Weekly Roundup: Saudi journalist Khashoggi disappears in Istanbul, first Syrian rebel group withdraws from contested Idlib, and Iraq elects new president over Barzani objections


On October 3rd, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Egypt to reveal the location of a human rights lawyer who went missing after being detained in March. An Egyptian court ordered the release of Ezzat Ghoneim and another lawyer, Azzoz Mahgoub, on September 4, pending investigations, but the two have not been seen since September 13. HRW accused the Egyptian police of “forcibly disappearing” Ghoneim, who has been held since March on charges of plotting against the government.

Egyptian security forces killed 15 suspected militants in a raid near al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai province. Daesh also announced the death of one of its Sinai leaders, Abu Hamza al-Maqdisi, on October 2nd. al-Maqdisi was killed in an airstrike on October 1st near Sheikh Zuweid.



Iran claimed October 2nd that it launched a missile attack in Syria that killed 40 top Daesh figures on October 1st. The strike was in retaliation for the September 22nd Daesh attack on an Iranian military parade, and was orchestrated through intelligence efforts by Iran’s Quds Force.

Meanwhile, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered the United States October 2nd to ease some sanctions against Iran, including those related to the supply of humanitarian goods and the safety of civil aviation. The interim ruling by the ICJ answered an urgent plea from Tehran after President Trump’s May announcement that he would withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal. A first round of sanctions went into effect in August, and a second round is expected in November.



After an initial delay, Iraq’s Parliament elected a new president on October 2rd. Barham Salih, representing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), beat out rival Faud Hussein of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) with 219 votes to 22. Salih previously served as the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan (2009-2012) and as Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq (2006-2009). Hours after Salih was announced as Iraq’s new president, he named Adil Abdul-Mahdi as the Prime Minister-delegate. Abdul-Mahdi served as Iraq’s Minister of Oil (2014-2016) and as Vice President of Iraq (2005-2011). He has 30 days to form a cabinet and present it to parliament for approval.

Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), protested the presidential election results, saying the result did not represent the will of the Kurdish people and rejecting the new mechanism used to select the President, which employs an MP vote rather than a popular one. Iraqi Kurds held parliamentary elections on September 30th, granting the KDP a majority of seats despite complaints of election fraud. The two largest opposition parties, Gorran and New Generation, threatened to reject the election results.

The United States evacuated its consulate in Basra after a rocket attack near the consulate and Basra’s airport on September 28th. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attacks, citing specific threats by Iranian-backed militias to US consulate employees.



Syrian state media said September 29th that preparations to reopen the Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria were complete, and that the crossing was set to open on October 10th. It has been closed since 2015, when opposition forces seized Syria’s last government-held border crossing into Jordan. The Nassib crossing previously connected regional and long-distance trade routes, particularly for the transport of agricultural products. Reopening the border will provide both Jordan and Syria with an influx of revenues, particularly due to the planned a six-fold increase in customs fees.

On September 25th, the Jordanian Cabinet approved the final draft of new income tax legislation. In June 2017, thousands of Jordanians protested the original IMF-backed Income Tax Law, which led to its withdrawal and the resignation of Prime Minister Mulki and his cabinet. The new bill aims to produce 280 million dinars in revenue in 2019. Opponents claim the new tax reform lacks substance, and merely repackages the former law.

The Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, Emirati finance ministers were scheduled to sign an agreement by October 4th to provide credit guarantees and grants to Jordan. The agreement also provides for deposits by the Gulf Arab nations in the Jordanian central bank. The three Gulf nations pledged $2.5 billion in June to help Jordan implement austerity measures.



Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Kuwait September 30th to discuss an oil supply deal and a Kuwaiti effort to mediate Saudi and Emirati grievances with Qatar. Talks were expected to center on oil production at the Neutral Zone, a site Kuwait shares with Saudi Arabia. Kuwait has been working to mediate the Gulf diplomatic crisis since June 2017, but has struggled to produce concrete results.



Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed in a speech before the United Nations on September 27th that Hezbollah was building precision guided missiles at three sites by Beirut’s international airport. Repudiating these claims, Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil escorted dozens of diplomats and foreign ambassadors to the three sites that Netanyahu identified: a golf course, soccer field, and warehouse near the airport. Mr. Bassil claimed that Israel is trying to “justify another aggression” against Lebanon, while Netanyahu questioned why it took three days to carry out the tour.



Amid heightened militia violence in Libya, Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi announced Tuesday that his country will host a conference on Libya in Sicily next month aiming to pave the way for democratic elections. Milanesi expects a number of prominent Libyan leaders and international representatives to attend the conference. While Libyan leaders announced in May a plan to hold elections on December 10th of this year, Milanesi was clear that no deadlines would be imposed at the upcoming conference. At least one prominent Libyan leader, Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar, expressed doubts about the UN-backed election plan, citing insufficient commitment among rival parties. It remains to be seen whether a recently negotiated ceasefire will be sufficient to ensure the stability necessary to hold elections by the end of the year.



On September 30th, the UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara invited representatives from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Polisario Front to discuss the status of Western Sahara in December. Morocco has accused Algeria and Iran of supporting the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi militant group seeking independence for Western Sahara. In May, Morocco severed ties with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s alleged support for the militant group. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Moroccan representatives on September 17th to discuss cooperation on Iran and counterterrorism, prompting speculation that Morocco’s anti-Iran rhetoric was aimed at securing support from the Trump administration.



Israeli officials announced the imminent demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village outside of Jerusalem. Residents were ordered to leave their homes by October 1st and relocate to the Abu Dis area, which is currently in use as a garbage dump. However, the demolition of the village has been delayed due to the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who stated she would cancel her trip if the demolition were to occur during her stay.

Palestinians in the West Bank went on strike October 1st, closing schools, universities, government offices, and shops to protest the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar as well as the recently passed Nation State Law. The law asserts that only Jews have a right of self-determination within Israel and removes Arabic’s status as an official state language. Critics of the law say it further marginalizes Israel’s Palestinian community, while supporters claim that it codifies Israel’s character as a Jewish state.


Saudi Arabia

On October 3rd, new reporting showed that Russia and Saudi Arabia struck a private deal in September to raise oil output to ease rising prices and informed the US before a meeting in Algiers with other producers. The deal suggests the two nations are increasingly deciding oil output policies bilaterally, before consulting with the rest of OPEC.

US President Donald Trump stated at a rally October 3rd that Saudi Arabia and its King Salman would not last “two weeks” in power without American military support and called on the country to pay more for its own defense. President Trump discussed global oil supplies and what he deems as excessively high OPEC pricing with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on September 29th.



On September 27th, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement Amb. Jim Jeffrey, speaking after the UN General Assembly met on Syria, reaffirmed the Trump administration’s plans to keep U.S. forces in Syria as part of its strategy to counter Iran and Daesh. Amb. Jeffrey also said the U.S. planned to intensify sanctions if the Assad government failed to cooperate with the UN-endorsed, Russian-led process to negotiate a settlement to the Syrian conflict.

Armed opposition groups in Idlib face an October 10 deadline for withdrawing heavy weapons under the Sochi agreement for Idlib unwritten by Russia and Turkey last month. The deal, which froze frontlines and halted a Syrian government offensive on the last rebel-held territory, is at risk of being spoiled by some of the rebel groups which oppose Russian patrols inside Idlib. The Turkey-aligned rebel group, the National Front for Liberation (NFL), cautiously supports the deal but refuses to disarm, while Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham (HTS) faces internal division. Faylaq al-Sham, a member of the Turkey-backed NFL, became the first rebel group to begin withdrawing from Idlib on September 30th.

On September 26, the Senate Foreign Relation Committee advanced the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (“the Caesar Bill”), which would impose new sanctions on Syrian government officials implicated in human rights abuses. The bill also includes language limiting the Syrian government’s access to reconstruction funds, and supports war crimes investigative mechanisms.  



At least four deputies from Tunisia’s Nidaa Tounes bloc quit the bloc on October 3rd in protest of the party’s ongoing internal crisis. Samah Bouhwal, Hala bin Omran, Mohammed Saidan, and Latfi Al-Nabali resigned, saying their decision came from “the absence of any signs to reform or rescue the party.” They also voiced their commitment to continue to work with Nidaa Tounes even after resigning from the parliamentary bloc. Nidaa Tounes has been experiencing a political crisis due to ongoing disputes between Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and Hafez Caid Essebsi, the party’s executive manager and the son of Tunisia’s president.



President Erdoğan announced October 1st that leaders from Germany, France, Russia, and Turkey will gather in Istanbul in mid-October for further talks on Syria’s future. The talks will build on efforts led by Turkey and Russia to establish de-militarized zones around the rebel holdout of Idlib and facilitate a negotiated solution to the Syrian Civil War, aiming to avoid further humanitarian crises. Erdoğan took his first state visit to Germany on September 27th, seeking to strengthen ties and repair tensions over Turkish politicians campaigning in Germany for Turkish diaspora voters. The visit was far from cordial, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel held firm in her commitment to the October talks on Syria.

Prominent Saudi journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd. Turkish authorities and Khashoggi’s relatives suspect he remains at the consulate, which he visited to complete paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancee. The disappearance follows waves of arrests of Saudi clerics, intellectuals, activists, and businessmen over the past year in an effort by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to stamp out dissent. Khashoggi expressed concern to a friend on Monday that he could be kidnapped and returned to Saudi Arabia if he visited the consulate.


United Arab Emirates

Dubai International Airport officials said September 30th that the facility was operating normally, contradicting Houthi reports of a drone attack on the airport. Emirati officials denied similar claims by Houthi-aligned media sources in July 2018.



Yemen’s UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC) called October 3rd for a peaceful uprising in Aden and the southern provinces over inflation and poverty, for which it blames the policies of the region’s Saudi-backed government. The STC aims to re-establish an independent South Yemen, issued the call for a peaceful uprising in. UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths is expected to meet with Emirati officials and STC head Aidarous al-Zubaidi in Abu Dhabi this week. The STC forms the bulk of an Emirati-led ground force that is trying to capture Hodeidah from the Houthis, and recently urged the UN to raise the south’s possible secession from Yemen in ongoing peace talks.

On October 2nd, Saudi Arabia announced a $200 million cash infusion to Yemen’s Central Bank to shore up its reserves during the ongoing currency crisis. Saudi Arabia delivered $2 billion to Yemen in March 2018 to bolster the Yemeni economy, which international negotiators see as a major priority in brokering a solution to the conflict there.

The UN Human Rights Council voted September 28th to extend inquiries into abuses in Yemen despite objections by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A UN-commissioned report documenting war crimes in the Yemen conflict was published August 28th, and detailed violations from 2014 to 2018.