiterated Turkey’s commitment to explore natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean, an issue that has strained Turkish relations with Israel and a major source of contention with Greece. Also in foreign relations, President Erdoğan met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on February 5th, during which the two discussed the status of Jerusalem and international Islamophobia.

 

Syria

A meeting of Syrian opposition groups hosted by the Russian government in Sochi ended on January 30th with calls for democratic elections, but opposition groups said key demands were ignored, especially the demand that refugees be allowed to participate in any elections. In a speech concluding the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to support a constitutional committee for Syria, to include groups that did and did not participate in the Sochi summit.

On February 3rd, Tahrir al-Sham, a group formerly linked to al-Qaeda, claimed to have shot down a Russian SU-25 warplane using a shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missile during an air raid over the city of Saraqeb. Russian forces responded with heavy bombardments on February 4th in the Idlib province towns of Kafr Nabl, Maasran, Saraqeb, and Maarat al-Nu’man, as well as Idlib city itself.

 

Egypt

Unmarked Israeli warplanes and helicopters have carried out dozens of covert attacks against ISIS and other terrorist groups inside Egypt’s Sinai in recent years, the New York Times reported. For more than two years, unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters, and jets have carried out a covert air campaign, conducting more than 100 airstrikes inside Egypt, with approval from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. An Egyptian army spokesman dismissed the report, saying, “The Egyptian Army and police are fighting terrorism in North Sinai on their own and without anybody’s help.”

 

Iran

Iran has urged Turkey to stop its offensive inside Syria arguing that the violates the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Last month Turkey began an air and ground campaign against the Kurdish YPG militia as it considers this U.S.-backed group to be a terrorist organization. Tehran first expressed concern for the Turkish military offensive in January, when it expressed hope that it would immediately end so as to not further destabilize Syria.

 

Iraq

An Iraqi government spokesman and US military contractors confirmed on February 5th that the US is commencing its withdrawal of troops from Iraq after declaring victory over ISIL. One Iraqi official close to Prime Minister al-Abadi said that as much as 60 percent of the US force will depart Iraq, though Army Spokesman Ryan Dillon affirmed the US intention to maintain a continuing presence based on the needs of the Iraqi government. The announcement follows a January 30th operation by Iraqi forces to clear ISIL cells from the southern desert of the country, aiming to prevent fighters from escaping Anbar Province.

On February 1st, Turkish forces carried out an airstrike in northern Iraq and claimed to have killed 49 PKK fighters during the ongoing Turkish campaign against Kurdish militia groups in Syria and Iraq.

The Iraqi Parliament voted January 29th to lift sanctions against Iraqi Kurdistan, which Baghdad imposed in response to last year’s independence referendum. The vote provides for the establishment of a new branch of the Iraqi central bank in Kurdistan, allowing the region to reconnect with global financial networks.

Yemen

Yemeni Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman was suspended from an Islamist party allied with President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after she accused the Saudi-led coalition that backs him in the country’s civil war of acting as occupiers. Karman won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in Arab Spring protests that ousted authoritarian President Ali Abdullah.

 

Saudi Arabia

The Ritz-Carlton in Saudi Arabia is to re-open within days after months of being used as a makeshift prison. The hotel in Riyadh has been closed since 4 November while being used as a holding place and interrogation centre for more than 300 princes, ministers and businessmen detained in an anti-corruption probe whilst it has been claimed that over $100 billion of assets has been seized as part of the corruption purge.

 

Bahrain

A Bahraini court has sentenced 58 people on terrorism charges, condemning two of them to death and stripping citizenship from 47. They were allegedly part of a terrorist cell trained in the use of heavy weapons and explosives. The ruling is the latest in a series of scores of harsh penalties in the country for defendants accused of Iranian-backed militancy but who activists say are mostly peaceful opposition members.

 

Jordan

On January 30th, Israel announced it would reopen its embassy in Amman after a diplomatic row triggered when a security guard working for the embassy shot dead a Jordanian man worker who had attacked him with a screwdriver.

Jordan cut ties with North Korea on February 1st, citing its relationship with the US as a key motivation. Other US allies in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, took similar steps last year.

 

Lebanon

On January 31st, Israel strenuously objected to Lebanon’s decision to pursue gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman urging energy firms not to bid for Lebanese gas. President Michel Aoun called the Israeli objections a “threat to Lebanon” on January 31st, and raised concerns about the Israeli response during a February 5th meeting on the gas sites with Greek Foreign Minister Panos Kammenos.

On February 2nd, the US Treasury announced sanctions on six people and seven entities, citing ties to Hezbollah. In a statement, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Iranian influence, calling Hezbollah “Iran’s primary proxy” in the region.

Also on February 2nd, leaders of the Shi’ite parties Amal and Hezbollah visited Christian areas in an effort to ease tensions after a political spat triggered by a leaked video of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a Maronite Christian, disparaging the Shi’a Prime Minister, Nabih Berri.

 

Israel & Palestine

On February 1st, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patruschev to discuss security cooperation on security issues. A Russian spokesman said the two sides focused on efforts to “counter the revival of Nazism, [and] the spread of nationalist ideology and distortion of history.”

 

Algeria

On Monday, Germany agreed to compensate Algerian Jews persecuted during World War II. It is estimated that there are currently 25,000 Algerian Jewish Holocaust survivors worldwide. Jews who resided in Algeria between between July 1940 and November 1942 and were persecuted by Nazi allies, such as the Vichy regime, will be eligible for a one-time payment of approximately $3,200.  

 

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