Weekly Roundup: Turkey’s campaign in Syria continues, the world’s first job center in a refugee camp opens in Jordan, and more violence in the Sinai Peninsula
Three Egyptian soldiers have been killed in a 10-day-long campaign against Islamist militants in the Sinai peninsula, Egypt’s military said on Monday. It was the first time the military has reported its own casualties since it launched the campaign on February 9. The statement did not say where or when the soldiers had died. The military says it has killed dozens of militants and arrested hundreds of suspected fighters and criminals in the operation, which is taking place ahead of a three-month deadline to clear North Sinai of jihadists set by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The conflict around Afrin continued this week with accusations that Turkey carried out a gas attack on Kurdish forces, according to a YPG spokesman and a monitoring group. Turkey has denied the accusations, stressing efforts to avoid civilian casualties, and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called the story “fabricated” on February 18. The incident follows a Turkish artillery bombardment that struck a hospital, which was an unusual direct strike on the town of Afrin itself. As of February 19, Turkey claimed to have killed over 1,600 fighters in Syria.
On February 19 Syrian state media reported that the pro-Assad militia “Popular Forces” will enter Afrin to aid Kurdish fighters, prompting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to warn that Turkish forces will respond with force to any pro-Assad forces aiding Kurdish fighters. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the same day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Assad forces operating in Afrin will “face consequences.”
On February 15, Russian sources indicated that as many as 100 Russian military contractors were killed and another 200 were wounded in a battle with US forces in Deir Ezzor on February 7. Russian Foreign Ministry spokespeople questioned the validity of the reports, saying only five Russian citizens may have been killed in the battle, but that no active-duty Russian soldiers were involved. On February 19, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the reports, calling them “fake news,” and called on the media not to strain tensions.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict stalled February 13 after Damascus rejected a UN bid to sponsor a committee to rewrite the Syrian constitution, leading Russia to postpone the next round of talks between Syrian opposition groups and the Russian-sponsored coalition at Astana. On February 15, top European Union diplomat Federica Mogherini led EU ministers in a call to revitalize the UN peace talks on Syria, reflecting concern over the increased role Russia has taken in Syria.
American officials continued to seek a realignment with Turkey this week during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara on February 15. On February 13, Pentagon officials sought to downplay the significance of monies allocated in the US 2019 budget blueprint for training Kurdish forces in Syria, including $250 million for “border security requirements,” a major point of contention with Turkey that did not go unnoticed in Turkish media. Both Turkish and American sources described the meeting between President Erdoğan and Secretary Tillerson on February 15 as productive, though President Erdoğan used the opportunity to convey his concern over US support for Kurdish militia forces in Syria. On February 16, Turkey proposed a joint deployment with American forces in Syria, and Secretary Tillerson said American forces would focus on Manbij as a point of cooperation. On February 17, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said that American forces will work with Turkish troops in liberated areas.
On February 19, a Turkish Interior Ministry spokesman said that over 2,100 suspects were detained and 16 were killed in anti-terror raids across the country. Likewise, over 900 migrants were detained last week attempting to cross at the Syrian and Greek borders, according to the Turkish General Staff on February 19.
In anticipation of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2019, President Erdoğan met with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) chairman Devlet Bahçeli on February 18, to solidify the alliance between the MHP and Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Spotlight on Migration and Refugees
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged the international community to continue supporting Jordan as a major host of Syrian refugees during his visit to the country last week. He also praised Jordan’s job creation schemes for Syrian refugees, which include the opening of the world’s first job center in a refugee camp located in Za’atari camp last year, and of another one in Azraq camp on Sunday.
Iraqi Oil Minister Jabbar al-Lubayi said on February 13 that the country plans to increase its oil production to seven million barrels a day by 2022, a steep increase from its current production of five million barrels a day. The announcement came just as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi attended a summit on Iraqi reconstruction in Kuwait, where donors pledged $30 billion – well short of the $88 billion Iraq says it needs to complete reconstruction.
At a meeting in Kuwait on February 12, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told allies that the fight against ISIL is not over, stressing the threat the group still poses and the need to achieve an “enduring victory.” On February 13, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg endorsed an expansion of the training mission in Iraq, emphasizing the need to foster stability after the conclusion of major combat missions.
Iran’s President Rouhani visited India this week with the goal of fostering closer relations between the two countries and expanding their economic relations. Agreements were made between the two countries to improve energy security and regional connectivity by developing Iran’s Chabahar Port and road and rail routes. The two countries also signed nine agreements, which included the easing of visa rules for diplomats, an avoidance of double taxation and prevention of tax evasion.
Violence erupted on the Israeli border with Gaza after four Israeli soldiers were wounded by an explosive device on Saturday. It is believed the device was attached to a Palestinian flag placed in the area during protests at the border a day earlier. Israel responded with airstrikes and tank fire against Hamas positions across Gaza, while the militant group launched rockets into Israel. The fighting is some of the worst since the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014, and reflects growing tensions between Israel and Hamas amidst a worsening humanitarian situation for Palestinians.
The UAE armed forces, operating within the Saudi-led Arab Coalition, intercepted a ballistic missile launched by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. The missile, which was intercepted by the UAE’s Patriot Missile Defense System, was fired toward Mokha in the Taiz governorate, according to UAE state news agency WAM. Coalition fighters also destroyed a ballistic missile launchpad belonging to the Houthis near Hodeidah airport, where rebels were preparing to launch a missile. Yemen’s National Army forces also made progress in regaining control of the territory, following a collapse among the Houthi ranks and mass retreats by militants
Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has rejected a Qatari proposal of an EU-style security pact. Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said on Friday that Middle Eastern states should put their differences behind them and forge a security pact modeled on the European Union. Al-Jubeir stated that Saudi Arabia has “no interest” in participating in a European Union-style regional security alliance.
Kuwait has pledged $30 million in investment and donation pledges to Iraq. The pledge was inspired by a gathering in Kuwait during which donors and investors discussed efforts to rebuild Iraq’s economy and infrastructure.