The Egyptian parliament’s Committee for Media, Culture, and Antiquities is considering a law aimed at regulating online media activities in Egypt. The draft law covers all online media activities affiliated with publishing houses, news agencies, press organisations, advertising and commercial businesses, and satellite audio-visual channels. The law would impose penalties on unlicensed online activities and content violations such as fake news, statements, and information. The consideration of the law comes as the Egyptian government has waged an intense battle to control public expression in the lead up to presidential elections at the end of this month, in which Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is forecasted to win a largely uncontested vote.
Turkey continued operations in northern Syria this week in its continuing offensive against Kurdish forces in the Afrin Province. Turkish forces seized twelve villages on March 12, bringing the total number of towns under Turkish control to 163. As of March 12, Turkish forces have killed 3,347 fighters in the Afrin operation. On March 6, Turkey announced that it will establish refugee camps in Syria’s Idlib province to accommodate 170,000 civilians displaced by fighting in Afrin. Turkish forces provide security in Idlib province per the Russian-backed Astana agreement to establish de-escalation zones in Syria.
Turkish operations against Kurdish fighters continued to cause diplomatic tension between Ankara and Washington this week, despite a working group convened in D.C. on March 8 and 9 aimed at establishing closer Turkish-American cooperation in northern Syria. The meeting established a mechanism for quickly addressing disagreements between the US and Turkey on a range of issues, including the status of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Turkey also demanded March 7 that the US do more to prevent Kurdish forces from joining PYD fighters resisting the Turkish advance in Afrin, and announced March 8 that Turkish forces will conduct joint operations with Iraq against Kurdish fighters in northern Iraqi territory.
The Turkish opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) adopted a rule in its March 10 congress easing the process for nominating a party leader and clarifying the criteria for advancing a presidential candidate. The move will allow the CHP to present candidates in provinces where it has not won an elected representative, but some deputies expressed concerns that it gives the central party administration too much power in nominating candidates.
The crisis in eastern Ghouta continued this week with delays in aid deliveries despite international pressure on the Assad regime to allow for humanitarian assistance. Fighting overnight brought the estimated civilian casualty count to 1,150 on March 12 as Syrian government forces struck a rebel stronghold in Mudeira, a town in eastern Ghouta on March 11th. The move cuts off rebel forces in Douma and Harasta, both towns in eastern Ghouta that are vital to the rebel supply network. On March 9, a humanitarian convoy delivered food supplies to civilians in the besieged principality, after a delay due to heavy fighting on March 8. As government forces close in on rebel positions, Russia offered safe passage out of eastern Ghouta for fighters and their families on March 6, echoing terms offered in the evacuation of besieged forces in Aleppo. A Russian military spokesperson said March 12 that Russian troops had successfully evacuated 52 civilians, but the low number of evacuees testifies to the difficulty of securing safe passage out of the besieged region.
On March 12, Syrian government forces claimed to have discovered a rebel workshop for manufacturing chemical weapons, alleging that rebel fighters planned to use chemical weapons as part of a false flag operations to make it appear that the Syrian government was itself deploying chemical weapons. The claim comes after US Secretary of Defense Mattis warned that it would be “unwise” for Syrian government forces to use chemical weapons on March 11, comments in which Mattis also leveled criticism at Russia for Moscow’s support of the Assad government.
On March 6, a Russian military transport plane crashed as it attempted to land at Khmeimim air base, killing all 33 passengers and all six crew members. Russia denied that the craft had come under fire, saying it suspected a mechanical malfunction to be the cause of the crash.
The Lebanese cabinet agreed a draft 2018 budget and referred it to Parliament for approval on March 12. The plan cuts spending by a fifth and will shutter several government agencies as Lebanon looks to signal reformist energy ahead of a donor conference aimed at raising funds to stimulate the country’s beleaguered economy. Prime Minister Hariri said March 12th that he hopes the 2018 budget will help Lebanon avoid a Greek-style debt crisis.
France announced March 8 that it will provide 14 million euros to Lebanon’s army in the hopes of strengthening Lebanese military institutions and supporting the army’s ability to secure the country.
On March 6, around 1,000 candidates registered for the Parliamentary elections scheduled for May. The candidates included 108 women, a huge increase over the previous election year, and this will be the first election conducted under Lebanon’s new proportional vote system.
A Jordanian delegation arrived in Qatar to discuss bilateral trade relations on March 11. The Qatari Chamber of Commerce reciprocated Jordanian overtures to increase trade cooperation between the two countries, commenting that both expect an increase in trade over the next year, and pledged to support greater Qatari investment efforts in Jordan in return for Jordanian agricultural exports.
Despite continuing Palestinian refusals to accept the United States’ authority in peace negotiations following its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Trump administration looks set to release its official plan for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sources report that the plan focuses on detailed steps for progress on issues including Jerusalem, the return of refugees, the settlement of borders, securing Israel’s security, and reaching a two-state solution. However, the plan is in marked contrast to previous peace plans, which have tended to push broad principles to guide negotiation—such as the necessity of a two-state outcome—rather than focusing on fine details without fundamental red-line requirements. The plan was devised by aides with minimal diplomatic experience, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Its likelihood of success remains uncertain in light of Palestinian scepticism of America’s intentions and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire to appease his right-wing base.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced March 8th that Shi’ite paramilitary forces will be formally incorporated into the Iraqi military. The Shi’ite militias, collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and supported by Iran, will now be under the command of the Ministry of Defense. The announcement comes in advance of highly anticipated general elections, scheduled for May, in which Shi’ite voters are expected to play a decisive role.
Beginning March 7, Iraq hosted an Iranian delegation headed by Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri aimed at strengthening cooperation between the two countries. The meeting’s outcomes included Iran’s decision to extend a $3 billion credit line to Iraq to aid in the country’s reconstruction effort.
On March 6, Iraqi Shi’ites gathered in Karbala to protest Iran’s arrest of cleric Hussein al-Shirazi, an Iraqi cleric arrested in Tehran after delivering a speech opposing Iran’s system of clerical rule.
According to Iranian foreign ministry officials a group of men in black attire who are supporters of Shiite cleric Shirazi took control of Iran’s embassy in London last week. During the take over of the embassy, the men took down the Iranian flag and replaced it with the flag of the UK based radical Shia Muslim organization Khoddam Al-Mahdi. According to the Iranian Ambassador to the United Kingdom four men have been arrested in connection with the incident. The Ambassador has been receiving death threats since the incident by members of the same group.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman culminated his visit to the United Kingdom by signing a memorandum of intent for a multi-billion-pound order for 48 Typhoon aircraft made by BAE Systems. Britain and Saudi Arabia have also set themselves a 65 billion- pound ($90 billion) trade and investment target for the coming years. Both the visit and the deal were met with hundreds of protesters on Wednesday, protesting against Britain’s sale of arms and the role of Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war.
The UAE has announced that the country will have a rail link with Saudi Arabia by the end of 2021. The link is part of a wider project to construct a passenger and cargo network connecting the six Gulf Cooperation Council states.
More than 240 expats were arrested in Oman on Sunday on charges of prostitution and human trafficking. The charges the accused face also include infiltration, violation of labor and residence law, as well as fraud.
Qatar has informed the United Nations Security Council of more airspace violations committed by aircraft of the UAE and Bahrain, the third such violation in four months. In a letter sent the UNSC on Friday, Qatari authorities said a Bahraini military aircraft overflew the exclusive economic zone of Qatar on February 28. This follows previous violations of airspace on January 14th and February 25th of this year. The UAE and Bahrain deny any wrongdoing.
Spotlight on Migration and Refugees
Sudan’s White Nile State is preparing to receive more refugees from South Sudan as the violence continues in the newly created state. The White Nile State government has made visits to the camps and provided basic services to this population whose arrival is expected to increase significantly in 2018.