Weekly Roundup: Syrian regime prepares for Idlib assault, United States revokes UNRWA funds, UN report decries war crimes in Yemen

Arabian Peninsula

Qatar’s Air Force Commander Major Gen. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Maliki said August 27th that Qatar plans to expand the Ubeid and Doha air bases to accommodate new aircraft and defense systems, including American F-15 and European Typhoon jets. Following the announcement, a Saudi official close to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman hinted that the Kingdom will move forward with a plan to dig a canal across the peninsula connecting Qatar to the Saudi mainland, the latest escalation in the ongoing spat between the Gulf nations.

Bahraini authorities arrested thirteen suspects on terror charges August 30th; the detainees are accused of membership in the 14 January Coalition, which Bahrain says is funded and supported by Iran.



Last week, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a law granting authorities the right to monitor social media users as Cairo tightens control over the internet. Under the law, the Supreme Council for Media Regulations will be able to place anyone with more than 5,000 followers on social media, a personal blog, or website under surveillance. The Council will be authorized to suspend or block any personal account that “publishes or broadcasts fake news or anything inciting violating the law, violence or hatred.” Last month, Sisi ratified a separate law that allows authorities to block websites that are deemed to “constitute a threat” to Egypt’s national security or economy. NGOs warn that the new laws amount to legalizing online censorship and undermining free speech.



The International Atomic Energy Agency released its quarterly report August 30th, finding that Iran has kept its nuclear program within the limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw and re-impose sanctions on Iran. Speaking after the report, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged European leaders to do more to insulate Iran from US sanctions despite the French government’s August 28th decision to restrict diplomatic travel to Iran. Iran is exploring all options to oppose the renewed US sanctions, which have already severely damaged Iran’s economy and politically set back the already-embattled President Rouhani. On August 27th, Iran requested that the UN International Court of Justice lift the sanctions, though the US insists the court has no jurisdiction in the matter.



Reuters reported August 31st that Iran is shifting short-range missiles, as well as the means to manufacture them, to Shi’ite militias in Iraq. According to one Iranian intelligence official, the missiles are a “back-up plan” for use in the event of an attack on Iranian territory; according to Western intelligence officials, tens of missiles have already been transferred, and the act is meant to send a signal to the United States and Israel after Israeli air raids targeting Iran-aligned fighters in Syria.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dismissed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Chairman Faleh al-Fayadh from his post as National Security Advisor, citing his involvement in politics as evidence of his unsuitability for sensitive posts. al-Fayadh leads the Ataa Movement, which remains an ally of al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance despite reports that al-Fayadh was a candidate to succeed al-Abadi. Iraq’s new parliament met for the first time September 3rd, with Victory Alliance forming a major coalition with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sayirun, but failed to elect a speaker.

Protests escalated September 4th in the major oil producing region of Basra after one protester was killed and six more injured on the night of September 3rd. Protests have persisted for months across the Shi’ite heartland of Iraq’s south over joblessness and poor services, including persistent failures to provide electricity.



UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi met with King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi August 27th to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis. Both King Abdullah and Safadi emphasized the strain placed on the Jordanian economy by hosting so many refugees and, while acknowledging the Kingdom’s commitment to maintaining essential services for refugees, both stressed the need for the international community to share the burden of hosting refugees in a bid to secure greater support for Jordan’s efforts to care for resident Syrians.



The UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping mission for another year and called on the UNIFIL mission naval task force to transfer responsibilities to the Lebanese navy in an effort to reduce costs. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Col. Gadi Eisenkot met with UNIFIL commanders following the announcement, calling on them to take more stern measures to oppose Hezbollah. 

Several hundred Syrian families boarded buses in Lebanon’s Tripoli September 4th, headed for Syrian territory as part of a voluntary return program. Rising resentment towards refugees in Lebanon, who now comprise roughly a quarter of the country’s population, has driven efforts to speed the return of Syrians to their homeland that are hindered by the Assad government’s selectiveness in granting permission to return.



Libya’s UN-backed government over the weekend announced a state of emergency in the capital of Tripoli and the surrounding areas amid ongoing fighting between militias that has killed dozens in recent days. In a statement on Sunday, the Government of National Accord urged rival militias to stop the fighting in Tripoli and abide by a UN-brokered ceasefire. Meanwhile, about 400 detainees escaped Ain Zara prison near Tripoli after overwhelming prison guards during riots.



Authorities arrested twelve suspects August 29th in connection with the abduction and brutal assault of a 17-year-old girl held for almost two months and forcibly tattooed. The case has sparked outrage across the country, with over 87,000 signing a petition and social media users adopting the hashtag “We are all Khadija.” A trial is set to begin September 6th.  


Palestine & Israel

Schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) opened August 29th despite concerns over funding after securing support to compensate for the aid cuts by the United States, previously the largest donor to UNRWA. The US reduced its support in January from a promised $350 million to $60 million, citing unspecified shortcomings in UNRWA’s efforts to encourage renewed peace talks with Israel, and revoked all funding for UNRWA on September 1st.

European Union Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini met with Israeli Arab opposition leader Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, September 4th despite requests from other parliamentarians for her to cancel the meeting. Odeh requested of Mogherini that the EU oppose Israel’s controversial nation-state bill which, adopted in July, asserted that the Jewish people have sole right to self determination within Israeli territory and was widely criticized as a further disenfranchisement of Palestinians.

Israeli police said August 30th that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s wife Sara and son Yair are suspects in the corruption case over Netanyahu’s alleged quid pro quo relationship with telecom mogul Shaul Elovitch. Authorities believe Netanyahu advanced regulation friendly to Elovitch’s company Bezeq in exchange for favorable coverage on the businessman’s news site Walla. Police have now confirmed that Sara and Yair Netanyahu, as well as Elovitch and his wife Iris, were aware of the financial implications of the agreement.



Government forces and allies are preparing for the final assault on Idlib, one of the last remaining pockets of resistance to the Assad regime, in what observers anticipate will be a bloodbath. Russian naval forces began drills September 1st in preparation for the assault and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized August 30th that Russia is taking steps to reconcile the opposition in Idlib, but seeks to deny the use of the city to fighters planning attacks on Russian soldiers. The Assad government’s Foreign Minister, Walid Mu’allem, said August 30th that the regime plans to “go all the way” in retaking Idlib. Turkish President Erdoğan evoked Aleppo in a speech August 30th, saying Turkey is working with Russia and Iran to avert a humanitarian disaster in Idlib. Turkey operates twelve military bases in Idlib Province as part of the Russian-brokered agreement to uphold a “safe zone” there, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu has spent the last several weeks working to deconflict Turkish forces from the Russian-led operation on Idlib. American President Donald Trump warned Russia not to “recklessly attack” Idlib, though Russia launched airstrikes on the countryside surrounding Idlib mere hours later. The escalation comes as the UN raises fears of chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Assad and rebels holed up in Idlib.



Tunisia has raised fuel prices for the fourth time this year in an effort to rein in its budget deficit and placate international lenders pushing for reforms. In a recent visit to the North African country, staff from the International Monetary Fund noted that economic activity in Tunisia is picking up but that “long standing economic imbalances” continue to pose a major risk to struggling economy. In other recent news, Tunisia re-opened its Ras Jedir border crossing with Libya after a closure that lasted more than six weeks due to tensions over smuggling.



Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in Ankara August 29th for an unexpected visit with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Çavuşoğlu and President Erdoğan to discuss regional cooperation, stressing the need to re-evaluate regional ties in the face of “undependable” behavior from Washington. Mr. Erdoğan has accused Washington of waging “economic war” on Turkey as relations reached a new low over the continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson and retaliatory American tariffs on Turkish steel. Turkey also sternly objected to the American installation of a new radar system on the Syrian-Turkish border, citing concerns that the tech will be used against Turkish security forces by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization, despite American insistence that the system is solely aimed at supporting the American mission against Daesh.



A UN report released August 28th said all sides have committed severe human rights violations in the Yemeni conflict, placing particular blame on coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for indiscriminate airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties. The report also condemns naval and air restrictions placed on Yemeni territory by the coalition, singling out the closure of airports in particular as severe violations in themselves. Airstrikes targeted Houthi fighters in Sana’a international airport August 27th. Following the report, Saudi-led coalition forces admitted error September 2nd in the August 9th airstrike that struck a school bus in Sa’ada and killed over forty children. At the time, Saudi spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki called the attack, which was carried out with critical American support, a “legitimate military action.” The mounting evidence of war crimes committed in Yemen is straining the American relationship with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and the new UN report prompted US Defense Secretary James Mattis to state that American support in Yemen is “not unconditional.”