Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss regional issues, including Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon. Although Russia is a longtime supporter of the Assad regime in Damascus—and is therefore nominally on the same side as Iran, Syria’s other major international sponsor— Israel appears to be gauging Russia’s appetite for measures that would restrict Tehran’s operational freedom in the Levant. In particular, Israel is attempting to measure Russia’s opposition to the United States’ plan to reopen the Iran nuclear deal. Israel is also highly concerned by Iran’s role in smuggling weaponry to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah via Syria.
Spotlight on Migration and Refugees
The leaders of 21 global NGOs signed a letter to top US officials on Wednesday objecting to the White House’s decision to cut more than half of its scheduled payment to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The letter highlighted the devastating impact the cuts would have on vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.
Two months after being detained in Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption purge, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been released. He was freed after a financial settlement was approved by the state prosecutor, an official said. Prince Alwaleed was held in November by a new anti-corruption body headed by the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Amid fierce clashes with forces loyal to President Hadi, separatists in southern Yemen have seized government buildings in the city of Aden. President Hadi accused southern separatist forces backed by the United Arab Emirates of staging a “coup” after they seized several government offices during the deadly clashes.
British media regulator Ofcom has fined the Saudi-owned channel al-Arabiya 120,000 pounds ($171,000) for broadcasting statements by an imprisoned Bahraini opposition leader. The statements were extracted under torture, which is the primary reason for the fine. In the clip, Hassan Mushaima confesses to wanting to overthrow the Bahraini government and replace it with an Iranian style Islamic government. It was later revealed that he was forced to make such statements under duress.
Turkish troops and allied forces captured a strategic hill in northwestern Syria, between the Kurdish-held Afrin and the Turkish-held Azaz, in an offensive against US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.
In Jordan the price of pita bread will double on Saturday after the government’s decision to abolish bread subsidies. Ending this form of government aid is supposedly an attempt to decrease the national deficit. In order to offset the impact on the poor, cash transfer programs will be implemented.
Lebanon’s trash infested beaches have sparked yet another uproar, as Lebanese civilians protested and demanded the coasts be cleaned of garbage.
On Saturday, two more candidates withdrew from the Egyptian presidential election scheduled for March, paving the way for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run unopposed. Zamalek football club boss Mortada Mansour announced on Facebook that he will not seek candidacy despite previously vowing he would run. The head of the al-Wafd party, Sayed El-Badawi, also withdrew and announced his support for Sisi.
Earlier in the week two other candidates also exited the race. On Wednesday, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali announced his withdrawal, claiming political and social conditions did not allow for a fair contest. Former military Chief-of-Staff Sami Anan, who was viewed by many as the only serious challenger to Sisi, was arrested on January 23 for running in the elections without permission from the army. He is reportedly being held in a military prison. On Saturday, Anan’s running mate, Egypt’s former Head Auditor Hisham Geneina, was reportedly attacked by unidentified men in New Cairo.
The Turkish assault on the Syrian town of Afrin, known as Operation Olive Branch, escalated last week. On the diplomatic front, President Erdoğan discussed the operation on Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a call on Wednesday, American President Donald Trump warned Erdoğan to de-escalate the assault in northern Syria (the account of which Turkey officially disputes despite a strongly – worded White House statement released on the same day). Despite American objections, Mr. Erdoğan said that Turkish operations will extend as far as the Syrian-Iraqi border, and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called for the United States to withdraw troops from Manbij ahead of Turkish advances. Mr. Erdoğan rejected charges that Turkey is moving to occupy northern Syria, and defended the legitimacy of the operation as a counterterror measure.
Support among Turks for the operation is high, but law enforcement is treating public opposition harshly. Over 300 were arrested during the weekend, according to an Interior Ministry announcement, in addition to 150 detained last week. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ was among the government voices warning against the spread of propaganda on social media. As of January 28, the Turkish Armed Forces claimed to have killed over 550 YPG fighters.
Police arrested 124 suspects on January 25 and 133 suspects on January 26 in connection with the July 2016 coup attempt. Turkish courts have continued handing down sentences for those accused of ties with the Gülen organization FETÖ, with 57 receiving prison sentences on January 27.
On January 28, Turkish Coast Guard forces blocked Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos from approaching a pair of disputed islands in the Aegean Sea. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu defended the move as “necessary” in the face of ongoing disputes with Greece of sovereignty in the Aegean.