Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon: Why a month is a long time in the Middle East
Massive political shifts and out-of-the-blue developments have made this month a remarkable one even by the normally volatile standards of the Middle East.
The aftershocks of the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq continued, as a strengthened central Iraqi government in Baghdad relentlessly pushed forward, seizing back territories and border controls from Kurdish forces, whose leaders had been driving plans towards statehood and expanding their own territory.
Many Kurds feel let down by the US (after Kurds played a major role in the anti-Islamic State campaign) and by their own leaders. The excitement around the referendum (in which 93 per cent voted for secession) has given way to trauma and shock. Rather than independence, Kurds have lost almost all the territory outside their longstanding three-province autonomous region, and much of their leverage. In the process, a new wave of displacement saw tens of thousands of Kurds fleeing the Baghdad advance into areas like Kirkuk.
Iraq’s Christian population also found itself in the cross-fire once again. Around 900 Chaldean Catholic families who had only recently returned to their homes in the Teleskof area after the expulsion of IS, had to flee once more, as Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces confronted each other. Most have returned to the temporary displacement camps they were living in before returning.
In the wake of all this, Kurdish President Barzani announced his resignation. Politically and militarily, the Iranian influence in Iraq is now stronger than ever. What Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi will do from now is of great importance.
In Syria, Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State’s imaginary caliphate, has fallen to the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, militia groups backed by the US. Images from the city reveal massive destruction, and now the thorny questions of what should happen next, who will govern the city, and what will happen to surviving IS fighters who remain or have gone to ground have all become an immediate challenge.
Unprecedented events in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia made the headlines continuously this month as unprecedented events unfolded. Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman has consolidated his power with a wide purge that some say pre-empted an attempt to oust him before he assumes the throne from his ailing father. Some of the richest and politically most important royal family members and public figures have been detained at a 5-star hotel, accused of corruption. The Crown Prince, often referred to as MbS, now enjoys de facto rule. He has pushed through some unpopular but necessary economic reforms, and lately shook the world by declaring the state would abandon religious extremism and return to being a moderate Muslim state. Already he had captured media attention by opening the way for women to drive. The prince has also been aggressive in foreign policy, having increased tensions with Iran and Qatar and led a coalition war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Amidst all that has been unfolding in Saudi Arabia, probably the strangest event was the sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri. Hariri announced his resignation on Saudi television while visiting Riyadh, citing a plot to assassinate him. Hariri’s father, a previous Lebanese prime minister, was assassinated in 2005.
The announcement was met with shock and disbelief in Lebanon where the consensus was that he was being forced to resign by Saudi Arabia, and that he was being kept in the country. While statements and a television interview by Hariri blamed Iran and Hezbollah for destabilising Lebanon, Lebanon’s disparate political groups closed ranks calling for Hariri’s return. Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused to accept his resignation until he returns to the country and explains his reasons. Most saw events as an attempt to divide Lebanon and draw it into yet another proxy war – whether political, economic or military – between the Sunni and Shi’a power blocks in the region.
The Lebanese Patriarch of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Rai, travelled to Saudi Arabia on Monday to meet with Hariri, who is still technically the Prime Minister, in what is the first ever visit of a Maronite Patriarch to the kingdom. Whatever comes from this, it is a stark reminder that Lebanon sits at the centre of many regional fault-lines. With suggestions that there could be a fresh Israeli attack on Hezbollah-controlled areas designed to disarm the militarised group, and even that Lebanon’s government could collapse and Iran and Saudi Arabia clash openly, difficult days may lie ahead for Lebanon.
In other news…
After the political tremors of the last month, the region was also struck by a powerful 7.3 magnitude earthquake. The epicentre of the 12 November quake was in the Iran-Iraq border, 30km east of Halabjah and in the Kermanshah province of Iran. Early reports indicated that around 500 people had died on each side of the border, with thousands more injured.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen also continues and was deepened by a naval blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners on 5 November. The blockade has prevented aid agencies from providing the emergency food supplies that were keeping millions alive. Severing this lifeline threatened to plunge the war-riven country into the world’s worst famine, according to UN officials. Although the port of Aden and one land crossing have now been opened, the European Union and UN both insist that aid flights must be allowed to resume and other land blockades lifted.
In Tunisia, the President approved the extension of the state of emergency that has been in place since terror attacks in 2015. The measure, which is technically for three more months but likely to be renewed again, gives authorities wide-ranging rights, including a ban on public gatherings and protests. Tunisia is vulnerable to terrorism since more Tunisians joined so-called Islamic State than citizens of any other country.
In Turkey the direction of travel continues towards a single-party state with the president assuming unprecedented powers. The elections that are likely to bring these changes into force are set to happen in 2019, but many think the president might assume them next year, under the state of emergency. Interestingly, there seems to have been a return of national support for Turkey’s secularist founder, Kemal Ataturk. On the 79th anniversary of his death (10 November), many religious and liberal Turks joined Ataturk’s traditional, nationalist support base in singing his praises. Even Erdogan spoke highly of Ataturk this month. Traditionally, religious and Islamist Turks have seen Ataturk as an arch-enemy, responsible for the demise of the Islamic caliphate during WWI and the start of their exclusion from the centre of Turkish state and culture.
Meanwhile, there is no new development in the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson who remains in prison in Turkey on trumped up charges. Sadly, he has become a pawn in the major diplomatic fallout between the US and Turkey. We pray for his immediate release.
We rejoiced with Bishop Angelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who has now been enthroned as the first ever Bishop of London by the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II. Bishop Angelos has been an inspiring voice for Coptic and Middle East Christians in the UK and campaigned continually for the rights and welfare of all people, Christian and Muslim alike.