Weekly Roundup: Heightened tensions between US and Turkey, violence in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, and investigation of Israeli PM Netanyahu

Egypt

On Friday, Egyptian security forces launched a major military operation against the Wilayat Sinai, the ISIS affiliate in the Sinai. In the most comprehensive offensive in years, soldiers and police were dispatched to tighten control of land borders, and warships were deployed along the coast to “cut the terrorists’ supply lines and ensure they do not get backup.” The military said the operation’s goal is to “tighten control of the country’s crossing points with neighboring countries and to cleanse the areas that are terrorist strongholds.”  The operation covers north and central Sinai, the Nile Delta, and the Western Desert along the porous border with Libya. On Sunday, Egyptian air strikes killed 16 militants and detained over 30 suspects. The offensive comes ahead of Egypt’s presidential elections next month, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win.

 

Jordan

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit Jordan this week as part of a tour that also includes Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Turkey. The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as well as US support to help Jordan cope with security, economic, and refugee issues, will likely be on the table.

On February 6th, the Jordanian Parliament approved the construction of an $18 billion oil pipeline connecting Jordan’s Aqaba to oil fields in southern Iraq. The plan was initially agreed on in 2013; however, it was suspended due to the war against ISIL.

 

Syria

Bashar al-Assad’s government continued airstrikes and artillery attacks this week in Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs, resulting in more than 200 deaths this week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The violence is some of the worst Eastern Ghouta has seen since the conflict began; the death toll has now risen to 400 since the regime intensified attacks in late December.

Additionally, after militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham shot down a Russian airplane last week, Russian and Syrian government forces continued airstrikes in Idlib. The Syrian Civil Defense alleged that the government had used chemical weapons as doctors and relief workers in Idlib reported treating patients with breathing difficulties and suffocation; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is now investigating.

 

Turkey

On February 12th, US-Turkey relations reached a breaking point over Turkish operations against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, with Turkey threatening to depart NATO if the US does not realign its policies. Over the weekend, US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was in Istanbul to meet with Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalın, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to arrive in Ankara this week to try resolving tensions over Kurdish militias in northern Syria. US-Turkey relations have been spiraling since the start of Turkish operations in Afrin. In a statement on February 6th, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey will not negotiate with the United States on Afrin. The US has worked to dissuade Turkey from its operation in northern Syria, which Turkey claims is targeting fighters affiliated with the separatist PKK group. Turkish President Erdoğan also accused the US of breaking its pledge not to operate west of the Euphrates river, charging American presidents Obama and Trump with lying to Turkey about American operations in northern Syria.

On February 7th, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet reported that a policy paper has been brought before lawmakers in Ankara aimed at addressing the final barriers to readmission to the Schengen zone and greater freedom of movement for Turkish citizens in Europe. The proposed changes include moving a law restricting journalistic activities from the Criminal Code to the Anti-Terror Law, which Turkish lawmakers claim limit the cases where journalists face detention. Turkey also vowed to implement law enforcement integration and visa liberalization with Europe, but stressed that it will continue refusing to recognize Greek Cyprus, a significant detail considering Turkey’s vehement opposition to gas exploration projects there.

Iraq

On February 6th, two Shi’ite militia groups demanded a full withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, objecting to a joint Iraqi-US plan to keep American troops in Iraq on an advisory and training mission. The Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah both voiced their strong opposition to any US troop presence in Iraq, though Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told reporters he remained committed to keeping US troops in Iraq for the time being.

On February 8th, the capital of Anbar Province, Ramadi, suffered its first terror attack since the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIL. Ten casualties were reported in the attack on a police checkpoint, and occurred just days after Iraqi armed forces carried out another operation to root out cells of ISIL fighters in the country’s northeastern desert.

 

Iran

An Iranian drone was shot down on the Israeli and Syrian border over the weekend by the Israeli military. This has been the most serious engagement between the two countries to date. It is believed that the drone was an Iranian copy of a U.S. drone it obtained in 2011.

Iran marked the anniversary of its revolution in 1979 over the the weekend. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured out into the streets just weeks after protests occurred across the country. This celebration was an opportunity for Iran’s leadership to demonstrate to both domestic and foreign critics that it has support by members of the Iranian community. During the event, Iran’s President Rouhani stated that this year’s festivities were particularly important as “In the last few months, enemies with incorrect calculations designed plots against Iran.”

 

Palestine/Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the country’s police chief for what he alleged was a lack of objectivity, as it appeared the police were coming closer to recommending charges against Netanyahu in two corruption cases. The Prime Minister, who is being investigated for possible bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, was responding to statements by the police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, that implied that figures close to Netanyahu had hired private detectives to uncover damaging information on investigators in these cases.

The Israeli Air Force bombed multiple Syrian and Iranian military installations inside Syria in response to the downing of an Israeli jet by Syrian anti-aircraft fire on Saturday. The F-16 fighter jet is believed to be the first Israeli aircraft brought down by hostile fire in decades, and some analysts think the incident could mark the beginning of a phase of more open conflict between Israel and Syrian-Iranian forces. The Israeli military announced that its retaliatory strikes destroyed almost half of the Assad regime’s air defences.

 

Yemen

Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi appointed former finance minister Mohammed Zammam as head of the central bank. Its currency, the rial, has lost more than half its value against the dollar and soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis.

 

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq announced that Saudi women should not be required to wear the abaya. The Sheikh, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, did however maintain that they should still dress modestly. The wearing of the abaya for women is currently required by law.

 

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates has donated $2 million and Qatar has pledged another $9 million to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in an effort to stave off the current health crisis. The funding came as a response to a threatened shut-down of emergency hospital generators.

 

Oman

In a boost to bilateral relations between the Oman and India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday met with Sultan Qaboos of Oman for delegation-level talks. Modi and Qaboos signed eight agreements during the meeting on issues of legal and judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters.

 

Algeria

On Saturday, Algerian Finance Minister Abderrahmane Raouia announced plans to potentially cut gasoline subsidies in 2019. During a meeting between Arab finance ministers and officials from the International Monetary Fund, Rawiya noted intentions to reform the Algerian subsidy system in order to address the nation’s budget deficit. Algeria recorded a fiscal deficit of 3.2% of its GDP in 2017, and 13.5% in 2016.

 

Libya

Bomb explosions at a Benghazi mosque killed at least two and injured 75 people, according to Libyan officials. The two explosions took place during Friday prayers, in the Berka district of Eastern Benghazi. Military sources believe the devices were activated remotely via mobile phone. Benghazi is currently controlled by the Libyan National Army, lead by Khalifa Hafter — a potential candidate in the upcoming Libyan presidential elections.


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