Weekly Roundup: Protests in Basra intensify, UN talks on Yemen stall, and trilateral Syria talks in Tehran presage Idlib assault


Egypt

An Egyptian court sentenced 75 people to death September 8th for their involvement in the 2013 Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in protest in Cairo, during which hundreds of demonstrators were killed by Egyptian security forces. A total of 739 people faced charges, including killing police officers, incitement to violence, and damaging property. Forty-seven people, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie, were sentenced to life in prison. The trial, one of the largest mass trials in Egypt since 2011, was widely condemned by human rights organizations. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that the “evident disregard of basic rights of the accused places the guilt of all those convicted in serious doubt” and called on Egypt’s appeals court to review the sentences.

 

Iran

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed Iran’s armed forces September 9th, urging them to boost their defense capabilities to “scare off” their enemies and accusing the US and Israel of waging a “media war” on Iran. After the US withdrawal from the Nuclear Agreement in May, Khamenei has praised the Revolutionary Guard and boasted of Iran’s military capabilities. On August 31st, Iran rejected a French call to negotiate its future nuclear plans, its ballistic missile arsenal, and the role of Iran in Syria and Yemen. Additionally, South Korea became the first to comply with the US demand that oil buyers cut their imports from Iran to zero. South Korea was among Iran’s top oil consumers, but relies heavily on US support for maintaining national security and stimulating trade.

 

On September 8th, Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) units fired missiles on Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Iraq, killing at least 11. The IRGC spokesman said the attack followed the group’s failure to heed warnings from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iran’s intention to strike.

 

Iraq

Protests in Basra intensified September 8th after five days of demonstrations as three rockets were fired at the airport, government buildings set aflame, and two workers held hostage at a nearby oilfield. According to official reports, Iraq continues to produce crude oil at record levels, unaffected by the recent protests in Basra. On September 7th, protesters set fire to the Iranian consulate out of anger with Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. Both Iranian and Iraqi officials condemned the protesters. The unrest in Basra stems from perceived government corruption that has left residents without basic necessities such as water and electricity. At least twelve protesters have died in clashes with security forces. The head of the Basra Operations Command and Basra police were removed from their posts, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi agreed to send a delegation to Basra and investigate security forces.

 

Israel/ Palestine

An Israeli court ordered the evacuation and demolition of the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in East Jerusalem September 6th. The demolition was approved in May 2018, but was delayed by protesters and international objections in July. European states repeated calls for Israel to call off the demolition plans on September 10th.

 

Paraguay announced plans to move its embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, reversing the decision of former President Horacio Cartes to relocate the mission to Jerusalem after the Trump administration’s own move. Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also acts as Foreign Minister, announced the closure of Israel’s Paraguay embassy in retaliation.

 

The Trump Administration ordered the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, DC on September 10th, saying the group has “not taken steps” to work for a resolution to the conflict with Israel. The announcement follows the August 31st cancelation of US contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), on which many Palestinians depend for access to basic services. Tensions were further escalated when US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said September 6th that the US would recognize Israeli claims to the Golan Heights, saying he “cannot imagine” a scenario where the territory will revert to Syria.

 

Jordan

King Abdullah II rejected calls for a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation September 5th, calling it a “red line” for Jordan. The King reiterated Jordan’s commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict in Palestine, arguing that a confederation would improperly absolve Israel of obligations to Palestinians living in the West Bank. The rejection follows reports on September 2nd that Trump’s negotiating team, led by Jason Greenblatt, floated the idea of a confederation during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

 

Lebanon

Eight hundred Syrians boarded buses returning to Syrian territory from multiple locations in Lebanon, according to the General Security Directorate. The returns are facilitated by a Lebanese government program, which it claims is voluntary, aimed at reducing the burden refugees exert on the Lebanese economy. Advocacy groups have questioned whether the returns are actually voluntary, raising concerns over forced evictions of Syrians from Lebanese communities.

 

Libya

Armed groups involved in violent clashes in Libya’s capital of Tripoli agreed September 9th to set up a mechanism to “consolidate” a recent ceasefire, according to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The UN succeeded in persuading the militias involved in the fighting, which has killed dozens since the end of August, to agree to a ceasefire September 4th, which has largely held since. UNSMIL said various forces agreed to freeze their forces’ movements and work through a monitoring and verification process to ensure the implementation of the ceasefire. Despite the ceasefire, gunmen stormed the headquarters of Libya’s National Oil Corporation in Tripoli on September 10th, killing two workers and injuring ten.

 

Qatar

Qatar announced amendments to its controversial residency laws September 4th. Foreign workers will now be allowed to leave the country without an exit visa, a major issue for labor rights groups, and plans for a minimum wage and grievance system disgruntled or mistreated workers are under consideration. A law ratified in August granted workers some protections, but pressure groups continued calls for further worker protections, citing shortcomings in the August legislation.

 

Officials announced September 7th that Qatar would invest 10 billion euro in the German energy, financial, and information technology sectors. The five-year deal aims to strengthen bilateral ties, and includes plans for a new liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal.

 

Saudi Arabia

Authorities arrested an Egyptian citizen working in a hotel September 9th after a widely-viewed video appeared on social media of a female coworker feeding him a piece of food over breakfast. The Saudi Ministry of Labor said the man was arrested for working in an industry restricted to Saudi citizens, among other unspecified violations.

 

A Houthi missile intercepted by Saudi Air Defense forces September 5th wounded 26 in Najran as the conflict in Yemen continues; some 112 Saudi civilians have been killed in similar missile strikes since 2015, according to coalition forces.

 

Spain cancelled a shipment of weapons to Saudi Arabia September 4th, citing concerns that the weapons may be used against civilians in Yemen. Spanish Defense Minister Robles said September 10th that Spanish diplomats were working to resolve the dispute, and that the decision to reverse the $10.7 million USD deal was not final. Saudi Arabia, along with its coalition ally, the United Arab Emirates, is under pressure to respect civilian casualties after an August UN report on war crimes in Yemen.

 

Syria

According to U.S. officials on September 9th, President Bashar al-Assad approved a chlorine gas attack in the rebel holdout of Idlib despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s warnings against chemical weapons use. Russian officials accused American forces in Syria on September 9th of improperly deploying white phosphorus ammunition, outlawed under international law, in an apparent response to US concerns over chemical weapons’ use, though a US spokesman said Americans in Syria were not equipped with white phosphorus. Russian airstrikes in the countryside around Idlib also continued September 8th.

 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey urged both sides to agree to a ceasefire during trilateral talks in Tehran, expressing concern over an influx of refugees displaced by the impending assault. Both President Vladimir Putin and President Hassan Rouhani, on the other hand, clearly signaled their intentions for Idlib and remained steadfast in their statements supporting the Assad government.

 

US President Trump agreed September 6th to plans for American forces to remain in Syria “indefinitely,” according to State Department officials. The decision reverses Trump’s pledge to remove troops from Syria imminently.

 

Turkey

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) looks likely to renew its alliance with President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for municipal elections in 2019. The partnership served both well in the July Presidential and Parliamentary elections, in which Mr. Erdoğan won a convincing majority and both parties took to Parliament with unexpectedly strong backing. Nonetheless, an AKP spokesman was keen to emphasize that no agreement had been finalized, and that the AKP does not consider itself limited to past arrangements. The secularist People’s Republican Party (CHP) will not seek an alliance with other opposition parties after its crushing defeat in July.

 

Greece returned two Turkish soldiers September 9th after detaining them for crossing the land border. Turkey claims the crossing was a mistake, and that the two were pursuing migrants unlawfully crossing into Greece.

 

On September 10th, authorities issued arrest warrants for over 100 active-duty military personnel for their alleged connections to the Gülen organization, which Ankara accuses of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt. 56 have already been arrested. Simultaneously, courts in Ankara handed down sentences ranging from eight years to nine months on an additional 115 suspected of involvement with the coup attempt.

 

Yemen

Saudi-led coalition forces advanced on Hodeidah September 9th, cutting off a key supply route to the port city, which is the main conduit for humanitarian aid into the ailing country. Dozens were killed in fighting that resumed after UN sponsored talks in Geneva broke down when Houthi envoys failed to arrive by September 6th. The Houthi delegation alleged that coalition forces blocked their attempts to travel to Geneva. The talks were organized by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who downplayed the significance of the Houthi no-show. He insisted that the talks remained productive and will involve Houthi representatives once they are able to attend. Separately, US Central Command general Joseph Votel met with the Yemeni government’s chief of staff on September 5th in a visit to ‘Aden.

Protests continued last week in Yemeni cities over poor economic conditions and the August killing of over 40 schoolchildren in a Saudi coalition airstrike. On September 5th, thousands rallied in the Houthi-controlled city of Sa’ada, calling for those responsible for the August 9th airstrike to be prosecuted. Protesters also filled the streets of ‘Aden, seized by the UAE-backed, separatist Southern Transitional Council in January, to protest dire living conditions and economic hardship on September 3rd-5th.

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