New complications in the region’s conflicts are threatening to divide powerful allies.
At the end of last year, there was an emerging view that the Syrian war had reached its peak and was starting to de-escalate. The last few weeks, however, have pointed in the opposite direction, with some of the fiercest aerial bombing campaigns by forces loyal to Assad and backed by Russia. It also saw an astonishing new level of complexity as Turkey invaded Syria to seize border lands from Kurdish militias it sees as an extension of the PKK, which Turkey has been fighting within its borders for some 40 years. This brought the prospect of a direct conflict between two NATO allies since the US has been backing the same Kurdish fighters; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a warning that US soldiers could be caught in crossfire if they don’t pull out of the Kurdish-held enclave of Manbij.
Meanwhile, an Israeli fighter jet was shot down in Syria by Russian-made Syrian missiles, after Israelis downed an Iranian drone over Israel. In the same week, US troops responded to pro-Assad forces attacking a Kurdish governed area, while reports also showed that in Afrin, Assad has been directly supporting the Kurds. Such a confused picture, with far too many actors pursuing opposing goals, explain why so many initiatives to achieve a ceasefire keep failing. Sadly, many of these outcomes were predicted when Western policy-makers were solely focused on defeating Islamic State (IS) with little thought given to the bigger picture.
In Turkey, the state of emergency remains and seems set to do so until elections in late 2018 or 2019 when the presidential system will be inaugurated formally. The current coalition between the ruling AKP government and Turkish nationalist MHP is a signpost to the direction of travel in the country where religious conservatism is being melded with strong nationalism. The offensive against Kurds in Afrin plays well to this religious nationalism and any who question it come under suspicion. On Monday, Turkish prosecutors launched a probe into the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP, the only political party that has criticised the offensive. Given that Turkish relations with the US are at an historic breaking point and relations with the EU are at a low ebb, there are many concerns over the country’s future direction.
Out of control
The struggle in Yemen continues to spiral out of control. While the Saudi-led coalition continues its campaign to reinstate the government of President Hadi by bombing areas held by Houthi rebels, southern separatists fighting certain groups loyal to Hadi have taken control of the southern port of Aden. Hadi’s government currently operates from Aden while he lives in Saudi Arabia. The separatists’ actions also threaten to fracture the anti-Houthi coalition, since the UAE has both backed the southern groups and been a key member of the coalition.
A month after protests erupted in some 80 cities in Iran, a fuller picture of what was happening is becoming clear. Some 3,000 people are said to have been detained, and more than 20 killed. Driven largely by economic grievances, the demonstrations cut across political lines. Leadership by reformist politicians and calls to release reformist politicians like Mousabi or Karroubi from house arrest were notably absent. In fact, many protesters seemed to see the reformist figures as part of the same establishment. The Islamic regime, accustomed to silencing dissent, seems firmly in place. But the protests could be a sign that it is increasingly out of step with the population. Perhaps in recognition of this, President Rouhani, speaking on the 39th anniversary of the Iranian revolution (Sunday), said, “Today, we need everyone, including principlists, reformists, moderates and everyone who recognises the constitution, for the country’s development and progress.”
On the opposite side of the Persian Gulf, Saudi authorities last month released most of the hundreds of princesses, businessmen and officials they detained as part of a claimed “anti-corruption crackdown”. Many saw this as the Crown Prince establishing his control and power over the country’s elite as he prepares to become king. All were released with agreements to turn over portions of their personal assets to the state. These arrangements are expected to net the state some $13 billion by the end of the year, with the authorities eying yet more funds. The fall in oil prices has left a substantial hole in Saudi finances. Some have said that the authorities want to seize some $100 billion eventually.
In Egypt, spurred by the IS attack on a North Sinai mosque that killed over 300 people, the military launched a major offensive against IS-affiliated groups in the region. An army spokesman claimed to have killed some 16 terrorists and destroyed 66 targets. Meanwhile, reports have suggested that Egypt has allowed Israel to conduct operations in the same region to target militants and IS networks. It is an explosive claim, although security cooperation between Egypt and Israel has been known to be much closer than has been admitted to the Egyptian public. The latest offensive is also seen as a demonstration of the leadership of President Al-Sisi in the weeks before scheduled presidential elections (26-28 March).
Reconstruction is the theme of a conference in Kuwait held on behalf of neighbouring Iraq this week. The Baghdad government is hoping to gain $100 billion in foreign investment as part of plans to rebuild the country after over a decade of violence since the 2003 US-led invasion. Other forms of reconstruction are also starting to happen. Catholic agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) this week announced a cash injection of £3.6 million to help rebuild 2,000 homes in Christian towns and villages. In Mosul, a young engineer has opened a thriving mixed-gender book café where visitors relax and debate literature, politics, and the arts – something unthinkable during three years of IS control. A second-hand book market has also opened outside the city’s university. One customer told the Al Ahram news site, “There’s a need to rebuild people’s spirits, which is even more important than rebuilding the houses and the city.” Another hopeful sign came in the Nineveh town of Teleskoff. The Chaldean church there celebrated 13 christenings – the first since liberation. Priest Salar Kajo said, “This is our response to the violence we faced and this is a sign of hope and joy for the future of this land. We are back on track.”
Tour operator Thomas Cook restarts flights to Tunisia this week after a long break following the 2015 terror attack in Souse. This is good news for a country that relies heavily on tourism. Neighbouring Morocco has begun to focus on economic reform in order to open up to more foreign investment. Frustrations simmer, however, as was seen in anti-government protests following the deaths of three young men who were trying to mine coal in abandoned mines to sell on the black market. Meanwhile, energy production at one of the world’s largest solar energy plants was also halted when Morocco experienced its first snowfall in 50 years.