The deep conflicts and crises of the region continue, even as the region is poised for an historic new development in northern Iraq.
In Syria, so-called Islamic State (IS) continued to relinquish control of more of its territory, including parts of its self-declared capital of Raqqa. IS forces in Deir El-Zour are now under severe pressure from two sides, from Russian and Syrian forces and from US-backed forces.
Some analysts claim that the Syrian war is finally entering a phase where a resolution process could begin. Others are deeply sceptical, as the war’s myriad actors – Syrian, regional and international – have a multitude of different ambitions and grievances and all see different opportunities and threats.
Despite the slow collapse of IS, new reports reveal that many of the other warring parties too often use excessive force and fail to differentiate between fighters and civilians. A formal UN report two weeks ago confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Assad forces on civilians. The UN also reported on other widespread human rights violations by many parties. These ranged from forced displacement to deliberate targeting of non-combatants by chemical weapons, car bombings, hostage-taking, targeting of religious minorities, and so on. Investigations are ongoing into international coalition airstrikes that continue to result in alarming numbers of civilian casualties.
On 7 September, Syria accused Israel of being behind the bombing of a Syrian weapons facility. Lately, Israel has been taking proactive measures to stop the arms flow through the country heading to Hezbollah. The Israeli government is worried that Hezbollah is acquiring advanced weapons, and that Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon is deepening. Analysts fear that we might see a new Israeli operation against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon in the near future. This would place Lebanon into a precarious situation once again.
The Qatar crisis continues, although with less international attention. Reports of a phone call between the Emir of Qatar and Saudi Crown Prince, offering dialogue, briefly raised hopes of a breakthrough. Qatari officials have dismissed its Gulf neighbours’ demands as “draconian”. Some promote the far-fetched idea of a change of the ruling family in Qatar, in other words a “regime change”. While the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) seems to be surviving as an idea, Qatar remains isolated.
The war in Yemen and the resulting humanitarian crisis continues. The UN (11 September) said it has verified 5,144 civilian deaths, mainly from air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition, and an international investigation is urgently needed.
Beacon for women
Brighter news came from Tunisia, which is taking steps forward as a beacon for women’s rights in the region. President Beji Caid Essebsi announced plans to allow women to marry outside the Islamic faith (a right currently enjoyed by men) and to allow them equal inheritance rights. The president cited Tunisia’s groundbreaking 2014 constitution, saying “The state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men and to ensure equal opportunities for all responsibilities.”
There was little sign of progressive policies in Turkey, however. The state of emergency and clampdowns on freedoms came under fire this month from European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker. “Journalists belong in newsrooms not in prisons,” he said in a speech in which he said he saw no prospect of Turkey joining the EU in “the foreseeable future”. Turkey’s decades-long clashes with the Kurdish PKK also continued to take their toll. A Turkish opposition MP claimed that several civilians were killed by unmanned drones in the southeast province of Hakkari.
Meanwhile, the Erdogan government is focusing efforts on achieving a majority in the November 2019 national elections. These will implement this April’s narrow referendum decision to move the country to a new presidential system and will give a legal basis to powers the president is de facto enjoying already. Yet, the tensions between Germany and Turkey, as well as the wider European Union and the USA, are isolating Turkey further each day with serious repercussions.
The imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson also continued, with extravagant allegations that he was a leader in the 2016 coup attempt and is a member of the Islamic Gulenist network. Some Turkish newspapers went so far as to imagine he was the head of the CIA in Turkey. Continue to pray for him, as many believe that he is being held as a bargaining chip for Turkish-American relations.
As for the historic new development: this month, Kurds in Northern Iraq are set to vote for independence. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and its allies, the Kurds have achieved semi-autonomous status as the Kurdish Regional Government, and have been pushing for independence. Previous attempts have been thwarted by the area’s dependence on the Baghdad government for funding for public sector workers. Kurds are also bitterly divided politically, some groups opposing this referendum as they see it as only strengthening the power of the ruling KDP party in a new, emerging Iraq.
Neither the central Iraqi government, nor the regional countries apart from Israel, nor international actors such as the UK and US, have welcomed the referendum. All see it as a mis-timed attempt. There are also worries over a potential crisis in the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk area. Kurds want to incorporate it despite it not having a Kurdish majority. The outcome of a referendum is likely to be a strong “yes” to independence, but how this will unfold is very uncertain. Christians – many of them displaced after fleeing IS – are worried over possible future conflict between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad.
In some positive news from Iraq, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), reported that another 15,000 Iraqi Christian IDPs will return to their homes in Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plains. The area was devastated during the occupation by IS and much reconstruction, along with programmes to ensure livelihoods and security, are still needed.
In Egypt, all churches cancelled activities outside regular worship services during July and August, following government warnings of likely terrorist attacks. Thankfully, congregations were kept safe and the restrictions have been lifted. Kasr El Dobara, the region’s largest Evangelical Church, plans to hold the annual One Thing youth convention – usually attended by thousands – from 21-23 September. Please pray for this.