Syria again took centre-stage in the Middle East after a suspected chemical attack threatened to spark a wider international confrontation.
On 7 April, a suspected chemical attack on Douma, the last rebel-held area in Eastern Ghouta, triggered the latest crisis in the conflict in Syria. After an intensified bombing campaign by Syrian and Russian forces, rebel groups had already agreed to evacuate other districts, also allowing civilians in the besieged areas to leave in their thousands.
But footage and reports of the 7 April attack showing hundreds of civilians apparently suffering the effects of gas poisoning sparked international condemnation and a new intervention by the US, France and the UK. Targeted airstrikes on three Syrian regime sites connected with chemical weapons were carried out on 14 April.
US, UK and French leaders stressed that the strikes were designed to show the unacceptability of the use of chemical weapons that is in breach of the international Chemical Weapons Convention. The limited nature of the attack and warnings issued to Syria and Russia were designed to avert a wider conflict. So far, these seem only to have triggered a propaganda war, with Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies denying that any chemical attack took place and Russia warning of “consequences”.
This latest episode in the Syrian war comes amidst debates on: how long the US will remain in Syria; whether Turkey will keep advancing its own territorial control in the country; and what happens next as so-called Islamic State (IS) has lost almost all territorial hold and most parts of the country now have de facto ceasefires in place. There are signs that things can improve from now on as major stakeholders are keen to stabilise the conflict.
In north-west Syria, Turkish forces and allies overran the city of Afrin (18 March) after the Kurdish YPG unexpectedly withdrew and joined an exodus of around 150,000 civilians. The withdrawal prevented a drawn-out and bloody conflict but the situation of an estimated 137,000 civilians who fled remains precarious. In villages abandoned by IS, they find themselves facing hunger, sickness, and mines left by the terrorist group.
Meanwhile, tensions between Israel and Iran are escalating, as Iran builds up its military presence in Syria close to Israel’s borders. Two weeks ago Israel undertook an operation against an airbase which it saw to be a clear threat, killing some Iranian militias among others.
Change or status quo?
In the wider region, historic changes continue. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has been on a tour of the US and Europe, meeting a wide range of officials, politicians and business figures. Many are cautious but optimistic about the changes the Crown Prince is introducing, yet there are a lot of questions about his regional policies and how he will govern when he becomes King.
In Iraq, elections are coming in May, at the end of a year that saw the defeat of IS and collapse of Kurdish ambitions for independence. Many observers see a positive mood in Iraq and a decline in violence and non-sectarian attitudes emerging in politics. Yet major obstacles, ranging from corruption to the influence of sectarianism and nepotism in state sector employment continue to limit Iraq’s capacity to recover from more than a decade of war and destruction.
Protests by thousands of Palestinians along the fence separating Israel and Gaza have marked the run up to the 70th anniversary of their displacement in 1948. Thousands have been marching to the de facto border line in demands for a right to return. The Israeli army has fired on protesters with live ammunition, injuring hundreds and killing some 30 Palestinians, including journalists. Israel attracted wide international condemnation for its responses to the protests, including the use of snipers to target clearly marked journalists who were recording the events. Israeli authorities say those who were killed were Hamas operatives or posed a clear danger to Israeli soldiers or sought to enter Israel.
The outcome of Egypt’s latest presidential election was never in doubt as only one candidate, an Al-Sisi loyalist, stood to contest the incumbent. Other challengers had stepped down or been detained. While younger Egyptians remain more critical, most citizens, wearied by the years of volatility after the 2011 revolution, seem ready to accept the lack of political opposition as a price to pay for greater stability and security.
There was tragedy in North Africa: Algeria suffered its worst air disaster when a military plane crashed shortly after take off, with the loss of 257 lives.
Thankfully, despite a call by an Egyptian affiliate of IS for terrorist attacks during the presidential elections, polling passed peacefully. Christian celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter were not disrupted this year. There was an increased security presence at churches following last year’s twin suicide bombings in Alexandria and Tanta, and churches were packed for Palm Sunday and Easter Eve services.
Elsewhere in the region, joyful Palm Sunday processions were held in Christian districts of Lebanon, in Gaza City, and in Iraq. Iraqi Christians who had returned to Christian towns like Qaraqosh filled the streets with palm branches for the first time since liberation from IS. The Church is driving the reconstruction in Qaraqosh, backed by foreign donors, and is encouraging residents to return after schools reopened in October and as homes are rebuilt and shops and other amenities reopen.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, SAT-7 broadcast an array of Easter services, concerts and devotions in multiple styles for all age groups, ranging from lively modern worship to footwashing in a Lebanese prison. This week (beginning 16 April), the SAT-7 family is heading to Turkey for its annual Network conference with staff and supporters, and for strategic planning meetings with international board members.
Also in Turkey, imprisoned American Pastor Andrew Brunson will face another court hearing this week. He has been falsely accused of partaking in efforts to overthrow the Turkish government. Please pray for all charges against Pastor Brunson to be dropped and for his swift release.