News Roundup: UN launches probe into Khashoggi muder, Kurdish protesters attack Turkish military base in Iraq, and Tunisian Prime Minister Chahed to lead new party
On January 22nd, Algerian military patrols discovered a weapons cache containing six vehicle-mounted missile launcher systems near the border with Mali and Niger. Algeria has increased its military presence in the southern parts of the country in recent years to combat smuggling.
Algeria and France signed a new extradition agreement on January 27th as part of a broader effort to integrate judicial and security cooperation between the two countries. In a statement, French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said the agreement would aid in the two countries’ efforts to combat international criminal networks.
Authorities upheld a life sentence for Shiite opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, who stands accused of spying for Bahrain’s rival, Qatar. Salman was convicted of espionage in November 2018, though Qatar denied the charges.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders released a statement on January 25th calling for the establishment of a unified opposition to end military rule in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt since 2013, and the Sisi government considers the group a terrorist organization.
During a visit to Egypt on January 27th, French President Emmanuel Macron decried the human rights record of the Sisi government, calling the situation worse than that under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former dictator who was overthrown by popular protests in 2011. The comments reflect a harder stance for Macron, prompted by outcry from activists after saying he would not “lecture” the Egyptian leader on human rights during a visit in 2017.
On January 24th, Egypt hosted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir amid protests in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for unity and stability in Sudan discussed security cooperation in the Red Sea, but stopped short of expanding existing Egyptian support for the embattled Sudanese leader.
In a state television broadcast on January 28th, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry denied engaging in secret talks with France regarding Iran’s ballistic missile program. While the program has sparked concern in France and other European states, Tehran has continually categorized its ballistic missile development as purely defensive, and has denied the existence of any missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. In the same broadcast, Brigadier General Hossein Salami of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was quoted as threatening Israel’s destruction in the event of a direct attack against Tehran, in an apparent response to a series of Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria the previous week.
Also on January 28th, Iran’s Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mohammad Eslami arrived in Damascus to discuss ways of boosting economic cooperation between Iran and Syria. The visit culminated in the signing of banking and trade cooperation agreements between Tehran and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which have been close military allies in the Syrian Civil War. Iranian support has proven vital in sustaining the Syrian economy through the Civil War, and is maneuvering to secure a role for Iranian industry in the anticipated post-war Syrian reconstruction.
On January 26th, one person was killed and ten were wounded as Kurdish protesters attacked a Turkish military base in Dohuk, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan. The protesters were motivated by grievances over Turkey’s heavy military presence in northern Iraq and its unilateral operations there targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Over the last year, Turkey conducted dozens of airstrikes and ground operations across northern Iraq, in an effort to combat the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization and which conducts attacks against Turkish security forces. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) released a statement vowing to punish the Kurdish protesters, blaming the PKK for inciting the violent uprising.
As Iraq continues to rebuild Mosul and other areas affected by Daesh, an international team of archaeologists is pursuing an initiative to recover stolen archeological artifacts and return them to the Iraqi federal government. At the height of its control, Daesh worked to destroy archaeological monuments at an unprecedented scale in both Iraq and Syria.
On January 23rd, Jordanian civil aviation officials visited Damascus to discuss the reopening of Syrian airspace to commercial flights. Royal Jordanian has not operated flights over Syria since July 2012. On January 23rd, Jordan appointed a new chargé d’affaires at its embassy to Syria, further signaling the Kingdom’s moves towards normalization with Bashar al-Assad’s regime as Damascus consolidates territorial gains in the country’s south.
In a statement on January 27th, a Jordanian energy official said the Kingdom is now officially receiving half of its natural gas needs from Egypt. Jordan currently receives around 165 million cubic feet of natural gas per day in order to keep pace with demand for electricity. Egypt supplies natural gas to Jordan per an agreement signed in August 2018, which stipulated that Egypt would provide ten percent of Jordanian energy demand in the form of natural gas.
Tensions are on the rise as Lebanon enters the ninth month of gridlock on the formation of a cabinet. On January 20th, thousands marched to the Finance Ministry to protest taxation policies, the lack of employment opportunities, and worsening living conditions. An unofficial meeting of political leaders in Paris failed to jumpstart cabinet talks, leaving President Saad Hariri to restart efforts to form a cabinet upon his return to Beirut this week. The debate over the composition of Lebanon’s cabinet rests on inter-party disagreement over the distribution of ministers appointed to key posts, with Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) frustrating efforts by demanding the appointment of six Sunni representatives who are not affiliated with Hariri’s Future Movement party. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a January 26th interview that obstacles still exist to the successful formation of a cabinet, but expressed optimism over speculation of a resolution this week.
Separately, Arab leaders meeting in Beirut on January 20th signed the Beirut Declaration, a broad economic agenda that calls for a free trade zone between Arab nations and international support for the return of refugees to Syria. Following the summit, Qatar has announced an investment worth $500 million in Lebanese government US dollar bonds, aiming to support the ailing Lebanese economy.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) has identified Salame as an opponent and enemy of the Libyan cause. In a statement on January 23rd, Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari identified UN envoy Ghassan Salame as an opponent, calling him an enemy of the Libyan cause in response to Salame’s criticism of the LNA decision to deploy forces in southern Libya culminating in the January 15th seizure of oil-rich territory around the city of Sebha. The LNA, led by Khalifa Haftar, is the military arm of the state’s unrecognized Tobruk government, which opposes the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. According to al-Mismari, Haftar hopes that LNA presence in southern Libya will provide greater security to residents and stabilize oil production in the region.
Libya’s continued instability remains a contentious issue on the world stage, most recently spurring a heated exchange between France and Italy, two states that have been highly involved in an ongoing effort to hold democratic elections in the divided state. In a statement on January 27th, French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed criticisms from two Italian deputy prime ministers, who accused Macron of shirking efforts to achieve peace in Libya.
Separately, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini will face trial for his refusal to admit 150 Libyan migrants whose rescue ship was docked in Sicily last year. Salvini, who maintains that he was simply blocking illicit migration, stands accused of abusing his power to violate international law, and faces three to fifteen years in prison. The Salvini incident marks one of several controversies between Italy and Libya since the two signed a controversial migration deal in 2017. Human rights groups have roundly criticized Italy’s policies on Libyan migration.
On January 28th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his decision to remove the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) from the West Bank town, which has been present since 1994. The international group’s presence grew out of the Oslo Process, and was first established in Hebron following the notorious massacre in which radical American Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians, wounded a further 125, and sparked riots across the area. The TIPH is a civilian mission that aims to ensure adherence to international humanitarian law within Hebron, and to report on legal breaches within Hebron. Conservative voices in Israel, including Netanyahu, have accused its members of agitating against Jewish settlers in the area. The PA has condemned Netanyahu’s move, claiming that Israel is improperly violating commitments made under international agreements.
After Israel first discovered tunnels dug into northern Israel by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah last month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a January 26th interview that the group could continue infiltrating Israeli territory for years. Under a UN Security Council resolution passed to bring an end to fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, both sides are bound not to cross the “blue line” running along the disputed border. Nasrallah expressed his surprise at how long it took Israel to discover the tunnels, which he claimed had been dug as far back as 13 years ago. In response, Netanyahu questioned the veracity of Nasrallah’s comments, and threatened the use of lethal force in the event of violations by Hezbollah.
On January 24th, Hamas rejected $15 million in aid from Qatar over conditions imposed by Israeli authorities, raising fears of fresh violence in the occupied territory. The funds were due as part of an agreement struck in November 2018 to pay salaries for public workers and support impoverished Gaza residents, but requires Israel’s permission for disbursal. Netanyahu initially blocked the funding, but widespread support for the transfer among Israel’s security establishment prompted him to relent on January 23rd.
On January 23rd, Qatar hosted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir as protests raged in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. In a statement after the meeting, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Tamim al-Thani called for unity and stability in Sudan. Bashir is thought to have sought financial aid from Qatar, which relies on ties to Sudan to maintain its interests in the Red Sea, but support was not forthcoming.
A delegation from Saudi Arabia headed by Saudi finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan arrived at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 22nd, hoping to re-engage with the global business community in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi agents. On January 28th, Saudi representatives unveiled Riyadh’s plan to raise 1.6 trillion riyals ($425 billion) in private investment for infrastructure and industry projects. Saudi Arabia’s push for infrastructure investment in the leadup to its ambitious development goals for 2030 marks the latest effort by the country to shirk its dependence on crude oil sales for government income. The Davos visit came amidst a January 25th decision by the European Commission to add Saudi Arabia to a draft list of countries that pose a threat to the EU because of lax regulations against terrorism financing and money laundering.
On January 25th, the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard announced an independent probe into the Khashoggi murder, beginning with a trip to Turkey. On January 26th, Callamard said she had requested access to the crime scene in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate and to visit the Kingdom.
On January 22nd, CEO of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) Turki al-Sheikh, an advisor to the Saudi royal court, issued a decree on behalf the King allowing music to be played in restaurants. The change is part of a broader set of entertainment-related reforms.
In a January 23rd meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed plans for a Turkish-administered 20-mile safe zone in northern Syria. The proposed safe zone could be implemented within months, and aims to partially fill the void left by the anticipated withdrawal of US forces from northeast Syria. Putin suggested the 1998 Adana Agreement, which stipulated that Syria would not allow the PKK to operate within its borders, as a legal pretense for prolonged Turkish intervention in Syria. Invoking the Adana Agreement appears intended to nudge Turkey to acknowledge the Assad regime.
On January 22nd, the US House of Representatives passed the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act (HR 31) by voice vote. The bill, which has over 50 co-sponsors and which is part of the broader Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019 (S-1) legislative package, levies financial, economic, and travel sanctions on the Syrian government and its supporters. The Trump administration supports the bill, which is named after a defected military forensics photographer codenamed “Caesar” whose cache of photographs provided international prosecutors and human rights monitors with evidence of mass torture by the Assad regime.
The three health ministries in opposition-held Idlib, the Aleppo countryside, and northern Hama have expressed concern over European donors pulling funding from northwest Syria due to the growing control of Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The withdrawal of donor support, including Germany’s Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a major source of aid for the area, could create health shortages for at least half a million people.
On January 19th, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is led by the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), publicized a road-map for eastern Syria which entails the integration of SDF-held territories in northeast Syria with the Syrian state, in anticipation of the US’s withdrawal. The plan is a product of months of talks between Russia and SDF commanders, and lays down guidelines for the SDF to participate in the Syrian parliament and endorses a unified Syrian state.
Secular Tunisian political leaders broke with the Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) party on January 27th to form the new Tahya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia) party. Tahya Tounes will be led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, whose adherents announced their departure from Nidaa Tounes after months of intraparty disputes and economic woes. Tahya Tounes promises economic reform, though its leaders struggled to implement those reforms during their tenure with Nidaa Tounes. Tunisia’s powerful General Labor Union (UGTT), which has led strikes of hundreds of thousands of workers demanding higher wages in the past month, said on January 23rd that it was open to compromise ahead of further strikes planned for February. Also on the 23rd, the European Union announced a financial assistance package worth €305 million to stimulate entrepreneurship in Tunisia and support Tunisian youth. However, the same day saw the Tunisian dinar hit its lowest level ever against the US dollar.
On January 28th, United Nations (UN) investigators arrived in Turkey to begin a probe into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The investigation seeks to assess responsibility for his death and how it was handled by the governments involved. Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on executions who leads the team, met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, but said she has not received a response to the team’s request to enter the Saudi consulate.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan voiced his support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on January 24th. Turkish government supporters compared tensions in Venezuela to the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and criticized the support of international players, including the US, for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.
In the run up to the March 2019 local elections, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) announced it will not name mayoral candidates in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir, or in the southern cities of Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Adana, and Mersin. A party spokesperson said that the HDP would focus on nominating candidates in southeastern cities with large Kurdish constituencies, which form a critical segment of the HDP’s base. Since the 2015 military operations in the southeast, the Turkish government has replaced 95 HDP mayors it charged with terrorism. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has agreed with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to support each other’s candidates in particular districts for the March elections, and opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and İyi Party have agreed on similar terms.
State-affiliated media reported January 27th that Turkish armed forces struck Kurdish YPG targets inside northern Syria. On January 28th, Erdoğan promoted the establishment of a safe zone to facilitate the return of refugees to Syria and to insulate Turkey from the YPG, which it considers a terrorist group linked to the PKK.
Despite ceasefire agreements reached in December 2018 between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths called both parties to remove troops from the port of Hodeidah after weeks of sporadic fighting. Hodeidah is a critical point of entry for food and humanitarian supplies; restrictions on the use of port facilities have driven up the costs of basic necessities, fueling famine and disease outbreaks across the country. On January 25th, wheat silos in Hodeidah were damaged by a fire, threatening to exacerbate existing food shortages.