Weekly Roundup: Arrests in Bahrain, the continued assault on Eastern Ghouta, and a meeting between Trump and Netanyahu
Egyptian authorities detained a pro-government talk show host, Khairi Ramadan, over allegations that he insulted police and disseminated false news on his state television program. Cairo prosecutors ordered Ramadan detained for 24 hours pending an investigation by national security officers into claims that a segment of his show was damaging to police. This comes amidst an intensifying crackdown by Egyptian authorities on local and foreign media ahead of the presidential election this month. “If someone defames the army or the police, he is defaming all Egyptians,” President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said last week, adding, “this is not freedom of expression.”
Diplomatic troubles between Turkey and the United States (U.S.) continued this week as Turkish forces pressed forward in northern Syria. On February 27th, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman denied Pentagon claims that the U.S. and Turkey were engaged in talks over Afrin, and on February 28th the Turkish Foreign Ministry denied that operations in Afrin were included in the United Nations (UN) ceasefire aimed at providing humanitarian aid to Syrians in combat zones, notably the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.On March 1st, a Russian announcement that the U.S. operates twenty military bases in Kurdish territory in northern Syria prompted vitriol in the Turkish media. On March 5th Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said that the first talks on northern Syria between the U.S. and Turkey will take place on March 8-9 in Washington.
On March 4th, President Binali Yıldırım praised the role women have played in Turkish politics under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). His comments came as Turkish police used tear gas to break up a women’s rights demonstration in Ankara, arresting fifteen demonstrators. The rally was organized by a women’s rights NGO ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8th.
The U.S. embassy in Ankara was closed on March 5th due to an unspecified terror threat, and Turkish police arrested 12 individuals suspected of links to ISIL on the same day. There are outstanding warrants for another eight individuals.
The Assad regime continued its assault on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta this week in another round of brutal strikes despite international calls for restraint. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on March 5th that 710 civilians have been killed since the UN moved to establish a humanitarian cease-fire last week. On March 2nd, Russian forces announced a five hour cease-fire, the fourth such pause in fighting in the week. However, the White House accused Russia of ignoring the UN-backed truce and of killing civilians. On March 1st, Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, also signaled American disapproval of the Assad regime by calling the Security Council to renew inquiries into the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Syrian government forces allowed the first aid convoy to reach Eastern Ghouta on the morning of March 5th, but only after confiscating critical medical supplies. The government has retaken roughly one third of the suburb, and, on March 5th, President Bashar al-Assad vowed to continue the assault until the entire town is under government control.
In Syria’s north, Turkey continued operations in the Afrin region. On March 5th, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ announced that Turkish forces control half of the territory included in its operational plan. On March 3rd, a Turkish airstrike killed 36 pro-Assad fighters who entered Afrin with the predominantly Kurdish “Popular Forces” unit in support of the YPG last week. As of March 3rd, Turkey claims to have killed 2,348 militants.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with Saudi King Salman on February 28th ahead of several donor conferences that the Lebanese premier hopes will generate funds to stimulate Lebanon’s economy. The visit is Hariri’s first after his abrupt resignation in November, which Lebanese officials blamed on his alleged detainment at the behest of Saudi officials. The visit was followed by a March 5th announcement that Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula will resume his diplomatic post in Beirut, signalling normalization after the November scandal.
Spotlight on Migration & Refugees
Jordan launched a new campaign to formalize the status of Syrian refugees who left refugee camps without official authorization and have been living informally in urban cities. The campaign also targets Syrians who have not registered with the government or United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since their arrival to the country.
Last week the Central Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Mobile Money for Resilience (MM4R) initiative, which will grant vulnerable Jordanian and refugee communities access to digital financial services and empower them to build their financial identities in more convenient ways.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US President Donald Trump on Monday to discuss the peace process with Palestine, the planned relocation of the American Embassy in Israel, and the threat to regional peace posed by Iran. Netanyahu came to the White House to meet with Trump on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most prominent pro-Israel lobby group in the United States. During the meeting, Netanyahu stressed the danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel. Their discussion comes weeks after President Trump warned European nations he would walk away from the Iran nuclear deal if the terms were not amended to be harsher on the Iranian government.
The Iraqi Parliament passed a budget on March 2nd after months of delay, allocating $88 billion on expected oil exports of 3.8 million barrels at $46 per barrel and an expected deficit of $10.58 billion. Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the vote, accusing Baghdad lawmakers of slashing the funds allocated for the Kurdistan Regional Government in retaliation for the region’s ill-fated independence referendum.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Tehran earlier this week. During the meeting, the French called on Iran to curb its missile program. Iran rebuffed the request and urged Europe to play a more constructive role in preserving of the nuclear deal and pressuring the United States to honor the agreement.
On February 28th, the Saudi-led coalition conducted two separate air strike attacks on north and west Yemen which killed nine civilians and wounded at least six. The coalition, which has been conducting air strikes in Yemen since 2015, has often hit civilians but has continuously claimed that this was unintentional.
Saudi Arabia has replaced some of its top military officers in a departmental shake-up that elevates a younger generation and brings a woman, Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah, into a senior government job. Critics are dubious saying that this move only tightens Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grip on power.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have agreed to create a $10 billion joint fund to develop a mega-city in Egypt’s southern Sinai Peninsula. The deal was announced on Sunday as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo as part of his state visit to Egypt. During the visit he also met with the Coptic Pope Tawadros II. The Crown Prince is also expected to visit the UK and US as part of a grand world tour.
United Arab Emirates
The BBC has obtained leaked emails between major Trump fundraiser and UAE-linked businessman, Elliot Broidy, and Mr. Trump. The emails reveal that in October 2017 Broidy urged Mr.Trump to fire US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for failing to support the United Arab Emirates against regional rival Qatar.
Bahraini security forces have arrested 116 people on charges of terrorism, accusing them of membership in a network established by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The suspects allegedly plotted attacks on state officials. During the raids, police seized 42 kilograms of high explosives, 757 kilograms of explosive-making materials, grenades, magnetic bombs, as well projectiles and vehicles. Bahrain is a Shiite-majority country, but is ruled by Sunni leadership. Since the 2011 Arab Spring when the Shiite population held a massive rally to overthrow the Sunni monarchy, there have been repeated crackdowns by the government on suspected dissidents. Additionally, the Bahraini government has repeatedly accused Iran of trying to destabilize it.