Weekly Roundup: Turkish operations in Afrin enter their final stage, Saudi Prince Bin Salman meets with President Trump, and Egyptian President al-Sisi meets with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir


Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met his Sudanese counterpart President Omar al-Bashir in Cairo on Monday. Both countries aim to mend ties that were recently frayed over an upstream Nile dam currently under construction by Ethiopia. At a joint press conference, Bashir and Sisi vowed to cooperate in managing the effects of the dam, which Egypt fears will cut into its share of the river. Tensions had risen in recent months, when Sudan appeared to take Ethiopia’s side in the dam negotiations, reviving a longstanding border dispute with Egypt.

Turkey

On March 14, the European Union released an additional 3.7 billion Euro for refugees in Turkey, the second disbursement of funds set aside in a deal between Turkey and the EU in 2016 to reduce the number of Syrian migrants entering EU borders via Turkey.

The United Nations requested on March 20 that Turkey end its state of emergency, which has lasted for twenty months and purports to combat the lingering threat of the July 2016 coup attempt. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the UN report supporting the call was baseless and founded on propaganda.  

Greece refused to extradite eight Turkish soldiers March 16 after Ankara’s repeated request for their return to Turkey. The Erdoğan government claims the soldiers took part in preparations for the July 2016 coup attempt, though Athens remains unconvinced of the Turkish charges against the fugitives. The decision marks a low point in the already strained relations between Turkey and Greece.

Syria

At least 36 Syrian government troops and loyalist fighters were killed in an ISIL attack on the Damascus neighborhood of Qadam on March 20. ISIL fighters took control of the neighborhood during the night, and appeared to launch the attack from the neighboring district of Hajar al-Aswad, which it still controls.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad visited government troops in eastern Ghouta on March 18 after a decisive assault on rebel positions which displaced at least 6,000 people. Syrian government troops now control roughly 80% of eastern Ghouta, with Russian military support. Russia blocked a UN Security Council meeting on human rights abuses in the Syrian campaign on March 19 as the regime secured its position in eastern Ghouta.

Turkish operations in Afrin entered their final stage this week, with Turkish forces entering the city on March 18. Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces faced little resistance as they advanced on the city center March 18, and currently control roughly half the city. Reports in Turkish media allege that YPG forces have withdrawn from the city, but Turkish forces continue to proceed with caution. The move comes after a Turkish artillery strike killed at least 18 civilians on March 16. On March 19, the Turkish foreign ministry released a statement deriding the US for its criticism of the Afrin operation, and Turkish President Erdoğan vowed that Turkey would continue its counterterror operations in Iraq and Syria after securing Afrin. Turkey has yet to reach a deal with the US on American activity in Manbij, after the US State Department denied Turkish claims that an agreement had been concluded. Turkey has delayed further talks on Syria with the US following the firing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Lebanon

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in Rome March 15 for a donor conference aiming to raise funds to kickstart the Lebanese economy. The Lebanese delegation highlighted the increased economic burden represented by the influx of Syrians displaced by that country’s civil war, and implied that European funding would help Lebanon prevent Syrians from departing for Europe. Hariri also stressed that the funds will support Lebanon’s security services and boost the Lebanese Army presence on the border with Israel. In a televised interview March 15, Hezbollah deputy Sheikh Naim Qassem stated that the group does not expect war with Israel, but is prepared to fight if necessary.

Palestine/Israel

Countries and organizations attending a conference hosted by the European Union pledged 456 million Euros ($559 million) to improve the Gaza Strip’s drinking water. It is thought that about 95% of Gaza’s water is unsafe for drinking. The funded project will build a large desalination plant to supply drinking water to Gazans, as well as the pipelines, water storage, and solar energy supply necessary for the facility. The initiative has the support of both the Palestinian Authority, which assumed administrative responsibility for the Strip from its rival Hamas late last year, and the Israeli government.

Tensions in Palestine-Israel intensified along multiple axes this week, highlighting an increasingly heightened political and security situation. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah survived an assassination attempt as he visited Gaza in an attempt to reinvigorate the Palestinian Authority’s stuttering reconciliation deal with Hamas. PA officials criticized Hamas for providing inadequate security for Hamdallah, though they did not outright accuse their rival of orchestrating the attack. Elsewhere, a Palestinian killed two Israeli soldiers by ramming them with his vehicle in an illegal settlement near Jenin, while another Palestinian stabbed an Israeli to death in Jerusalem’s Old City. And PA President Mahmoud Abbas publicly described US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman as a “son of a dog” for contending that Jewish West Bank settlements are part of Israel. The Ambassador responded by suggesting Abbas’ remarks were anti-Semitic.

Iraq

Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil eased slightly this week when the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) announced it had received salaries for its government employees from Baghdad March 19, after Iraqi President Fuad Masum, himself a Kurd, refused to approve a budget deal on March 14 citing harsh cuts to the KRG budget. Also on March 19, the first foreign flight landed in Erbil since the ban on air traffic established after the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum. The KRG announced March 13 that it would hand over ISIL detainees in Kurdish custody to Baghdad.

A helicopter crash March 16 killed seven US soldiers, after the helicopter hit a power line in Anbar Province. The Pentagon is conducting an investigation into the crash, though a spokesperson said the military believes the crash to have been an accident.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayyad traveled to Damascus March 14 to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on behalf of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The two discussed the prospect of enhancing political and security cooperation between Baghdad and Damascus, particularly in the effort to secure the Iraqi-Syrian border. Al-Fayyad is the commander of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMF), influential sectors of which are noted for their ties to Iran.

Saudi Arabia

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is due to meet President Donald Trump on Tuesday. During the meeting President Trump is expected to press the Crown Prince to resolve the Gulf crisis. Officials have also stated that the Crown Prince will meet with high level administrators including Defense Secretary James Mattis, in an effort to open new channels for security cooperation. The Saudi delegation is also expected to meet with the defense company Lockheed Martin, following its memorandum of intent to buy 48 Typhoon jets from British BAE Systems.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is taking a $400 million stake in Endeavor, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent and event managers. In addition, Saudi Arabia will have a seat on Endeavor’s international advisory board for the entertainment, sports and fashion powerhouse.

The United States is in advanced talks with Saudi Arabia regarding the first transfer of a prisoner from the Guantanamo Bay prison, a move that would repatriate the prisoner to Saudi Arabia. The transfer of 43-year-old Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi stalled in February, when he became eligible but was not repatriated, as allowed under the terms of his 2014 plea bargain agreement.

UAE

The UAE will train Somaliland security forces as part of a deal to establish a military base in the semi-autonomous region, Somaliland’s president said on Thursday. The UAE began construction last year of a base on a site at the airport of the Somaliland port city Berbera, and will be allowed to maintain a presence for 30 years. Berbera is less than 190 miles south of Yemen, where UAE troops are stationed as part of a Saudi-backed coalition.

Oman

On Tuesday Oman’s Petroleum Development managing director reported a significant gas find in Oman’s Mabrouk gas field, with an estimated 4 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of recoverable gas and 112 million barrels of condensates. According to the Oman’s Ministry of oil and gas, Oman’s total oil and condensate reserves stood at 4.74 billion barrels at the end of 2017, along with gas reserves of 24.96 tcf.

Qatar

Qatar has asked US regulators to investigate the US subsidiary of the largest bank in the UAE, accusing it of “bogus” foreign exchange deals designed to harm its economy as part of a blockade by Gulf neighbors. The UAE refused to comment.

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